the magic of your voice

This past weekend I attended a benefit concert for an old friend, listening to a band new to me. I commented to my Brenterest friend that the band had talent, “They could make it.”

My friend shrugged. “I don’t know if their sound is unique enough to make it.”

I froze. I’ve never heard anyone talk about writing that way, but the cogs and gears fit together in my mind and something shifted forward. It holds true for writing as much as music, and the words have stayed with me.

We writers start out with scraps of our voice, but it isn’t honed yet. We may not recognize it. This voice is rough, it needs time and craft and patient work, but when we’re new we don’t know that. We read the latest rules, writing fashions which ebb and flow as much as any other fashion, and only see the problems with our work.

Our voice gets quiet in response, hiding shyly behind crossed-out paragraphs and angry red ink.

We keep writing, maybe finding a critique group. If we’re lucky, we’ll find a good one. But most likely, we find a group as inexperienced as us, and those critiques will be based on what the critiquing writers read in the rules last week and are actively working on. Our voice grows quieter still, until it’s washed from our final drafts completely. The story stands, polished and shiny for everyone to see, but it’s lost its uniqueness. It sounds like a story anyone could have told. It doesn’t sell and we grow more discouraged with every rejection.

Neil Gaiman once said, “You’re not selling them the story. You’re selling them the way the story is told.” We’re selling our unique voice, our way of telling. The lucky writer recognizes the problem, and pulls their voice out of the mental drawer where it was stuffed, applies it, and discovers something else has happened in the interim. This voice has picked up a few rules it respected, it got in the practice of our first drafts if nothing else. We grow bolder, protective of our voice.  We learn to tune out the critique partners who will cut our voice. Eventually, to avoid them.

We may still struggle to sell stories, but we’re moving forward. We still need to practice and hone the craft of our particular strangeness. There will be readers who hate this voice. This will hurt. There will be readers who love it. Appreciate them. Our job is to find our voice, learn its strengths and weaknesses, cultivate its evolution, and spend the rest of our writing lives honing its magic.

blank bloom blossom business
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

IWSG: rough drafts

Happy IWSG day! IWSG stands for ‘Insecure Writers Support Group’ and hundreds of writers participate every month, blogging writerly posts on an optional question or going rogue on other writing topics. Inkslingers of every kind supporting each other and building community. You can click here to see the other blogs and perhaps sign up yourself.

iwsg

A story is born in my mind and scribbled out on the pages of my notebook.

I tingle with excitement. I love this.

Words get crossed out. Notes appear in margins. Something is circled – should I delete this? Characters disappear. New ones take their place, or not.

I suppress a thrill. This is becoming an excellent story.

I type it into a document. Hmmm. That part doesn’t sound right. Words get rearranged. A new sentence replaces an old one. A plot hole is revealed. I fill it in and try to smooth the edges.

Oh, I don’t like that. This is awful. What was I thinking?

I put the story aside, but I still think of it. My subconscious mulls over possible solutions. It might be days, or weeks, or… months.

I know it will come. I acknowledge it might take a long time. Deep down, I worry. How will I build a body of work if the quality I’m working toward takes this long? When will my process come faster? Surely it doesn’t take other writers this long.

It does, though.

I work, I read, I follow my favourite writers. Quite by accident I come across a dozen statements in a single day, writers I admire mentioning the few years it can take to birth a story from start to finish. From that first draft to the one which gets accepted. I am normal, I realize, surprised. I am on the right track.

Keep writing. Keep going. We’re all doing fine.

IWSG: How to Survive the Apocalypse by Writing

Welcome to the first Wednesday of December! Its time for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group (IWSG), a blogging group created to support and encourage fellow writers. If you’d like to join in and/or see other IWSG posts, click here.

iwsg

This month I’m feeling insecure about this whole Climate Change Apocalypse. What’s the point of honing my writing craft in the face of mortal peril? Scientists can land Insight on Mars but they can’t make people save their damn planet. Ugh. We should have focused our collective imaginations on this apocalypse instead of the zombie one. Why are we still struggling to gain an audience, write our stories, and put them out there if we’re all going to die?

Here’s the thing: we’re not all going to die.

Some of us will live, and when we’re holed up in our bunkers, a dirty collection of bored, dispirited individuals waiting for the world to end or maybe, just maybe, NOT, you know what’s gonna get the survivors through? Canned tomatoes, Spam, wool socks, and stories. Stories are going to pass the time and remind your fellow survivors to be heroes, that life has meaning, and everyday is another chance to save the world.

When the Spam runs out, your story skills might save you from getting eaten, too.

grey skulls piled on ground
Photo by Renato Danyi on Pexels.com

Let’s be honest. You’re going to have to find a way to be more important than say, the surgeon sitting across from you when its cannibalism o’clock. You can provide escape via stories on the daily, she can what? Fix a ruptured spleen? Pssh. How often is that going to happen? Think about it. Humans have been screwing up basic evolution in favor of the short-game for generations now. Ruptured spleens are long-game thinking. A story can make tonight bearable. Who cares if you’re screaming over a kidney stone in four or five years and it attracts starving predators that wipe out your village? Right now everyone misses TV and if they close their eyes, stories are kind of like TV without the pictures and the human brain will hold tight to something that feels like normal.

See? You can survive this apocalypse, but you’re going to have to nail your hook and build tension like a pro. I suggest you start practicing now, while you still have the internet to tell you when you’re doing it wrong.

 

batch books document education
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

You should also become a story prepper right away. That’s right. Stockpile concepts, practice whipping out a killer first line when you have a spare moment; in the shower, the toilet at work, those precious lost seconds in elevators.

Hone your craft like your life depends on it, because it does. On the other side of the Climate Change Apocalypse, your writing game is going to be AMAZING. Unfortunately, there probably isn’t going to be much of publishing industry, or any industry, left. Which is kind of the planet’s point.

The good news is that throughout history storytellers and bards have been kept around for one reason or another. You’re simply evolving the profession. Try to write on something which preserves well, like stone tablets, birch bark, and cave walls to assure something of your work survives now that the average life expectancy is probably substantially younger than you are in this moment. Don’t think about it. Just. Keep. Writing.

IWSG: book or film?

Today’s post is a part of a monthly blog hop called the Insecure Writer’s Support Group (IWSG) where writers can share concerns and bolster each other. You can see the participating blogs here. This is my first IWSG post. Planet Pailly’s IWSG posts about his muse inspired me to sign up and join the conversation.

iwsg

I’ve been wrestling with the concept of why some stories should be written rather than filmed. Why it is we often hear “the book is always better.” Its easy to say, ‘I prefer to read, it’s a different activity than watching, I get to use my imagination’ and dismiss the argument as irrelevant, but I think writers have a vested interested to understand what books can do that films cannot. We should take advantage of those aspects, shouldn’t we?

According to a 2015 article by Carol Test, the reason the written word is unique is because of the ‘interiority’ of the book or short story. When we’re reading, we are able to follow the story directly from the character’s, or narrator’s, mind. We open a book, put on their perspectives like a coat, and watch the world from their eyes.

But consider movies like 2011’s Limitless, where the character’s interiority anchors the story.  My partner watched Limitless over the weekend, bringing it to mind quickly, but a slew of others follow. Fight Club. Six Feet Under. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Most film makers chose not to use interiority as a device, but the fact remains that they can, and they do.

Words can be chosen to manipulate a reader into a certain frame of mind or expectation, but a movie score can do the same.

Where is the space where books remain unique?

I’m pulled back into those earliest of writing lessons, teachers rapping on and on about using all five of the senses. Movies, I realize, can only use two senses: sight and sound. Touch, taste, and smell are a void. Movies smell like popcorn, the touch of buttery fingers, and the acrid taste of buttersalt. They can show you the incense burning in a medieval church, but it takes the written word to fill your senses with musky, perfumed smoke thick enough to hide the smell of the congregation’s unwashed bodies. To remind you of how its half-forgotten scent clings to your woolen tunic and your hair as you walk home.

Can it be as simple as these three missing senses? I don’t know. My gut says there’s more, much more, and to keep hunting. Books hold space in our lives. There’s poetry and rhythm and so many things to consider, to experiment with.

That said, I’ll be extra conscious of writing touch, taste, and smell into my work this week. What do you think? What else can books do that films cannot?

coffee cup notebook pen
Photo by Free Photos.cc on Pexels.com

 

7 steps to structuring a short story

patrick-fore-381200-unsplash
Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

I’ve been mining the internet for short story structure. There’s not much out there and I’ve got a few stories that are STUCK. One of them has been stuck for almost two years. I’ve attacked it from every angle. A critique partner I asked for help scratched his head over it. “I think there’s something wrong with it structurally, but I’m not sure where.” This led me to a workshop on structure, which didn’t wind up being much more than the classic pyramid and slope of rising action. I learned a metric tonne about theme, tone, and depth in that class, but it didn’t help me with my stuck story.

More stuck stories have piled up in the meantime. Stories and characters I love but aren’t right. They’re finished in a technical sense but they aren’t complete enough to send out on submission

The print resources I found stuck to the basics of theme, etc. If I Google story structure, I’ll find novel breakdowns of the hero’s journey, three act structure, screenplay beats, etc, but short stories are a different animal. A condensed, fluid animal, like a miniature jellyfish… from space.

roya-ann-miller-538819-unsplash
Photo by roya ann miller on Unsplash

I got excited when I found an article on beats for story structure (shared last Submissions Sunday), but when I put my stuck stories through it I didn’t get anywhere. The only thing to do was collect the resources available to me, juggle them around, and find a simple method that will work for me.

Before we get into it, here’s a caveat: structure is a tricky beast. If a writer relies on structure too heavily, their stories will end up being formulaic. Author Chuck Wendig has a fine rant on this here. Protect your creativity, and use it, especially in structure. Experiment. Fall on your face. It’s the only way to grow. BUT if you’re just starting out, or your story is stuck, turning to structure for HELP beats writer’s block any day of the week.

Seven steps to structure a short story:

  • Start with memorable imagery. Spear your reader’s imagination. What’s the wildest thing you can think of?
  • Reveal the plot. What is the point of that memorable imagery you opened with? Drag your protagonist along, kicking and screaming. Stories require characters to change, which means the protagonist is going to resist. Use that resistance to build tension.
  • Introduce the antagonist, human or otherwise, cracking their knuckles and making things tough for the protagonist. Use this entry to foreshadow the climax, if you like. Foreshadowing can make the ending more satisfying to your reader.
  • Make something momentous happen which shows the protagonist changing. In a short story, this works well as an extension of the imagery you opened with. 
  • Knock your protagonist on their arse. Make them lose a battle in this story war. Show that your antagonist is capable of defeating your protagonist.
  • Pick them back up. Make the protagonist find a way to defeat the antagonist, or lose with dignity.
  • Show how it ends. Leave the reader satisfied so they’ll come back for more. Live up to your foreshadowing.

Your story may demand you switch things around. The antagonist’s introduction may reveal the plot. Your momentous happening may switch places with knocking your protagonist on their arse. Likewise it might do the knocking. Be fluid, shift things around, go with it. These aren’t meant to be rigid rules.

Stories that arrive in my imagination fully fleshed out are rare and glorious things. Most often I get an image or a scene which makes my heart race and I build a story around it. Those are the ones that risk getting stuck and I’m happy to have a tool to help. Thus far this method has two of my stuck stories flowing again and I’m excited to tweak them for submission.

I hope this helps next time you’re stuck too.

Happy writing!

 

 

 

writing news

Good news! My flash story Reflections took third place in the 2018 Parsec Short Story Contest. An earlier incarnation of this story was a finalist in the 2017 Podcastle Flash Fiction Contest where it won this encouraging review:

storysnacksreview

It’s exciting to see this story do well but I have to admit I’d love to see it published soon. The file sends me pouting glances from my computer screen, “Please, Jennifer, I want to be read.” I think of the main character, Meriden, who I’ve tweaked, rewrote, deepened, and edited several billion times, and I would like to see him come alive in someone else’s imagination. He’d do well there. He’d be happy. It’s time to retire him from contests and find him a home.

A non-fiction article I wrote about our local water system is available to read for free at Connecting Albert County. I had fun learning how my community built and hand-laid wooden pipes to feed the village in the early 1900s.

My middle-grade short story, Toby’s Alicorn Adventure, will be published in the September 2018 issue of Cricket. This one’s my first professional sale and it’s going to be exciting to see the illustrations. The story contains dragons, unicorns, witches, fairies, flying hippos, pirates, and Saturn. Whichever the artist chooses to illustrate, it’s bound to be fun and I hope the kids love it.

In the meantime, I’m busy editing a novella and writing a new short story. Summer can be a struggle with young children and heat, but also full of unexpected inspiration.

An old nugget of advice I’ve heard from many sources (most recently from writer Richard Thomas) is wafting through my mind this week and I’d like to share it:

never

See you this Submission Sunday and happy writing in the meantime.

the short story that could

Once upon a time …

a girl entered her favorite story into a contest. She wished her characters luck and took a deep breath. After all, she’d entered dozens of contests before, why should this one be any different?

But something was different. Maybe there was a splash of magic in the ink she wrote that first draft with. Maybe lightning struck her computer as she typed it up and brought her characters to life. Maybe the memory stick she backed it up with had a trace of fairy dust inside it.

Perhaps the story made its own magic.

All I know for sure is Dragon Crossings won first place in the contest. Wahoo!!!

… and the story lived happily ever after

On a more serious note, after years of entering and not winning, this does feel good. The judge gave me wonderful feedback that went straight into my anti-discouragement file. I have been invited to accept my award and read my story at the Writer’s Federation of New Brunswick’s Wordspring event in a few weeks, which I’m both thrilled and nervous about. I love reading my stories aloud to an audience … they just aren’t usually adults. *deep breath*

This win also means I met my writing goal for 2018: to win an award. And it’s only April! So now I’m on the hunt for a new goal. Any suggestions?

Submission Sundays: the Horror of Pizza

Welcome to this week’s edition of Submission Sundays. Each week, I’ll be bringing you a unique call for submission. Each call will contain a speculative element and will offer payment upon acceptance.

Where ever you are on your writing journey, calls can inspire creativity. Getting used to submissions – and rejections – is important. Every established writer has a stack of rejections behind them. It takes guts and a willingness to fail.

Ready? Here’s this week’s call:

Tales From the Crust: An Anthology of Pizza Horror

Eligibility: horror stories revolving around pizza, 1000 to 5000 words. Multiple and simultaneous submissions allowed, please query reprints first.

Photo from darkmoondigest.com

Caveat: the publishers want this call taken seriously. No humor. Scare them.

What makes this call stand out: How will writers pull the concept of pizza horror from silly to frightening? Is Soylent Green an available topping?Let the imagination games begin!

Payment: $0.03 per word (currency unknown)

Submit by: June 1, 2018

Click here to go to the original call for details.

Happy writing!

only wings remain

Water seeped in long ago, washing away the words. The stories disappeared but their mystery remained. The pages wrinkled as they dried, half-hearted hues clouding the once-bleached paper. Bloodstains of the stories killed in the flood, perhaps.

Glue dissolved, but the charcoal sketches held fast in the book’s embrace. Now they gather dots of mildew like age spots on the hands of couple growing old together.

The pain of losing them is gone now and the lost stories shift into myth. I think I like them best this way, though I’ve switched to waterproof ink.

hunting stories

I walk through the forest hunting stories in the fold of old bark, the twist of a leaf. That old beetled undergrowth. 

IMG_20180309_084019_633.jpgStumps rot away into miniature castles, old galls whisper of dark magics, and scars turn into doorways at the base of a tree. These doorways captivate me. Tucked away yet plentiful, turning entire forests into magic hidden villages.

If I knock, will someone answer? Who are they? How do they live their lives? Their stories weave themselves in and around my imagination.

If I don’t knock, if I just step inside, will I find myself outside of time? Will the world be changed around me? Will I be different when I return? Will you know me? Will you notice it in my eyes, in the way I wear my hair?

But then again, I couldn’t. I couldn’t walk inside without a knock, catching some poor dryad mid-shower, shocked and reaching for a towel.

Come on, then, knock. Let’s go.

I hesitate. If I don’t knock, the stories rule the day. If I do knock, then my imagination is limited to what it finds. My knuckles tingle. I shove them in my pocket and move on. My children need me. I need them. Mothers must tread careful with the risk of getting whisked away to other worlds.  I’m hunting stories, not adventure. For now.