Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Living in the Shrubs

You might be wondering what "Living in the Shrubs" has to do with writing advice.

For me, the phase has plenty of meaning.

Writers spend a good portion of their time reading. This reading can be research (reading non-fiction that helps us to ensure the doctor character in our current story spews dialogue of medical terminology that makes sense). The reading can also be fiction, by writers we respect (who we want to emulate) or other writers who we might not respect, per se, but we might want to at least understand.

Now we're almost in the shrubs.

Over the last couple of weeks, I've been reading fiction that I find somewhat embarrassing. We're talking books I keep upside down in my car so if a passerby happens to glance in, they won't see the cover and judge me for reading such "drivel." And no, I most certainly will not admit which books or authors I have been reading.

When I read these books, I'm trying to figure out some vital information:

Why is this book and/or author so popular?
What in this book appeals to such a broad audience?
What do I personally find appealing in the book (if anything)?
How can I capture some of this money-making-brilliance and stuff it into my novel?

When I perform this sort of research, I feel like I'm living in the shrubs, hiding from society, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting public.

Don't be too creeped out. I don't actually live in the shrubs. I am not a serial killer or anything interesting like that. But I am a bit of a serial observer.

Writers are watching and listening (maybe even taking notes) all of the time. That means that we should be theoretically living in the shrubs, where we have a better view of everything around us. Now I'm not suggesting you actually live in the shrubs, because that's just plain wrong, but I believe I've made my point.

So what are we writers observing?

- mannerisms
- conversational dynamics
- clothing
- eating and drinking habits
- architectural and decorating details
- car models and driving habits
- reading habits
- development and use of technology

Okay, the list is getting long already, and I'm only scratching the tip of the iceberg's surface at this point. Because we really are observing anything and everything we are able to absorb. Because if we wish to infuse our characters with believable characteristics, and we long for our settings to come alive in the readers' minds, and we aim to build believable worlds then we need a foundation of details with which to generate these details.

Wait a minute. I thought fiction was about making stuff up. About lying for a living.


I don't like shrubs, and I don't want to get my outfit dirty.

It's a metaphor. Weren't you listening?

This is a blog. Listening doesn't apply.

Enough with the clever quips, Suzanne. Get back to your point.

My point:

Fiction comes alive when it is infused with truths.

So go out and buy that bestseller that you think is lame and poorly written (lock yourself in the bathroom while you read it, if you don't want anyone else to know). Shamelessly eavesdrop on conversations at the coffee shop, on the subway, in the mall, at the office, wherever. Pay attention to how everyone dresses and carries themselves, from old ladies at the synagogue to teenagers at the bus stop, to moms at the grocery store. Notice whether everyone who drives a pickup changes lanes without signalling. Remember how your mechanic wipes his nose. File away how the housekeeper at your hotel sways her hips while she pushes her cart.

Absorb and catalogue it all for later.

So the next time you're walking past the neighbour's shrubs, imagine how much you could garner from an afternoon spent hiding amongst them.

Do it now
Look up, right now, and watch whatever is in front of you for five minutes. (If you're alone in your office, look out the window and watch the grass grow, or the squirrels scampering.)

The next time you're at the grocery store, write down five different character types you encounter.

The next time you're a passenger in a car, watch and study how different people in different cars behave. I said a passenger! Don't be distracted while you're ACTUALLY driving. Safety first!

Read a book you think you'll hate, just to see what other people might see in it.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


I can't remember who said it, but for a writer to succeed they need two of three things: persistence, skill, and luck.

Notice, I said that you only need two. Not necessarily all three. How cool is that?

If you're reading my writing tips, then you're probably striving hard for skill (by learning all about your craft and improving whenever and however you are able). And let's face it, we don't have much power over luck.

Luck happens.

So that leaves me with persistence, which is the focus of this week's post.

Looking back on previous posts, I've skirted the issue of persistence. To be persistent, you need drive. I can't teach you drive, you must make it for yourself. Do it! Get up off that couch. Sit at your computer. Set a timer, and don't get up until you've accomplished what you strived for.

Simple right?

So you send your short story to a market or you send a query to an agent, and they reject you.

What? Did you say, "They reject you??" Because that's a lie. (Okay, I was going for effect. Did it work?)

Technically, they reject YOUR STORY not YOU.

Hold up your manuscript/cover letter/submission package and repeat after me:

"I am not my story!

Now say it again. I mean it! I'll wait...


"I am not my story!


Feel better?

Part of persistence is not giving up. Sending out your story over and over (and over) again until it finds a home.

Should I edit the story before I send it out again?

That depends on a few factors. If you received feedback that resonates with you then feel free to adjust the story accordingly.

Has it been months (or years) since you submitted? Chances are you're a better writer now, or it's been so long since you read it that your editing eye will be fresh-as-a-daisy so a quick editing pass might improve the story.

Don't be discouraged. Rejection is part of the gig. According to my short story tracking spreadsheet, as of today, I've had 18 acceptances and 285 rejections for my 304 submissions. (Wait, that doesn't add up. Yes, that's because one story is out at a market and I haven't heard back yet.)

One story out at a market? Is that all? You slacker!!

Guilty. After this blog post, I should probably listen to my own advice and send out a couple of submissions.

Now, you may be asking, "But I'm working on novels, and it'll be months before I'm ready to submit. How does persistence affect me? How do I maintain focus?"

The answer: a bunch of different ways.

Strategies for Persistence

- making resolutions
- establishing the habit
- external motivations
- internal motivations
- structure

Wait a minute...those first two sound awfully familiar!

Guilty again. Yes, those were the first two topics of my writing tips this year: making writing resolutions and establishing the habit of writing every day. They are so important, that I blogged about them first! And I'm re-emphasizing them now because they are a big part of persistence.

Making Resolutions

If you promise yourself that you will meet a certain list of goals, then every day, when you sit down to write, you will have a place to start. Do I need to submit a few stories to meet my goals? Have I written today's word count goal?

Establishing the Habit

If you have been working hard to establish the habit of writing, then you will be sitting down at some point, every day, to write. Make sure you do write. Every day. Really.

External Motivations

We all need a push sometimes. So set up a posse of people who will nudge you when you need it. Did you talk to your partner today about your writing? Is your mother on your case to make something of yourself? Do you have a writers' group meeting in a week and a half and you promised to deliver a story?

Many motivational events for writers occur online. In June and July, a band of writers are participating in the Clarion West Write-a-thon. In March, there is National Novel Editing Month (NaNoEdMo). In April, there is Script Frenzy. In November, there is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Most of these events are designed to motivate you, to get you setting goals and to meet them.

Internal Motivations

Promise yourself a treat if you meet your goal. The reward can be as simple as: I will go to Starbucks to write, and that means drinking my favourite beverage. Yum! (This one works for me, big time!) Or more long term: If I meet my NaNoWriMo goal, I will buy myself that expensive hardcover book, the one whose plot calls to me, and I cannot wait another year for the paperback edition.

Or swing in the other direction with a little punishment-for-the-crime: If I don't meet my word count today, I can't eat my favourite peanut-butter-cup ice cream for dessert. If I don't submit a story today, I won't be able to watch an hour of TV from my PVR. :(


I've mentioned before, it's the structure that saves us.

At many conventions, I've heard this advice: make up a series of ready-to-mail envelopes with SASE's inside. Keep a copy of your cover letter on file for each story, so that you can change the editor/publisher info and print a new one quickly. If/when your story comes back rejected, send it right back out again, using your ready-to-sub kit.

Of course, for e-subs, the process is pretty similar.

In my tracking spreadsheet, I list a variety of markets for each story, ready to submit to if/when the story comes back rejected. To decide where to send a story next, I open the spreadsheet, check out which magazine is next, and send the story out.

At this point, you're thinking, "Wow, Suzanne, you've linked to a bunch of previous posts this week!" And you're right. I have. Because so many of the topics I've discussed so far are structural tools that facilitate persistence.

That's right, you need to remember all of the previous content to solve this latest problem. (I used to teach high school math, remember? Yes, this will all be on the test!)

So grit your teeth, rub your hands together, and be persistent. Don't allow lack of motivation, lack of organization, or rejection to stop you from reaching your writing goals.

Do it now
- Stop surfing the internet and write at least 100 new words.
- If you have a story or query letter ready to go, submit it to a market. If it's an e-sub, then send it today. If it's a postal submission, prepare the envelope/package and take it to the post office at your earliest opportunity.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Overheard at the Stop-Watch Gang Meeting - June 10, 2012

One Fish: "Two animals doesn't seem like much of a zoo."

A: There's a whole zoo of malice!
B: Yeah, but they're not @#$%ing the animals...

X: We're done! Any...uhh...
Y: Rebuttal
X: Yeah, that's the one!

Q1: I didn't like this story.
Q2: Hah!

Two Fish: "It takes him two years to amass a 'army' of five skeletons? I don't think the word 'army' means what you think it means."

Red Fish: "I realized how much time I was spending tying my shoes that I could be writing."

Blue Fish: "Don't get me wrong: I hate the Communist Chinese government as much as the next guy."

- S.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Music and the Writer

In my bio, I refer to myself as a media junkie. I am, truly, a bit of a junkie when it comes to many forms of media: movies, television, books, magazines, but the one form of media that truly lives like a monkey on my back is music.

I listen to music every day. So naturally, I must listen to music when I write.

If you are one of those writers who must have absolute silence while writing, or for whom music is too much of a distraction, then feel free to skip this blog post and move on with your life.

Still with me? Fantastic.

Headphones or Background Noise?

Depends on the location.

If I'm working at home, I will play music in the background, either on the big stereo (when I'm downstairs) or through my laptop's speakers if I'm in my office.

If I'm working at a coffee shop or some other location far from home, I wear headphones and use my iPod. (I'm not much of an Apple fan, but I do love my iPod Nano.) I also use headphones when I'm not alone at home, to block out the sounds of my kids and whatever they're doing. (Otherwise, I slip out of writer-mode and into Mom-mode.)

Blues, Rock, Classical, Dubstep?

Depends on the project and genre. Music most definitely sets the tone when I'm writing, so I need the tone to match the mood of the place I am immersing myself in for the current story.

When I write Horror, I usually listen to dark bands like Staind, Soundgarden, and Audioslave, or slip into either blues or heavy rock.

When I write Science Fiction (especially if I'm writing cyberpunk), I tend to listen to Dubstep and Electro House mainly from Skrillex, Deadmou5, and Klapex. Though I have been known to slip into some rap or dance music, but I won't publicly admit which bands here. (If you know me, you know which songs I like, because I play them all the time.)

When I write Fantasy, I often turn to classical music (mostly Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven), but if that doesn't get the juices flowing, I go with whatever I've most recently downloaded to my iPod. Generally, I never go more than two months without buying new music.

Isn't the Music Distracting?


As a matter of fact, I can concentrate significantly better when I'm listening to music. Having music in my head makes me feel at home, as though everything is right with the world.

Routine Trigger

In his book, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer Bruce Holland Rogers talks about using the same routine before you sit down to write. In his case, he lights a few candles and then sits down at his computer. In my case, I choose my playlist, pop in the headphones, and that is my cue to get to work.

Just like one of Pavlov's Dogs I have been conditioned to believe that headphones-in-ears means work-must-commence. Remarkably, it also works when I begin a task like gardening, or going for a run or a bike ride -- once I choose the right tunes and put in my headphones, I generally get to work.

The Playlist Matters

What is this playlist thing? For those of you who might be new to MP3/iPod lingo, a playlist is a list of songs that are a subset of the giant list of songs in your portable music storage device. Essentially, it's like putting your own personal album together, with all the songs you want to listen to today. Put in "old fashioned" terms, it's like making a great cassette tape of your favourite vinyl record songs. (Yes, I am that old.)

When I'm working on my novel, I tend to make a long playlist and whenever I work on that novel, I listen to that playlist. It's a way that I keep my head in the same space, even if it's been days (or weeks, or months) since I worked on that project. Hearing that collection of songs puts me back in the place I need to be. It's remarkable how quickly and easily this transition happens for me.

Every year when I begin NaNoWriMo, I will create a new playlist, and that will become a working playlist for the new novel I intend to work on. Often, that playlist sticks with that project for years after.

You're Starting to Sound a Bit Obsessive, Suzanne


Structure makes human beings comfortable. That's why newborns need to be on a schedule, why school classrooms run on scheduled time slots for subjects, and why most people follow the same routine every morning to get themselves out the door and off to work. For me, music is a key component in my daily routine, and my keep-projects-on-track routine.

I know I'm going to have a bad writing day when I forget my iPod in the car, and am a slave to whatever songs the coffee shop happens to play over their speakers. In those cases, I'm almost better off eavesdropping on the conversations of patrons, so that I might get some dialogue ideas or story nuggets, because I'm going to struggle with my ability to focus on writing.

Please Share the Magic Write-a-Bestseller Playlist!

Young padawan, you must discover this elusive list on your own.

Sorry, to those of you who were hoping I would spell it all out for you.

Try to imagine your current story as a movie. If you were sitting in the theatre, watching the story unfold, what sort of music would be playing during this scene? Something suspenseful? Romantic? Energetic? Poignant?

That is the music you might want to listen to while you're writing the scene.

Isn't it expensive buying all of these CDs/iTunes songs?

I consider it an essential cost of doing business. Besides, a song costs what? Ninety-nine cents, or maybe $1.29?

I buy most of my CDs at second-hand store, The Beat Goes On. They have a fantastic system, where you can add the CD (or DVD or video game) you want to your "wish list." They will email you when this CD arrives at one of their stores and you can then order it and have it shipped to your house (or if you're lucky, like me, you can pick it up at the nearest location.) Cool, eh?

They totally rock, I kid you not.

If you've been having trouble focusing when you write, try a little music on for size. The stimulation might double your output.

Do it now
Design three playlists:
- one of songs that get your blood pumping, for action scenes that drive the plot forward
- one of sad songs that make you cry every time you hear them, perfect for killing off a beloved character
- one of a third category, more specific to your genre (Romantic? Horrific? Scientific?)

Now write a scene while listening to one of these playlists and magic might just happen for you!

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Elusive Endings

If the beginning is crucial to grab the reader, and the middle answers all of their questions, the ending must satisfy. Endings are tough, because by the time your story reaches the big crisis moment, the author is forced to make a big decision:

How does it end?

Will the ending be happy? Tragic? A cliff-hanger? Subdued?

To be effective, the ending of your story must:
- satisfy the reader
- resolve the central conflict
- leave room for more

Allow me to explain these points in more detail.

Satisfy the Reader

How many times have you read a book, enthusiastically turning the pages in desperate need to see how it ends and then find yourself saying, "What the?" This is why endings are so difficult, because it's possible that you, the writer, want to make a different point than the reader was expecting and you let them down. Sometimes the only right ending is the one that will infuriate the reader. Endings are where the writer must be the most clever, the most brutal, and the most literary.

Can a tragic ending satisfy a reader?

Shakespeare made tragedies work. So long as the tragedy makes sense, the ending will leave your audience weeping and moved. If you kill off the hero simply to be spiteful, then the ending will feel like a cheat.

Are happy endings overdone?

Of course not! Then again, the happy ending must make sense. Did the hero work hard to achieve the, "Oh yeah!" moment? Did the protagonist change on an emotional, physical, and/or spiritual level in the process? I believe that human nature makes us yearn for happy endings. And to be honest, the most satisfying endings for me, personally, are the ones that leave me feeling all warm and fuzzy.

Resolve the Central Conflict

You've spent the story putting your protagonist through hell. He's been down, he's been broken, and now he must face the worst possible thing that scares him the most. During your ending, your protagonist must triumph. That's the key. A character can resolve a conflict, even if they die in the process, or someone they love is lost, or their world is destroyed. Think of Scarlet O'Hara, who's lost everything...except she can always go back to Tara. She still has a reason to get up, brush the dirt off her face and keep going.

The whole point in telling a story, is to create a problem, and then solve it.

So solve your problem. Resolve the central conflict. Kill the bad guy. Save the world. Rescue the damsel. Cure cancer. Have your protagonist do whatever they need to do to give the reader a sense of satisfaction.

Do cliff-hangers ever work then?

Sort of.

Some elements of a story must be resolved. A resolution to the central conflict must at least be attempted. Look at Harry Potter. JK Rowling accomplishes two resolutions at the end of each of the first six books: the school year finishes, and the driving conflict in that particular book is resolved.

But at the same time, Voldemort isn't beaten at the end of any of first six books. He might make an appearance, might battle with Harry, but he always gets away. In fact, he and his followers continue to get stronger. We are left wanting more, wanting Harry to kick Voldemort's butt as soon as he is able. We are left wondering if the world isn't just going to get worse. So if you plan on using a cliff-hanger, then you had better be ready with the next book to resolve the tension you've left in the minds of your readers.

So they buy the next book!

Leave Room for More

After you've written the climax, you have a few pages, perhaps a chapter, to work on the dénouement. This is the part of the story where everyone hugs, cheers, then goes on about their business for the next adventure. Those last few words must leave the reader wondering:

then what?

Will our hero pursue another adventure? What will happen to the world now that everything has changed? What would I do if all of these events happened to me?

Questions are the key. The reader must be left pondering a couple of questions so that your story lingers in their mind long after they close the book, or set down the story. These questions allow the story to resonate with readers. Make them think about what they've read and apply it to other books, or movies, or their own lives, or what have you. Leaving the reader wanting more will give your story staying power and make them search out your next work.

In summary, the ending is the dessert. You ate your broccoli, and as per the deal you made with Mom, now you've earned your ice cream!

Give the reader their ice cream!

Another important point to keep in mind is that:

You must try your endings on for size before you commit.

That's why I called this post Elusive Endings, because sometimes it's hard to find the right ending on a first try.

This is where being part of a writers' group comes in so handy. Most of the time, one of the most important critiques I receive is hearing whether or not the ending worked for people. Often, the ending will work for some members of your group, but not all of them. That's okay, because endings don't always work for everyone.

If no one likes your ending, then you must rewrite.

And rewrite.

Don't call an ending "right" until you're sure it works. Sometimes this will take multiple attempts and a variety of possibilities.

Do it now
- Read the endings of three of your favourite books of all time and determine what you liked about them.
- Write the ending to the story you chose to write the middle for in the exercise on The Long and Slow Trudge Through the Middle.

Friday, June 08, 2012

The Long and Slow Trudge Through the Middle

Unlike beginnings, the middle is more the meat and potatoes of a story. This is the section where you will "hold" the slush reader's attention, make your point, and set up the parameters for the climax.

To be effective, the middle of your story must:
- maintain the reader's interest
- speak to the theme of the story
- explain the details of the world/conceit
- set up the final conflict/climax

Allow me to explain these points in more detail.

Maintain the Reader's Interest

The middle section of the story must maintain a rhythm of tension and relief. Depending on the length of the story, you might have two, or three, or even four crises or high points of tension. Since a reader can't endure that sort of high-octane ride, you must also have mirrored sections of relief where the reader has a chance to take a breath, or laugh, or pause and reflect on what's come before and what is yet to come.

Speak to the Theme of the Story

The middle section allows you to add symbolism to the story, to tie all of the elements together with a through thread. The theme should lull your reader into thinking, "Oh, yes, that's what's important."

Explain the Details of the World/Conceit

The conceit of a short story is the trick, the gimmie, the one piece of speculation that captures the reader's interest. The middle section should explain the details of this world building or world-twisting exercise. This section is where you explain how it all works and why it's important to our protagonist.

For example, in the movie, Ghostbusters the conceit is that ghosts do exist and a band of scientists has figured out how to remove them.

Set Up the Final Conflict/Climax

Each scene or section of the middle moves your protagonist one step closer to the big event. Perhaps they are racing against time and the middle uses up all of the main character's time. Perhaps the hero has failed at every attempt to get the girl, and by the end of the middle, she's tied to the railroad tracks with the evil villain driving the train. The middle is where all of the events, all of the protagonists problems, issues, worries, etc come to a head and will either break her or allow her to triumph.

In summary, the middle is the stuffing. You have already rocked your reader, hooked them into reading on, so now you must fold in every piece of information, jam in every problem, and shove every setback into the cavity of the turkey and pop it into the oven. Bring your reader to the brink, put your hero in the worst, most horrible, difficult, trying, complicated situation and prepare the reader for the climax. Frodo has finally brought the ring to Modor and it's time to toss it into the lava.

One more thing:

Most writers hate the middle.

That's why I called this post The Long Slow Trudge. The middle section is the part of the story (or novel) that feels like the most work, and sometimes makes you believe that your work is crap, you'll never amount to anything, the ending will never work, and you might as well put all your efforts into your day job.

Do not despair, fair writer. All of us feel this way when we write the middle. Writing is a process, and to get to the end, you have to go through almost as much failure as you've thrown at your protagonist.

Sometimes a good outline, plot noodling session, or planning stage will help you to plow through the middle with grace and determination.

Do it now
- Choose three of the five openings you wrote as the exercise in my post on Beginnings, and then plot out the middle sections.
- Choose the plot you like the best and write the middle section.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Ray Bradbury, Thank you.

Ray Bradbury passed away Tuesday, June 5, 2012.  He was 91.  He was, by all accounts, not just a master storyteller, but a great person to know.  Many have been inspired by his works such as The Illustrated Man, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and of course, Fahrenheit 451. Sadly, I haven’t read a single one of those books, or even seen the movies.  Nevertheless, Bradbury had influenced my writing.

Like many writers first learning the craft, I bought a number of “How to” books, among them, How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction edited by J.N. Williamson.  It’s a collection of articles from genre fiction’s most successful writers past and present.  Included was an article entitled, “Run Fast, Stand Still, or, The Thing at the Top of the Stairs, or, New Ghosts from Old Minds” by Ray Bradbury.  I rank this article among the best I’ve ever read on the topic of writing.

Bradbury emphasises writing quickly to remain true to your story--pauses lead to introspection and second guessing.  He relates how, in his early years, he suffered the same problem almost every writer has, imitating his heroes until he found his own writing voice.  He did this through a kind of write-what-you-know technique.  He took notes, lists really, of likes and dislikes, loves and hates.  He’d write lists of provocative nouns like:  the blade, the accident, the whipcord, the corpse, etc.  These lists would prod his memory, reminding him of past loves and childhood terrors, such as a fear of carnivals which became Something Wicked This Way Comes.

His lists soon became objects, a hodgepodge of knickknacks collected over the years.  In the eighties there was a Canadian television series called The Ray Bradbury Theatre, an Outer Limits kind of show based specifically on his short stories.  In the opening scene Bradbury would introduce the show from his office surrounded by this curious menagerie.  I don’t know if it was an accurate reproduction of his office, but I like to think so, if only to add to the mystique.

The core of his wisdom is this: the kernel of every story is already inside you.  What frightens you most likely frightens others, what amazes you will likely do the same to your readers if you are honest about the writing.
I took Bradbury’s ideas to heart, making lists of fears and loves and just things I remembered from my past.  From them I developed Second Banana, published in Necrotic Tissue in 2009.

I still make lists.  Bradbury’s technique is a great tool to get words on paper, get past some writer’s block, get your characters out of that bind your imagination got them into, or look at writing from a fresh new perspective.

For that I will always remember Ray Bradbury.
 Mike Rimar

Second Banana can be found in my short story collection: Deathwatch and other tales, available at Smashwords, Kobo, and Amazon.