Unless you have a ton of cash lying around or are fortunate enough to earn a full scholarship, you’re not going to earn your MFA in Writing anytime soon. Although a Masters in Fine Arts might go a long way in aiding the fledgling writer to become a published author, it’s not alway the case. I’ve read a number of articles and blog posts championing the utter nonnecessity of obtaining an MFA in order to be a successful writer. Now, don’t get me wrong. If someone were to offer me the $20,000 to $30,000 for tuition and I could clear my schedule I’d apply to an MFA program in a heartbeat.
So, if you can’t swing that hefty tuition payment and need that steady paycheck to ward off the bill collector, what do you do?
The answer is: there are a number of good books on writing out there. I’ve read several over the years. Here are five that were particularly helpful:
In a few weeks I will be attending the Florida Writers Conference. This will be the first writers conference I've been to in several years. I’m certainly looking forward to going. If you've never been to a writers conference you may be asking yourself, why attend? After all it's pretty expensive. And it's likely to cut into your vacation time if you have a full time job. But, there are advantages to attending a writes conference. Here are just a few:
I’ve been working on a collection of science fiction stories for self publication. Now, I’ve finally come to the part I’ve been dreading--creating a cover. I would be the first to agree that the best option is to find a professional designer, give him or her your thoughts on what you’d like, and pay them a ton of cash. I’m sure the results would be breath taking. And would really drive sales.
However, for those, like me, who don’t have money to burn, creating your own cover design may be the only viable option. With this in mind and after doing some research, I’ve come up with seven ideas about book covers:
In a short story collection what story goes where? In my last blog I mentioned that I was putting together a science fiction short story collection for publication, and I reviewed some guidelines on placement of stories. There were strategies like: your best story should be first, your worse should be in the middle, and your longest should be last.
I’ve gone over my stories and I have two that I think are my best. One entitled, Before Your Very Eyes, tells a poignant tale of jealousy and revenge while the other, Memory Criterion, is a story that asks the question: how much of who we are is made up of our memories? A third one that I recently wrote and am still editing is a quirky love story set in a sleepy snowed-in New England village. I’ve tentatively titled it, A Curious Entanglement (that may change). I think it’s my third best.
It may be a coin toss as to which of the three I lead with. If anyone is interested in reading any or all of the aforementioned stories and giving feedback, please contact me.
My weakest story is one I wrote many years ago, entitled Unseen Enemy. It’s about a squad of futuristic soldiers attempting to thwart the government’s use of a doomsday weapon to stop an alien invasion. It’s not a necessarily badly written story (I still find it entertaining). It’s just that my writing has improved over the years. I could leave it out, but I think it still has something to say.
My longest of the collection is a human-alien love story of the boy-meets-girl type. It’s also in the editing stage. I’ve tentatively titled it, Becoming. At just over 12,000 words, I suppose it could be classified as a novelette.
Well, that’s it for now. As I delve further into getting the book out, I’ll blog more about the experience. Stay tuned.
I finally decided to do it. I’ve had a few science fiction short stories written over the years sitting on my hard drive. So, I collected them into a file on Scriviner with the plan to publish them.. I only had eight so I got to work and wrote two more. Now, with ten short stories I was ready. One problem, though. I’ve never published a short story collection before. Which means I went to work researching the ins and outs of short story collections. Here’s what I found so far:
• The title should reflect the overall theme of the collection. But, mine has no overall theme other than each story being a sub-genre of science fiction. A little more checking and I had the solution. The next best idea for a title is the title of one of the stories. Something catchy, something intriging. The one that was always kind of catchy to me was: The Alien Artifact Department. I had my title.
• Length. Was there an acceptable minimum and maximum word count? What if my collection didn’t muster up? You’ve probably seen those paperbacks so thin that there’s no room for the title on the spine. The consensus from my research for a minimal word count was around 40,000. A quick bit of arithmetic told me I was in. I had about 56,000 words.
• The next problem was arrangement of the stories. Which one went where? This struck me a magazine editor territory. But, a little more searching and I had a few ideas. The best story should be first. The worst can be buried somewherre in the middle. Vary the length of the stories. In other words don’t have a series of 7,000 word stories back to back. And, put the longest one at the end.
• I was concerned about needing an introduction. I solved that one by going to Amazon and checking out a few short story collections. You know the “Look Inside” feature that allows you to preview the books. May just had the front matter followed by a table of contents followed by the first story. Guess those intros are for the Stephen King’s of the world.
Well, there you have it. This is what I’ve learned thus far. Still have a long way to go. There’s editing, creating a cover, marketing, etc. As I learn more, I’ll pass it along. So, stay tuned.
Novel writing is a marathon, not a sprint. Ever start reading a novel finding the opening so intriguing that you anticipate a brilliant read only to find yourself half way through thinking "this is a total waste of time"? A lot of authors slave away at the opening in order to hook the reader only to peter out along the way. It's tough to sustain a wonderful narrative. Novel writing is like running that marathon. The good runners don't dash from the starting line giving it all over the first 100 to 200 yards. Instead, they pace themselves, knowing that there are many miles to go before the finish line. They conserve energy when necessary, coasting down hills when they can and turning on the afterburners when they need to pass an opponent. They take advantage of hydration stations along the route. Overall, they maintain a steady rhythmic pace and have strategically evaluated the course beforehand. And, more importantly, they have prepared prior to the race by training regularly and maintaining proper nutrition.
Writing a novel requires similar preparation and execution. You need the long view to complete your great work. Poems can be tackled in a day to a week. Short stories may take a week to a month to write. But, your novel will usually take six months to two years to complete. Over such a long period of time it’s easy to get bored or exhausted and give up. And, this is precisely why you need to approach your writing like a runner engaged in a marathon.
So, what do you need to do to run the course and cross the finish line? Here are a few recommendations:
· Develop a theme. Having a theme is like having members of your entourage along the marathon route at strategic points to cheer you on just as you begin to feel too exhausted to take another step. When you’re knee deep in manuscript pages and feel lost, your theme serves as your guiding beacon. By reviewing your theme your inspiration returns and, now renewed, you are able to continue writing.
· Outline. Outlining your novel before writing is like reviewing the route of the race before you run that marathon. You’ll have an idea of when the writing will be easy and you can breeze through several chapters and when you’ll have to slog through the difficult parts. More importantly, you’ll know where you’re going and have an idea of how long it will take.
· Write regularly. Following a regular writing routine is akin to that steady running pace a marathoner must make to complete the race in a personal best time. Set a goal of x number of pages or words per day. That steady rhythm of daily writing will keep you on pace to complete your work.
· Craft a great opening. If you’ve ever watched a marathon you’ve noticed that at the start of the race the runners get right into the stride they want to maintain throughout the twenty-six miles. Your opening should do the same. The conventional wisdom is that you start your story in the middle. In other words, don’t begin with a long meandering backstory. This was popular in Victorian novels, but not in today’s works. You want to engage your audience from the first paragraph.
· Practice, practice, practice. You won’t find any marathoners finishing a race only to turn into a couch potato until the next scheduled race. Not on your life. They’re constantly training. And so should you. Write short stories. Write poems. Write essays. Write blogs. Between novels, write!
· Read and read some more. Nutrition is important for marathon runners. They watch their weight. They maintain the right balance of carbohydrates and fats. They hydrate. Some even drink beet juice. As a writer your nutrition is books. Read and read some more. Read novels similar to the ones you write and ones in other genres. If you write romances, then read thrillers and mysteries. If you write thrillers, read literary works. Also, read biographies, history, current events, science. You get the idea.
There it is. Take the long view and you can’t go wrong. Because writing a novel is like running a marathon.
The other night I was watching a TV drama, Scorpion, a series about a group of geniuses working for the U.S. Government. In this episode, Walter (the lead, based on an actual person) and his team were working with a private space exploration company to repair one of its manned rockets. While Walter worked inside the rocket, the other team members worked in the mission control center. Somehow, the rocket was inadvertently launched with Walter aboard. Over the course of the one-hour drama Walter and the team had to overcome six problems in order to get him back alive. Each one was more complex and dangerous than the last. The final one required Walter to free-fall from the edge of space without a parachute.
This reminded me of a rule of thriller writing. And that rule is: you must be mean to your hero. I’m not saying you must dislike your main character. But, you must put your hero into multiple perilous situations with escalating danger as your story progresses.
Here are some reasons you should be mean to your hero:
During this Holiday season I’ve been watching those Christmas movies on the Hallmark Channel. That set me to thinking about my childhood and watching those “Hallmark Hall of Fame” Christmas Specials. The greeting card company has a particularly memorable slogan intoned during the commercials. It went: “When you care enough to send the very best…”.
I remember thinking that there was something elegant about it. It was a statement of quality rather than a pitch saying, “Buy my product.” It was a set of marching orders proclaiming that creating a Hallmark card was more than just putting words on paper. And, as a result you really wanted to buy a Hallmark card. I recall thinking the slogan was really something I could believe and believe in.
A good theme could have the same effect for your story. If you believe and believe in your theme you are likely to create your characters, write narrative and dialogue, and craft your plot with greater passion and purpose than if you just wrote an interesting story. Your theme should be your driving force, your marching order, your raison d’etre in writing.
A train has two important crew members on board: the engineer and the conductor. The engineer is the driver, monitoring and adjusting the speed by manipulating the throttle and air rake, and relaying the operational information to the conductor. The conductor is the supervisor. He oversees the entire operation communicating with higher level supervisor.
Think of your story as a train. The plot is the engineer moving the story along, sometimes slowing to provide some important narrative or dialogue and at other times speeding up to pump up the action. Your theme is the conductor. It is the overall supervisor of your work. Your theme tells you how the entire trip is doing, provides guidance along the way, and keeps your plot and characters linked to your main ideas.
What you write, whether it is a fun beach read or a serious literary novel, should be created with passion and your theme helps you fire that passion by reminding you what is most important in your story. When you are tempted to stray, to slack off, or give up, your theme should steer you back on course and inspire you to higher purposes.
When creating that new story don’t short shrift the theme. Try and give as much thought to creating your theme as you do the twists and turns of your plot.
How do you arrive at a theme for your story?
You can have an idea in mind. For example, you may want to write a story about love being stronger than hate. So, now all you have to do is craft a story around this idea.
Sometimes you have a great idea for a story but don’t have the foggiest idea what the theme might be. You can write your story and in the creation discover your theme.
But, what happens when you’ve completed your story and still can’t see a theme? It can just be a matter of going back over your work examining it for the idea or ideas that stands out. You can have more than one theme in your story. Suppose your action adventure story featuring a secret agent has him putting himself in harm’s way for others. Then your theme could be sacrifice. Or, what if you write about a heroine who’s husband divorces her leaving her with nothing? She then goes on to dig her way out of poverty to found a successful Internet company. Here your theme could be perseverance in the face of adversity and/ or success is the best revenge.
Is theme really that important? Couldn’t you write a perfectly entertaining piece without worrying about theme? The answer, of course, is yes.
So, why worry about theme? What advantages, if any, does having a theme provide?
Theme is important for several reasons:
• Theme helps you organize your plot around a central coherent idea and avoids just having a random collection of actions.
• Your main character’s world view as shown by what he does in your story is better expressed around a central theme.
• If your goal is to express a main idea in your writing they you’ll want to have that theme before setting out.
• A theme can elevate your writing. By writing around a theme you can create more memorable characters and plots.
I’m sure if you thought it over, you could come up with several more reasons.
For more on theme check out my previous blogs “Find Your Theme” and “What’s Your Theme?”.
In 2012 President Obama said the following in response to a question on why he cautiously consulted advisors: “It’s the Heisenberg principle. Me asking the question changes the answer.” In recent years it's become common to use the language of quantum physics in popular discourse. I suppose the metaphorical use of these terms in our everyday writing and conversation heightens the points we make and, to a certain extent, make us sound more intelligent. Two terms that I think get overworked are the “Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle” and “quantum leap”. I guess it's just a pet peeve of mine that prompts me to write this blog. But, I see the popular uses of the terms as a gross miss-appropriation of what they actually mean. You may be thinking right about now, “Hey, Bob, pump the brakes. It’s no biggie. It’s just a metaphor.” But, hear me out. I think I have a valid point. Let’s take a closer look at the two terms.
In the popular TV series, “Numbers”, the crime solving mathematician protagonist, Charlie Eppes, says this in one episode: “You’ve observed the robbers. They know it. That will change their actions.” He’s making a loose reference to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in that statement. OK, so just what is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle? Well, to answer the question we must first address quantum mechanics. It’s the branch of physics that deals with those extremely small particles. You know, electrons, protons, neutrons, and other subatomic particles. They don’t just behave like tiny marbles in the sand. They live in a world of probability and uncertainty. It’s a counterintuitive land where particles can be in one place at one instance and a entirely different location in the next instance. In this “Bizzaro World” of science the Heisenberg Principle states that the better you know the position of a particle, the less you know it's momentum and vice versa. So, it's not that observing a particle changes it, but more of an uncertainty of your measurement based on the strange probabilistic nature of the particle itself.
The other term that we hear a lot of is “quantum leap”. An advertisement in a popular science magazine touted a bedwarmer by stating its, “a quantum leap forward from electric blankets.” And, I’m sure most of us have watched a popular sci-fi TV program entitled “Quantum Leap” in which the hero is doomed to “leap” into the bodies of various characters during different eras from week to week. We almost intuitively know that the term implies some fantastic change. In fact, the “Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style” defines quantum leap as “a sudden extensive change (usually an improvement) in the rate of progress”.
So, what’s the real story? The simple model of an atom can help explain this. In the model the nucleus, consisting of protons and neutrons, is surrounded by electrons orbiting like planets around a sun. The electrons can move from one orbit to another instantaneously. Each orbit is at a discrete level or quantum state and when the electron moves it leaps from one quantum state to another. Think of arising in the morning, showering, dressing, getting your coffee then suddenly finding yourself at your desk at work twenty miles away. But, each of those quantum states is a very small change. Counter to the popular definition then, a quantum leap is sudden but pretty small.
The irony in all of this is that the metaphors, touting dramatic ideas, actually find their origins in rather pedestrian although complex concepts. I’m certain I won’t change anyone’s usage of these terms. They are too well imbedded in the popular culture. But, it’s always nice to know the origins of those science terms when we use them in non-science writing.
Well, there you have it. My rant is ended. It wasn’t too painful, I hope.