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Writer’s Craft # 126 – Treasures on Paper

July 22, 2013

Holly Jennings

Holly Jennings

Holly Jennings writes speculative fiction from her home in Tecumseh, Ontario. She has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, AE Sci-Fi Canada, and elsewhere. For more, visit or follow her as she attempts to understand twitter @HollyN_Jennings.

When Lynda first asked me to write an article about the richness of writing in notebooks, I felt my stomach twist from the dirty, little secret I’d kept hidden from other writers for years. So now, I stand — or rather sit — before you to confess my greatest literary guilty pleasure.

I prefer the computer to the notebook.

As someone who enjoys painting, the blank screen reminds me of a canvas full of possibilities while a spiraled, ruled notebook reminds me of school and homework. I crave 1” margins, perfect Courier text, and double spacing on demand the way most people crave their double tall macchiatos with extra foam (Sprinkled cinnamon on top? Really, what were you thinking?). And yet, I’ve found an undeniable fault with my love for all things digital: it’s way too easy to hit the delete button.

If a story I write doesn’t sell in six months, it ends up nestled between My Computer and Internet Explorer: inside the Recycle Bin. I’ve tried battling my compulsive need to digitally erase my rejections, failures, and do-overs. I even created a scrap folder for retired stories titled Don’t delete or the ice caps will melt and you’ll be living that horrible dystopian tale you wrote every day. Needless to say, it was to no avail (so get your life rafts ready).

In 2011, when I was packing to move back to my hometown, I came across an old banker’s box stuffed in the corner of my office closet. Inside, I found notebook after notebook filled with stories and half-finished chapters from my pre-laptop years. I had unearthed a custom-made time capsule, a treasure chest of themes, characters and ideas that were important to me a decade ago, and some that still are today.

I recently completed work on my first novel, which ended up a mishmash of the old and the new, fresh premises combined with characters created during my first incursions into writing. Had I typed these original story nuggets, they’d now be forever lost in the black hole of deleted Word .docs and corrupted .txt files, and I may have never found my way home — both in city and in spirit. So as much as I love my computer, there is one truth I just can’t deny…

I owe a lot to the notebook.

What story gems have you uncovered in your old notebooks?

Guest Post: Place Settings by Gregory Frost

July 9, 2013

So…a few years back I was teaching a general “boot-camp” style writing class for the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference, and at PWC teaching a workshop means that I have to read and critique some manuscripts as well. Frankly, the reading and critiquing stories or partials takes me ten times as long as any prep for standing up in front of an audience to talk about writing.

This particular year, one of the manuscripts was a story that was set, ostensibly, in a florist shop in Naples, Italy. In the submitted 15 pages there was not a single description of place. I mean, not even a generic “flower-shop-anywhere” sort of description. The story, whatever it was about, might as well have been taking place on a nude stage, devoid of a single prop. Without setting, it was a story presented in a vacuum.

When confronted with this news, the writer defended herself by saying she could not go to Naples, did not know the city, and could not provide the necessary level of detail. It was something akin to “I can’t get the detail right, so I’m not even going to attempt it.”

Now, I happen to be someone who has written fiction set in Bronze Age Ireland (Tain and Remscela), in 1841 New York State (Fitcher’s Brides), in a Philadelphia that has never existed (The Pure Cold Light), and in a world, Shadowbridge, that I built myself out of thin air and lots of retooled mythography.  So defending your work with “I can’t go there!” does not remotely win you a free pass with me. And on the larger front, we hereabouts all write fantasy…do any of us limit ourselves to places we’ve visited?

But back to this particular story. In fact, by sheer coincidence, the week before the conference (and well after I’d read her story), the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sunday travel section featured Naples as its main article. With photos. I brought a copy of that with me.

As an exercise, I made this writer sit there and look at the photos, and write down everything she could describe in them.  She hadn’t even read the article. Just the pictures. One was a scene overlooking the water. Another was the view from a café. I don’t remember what the third one showed. Using those photos, I asked her to describe the smells for each place. The temperature. The feel of the street or ground.

We had not a single character (although, interestingly, one did begin to emerge), no story, just place. In 15 minutes she had sensory details based on a real Napoli that she had never visited. She hadn’t even gotten inside the florist’s shop yet. But now she would. Now she had the inkling of a world that was not where she lived, was not full of “her.” That was a big step forward for a 15 minute investment of time. Was she going to get some things wrong? Absolutely. Was she done immersing herself in place? Definitely not.

Kate Wilhelm describes your story being the tip of a pyramid grounded in the real world. In “place.” This is true on so many levels that it seems to me worth beating like a drum over and over:  Your places must exist or you are wasting everyone’s time, including your own. Your characters are expressions of the context in which they live; meaning that their world has made them, defined them, screwed them up.

How has it screwed them up? Go write a 500 word essay telling me how.


Chances are, you’ll yank the threads of a potential story out of that essay. At the very least, you’ll know more about your characters than you did an hour earlier.

The more you know of place, the better you can understand your characters, because they are of that place/time/world. Fiction is finally about characters and what happens to them. How are you going to know who they are or what can happen to them if you don’t know their world?

GREGORY FROST’s latest novel-length work is the YA-crossover Shadowbridge duology (Random House), voted “one of the four best fantasy novels of the year” by the American Library Association; it was also a finalist for the James Tiptree Jr. Award. His historical thriller, Fitcher’s Brides, was a Best Novel finalist for both World Fantasy and International Horror Guild Awards. His story, “Madonna of the Maquiladora,” is currently being featured on Story Hub:

Other Frost short fiction appears in Ellen Datlow’s Supernatural Noir anthology. The novella, “T. Rhymer,” written collaboratively with Jonathan Maberry will be out later this year in the anthology Dark Duets. He directs the fiction writing program at Swarthmore College. A 1975 Clarion graduate, he’s also taught Clarion three times. He says he hopes the Buddha will bring him a pony.

Website & blog:
Twitter: gregory_frost
Facebook: gregory.frost1

Clarion Write-a-thon Team Report: Week 1

July 3, 2013

This week’s slightly belated compilation of reports from five of the write-a-thon teams:

Jim Shea, reporting in from The League of Argyle Socks:

We’ve finished Week 1, and those reporting in from the League of Argyle Socks are moving along. Greg Frost (Clarion alum, teacher and all-round swell guy) reports that he’s “revising a novel to get it ready for agenting. The work has been pretty steady so far (interrupted for some days by the need to write and revise an 11,000 word contractually obligated story; and if anything the Write-a-thon propelled me through that, too). Now back to the work in progress, and coming up on the sections of it where the revision will get rough and I will be whipping out the fountain pen and ink and hand-writing new versions of some chapters, which is my normal ‘zero draft’ methodology for starting a story and for revising something that needs heavy re-invention.” Yikes, he’s working hard.

Mary Lewys, who is totally kicking butt over the rest of us in terms of fundraising (you go, girl!), is working to finish the novel she started in the 2012 Write-a-thon.  She wanted to finish it before now, but didn’t — the Write-a-thon is giving her the focused time and energy to do it!

That’s what the Write-a-thon is all about.

No news yet from Bob Crais (who’s teaching week 3 of this year’s Workshop and may well be reading stories in preparation) or John Kessel, but we know they’re out there…

As for me, I’ve got one possum described, out of the six that are my goal. What’s a possum described? Well, when you’re rewriting your rewrite, and you’re not sure where it’s going, and it’s not about the words but the structure, the characterizations and getting-the-whole-thing-just-as-you-want-it, well, you got some serious possums to work on. Or with. Or to. Whatever.

BREAKING NEWS: Greg Frost promised a later blog post explaining the history of the League of Argyle Socks. I wore a pair last week, and will wear another (actually, the same pair, the only pair I own) at least once this week and every week of the Write-a-thon! Can’t wait to know why I’m doing that!

From Three Women on a Write Team:
Madeleine Reardon Dimond is succinct in her summary of week 1 writing: “We wrote.”

Ann McHenry: ” Editing is just as hard as I ever thought it would be. So much bad writing to fix!! But every now and then you find that you wrote a really good line, or came up with a really good plot twist and you think to yourself ‘Did I really come up with that? I’m more creative than I thought!”

Marjorie Farrell: As I can never do anything in a simple way, along with starting the Write-a-thon I also signed up for an intensive 3 day pastels painting and drawing class. Ten years ago at a yardsale I found a carved wooden box filled with used pastel chalks. I bought it with the intent to someday take a class. The elderly man who sold them to me told me his wife had been a pastels artist and created award winning pictures. I finally signed up for the class. Of course, in the back of my mind was the hope that I, on first try, would also create award winning pictures, perhaps channeling the previous artist. Wouldn’t that make a delightful story to write? As in writing, pastel drawing is hard work. My pictures ranged from awfully bad to awfully mediocre. No magic story to report. Back to work writing. Pastels for another day. Work, not magic, gets results.

Here’s a quick update from the Narwolves:

Our team has made some great progress this first week of the write-a-thon. Though a few of us are a bit behind in our personal goals (hey, it’s only the first week, right?) a few others of us (Tim Susman, we’re looking at you) have written over 15,000 words already! This brings our team total up to almost 25,000 words. Go Narwolves! As of now we’ve raised several hundred dollars for Clarion and we will continue to raise more in pledges if we get our average word count up. Next week we’re trying for 30,000 words between us. Let the typing commence!

Nancy Etchemendy reporting for the Firesiders:

When I discovered that any qualifying Write-a-Thon writer can create a team this year, I jumped at the chance.  Last year, writers who wanted to participate in a team had to accept a random assignment to whichever team needed members.  But the new, less rigid system allows friends to join up together.  I belong to a small group of children’s book writers who spend a few days together each year at Asilomar on the Pacific coast writing together, talking business, brainstorming, helping each other with writing and non-writing challenges, and walking on the beach.  We have become great friends.  We call ourselves “The Firesiders.”  Productivity is an issue for almost every writer, and I know it is a common complaint among my Asilomar friends.  I also know from past participation that the Clarion Write-a-Thon is an excellent productivity booster.  So I decided to try putting together a Firesiders Write-a-Thon team.

My first job was to get some of my Asilomar pals to sign up as writers.  That was pretty easy.  I put out a call on the Firesiders Yahoo list, and soon there were four of us.  Since writers need to raise a certain amount before they are eligible for teams, the second thing I did was to sponsor each of my friends for $20.  This wasn’t really necessary; any $20 will do and it can come from any sponsor, even the writer herself.  But I planned to make some donations during the Write-a-Thon anyway, and donating enough to qualify my friends speeded things up.  My third job was to contact and let them know we had a team waiting in the wings — a team we decided to call (surprise!) the Firesiders.  Here’s our progress so far.

Susan Taylor Brown is the author of the award-winning middle grade verse novel “Hugging the Rock.”  She is also the author of two picture books and two nonfiction books for kids.  Plus she writes books for the educational market (43 of them!) and has had over 200 articles and stories for children and adults published in various places.  Oh, and did I mention she’s a former columnist for the New Orleans Times Picayune?  Her Write-a-Thon goal is to finish her YA verse novel.  That’s a total of 75 poems in 42 days!  “I can do it!” is her mantra. So far so good.  Susan has her Week One badge for seven straight days of writing!

Bobbie Kinkead says writing is her fifth language.  The other four are moving images, gestures and feelings from others, musical sounds, and spoken words.  Bobbie does both writing and illustration for her children’s books.  She is currently at work on Book III of her “Elvin Letters” series.  Her Write-a-Thon goal is to edit this draft of Book III — a total of 22 chapters.  She participated in last year’s Write-a-Thon as well and found the pledges of her friends and family to be a great motivator.  She has finished five chapters so far and logged four days of writing, in spite of a family vacation.  We are all cheering her on.

Loretta Ichord is the author of five non-fiction middle-grade historical books published by Millbrook Press/ Lerner.  She also writes articles and essays for newspapers and magazines, and has published one short story.  Loretta says, “I signed up because I need to revise a young adult manuscript after receiving an encouraging in-depth critique. I’m energized and determined to take this project to the next level! That’s my goal.”  Her plan is to write for one hour each day of the Write-a-Thon.  She has chalked up ten hours so far and is on a roll!

Then there’s yours truly, Nancy Etchemendy.  I attended Clarion in 1982 and found it to be a life-changing experience.  I’ve been writing science fiction, fantasy and horror ever since, mainly for kids and young adults, and  have even won a few awards along the way.  Now I’m branching out into non-fiction with a YA book about money.  I hope to have a complete draft by the end of the summer.  My Write-a-Thon goal is to write for two hours each day through August 3, and to raise at least $500 for Clarion.  So far I’ve got 18 hours logged, and I’ve earned my Week One badge for writing every day.  I’m halfway to my fundraising goal, too!

Our team is comparing notes, celebrating and commiserating regularly on the Write-a-Thon message board.  Go Firesiders!

Adam Israel, tattling on Dead Oyster Elvises

We, Adam Israel and Keffy Kehrli, each had ridiculously busy weeks, falling short of our personal goals. Keffy wrote some on a short story rewrite. While I didn’t write every day like I’d hoped to, I did manage to finish two chapters.

FAQ: Why do donors need to register for the write-a-thon?

June 26, 2013

There have been some recent comments made in regard to registration being required to donate to specific writers.

We ask sponsors to establish an account so we can run the Write-a-Thon with fewer volunteers.  When sponsors fill out the registration form, it allows us to properly credit their donation to the individual writer and to generate thank you and tax acknowledgement letters automatically rather than manually.  Registering — a small act of additional generosity we depend upon — allows us to run the Write-a-Thon without hiring employees.  We thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

We understand, however, that the registration is confusing and we are working to revamp this page to make it easier to use.

Writer’s Craft # 125 – A whole new villain

June 24, 2013


Anne E Johnson

Anne E. Johnson celebrates the release of Blue Diamond Delivery, sequel to her humorous, noir-inspired science fiction novel Green Light Delivery from Candlemark & Gleam Publishing. She writes speculative and historical fiction for adults and children, and has had over thirty short stories published in The Future Fire, Shelter of Daylight, Drunk Monkeys, and elsewhere.

When I first wrote Blue Diamond Delivery, one of my beta readers complained about some aspects of the plot. However, he couldn’t articulate what was causing the problem beyond that he didn’t quite buy my main character’s motivation. I puzzled over it, and made some small changes, but I knew I still hadn’t hit the meat of the problem.

A writer with a fantastic editor is a blessed writer, indeed. I sent the novel to Kate Sullivan at Candlemark & Gleam. Among her thousand editorial comments was the observation that all the plot threads were loose. They needed something to hold them together so they all led toward one place.

Seeing it in those terms, I realized just what was missing: I needed a proper villain! And so, in the deepest gut-renovation of a novel I’ve ever attempted, I wrote in an additional major character. The scariest part was making sure this character was connected at every point in the pre-existing plot and sub-plots. But on the whole it was a fascinating thing to try and rewarding to achieve.

What is the biggest, deepest change you’ve ever made to a manuscript that you thought was basically finished?

Interview: Marie Vibbert, from Write-a-thon to Clarion 2013

June 19, 2013

Still on the fence about the 2013 Write-a-thon? Read this interview with Marie Vibbert, one of our top ten Write-a-thon writers in 2012, who after her Write-a-thon experience applied to the Workshop and is in our 2013 class: Clarion “seemed a wonderful, magical thing.  I’d have given anything to go, but … it always seemed out of reach for me. In recent years, I’d given up on the dream of going, and in part, on the dream of being a writer. The Write-a-thon woke me up.”

Do you have dreams that need awakening?  Sign up for the Write-a-thon and start writing!

How did you become aware of the Write-a-thon? Were you aware of Clarion, and planning to apply?

Since I was sixteen, I’ve belonged to a writing workshop here in Cleveland. Several members of the workshop had been to Clarion, and participated in the Write-a-thon.  They encouraged me to join in.  When they talked about Clarion – it seemed a wonderful, magical thing.  I’d have given anything to go, but I had to work my way through college, first, and there was never enough money or free time – like my dad always said, working seasonally himself as a construction worker: you get either money or time, never both.  So it always seemed out of reach for me.  In recent years, I’d given up on the dream of going, and in part, on the dream of being a writer. The Write-a-thon woke me up, presented me with a way to be a part of this.

Was the Write-a-thon experience enjoyable? Did it help your writing?

It was tremendously enjoyable.  I set myself a high goal – 50 stories. I defined a story as at least 1,000 words long and with a complete plot.  The goal was high enough that I had to push myself the entire way through the Write-a-thon, and concentrating on creating complete story drafts kept me from getting bogged down. I made decisions fast and didn’t worry about the quality of my ideas. I was forced, in short, to be true to myself and write what I really wanted to write.  It was a bit of a breakthrough for me. I hadn’t realized how much I censored myself in my writing, expecting critical first readers. I did have a few bouts of writer’s block, two three-day stretches of NOTHING, but in the last week and on the very last day I finished off three of the most awful stories ever written to meet my goal.

Also I was very moved by the generosity of my friends. I didn’t want to be a nagging fundraiser – I asked particular people I knew were interested in Clarion or Science Fiction or my writing, and I made a few posts on my blog and Facebook wall. And the donations just poured in. I started out hoping I’d make just ten dollars or so, and ended up in a competitive race to beat fellow Cleveland workshop-member Ferret.

How much did it influence your decision to apply to Clarion?

I’d say it led directly to my applying to Clarion.  Because I told my writer’s workshop friends that I was glad to have had the chance to be a part of Clarion through the Write-a-thon, since I obviously never would go there in real life – and they started pressuring me to try for it, to ask for the time off. Geoff Landis was particularly relentless, asking me every time I saw him, “So have you applied to Clarion yet?”  At first I was a bit angry. Didn’t they know this was impossible? But then I went ahead and asked for the time off, and after my boss got over his shock, he said it wasn’t entirely impossible, if every person on the chain of command agreed and I fixed every computer problem in the entire building before then.  So I applied.

How excited are you about going to Clarion this summer?

I’m still not quite certain this is real. It feels like I’m getting a reprieve from adulthood – a chance to be a college student again!  I’ll wear nothing but sundresses the entire time!  No one will ask me to set up the email on their iPhone for six weeks!  That alone is heavenly.  That I get to spend this time intensely working on my writing craft with people I admire?  That I feel like I’m finally making positive steps toward becoming what I wanted to be when I grow up?  Yeah.  Pretty darn excited.  I’m not being a very good employee this week.

The impact of donations made to writers like Marie is clear.

I was very moved by the generosity of my friends. I didn’t want to be a nagging fundraiser – I asked particular people I knew were interested in Clarion or Science Fiction or my writing, and I made a few posts on my blog and Facebook wall. And the donations just poured in. I started out hoping I’d make just ten dollars or so, and ended up in a competitive race to beat fellow Cleveland workshop-member Ferret.

Thanks to Write-a-thon Director Jim Shea for conducting this interview and from a class of 2010’er, good luck Marie!

Writer’s Craft # 124 – The Need For Speed

June 10, 2013

Kristene Perron

Kristene Perron

Kristene is a former professional stunt performer for film and television (as Kristene Kenward) and self-described ‘fishing goddess’. Pathologically nomadic, she has lived in Japan, Costa Rica, the Cook Islands, and a very tiny key in the Bahamas, just to name a few. Her stories have appeared in Denizens of Darkness, Canadian Storyteller Magazine, The Barbaric Yawp and Hemispheres Magazine. In 2010 she won the Surrey International Writers’ Conference Storyteller Award.

Kristene is a member of SF Canada. Her novel, Warpworld, is the first in a five book adventure science fiction series, penned with her Texan co-writer, Joshua Simpson. The second book, Wasteland Renegades, will be published in July 2013.

She currently resides in Nelson, BC, Canada but her suitcase is always packed.

The Need For Speed

The throttle is your friend. This valuable piece of wisdom took me far too long to learn when I started my stunt training in motorsports. Dirtbikes, jetskis, snowmobiles, it didn’t matter what I was riding, 99% of the time it was more speed, not less, that would get me out of trouble. It’s counterintuitive to hit the throttle when you’re afraid of crashing, but momentum works miracles.

Writing a first draft is no different – speed is your friend. Do you have a manuscript you feel you have been working on forever? Or maybe you have a piece of work that started out brilliantly but now sits unfinished, gathering dust, staring at you accusingly? Why?

The heart of creativity is risk. Nothing will take down a first draft faster than that moment you start to worry about crashing, about getting it wrong. You ease off the throttle, start editing when you should be writing, start questioning when you should be savouring the literary wind in your hair. Start doubting. Next thing you know, that spark of brilliance has vanished and the blinking cursor of death taunts you. Blink-blink-blink…You-really-suck. You stop.

First draft, rough draft, draft zero, however you choose to label your first attempt to turn ideas into words, that’s the time when nothing matters more than getting to the finish line. There is no wrong. The end product will be messy, it may be spectacularly stinky-bad, but it will be complete. You can now lift your hands over your head and say, “I did it! I am amazing!”

When you’re done, take a good look at that stinky-bad manuscript and consider that crashing wasn’t nearly as terrible as you imagined it would be. In fact, it can be kind of fun. And, hey, if you can finish a first draft, surely you can finish a second?

Have you ever stalled out on a first draft? How did you find the momentum to keep going?