A Final January Friday Fictioneers

January is a month which has always dragged for me. I suppose the lead-up to the holidays is always so frantic that the “January let-down” seems prolonged. Add in some of the coldest weather we’ve seen in a while, and this January has felt unending. Yet, here we are, at the last day with the year’s shortest month ready to arrive. I’m telling you, if February ends up being as cold and depressing as January, I’m going someplace warm.

However, the end of February is AWP, that small gathering of 12,000 or so writers, this year in Seattle, WA. I just hope Seattle won’t be having sub-zero temperatures.

The beginning of February is the start of a writing contest I signed up for back in December. It’s the 8th Annual Short Story Challenge, a creative writing competition which could run for weeks, if my story is selected in the first round. There are three rounds, and in the first writers are put in random heats and assigned a genre, subject, and a character. I will have eight days to produce a 2,500-word short story to submit. Judges select the top five stories from each heat to advance to the second round, which is March 27 – 30. Again, you get an assignment but only have three days to produce and submit a 2,000-word story. Judges choose the finalists for the third and final round on May 2-3 where you have twenty-four hours to write and submit a 1,500-word story. Judges select the overall winners from that round.

The interesting aspect of this is every story submitted gets feedback, quite the accomplishment since I’m sure hundreds, if not thousands, of stories get submitted. A writer friend of mine did this last year and made it to the third round but unfortunately didn’t win. So, I’m giving it a try, and it will get me back on track in writing stories longer than 100- or 150-words. Wish me luck.

Skyline2014OSCPrintcoverM.inddAnd in other news, a short story (which is actually a chapter from a novel in progress) of mine, “Meeting the Enemy,” will appear in an anthology entitled Skyline 2014: Prose and Poetry by Central Virginia Writers. This story features one of my pair of globe-trotting spies put in an untenable situation and what she does to address it. I’ll post purchase information as soon as I receive it. The cover is to the left.

The seemingly faded aspect of today’s Friday Fictioneers photo prompt reminded me of a Friday Fictioneers Logobox of family photos I have in my keeping. There aren’t many of us left on my father’s side, and I’ve often wondered what some distant cousin will make of these photos if he or she gets them some day. And that led to the story, “Family Ties.” As usual if you don’t see the link on the title in the line above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then select the story from the drop-down list.

And keep your fingers crossed that Sunday is cloudy so that bloody groundhog won’t see his shadow, and spring will come early.

First Writers Conference of 2014 – Part Two

To read Part One of this post, click here.

I’m a person who still reads two print newspapers a day (and a lot more online), so Radford professor Bill Kovarik‘s workshop, “Who Killed the American Newspaper and Where Do We Go From Here?” was something I really wanted to hear. However, Kovarik decided the first half of that title had been done already (He blames corporate media for their own demise, by the way.) and focused instead on the second half. His solution to the fact that corporate media no long meet our needs is a media co-op, or community media, citizen journalists who report on the communities where they live. The press, Kovarik said, has always been “cloistered, told not to join local groups, to keep aloof from the community to further their impartiality.” He believes that more involvement would lead to more honest reporting and not necessarily by trained journalists. He envisions shared equipment and broadcast time, but I’m a bit skeptical. Media co-ops sound great if your only interest is your local community, but I’m a world citizen.

Tiffany Trent, former Virginia Tech creative writing teacher, has found her niche in writing young adult fantasy and sci-fi novels, and her workshop, “SciFi and Fantasy in YA,” offered a great exposition on world-building. YA scifi and fantasy is “where it’s at,” she said. “It’s where the most exciting things in writing are happening right now.” However, to stand out you have to build a credible world, whether right here on earth or elsewhere, which the discerning readership of this genre can grasp. “You can take the usual or universal and give it a slight twist,” she said, “like changing gender stereotypes. For example, make the men the faceless, nameless ones. Or you can create something completely alien.” She encouraged YA writers to watch the love triangles–“that’s become a YA trope, and I’m concerned that it’s been overdone.” There are primal emotions/events–birth, death, fear of the dead–which can be used in fresh and interesting ways, as long as you “ground it in the real.” When describing a world you’ve built, your language has to be specific not general. Using your own experiences with the unusual or the odd in everyday life is a good starting point for creating a new world.

I’m not much of a YA fan, but Trent’s points on world-building were thoughtful and applicable to just about any genre. This was a fresh and engaging workshop with lots of helpful Q&A. I’m certainly going to try one of her books.

My final workshop for the day was “The Rebellious Essay,” presented by Cara Ellen Modisett. This was quite the crash course on the various types of essays–experiential, observation, or recall versus reflective. All essays, Modisett said, “are an attempt at making sense of a subject. The act of writing is an act of thought.” Inexperienced essayists tend to be linear, she said, “they start at A and progress to Z. However, the way people think and perceive may be A to E to L, or M to Z to C. Your essays should reflect that.” And be more interesting, I’m sure. An essay also has to be about more than one thing. “Two subjects equals two-dimensional, three subjects three-dimensional, and so on,” she said. Further, an essay can’t simply be based on our recollections because we often write about what others have also experienced. However, if we’re reflecting on the memory of an event and how that event led to varied other parts of our lives, then we have something new and interesting.

For fiction writers who delve into essays, Modisett emphasized, “Don’t make stuff up! Save that for your fiction.” To structure a good essay, she said, “Use verbs of muscle and adjectives of exactitude.”

For our writing exercise, she used something called the “braided essay,” which is taking multiple, seemingly diverse subjects and weaving them into a connected essay. For part one, we had to write about an object we had with us but couldn’t name it, i.e., we had to use some of those “adjectives of exactitude.” In part two, we were to write about the emotion we felt when we received that object, and for part three we had to take that same emotion and relate another time when we felt it for a different object. The result was pretty amazing, and I can see how these techniques can also aid my fiction.

A one-day writers conference may not seem like much compared to, say, AWP, but I learned new things, caught up with writer friends, made new writer friends, and found out about a group of Doctor Who fans who get together and dissect episodes. They are now doing a retrospective of the earlier, pre-Christopher Eccelston Doctors, and that made me wish Roanoke was just a little closer.

First Writers Conference of 2014 – Part One

I was really looking forward to the short trip down I-81 to the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference last Friday–mostly because it was six degrees warmer than at my house. Why, it reached a balmy 32 degrees compared to the “low 20’s; feels like teens” at home.

I’m coming to know the Hollins University campus better than my alma mater’s, since this was my fourth trip there in two years, and once again RRWC didn’t disappoint. After a Friday evening networking session, we started the conference with short speeches from several of the instructors.

First was Rod Belcher, whose genre mash-up Sci-fi/Western is intriguing. Entitled “Perseverence,” it was truly inspiring. His description of getting the notification his book had been accepted for publication by Tor (a huge sci-fi publishing house) gave us all some hope. Early on, like me, he received a rejection for a sci-fi story which amounted to “why do you bother writing that crap.” Like me, it put him off writing for some time. His mother broke the impasse by buying him a typewriter. In that way he happened upon his writing process: “put your butt in a chair until you pull it out of thin air.”

Carrie Brown, visiting professor of creative writing at Hollins, spoke on problem-solving. All of writing, she said, “is problem-solving.” The writer as problem-solver comes from the fact “a writer is someone who undertakes a task without knowing what to do.” I found that a very interesting take on the writing life.

The keynote speaker was Sheri Reynolds, and the title of her talk was “Giggling Past the Funeral Home: A Look at What Makes us Laugh.” I’d heard Reynolds speak on a panel about “road trip novels” at last year’s Virginia Festival of the Book. She read from her latest book, The Homespun Wisdom of Myrtle T. Cribb, which had us all falling from our chairs. The book tells the story of Myrtle, a teacher fed up with her husband’s teasing about an asymmetrical aspect of her female anatomy. As she’s headed to an appointment to have surgery to fix it, she panics and keeps driving. Somewhere along the way, she finds a black man in the back of her vehicle, which prompts her to drive further, knowing her husband and family would disapprove. Although her other works are described as serious literature, Reynolds indicated she infuses all of her work with some aspect of humor. She also mentioned that this particular book underwent several rewrites and changes of POV, until she finally settled on first person–and that worked.

Saturday was the main day for the conference, and my first session was “Telling Stories: The Greyhound Bus, the Swedish Gal, and the Flophouse in Seattle.” If that title wouldn’t attract you to Dan Casey’s workshop, I don’t know what will. Casey is a local journalist in the Roanoke area who also does a regular column wherein he tells a story of local life. I’d gone to his workshop the year before at RRWC and knew this would be great. It was, though it also was a different kind of workshop: In between telling the story encompassed in the title, he dropped little bon mots about being a storyteller. After the workshop, a woman started chatting with me and said, “Well, that was a waste.”

“How?” I asked.

“All he did was tell his own story. I wanted to learn about how to tell my stories.”

I said, “Well, I took a page and a half of notes.”

“On what?”

“Well, let’s see. Find inspiration in everyday things. Take ordinary events and turn them into hair-raising adventures. Tell a story over and over until you fix the details in mind, and lots more.”

“Oh.” She moved on.

Next, I went to Sheri Reynolds’ workshop, “Dreamwork for Writers: Using your Dreams to Deepen Your Stories.” Reynolds pointed out how some part of her own dreams ended up in every one of her novels. “Just think of your dreams,” she said, “as a new story every night.” She encouraged the use of dream journals and explained that you don’t necessarily use a dream literally. “Take a disturbing or haunting image and explore it in your fiction,” she said. “Use your dreams as dreams for characters to show the characters’ conflict or the things they–and you–can’t face in real life. Use dreams as scenes–or reflect on a dream you’ve never had but wanted to and use that!”

The first writing exercise was to jot down a recurring dream of our own. Then, after a few minutes of that, Reynolds had us identify what in our dream hit the five senses. To conclude the writing exercise, she had us pick a person from the dream, not us, i.e., “I am the other,” and rewrite the dream from the other’s POV. This was probably one of the more useful exercises I’ve experienced.

Reynolds closed by talking about how to write down your dreams–don’t edit as you do so, don’t let your analytical mind step in, and focus on the images which resonate and recur.

To be continued in Part Two.

January’s Penultimate Friday Fictioneers

Just a brief post today since I’m headed to my first writer conference of the year! It’s only about an hour and a half away in Roanoke, VA, and will have perhaps 100 attendees compared to the 12,000 at AWP next month. In Seattle. I haven’t been to Seattle since 2008, when I had to go there to conduct an investigation into a whistleblower’s complaint, so it will be great to go with no pressure.

Friday Fictioneers LogoOnce again I took an idyllic photo prompt and went to the apocalypse, but, hey, that’s what I do. What can I say? I see something beautiful and I can’t help but wonder about the ugly underbelly. “Keep Calm and Carry On” borrows its title from a British slogan during the Blitz of World War II, but the story is about accepting inevitability with grace.

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

The Year of Writers Conferences Redux

A new year brings a new round of writers conferences and workshops. The first for me is the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference at Hollins University in Roanoke, VA. I tried this one-day conference last year and was amazed by the depth of the too-short workshops, but I’m back for more this year.

Hollins University is also the site of the week-long writing workshop I attend, Tinker Mountain, but this one-day event is rather like an appetizer for that.

The keynote speaker is Virginia novelist Sheri Reynolds, and among the workshops are ones for non-fiction and fiction, YA, self-publishing, marketing, and getting an agent. Yes, some of these are topics you see at any writers conference, large or small, but sometimes it’s the different perspective on the issue which is most helpful.

I’m looking at attending Dan Casey’s “Telling Stories: The Greyhound Bus, the Swedish Gal, and the Flophouse in Seattle” first thing on Saturday morning. Casey’s workshop last year was hilarious and educational, so I’m looking forward to this presentation.

Next I think I’ll attend Sheri Reynolds’ workshop, “Dreamwork for Writers: Using Your Dreams to Deepen Your Story.” I love incorporating my odd dreams into my writing, so this workshop should be fascinating.

I’ll close out the morning with some non-fiction work in Bill Kovarik’s “Who Killed the American Newspaper and Where do we Go from Here?” Since I’ve done freelancing for my local paper, and I’m still enough of an old fogey that I start the day by reading two actual newspapers I can hold in my hands, I think this will be an interesting and topical discussion.

After lunch, and because I’ve never thought of doing a YA novel, I’m going to attend Tiffany Trent’s “Science Fiction and Fantasy in YA.”  This is a growing genre, and, who knows? Maybe I’ll get inspired, even though I think with The Hunger Games and Divergent series, we may be reaching the apex of this trend.

I’ll end the day with “The Rebellious Essay,” a workshop hosted by Cara Ellen Modisett. I do some political blogging I consider a bit rebellious, so maybe this will move it to the next level.

A full day of workshops, networking, and connecting with writer friends–I’m looking forward to getting back into the writer conference groove.


Friday Fictioneers Comes ‘Round Again

This is the time of year for me where the time seems to fly by, and I look back on a week and wonder how it got to be Friday. Of course, this never happened when I worked in an office. I’d get to Wednesday, and Friday seemed a million miles away; and there were never enough hours in the day to get done what had to be done.

By the way, there was a significant anniversary this week for those of us who work or worked in aviation, namely the fifth anniversary of the “miracle” on the Hudson. I wrote about it in my other blog, but some might find it interesting. Click here to read “Serendipity on the Hudson.”

Friday Fictioneers LogoWe had a very lovely photo prompt for today’s Friday Fictioneers, but a couple of days ago I watched a documentary on the history of the Celts and had human sacrifice on the mind. So, there you go. Once again, a pretty picture evokes a dark story. Oh, yes, my various therapists over the years have had a field day. Today’s story, “Grasping for Straws,” is both topical and historical, with a dash of speculation. As usual, if you don’t see the link on the title in the line above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then select the story from the drop-down list.

Writers–Gluttons for Punishment?

Let’s face it, writers are masochists on some level. We create and submit our work, knowing the likelihood of its being accepted is minimal, but we keep doing it. The actual writing is the pleasure; the inevitable line of rejections before an acceptance comes along is the humiliation we endure for those fleeting moments of vindication.

And then we do it all over again.

Rejection is never easy, whether it’s by a potential lover or friend or an agent or editor. I’ve heard so many writer friends–not to mention myself–say, “I just sent a story to [insert name of literary magazine here]. I know I have a snowball’s chance in hell, but at least I’m submitting.”

Why, oh, why do we do that?

Because when you get the acceptance email or you check Submittable and see the “accepted” note, it’s the greatest feeling in the world–for a millisecond it’s better than seeing your children the first time, better than orgasm, better even than a paycheck. It’s affirmation, you see, that you really are a writer; you aren’t just a hack throwing words on the screen, and all your suffering is worth it.

A writer friend of mine recently posted on Facebook that writing her novel required more concentration, more focus, more work than anything she’d ever done. I responded that was what made it so painfully fun. Yes, at times writing is like constantly putting your tongue on a sore tooth, but when the pain goes away–ah, bliss. It’s why when I encounter a non-writer who says, “Oh, well, it’s not real work. You just make things up,” I usually respond with a smile and suggest he or she should give it a try. “Oh, I have better things to do with my time.” Well, good, I’m glad, because you don’t have what it takes to be a writer.

Writing has brought me some of my biggest disappointments, but it has also brought me some of my biggest joys. For years, I’d seen my non-fiction in print, so when my first fiction story was accepted by eFiction Magazine a couple of years ago, I didn’t think I’d have much of a personal response. When the issue with my story showed up on my Kindle, I had the most visceral reaction I’d ever experienced–and I used to be a flight instructor, so I’ve had gut-wrenching moments. There’s nothing quite like seeing your words on a page with your by-line, knowing it’s a story which is the progeny of your imagination, that you “just made it up.” Not only did you make it up, but someone else liked it. Others will read it, and because there is an internet, your story will out there forever. How’s that for immortality?

Now, excuse me. I have to go humiliate myself for some perverse pleasure.

Post-Freeze Friday Fictioneers

The recent deep-freeze from the errant polar vortex this week froze more than water pipes and noses. It induced a brain freeze–in me, at least. I couldn’t seem to coax a single word from that cold-addled brain onto the computer screen. All I really wanted to do was sleep and eat soup.

I’ve already written about seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and how the shortened periods of daylight get me down, and, well, never mind that the intervals of daylight are actually increasing right now, when it’s mind numbingly cold and gray, my brain decides to hibernate. None of my usual writing pick-me-ups seemed to work. I looked at today’s Friday Fictioneers prompt (which comes out on Wednesday) and went “meh.” I scanned the news outlets for a topic for my mid-week political blog and went “ho-hum.” (Thank goodness Gov. Chris Christie is a perfect foil for a knee-jerk, bleeding-heart liberal; otherwise, I’d have skipped the political blog this week. So, thanks to the Jersey guy, my column was only a day late.)

Friday Fictioneers LogoToday dawned (I’m sure it did because it’s moderately light out there.) rainy and foggy but also with an idea for the Friday Fictioneers prompt, one that was at least satisfying. However, I managed to roll over and go back to sleep. My luck is improving, though, because when I woke again, the idea was still there–and ended up being 121 words, way too long for a 100-word story. Snip, snip, cut, slice, and lo and behold “Siren’s Song” met the word count with idea still intact.

As usual, if you can’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, then select the story from the drop-down list.

Now, I’m going to catch a nap or eat a bowl of soup. Whatever.

Non-Fiction in a Fiction Critique Group?

Sounds like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it? A couple of years ago, I started an off-shoot of my main writers group, SWAG Writers, for critiquing fiction. We began with six people, and after the first meeting we ended up with three regulars. One person was accepted into a graduate program and moved. One indicated she really had nothing prepared to critique, and the third didn’t take well having her grammar and punctuation corrected. But they were all writers of fiction.

The three of us stumbled on for a while, but it wasn’t working well, so we disbanded. Two of us continued to exchange our work online, but we became so accustomed to each others’ work, we realized we couldn’t give it that “other eyes” assessment.

Fast-forward a year, count in some new additions to SWAG, and, huzzah, we have six people again. I learned a bit from the earlier experience. Before we met for the first time, I asked everyone to submit to each other a couple of pages of their work, so we could all decide whether the experience would be beneficial to us; then, we met to critique those two pages. That’s when we discovered, gasp, one of the members is writing a biography.

SWAG is open to all writers in the area–poets, lyricists, fiction writers, non-fiction writers, even crossword puzzle designers. But, clearly, the poets and fiction writers outnumber the non-fiction writers. A few of the poets get together informally, and here we had the re-constituted fiction critique group. There is, however, nowhere else for the non-fiction writer to go. So, we thought, what the heck, let’s give it a go.

A couple of us have experience with non-fiction. In fact, since I got a job as a publications assistant with an aviation insurance consortium in 1976, most of my editing and writing experience has been in non-fiction, specifically in the technical aviation safety area. I was a reporter on and editor of an aviation safety magazine, and for a little more than a year, I wrote non-fiction feature articles for my local newspaper. I have a lot of experience editing non-fiction, not the least of which is my degree in history. Another member of the critique group is a newspaper editor. (She is in the group to have her fiction critiqued, however.)

No problem, you say. Not a problem exactly–editing fiction and non-fiction have similar approaches (grammar, punctuation, etc.), they both tell a story though one is strictly fact-based and has to have the references to substantiate those facts. Now, yes, if you write historical fiction, you have references out the wazoo. The difference is you don’t have to cite them. Yes, you can put a list at the end of your book, but, trust me, the readers hardly ever look there. In a non-fiction piece, particularly a biography, just about everything you say has to have a citation.

When I review or critique a fiction piece, I involve myself completely in the story and characters. In a biography, you can do that too, especially with the current fashion in non-fiction writing, which is to make it “read” like a work of fiction–good characters, action, conflict, etc. Non-fiction writing is still scholarly, but now it just doesn’t sound like it.

Still, and I can’t quite put my finger on it, critiquing fiction and non-fiction is different. When I read the fiction pieces for the upcoming meeting, I was caught up in the characters and the conflict in the stories. When I read the non-fiction piece–which is a rough draft with references listed but not cited–I found myself making notes like, “how do you know this,” “how can you prove that,” etc. I needed the citations, even though I recall from writing my own monographs and senior theses that you usually put those in on the final draft.

I’ve been focusing on my fiction the last four years, the writing there of, that is. It’s a bit of a head-shake for me to break that habit and get back into reviewing and evaluating non-fiction, and unrelated to aviation at that. I just hope I can be of use to that biographer, that my fiction brain can make the abrupt adjustment.

Still, it’s a diverse group of writers, and I’m all heady with anticipation.

Happy Friday Fictioneers New Year!

Friday Fictioneers LogoAt some point this year Friday Fictioneers will be three years old. Pretty amazing to stay around this long. We’ve had vets leave and come back and a lot of newbies come and go as well, but the stories have always intriguing and thought-provoking. I guess that’s what makes us stay and write every week.

With my other online writing group, I set my writing goals for the year, to include participating in Friday Fictioneers, so I’ll be around as long as Friday Fictioneers is around. However, writing a story for Friday Fictioneers isn’t merely to check a box. Paring a story down to 100 words improves not only your writing skills but your editing/revising abilities as well.

Here’s an example. When I first started writing these 100-word stories, my first draft was typically 300-400 words, which took a lot of editing to get to 100 words as a coherent story. As I became more practiced, first draft began to drop in word count–200 words, 150 words, until now when a draft comes in at 105 or so words. Makes the editing easier and quicker, too. Plus doing these flash fiction stories has inspired me to participate in other flash fiction exercises with different word counts. Yep, I’m very versatile.

Another way I’ve used Friday Fictioneers story prompts is to hone my dialogue skills. I’ve written several stories, which consist solely of dialogue. Today is one of those exercises. The story is “Did I Tell You the One About My Talking Dog?” As usual, if you don’t see the link on the title in the line above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then select the story from the drop-down list. It’ll be easy. After a purge of 2013 stories, it’ll be the only possibility there.