How (and why) to write while furious

How can I write about marketing communications topics when I’m shaking with anger and shame about the political situation in this country? Joe Hage helps me figure things out.

I haven’t been blogging much. How can I write about marketing communications topics when I’m shaking with anger and shame about the political situation in this country?

But marketing communications guru Joe Hage has kept going. He’s been using a weekly email to communicate to his readership (medical device marketers). On Wednesday morning, Joe lowered the boom.

His blunt and courageous email begins:

“I’m angry. I hate him so much. You know who I’m talking about.”

Joe goes on to talk about the flood of information we face every day from highly curated news and marketing streams. We feel as though we’re in a deluge of information that’s deep and fast-running — but it turns out that it’s also deceptively narrow.

As Joe points out, many of us (unless we listen extensively to National Public Radio), have never read or heard about the civil war raging in Nicaragua. Joe didn’t know much about that war, either, until his video editor, who lives in a Nicaraguan city, witnessed a march of soldiers in the street outside her house. They left the dead body of a child in the street as a warning to anyone who might consider opposing them or aiding the opposition.

What does war in Nicaragua mean for someone like me — or you — whose business is all about trying to communicate to readers, donors, or customers? Joe tells his medical device industry colleagues:

“If a civil war in Central America doesn’t even hit our radar, can you imagine how many messages the average citizen is getting per day?”

“Your messaging is not competing with other medical device videos, images, and words. You are competing with every possible stimulus out there.”

In a communications environment like this, Joe asks, “what hope do any of us have in breaking through?”

His answer is that by writing as a real person, he is breaking through. He is engaging. His thousands of readers did read him yesterday morning (even if some of them were hitting “unsubscribe” and grabbing for their blood pressure medication).

My take-away from Joe’s out-of-the-box email? There are a lot of ways to engage people and get them to pay attention.

One of them is to threaten them (dropping dead bodies in the street, for example). Another is to inundate them with the same message, over and over again, drowning out fact and complexity with emotion and oversimplification (our news and marketing feeds). And, yes, a third way is for communicators to be real in their communications. Genuine, heartfelt communication stands out because so few of us do it, or hear it, in our professional roles.

It’s sad that being real, and honest, and thoughtful is “just not done” in the field of business communication. We have tens of thousands of well-dressed, well-educated people marching each day into beautifully decorated, air-conditioned workplaces, attending meetings about product marketing, advertising, and communications strategy, sitting down at their expensive keyboards to devise “messaging” — while inside most of them are all thinking about what’s real: That we live in a country that snatches immigrants out of their homes, separates children from immigrant parents, and puts immigrant families in prisons. Indefinitely.

Now let’s take a look at that PowerPoint, shall we?

(For more information on who Immigration and Customs Enforcement is arresting, why, and how, see this document from the Immigrant Defense Project.)

 

Anthologies: Variations on a Theme

The Metaphorosis Books anthology Reading 5 x 5 was designed to provide insight into the process by which authors write to a detailed theme.

Themed anthologies and themed magazine issues are big these days. They enable editors to focus on timely topics and they attract new readers interested in those issues. Themed publications are inspiring for writers, too. In the past year, I’ve written stories for six anthologies:

Of particular interest is Reading 5 x 5, edited by B. Morris Allen. The book was designed to provide insight into the process by which authors write to a detailed theme. Allen brought together 25 authors, grouped them by five speculative fiction subgenres, and for each subgenre provided a fairly detailed story brief. (His concept is described at the Reading 5 x 5 website.) Thus all five authors in each group started out with similar characters, settings, and plots. The resulting stories — most wildly divergent — are fascinating.

While I’d written to general themes for the other anthologies, I struggled with writing a story outlined by someone else. I may have been the “bad girl” of my group (I was in the soft science fiction group, writing in a style that non-genre readers might know as “space opera.”). I felt hemmed in by the detailed brief and spun my wheels for several weeks — until I came up with the idea of writing a story in which someone hemmed in by authority rebels and plots an assassination. To see how my little revenge fantasy turned out, buy Reading 5 X 5 and read “Patience.”

I strongly recommend the writers’ edition of our book, with 100 additional pages including the original story briefs we worked from, authors’ notes for each story, and two additional stories.

The editor and writers involved in the Reading 5 x 5 experiment agreed at the outset that proceeds from the book will benefit the Jo Clayton Memorial Medical Fund. Administered by Oregon Science Fiction Conventions, Inc., the fund assists professional science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mystery writers living Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska who need help with medical expenses.

 

 

More Alternative Truths: Stories from the Resistance

In “The Right Man for the Job,” desperate Democrats hold a séance to bring Molly Ivins, Adlai Stevenson II, and Walter Cronkite back from the afterlife to “do something” about Trump.

51i1Zf7iAWL-1What I like best about writing fiction is getting to solve my characters’ problems. And what I like best about writing speculative fiction is getting to use a bit of magic to do so.

Last spring I asked a friend active in Democratic politics what on Earth the party was going to do about Trump. When the answer came back, “We have no idea!” — I knew it was time for a fantastic solution.

The result is my short story “The Right Man for the Job,” published today in the anthology More Alternative Truths (B Cubed Press). In it, desperate Democrats hold a séance to bring Molly Ivins, Adlai Stevenson II, and Walter Cronkite back from the afterlife to “do something” about Trump. The pundit, politician, and newsman refuse to answer the summons, but Cronkite comes up with a better idea: They recruit former president Lyndon Baines Johnson, who is infuriated when he hears what Trump is doing to education, healthcare, and the rest of the Great Society’s programs. Armed with his favorite Scotch, his beagles, and some damning evidence obtained from the late J. Edgar Hoover, LBJ comes back as a ghost to terrify the White House, the Executive Office Building and Capitol Hill.

More Alternative Truths, available as an ebook and in paperback, is the brainchild of Bob Brown of B Cubed Press. His company’s debut anthology, Alternative Truths, has 89 reviews and a 5-star rating on Amazon.com. (A third anthology, After the Orange, is now open for submissions.)

For More Alternative Truths, Brown pulled together an editorial team that includes Lou J Berger, Phyllis Irene Radford, and Rebecca McFarland Kyle. The 45 writers involved include major names in contemporary science fiction: Lou Antonelli, David Brin, Adam-Troy Castro, Esther Friesner, Philip Brian Hall, Vonda N. McIntyre, John A. Pitts, Irene Radford, Mike Resnick, Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, Jane Yolen, and Jim Wright. (Wright’s essay for the first anthology, “President Trump, Gettysburg, November 19, 1863,” spawned its own theater piece (complete with Trump in a stovepipe hat and Melania at his side in bonnet, shawl and sunglasses), now available as a YouTube video. In More Alternative Truths, Wright casts Trump as Moses presenting the Ten Commandments.)

The stories themselves range from chilling and grim to amusing and delightful. Stephanie Weippert pens a sad letter home from a women’s rights activist serving a life sentence in federal prison. Wonder Vanian gives us the story of a young gay man, wearing the mandatory rainbow on his shirt, on a train on his way to the Atlanta Re-Orientation Camp. In the disturbing “Queens Crossing,” Lou Antonelli poses an alternate reality so plausible that I emerged from it temporarily disoriented. In Manny Frishberg and Edd Vick’s “Tweetstorm,” the president tweets his way into outer space.

In short, this book is the perfect read for anyone who is concerned about the current political situation. Whether you stood up for Hillary, backed Bernie, went the Libertarian route, or just threw your hands in the air and screamed, these stories, poems, and essays will amuse, educate, astonish, and ultimately inspire as we head toward mid-term elections and on to 2020.

 

 

Alternative Truths: An unexpected-success story

Alt truths cover
The cover of the Alternative Truths anthology

Just over 100 days ago, on Jan. 23, science fiction author Bob Brown issued a writing challenge: Imagine the future during or after the Trump presidency. Write a story. Submit it to an anthology to be called Alternative Truths.

“This is an anthology about the future in an alternative fact world,” Bob wrote. “What does the future hold? Endless alternative facts? Brilliant leadership? Alien invasions? Zombies in the White House?”

Bob set about co-editing the anthology with Phyllis Irene Radford, vowing to publish the book within the first 100 days of the Trump administration.

As submissions came in, Bob formed the private Facebook group Alternative Truth (now public) so the participants could discuss the project. In a field where submissions generally vanish behind a curtain from which editors issue cryptic rejections, the decision to open-source the anthology project seemed both odd and courageous. Did these people know what they were getting into?

I submitted a dystopian story, “Patti 209,” and joined the Facebook group.

Day by day, Phyl and Bob answered questions about manuscript guidelines, deadlines, and their progress as they waded through what turned out to be 94 submissions. To my surprise, they asked those of us in the Facebook group for our opinions about contract terms, the book’s title, subtitles, tagline, blurbs, cover designs, marketing and more. And the group approved, by Facebook comments and email, Bob’s plan to donate a share of any profits to the ACLU of Washington state.

Screen Shot 2017-05-02 at 12.05.13 PM
Editor Bob Brown with the first copies of Alternative Truths

I worried that the group would turn into a breeding ground for arguments and hurt feelings, and even damage the final product. But that never happened. Bob and Phyl stood their ground, made tough decisions, and nailed the ambitious deadline.

The result was not merely a great experience for the writers involved, but a book that launched as the #1 ranked science fiction anthology on Amazon.

How did that happen? To some degree, we’re still trying to figure it out!

What I can tell you is this:

Bob was concerned and curious about living in a world defined by “alternative facts” and governed by people who wield them. He wanted to encourage people to think about the implications of the new Trump government.

To this end, he invited leaders in the fields of science fiction and political commentary to write for the anthology, as well as throwing the project open for general submissions. He received and bought stories from Jim Wright (known for the political blog Stonekettle Station), Endeavor Award-winner Louise Marley, journalist and cultural critic Daniel M. Kimmel, Philip K. Dick Award-winner Adam Troy-Castro, and science fiction critic Marleen S. Barre. Submissions came in from writers in England, Canada, and Wales, as well as from across the U.S.

With guidance from friends in the ebook-publishing collective Bookview Cafe (where Phyl is a member), Bob and Phyl got both an ebook and a print book designed and formatted. Again, members of the Facebook group were invited to help proofread  files. By April 26 files were uploaded to Amazon.com and other platforms. A marketing/PR plan, and a PR person, were in place. But when Alternative Truths, both ebook and print editions, debuted at the top of science fiction and political fiction category rankings on Amazon on April 28, we were all pretty astonished.

We shouldn’t have been. I’d read the book (while helping to proof the formatting) and was delighted by the high quality of the stories Bob and Phyl had chosen and edited. The stories ranged from short to long, journalistic to literary, and hysterically funny to depressingly grim. I think the standouts are Jim Wright’s terrifying “President Trump, Gettysburg, November 19, 1863” and Louise Marley’s heartbreaking “Relics: a fable.”

I’ve just started out as a fiction writer, and, as is the case with many semi-pro authors, my stories appear in anthologies rather than major magazines. I made it into the Aurora Award-winning Second Contacts and The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper Stories. Both of those were traditional publishing experiences, with the editors and publishers responsible for just about everything. Alternative Truths was a whole new approach — one that shouldn’t have worked but which, astonishingly and wonderfully, did.

Stay tuned. Bob’s started planning for volume 2.

 

Holiday letter-writing tips (2016 remix)

Holiday letters occupy a position just below fruitcake on the top ten list of Things to Dampen the Holiday Spirit. This need not be so.

reindeer-redDo you dare tackle that most controversial of writing assignments, the holiday letter?

It’s a tricky task. The audience should be people distant enough that they don’t already know your news, but close enough that they won’t squint at the return address and ask “Who on earth are ‘Joe and Meredith Saberfogle’?”

I like getting holiday letters from old friends, and I like the challenge of writing them. Here are my (updated for 2016) tips for holiday letter writing.

OK, so holiday letters occupy a position just below fruitcake on the top ten list of Things to Dampen the Holiday Spirit.

This need not be so.

While fruitcakes are pretty much victims of their own cloying recipe of heavy and sweet ingredients, you have complete control over what goes in your holiday letter. Really, you do.

Each year we receive a few dozen holiday letters. Some have me yawning with boredom or rolling my eyes with incredulity by the second sentence. Others have moved me to tears, or had me eagerly reading them out loud to other family members.

Here are a few tips for creating letters that fall into the second group:

1. Write for your recipients, not for your family. If two of your kids made the dean’s list and one was in juvenile court three times last year, don’t feel you need to go into detail about any of it, or invent something for the black sheep to balance out the other kids’ accolades. “Janie is a junior at Oregon State, Pete is in his freshman year at Reed, and Susie is in her last year of high school. We look forward to having the whole family together for the holidays in on the Oregon Coast,” is just fine to keep old neighbors and college friends up-to-date. Many of them can’t remember the kids’ names, anyway.

2. Go short, stay focused. While you will probably start by drawing up a list of the key things that happened to your family during the year, select just two or three to highlight in the letter. Professional and scholastic achievements can be boring and off-putting. Travel and hobbies are almost always a better choice, as they give people not only news about what you’ve been doing but an insight into another region or field of interest. Something really outrageous is ideal — but only if the family member it happened to is OK with it appearing in the letter. “For some reason, Arabella insists on dyeing her hair in atrocious colors,” will amuse the reader, but not Arabella. (Thought it might inspire Arabella to start writing her own holiday letters — mentioning you…)

3. Make it clear who’s writing the letter — that being you. It’s difficult and a bit weird to refer to yourself in the third person, as if a reporter were profiling your family. And it’s even weirder to use “we” and then try to talk about things you did as individuals. Don’t go there. It really is OK for the writer to begin the letter “Elizabeth and I opened a new bookstore in July…” and at the end sign it “Frank and Elizabeth.” People will get it. (When I include stories from other family members describing their activities in first person, I set their words off from the body of the letter as indented paragraphs, in italics. For example:

[…] after our trip to Boston. Tom writes:

I broke away from the tour group and visited the original birthplace of Cthulu. Few people know it, but the Old One co-wrote with Lovecraft […]

4. Talk briefly about why you’re writing the letter. “It’s wonderful to take a few minutes to reflect about the year and share some highlights with friends,” is the type of opening you’re looking for. Don’t apologize. If you feel compelled to open with something like “We hate to bore you all with another long, stilted holiday missive,” you shouldn’t be writing one. Go make some eggnog.

5. Drop names. Not names of famous people, but names of mutual friends and acquaintances. This is even a good time to gossip, as long as you keep it positive. “We ran into Mark and Sandy Connors, our old neighbors from Denver, and discovered Mark left his job at Microsoft and is playing with a heavy metal group. Check out his new album…” This makes your letter a valuable source of genuine news, not just a brag sheet.

5. Keep your mailing list short. Send holiday letters to people you see once or twice a year (or less often) and with whom you genuinely like to keep in touch. Don’t send personal holidays letters to people who are (or were) purely business associates. As far as the people you see on a regular basis at the office or on Facebook? Spare them. They know this stuff anyway.

6. What about the people only one of you knows?  Our increasingly mobile society, our significant-otherships, our late marriages, and our re-marriages mean that quite a few people on your holiday list know one member of a family extremely well and the other members hardly at all. Think twice, maybe three times, before sending a letter to them. A personal note on a card might be better.

I’ll be the first to admit that while some of my holiday letters have been great, other years they have been merely pro forma. I can always use tips and inspiration. Please feel free to add your suggestions in the Comments!

The Headless Donor of Sleepy Hollow

Jack was the third executive director the Sleepy Hollow Nonprofit had hired in as many years. No one was sure what fate befell them each year on All Hallow’s Eve. Louise liked to think that they’d simply left town and changed careers.

A Halloween short story dedicated to my friends and clients who serve on the boards of nonprofit organizations (or work for them).

Halloween dark scenery with naked trees, full moon and clouds“I’ve never much liked Halloween,” confessed Louise Van-Tassel, board chair of the Sleepy Hollow Nonprofit. “It’s not like Christmas and New Year’s, when people are filled with the spirit of giving or excited about making a new start. It’s more about stumbling around in the dark and having things frighten you.”

“And eating candy,” said Jack Crane, Sleepy Hollow’s new executive director. He pushed a bowl of candy corn across his cluttered desk to Louise. “Have some. It’ll help when you read our latest profit-and-loss statement.”

Louise sighed and picked a kernel of candy corn from the bowl, rationalizing that she had, after all, skipped the dressing on her salad at dinner. Now she wished she hadn’t. She needed some energy. Despite her best efforts, Sleepy Hollow’s board meetings tended to drag on into the night. She’d be lucky to be lugging her L.L. Bean tote bag full of files out to the dark parking lot by midnight.

“Which reminds me,” she said to Jack, who looked up from his laptop, “is there any way we could afford to install some more lighting in the parking lot?”

“Not if we’re going to stick with this new budget!”

“But over there by that big oak tree? It’s so dark and…creepy,” Louise protested. “Isn’t it a liability issue?”

“We’re insured.” Jack gave a dry laugh. “Are you another one of those board members who’s afraid you’ll run into the old Headless Donor in the parking lot? Board members have been trying to scare me with stories about him ever since I came to Sleepy Hollow. Louise, this organization will never get anywhere if it makes decisions based on the whims of some Headless Donor instead of on the actual needs of the people we’re chartered to serve.”

Louise shifted nervously in her chair and cleared her throat.

“Some of us have seen him, Jack.” She leaned over the desk and whispered. “He’s awfully big. And he carries that enormous…checkbook.”

Jack regarded her sternly over his dorky glasses. “Louise, you aren’t going to tell me about that old legend about the fundraising event he threw during Woodrow Wilson’s administration? When a board member he disagreed with was found on the front lawn, bludgeoned to death with copy of the proposed bylaws revisions the Headless Donor had opposed? For heavens sake, if this guy threw a party in 1914, he’d be…well, he’d be a ghost by now!”

Louise nodded unhappily and muttered, “Exactly.”

She could hear the voices of the board members out in the hall. People were arriving for the evening meeting. Jack had closed his laptop and picked up his papers. Louise followed him out of his office and into the boardroom, forcing a smile onto her face. She had a bad feeling about this Halloween meeting.

In fact, things got off to a bad start. Toni Brunt and another board member interrupted the agenda to enthuse about ideas for expanding Sleepy Hollow’s existing programs and starting new ones — including a program Toni dreamed up while she was talking.

“These are great ideas,” she said. “The board needs to act on them immediately!”

Jack’s plans for program cuts, staff cuts, and general fiscal austerity (which Toni and the other board member didn’t know about because they hadn’t read their pre-meeting materials) infuriated them. They were even angrier when they discovered that the majority of the board members, including the whole Finance Committee, enthusiastically supported Jack’s plans.

As the meeting progressed, the philosophical chasm between the two groups grew wider and deeper.  Louise wished she could just throw herself into it. The room heated up, and someone opened a window, letting in cold air along with the shrieks and screams of children making their Halloween rounds. Fueled by bowls of candy corn and the sugary supermarket cupcakes Toni had brought, the discussion raged into the night.

The board meeting ended just before midnight. Jack and the members of board majority shook hands and congratulated each other. Toni and the other dissatisfied board member gathered their papers and swept out.

As usual, Louise and Jack were the last to leave the building. To their surprise, Toni Brunt leaped out at them from behind a shrub. She struck a pose, her gray hair wild in the moonlight and her heavy black cloak flapping in the wind.

“You’ll be sorry,” Toni threatened. “Wait until the Headless Donor hears about this! I’ll tell him you’re ruining Sleepy Hollow!”

With a cackle, she swooped off into the night.

Jack just shook his head, and escorted Louise to her car at the far end of the parking lot. He assured her that the board minority would soon see reason about the finances.

“It’s simply a matter of standing our ground,” he told her. “Really, I can’t imagine why all of your previous executive directors couldn’t get a grip on this.”

As Louise drove off, she looked back and saw Jack, standing beneath the oak tree, waving. She also saw behind him a large, dark, headless figure, silhouetted by the moonlight. It was lumbering down the hill toward the parking lot.

“Oh, no, not again!” she wailed. Jack was the third executive director Sleepy Hollow had hired in as many years. No one was sure what fate befell them each year on All Hallow’s Eve. Louise liked to think that they’d simply left town and changed careers.

But she made a mental note of something to add to the next Executive Director’s job description:

“Must believe in ghosts.”

Take it from whence it comes

I invite you to take a look at the blogs you follow, or at your Facebook timeline, and note who’s contributing genuine, new, first-hand information to the world and who’s just trying to get people to join an angry mob.

iStock_000002081921MediumI’ve been mulling over writing a post that analyzes the rhetorical devices used by online trolls to transform civilized discussions into conflagrations but have decided it makes more sense to talk about a tool that will keep everyone’s blood pressure under control. And that’s evaluating information based on the source from whence it comes.

I noticed a few weeks ago, after reading an extremely well-researched indictment of some bad behavior in a professional community to which I belong, that the discussions of first-hand information tend to stay relatively civilized.

When people report on what they’ve witnessed, first hand, or what they’ve discovered through systematic research, the comments tend to be similarly first hand. Even if the comment is “I completely disagree with you” or “Well, that wasn’t what happened when I lit a cigarette and leaned over a sparking engine.” Whether the tone is supportive or dismissive, it still comes across as genuine and informative.

It’s when people post long rants on blogs, on Facebook, or in community discussions about what they think about someone they’ve never met who did something at an event they didn’t attend to someone who is a friend of a friend — that’s when the comments tend to heat up. And I think that’s in large part because when we read that sort of post or comment we are seized by a subliminal sense that this person has no idea what they are talking about. It’s like sensing wide open spaces where pictures, sounds, and reality ought to be. And then, of course, there’s your own urge, which I’m sure is a deep-rooted instinct, to leap in and fill that wide open space with your own comments. Which may, sadly, be just as vaporous as the original post.

I’ve decided to start a one-person campaign to comment, positively and supportively, on posts that are based on first-hand experience. I plan to do this even in instances where I don’t think that the generalizations the person is making based on their one or two data points are justified. My rationale for giving support? They’re bringing themselves to the discussion, and that’s a good thing.

And, for my own sanity, I’m going to ignore posts that say “I heard that he said that she said that the-person-she’s-not-going-to-name did blah, blah, rant, rant, and rantforth.” In fact, if I see a series of these from one person, I’m going to quietly mute that person. That’s because, whatever their intentions, they aren’t adding much to the conversation. They’re just amplifying it and adding some unpleasant noise while they’re about it.

Note that the two exceptions my the plan are people (such as journalists) who have done actual reporting on the situation (“I called the business owner, and she told me X, Y, Z”) and people who did research on it (“I counted the number of reports of a particular occurrence during the past three years, and here are the numbers I came up with.”) They may have interviewed the wrong person, to your view, or they may have counted the wrong things, but they are adding actual information to the discussion. Information that any commenter can cite in their reply. “You should have calculated the mean rather than the median” is so much more helpful than “You and your cowardly cabal are obviously the scum of the earth.”

I invite you to take a look at the blogs you follow, or at your Facebook timeline, and note who’s contributing genuine, new, first-hand information to the world and who’s just trying to get people to join an angry mob.

Stories. They’re what people remember

Stories are powerful. Stories are what people remember. So why don’t more organizations harness the power of their stories?

Father and daughter story
There’s a story here.

How quickly the news — of Robin Williams’ death, of the police brutality in Ferguson — turns into stories.

Give us a one-sentence headline, and almost immediately we find ourselves appending a story. A story about the state police official who stepped in to march with the protestors. A story about Williams stopping by a young comedian’s dressing room to give an astonishing private performance.

As Jonathan Gottschall explains, stories are powerful. Stories are what people remember.

Yet let marketing and development professionals sit down to their desks in a corporate setting, and what happens when they start to write? Well, they churn out dull grey platitudes and pompous marketing cliches. They purr over features, benefits, and selling points.

They write:

“HealthFix’s new consulting nurse service has won the best ratings in the region! Just one call puts you in touch with a degreed medical professional who can help you get the after-hours care you need. That’s peace of mind.” [add stock photo of beaming nurse with headset]

instead of:

“Jim Wilson’s story: ‘My wife was late getting home from work, I was trying to remember if we had guests coming, and then there was a scream from the kids playing soccer in the back yard. Had my daughter broken her ankle or was it just a sprain? I called the HealthFix consulting nurse service and within two minutes we knew just what to do.'” [add actual photo of Jim and his daughter]

What’s stopping you from reaching out to the people your organization serves and asking to use their stories?

Get in touch if you’d like to find out more about what it takes to put stories — your own stories — to work for your organization.

Meanwhile, back at my desk

Why I’m thrilled that I attended the Viable Paradise speculative fiction writing program on Martha’s Vineyard last week.

Viable Paradise Oak Bluffs

A heartfelt thanks to my clients who were patient while I attended the Viable Paradise speculative fiction writing workshop on Martha’s Vineyard last week.

Many of you know that I was for many years a book reviewer for January and other publications; and most of you know that I’m on the board of the Clarion West Writers Workshop (a six-week summer program in Seattle). But not many people know that I also write fiction.

I studied fiction writing in college (Daily Themes — 300 words, submitted every weekday for an entire semester). I came away from that experience with the conviction that writing every day would make it possible for me to write something substantive — if and when I had something substantive to say. I certainly didn’t in college. But I learned to watch, analyze, and describe the people around me. This led to Columbia J-School and a career in journalism (which is another story).

Back to fiction.

In the early 1990s, I wrote a mystery novella set in a depressed industrial town in New England. Starting a long work is easy; finishing one, difficult but highly satisfying. By finishing, I discovered the shape of a book. However, I realized that it was the wrong book to submit for publication. For one thing, it was the wrong length. Not many mystery publishers want novellas. For another, I didn’t want to get “stuck” in that particular sub-genre. If your first book is about amateur sleuths in New Hampshire, you’re labeled a “cozy mystery writer,” even if your second book is about spaceships, aliens, and an evil computer named Zorg-X13.

I did not want to be a writer of New England small-town mysteries.

Life, as they say, intervened, and about 10 years ago I found myself experimenting with near-future science fiction. Then I dabbled in classic fantasy (magic! elves!), steampunk-flavored alternative history, and urban fantasy. Four years ago, while attending a panel at the Fourth Street convention in Minneapolis, I suddenly “saw” a story. I wrote it, workshopped it, and submitted it to magazines. I got some encouraging rejections from editors, including several suggestions that I develop the story into a novel. So I sketched several stories in that same world and submitted the core story as my application to Viable Paradise.

Of course, what happened at Viable Paradise was not as expected. It was far, far better. I had the good fortune to be with a group of writers that gelled rapidly. In short, I now know 23 people I trust to be superb beta readers and insightful reviewers.

I’m a kinetic learner, and it was only by going through a six-day round-the-clock process of lectures, writing, rewriting, getting critiqued, critiquing my classmates, and hearing both pros and classmates critique the work of others that better ways of doing things sunk in. How much better? I wrote a complete story on the plane on the way back to Seattle. And it’s the best story I’ve ever written.

If you write fiction, and want to move up to the next level, I whole-heartedly recommend a residential workshop.

Apply to Clarion West (Seattle) or Clarion (San Diego) if you can carve six weeks out of a summer.

Apply to Viable Paradise if you can take a week in the fall. I can’t say enough about the nine Viable Paradise instructors (a group of authors and editors that has worked together for years). The staff is a large team of Viable Paradise graduates. They can provide you with anything from an analysis of core works in contemporary speculative fiction to a large sandwich when you’ve forgotten to eat and are verging on the incoherent. (Best of all, you don’t have to ask for the sandwich. They will take one look at you, recognize all the symptoms, and hand you the food.)

Sure, at the end of all this, I had to return  home to the leaking window that needs to be caulked, the suspicious behavior of the aging refrigerator, the sink that mysteriously fills up with dishes when I’m not looking, and the lawn that needs to be mowed if and when it ever stops raining. And a few hundred emails.

But now I know what I’m capable of writing, and that’s the best motivation to institute some serious time management that willenable me to write, if not every day, at least three times a week. And I have a network of writing colleagues who share a similar experience and determination.

Speaking of time management: Writing for clients resumes a regular schedule today — barring intervention from spaceships, aliens, and Zorg-X13.

Who was that masked writer?

writer wrestling mask

Public Radio International (PRI) today had a segment on young writers in Peru who are fighting it out on stage while wearing wrestling masks. Annie Murphy reports:

“New writers don masks, and head onto a stage where they’re given three random words, a laptop hooked up to a gigantic screen, and five minutes to write a short story. At the end of a match, the losing writer has to take off his or her mask. The winner goes on to the next round, a week later. And the grand prize? It’s a book contract.”

I think this is a great idea. Not, necessarily, for the young writers. But for the general (perhaps non-reading) public. I’ve been writing fiction and non-fiction since I was a young child — some of it promising, some of it competitive, and some of it awful. I know from the comments I get from close friends that few of them have the slightest idea of what a writer does to produce publishable writing. As an editor, so much of what I get for editing from non-writers is either incoherent or blithely plagiarized that I know they have no idea how to write for publication. Bringing the writing process onstage and into the spotlight is brilliant. Can you imagine a high school where the writing event draws as big a crowd as the basketball game? That’s a fantasy short story idea in and of itself. Quick! You’ve got five minutes.

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