Tag Archives: writing

Welcome to Renaissance–Everyone has a secret

October 5, 2011 12:02 am by MRM in Campaign, Writing

We take a break from our regularly scheduled #writecampaign entries to look at a brand new contest. Because I must do ALL OF THEM. The new writing challenge I’ve embarked upon is hosted by Damyanti, J.C. Martin, Lisa Vooght, and Stuart Nager (some of whom have commented in this blog earlier). It’s name is the Rule of Three Blogfest. My new fun with fiction adventure takes place in the shared story town of Renaissance. Perhaps an introduction is in order. It even has a cool logo, just like the other campaign.

For this contest, I’ll be posting a new entry every Wednesday in October (though I’m getting a head start on this one) related to certain prompts. The biggest difference between the #REN3 contest and the #writecampaign is that all of the #REN3 entries are related. You’ll be hearing more about the characters below for the entirety of the contest, and every entry from all contestants will be taking place in the same city (though not necessarily in the same time or with the same “rules”). I’m stoked. I’ve been on a fantasy kick lately, so here goes.

We had a choice of prompts this week, so I picked “someone might fall in love.” Of course, I could never take the easy way out and just write a love story. That’s too easy to be interesting. Good stories always hurt.

The word count limit was 600, and because I can’t help myself – I pushed it right to the limit. Incidentally, I’m not counting the title in that. Hope that’s okay. Without further ado, welcome to my little corner or Renaissance


Last Call

Dant checked the clock behind the bar. Last call. It was about damn time.

“Make it quick, gents. One more round and the law says you’re drunk enough,” he said.

The ratty assembly of miners grumbled and swore. A man with a soot-covered face told Dant in no uncertain terms where he could stick the clock, along with his empty mug and half his boot. Dant laughed. It was one of the more creative threats he’d heard this week. Everyone got one last pint of ale. People loved his Renaissance Brown – he couldn’t brew it fast enough. Travellers came all the way to the North End to get a sip.

“Remi,” he called. Might as well get started cleaning up the back bar early. Everyone was out front tonight. If he was lucky, he could get to sleep before the sun started poking its head where it didn’t belong. He looked up. Where in the seven hells was Remi?

“Remi,” he called again. Still no answer. Dant took a wary look at his patrons. None looked like much trouble tonight. The worst one might try would be to steal a refill, so Dant took off the tap handles.

“Don’t get any ideas, gents,” he said and ducked under the bar. He slid by two men who looked like corpses that learned to drink. He usually put Remi on the back bar. Only half his patrons even knew about it, and it was best to keep Remi in lower-profile positions.

Dant hurried down the hall and into the empty back bar. He stepped in something wet. Remi was passed out at a table by the door. Vomit spilled out from under his head and onto the floor.

“Gods damn it Remi!”

Remi jerked upright, his blue eyes wide. The left side of his stubble was coated, as was his hair.

“What? What?” He looked back and forth until he saw Dant. His eyes came into focus and he looked down. “Oh, man. I’m sorry. I’ll get this.” Remi tried to push himself up. His hand slipped on the side of the table he had generously lubricated and he fell back onto the bench.

“I’ll get the mop,” Dant said. So much for getting to bed early tonight.

Remi pushed himself back into a sitting position. “She’s gettin’ married, man.”

So that’s what this was about. Jana. “I know.”

“You knew about it?”

“She told me,” Dant said.

“How could you not—”

“I was going to tell you tomorrow because you had the day off. Had. I was hoping to avoid something like this.”

Remi deflated at Dant’s barb. “I’m sorry man.”

Dant grabbed a bar towel and threw it to Remi. “Just dry yourself off. You got it in your hair. Get a pint of water and I’ll get the mop as soon as I clear out the customers.”

“You really think she’s gonna marry that guy?”

Dant looked at his friend. He’d been feeding him the same half-truth for years. He hated getting Remi’s hopes up when he couldn’t tell him the whole answer.

“No, I don’t,” Dant said.

Remi’s eyebrows relaxed. “Really?”

“Really.”

Dant headed back to the front bar. Only three miners remained, nursing their dwindling lagers for all they were worth. No trouble tonight. Well, none but Remi. For once, though, Dant didn’t blame him. He understood the pain all too well. But Dant knew something Remi didn’t. The oracle had been quite clear: Dant was destined to be the most important man in Jana’s life. He just didn’t know how to break it to Remi.



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An Unnecessary Review of The Hunger Games

October 2, 2011 4:50 pm by MRM in Review, Writing

I don’t usually read YA. I want to get that out of the way early, because that’s probably the only reason it’s worth reading this review. The Hunger Games is one of the most popular books in the world at the moment, and if you haven’t heard of it, that’s only because the movie hasn’t come out yet. Yes, it’s one of those books—the ones that get so popular they become pop culture phenomena, like Harry Potter or the Twilight series. If you haven’t read it, you’re probably one of those people like me who avoids pop culture phenomena and can’t stand to be seen walking out of the bookstore with a paperback that has a movie star’s face on its cover. Or maybe, like me, you tend to think of YA as cutesy stories about kids that are probably really interesting to kids, but you don’t like being hit over the head with childish things any more than you like watching Nickelodeon.

To be clear, YA doesn’t have to be like this. I respect YA authors and a ton of my writing community friends write exclusively for YA. The reason I’m going on about this (and I’ll continue for a bit, if you’ll forgive me) is that The Hunger Games is the absolute best kind of YA: the kind where you wouldn’t know it was targeted at younger audiences unless you were told. There just happens not to be any sex or dropping of f-bombs, and it doesn’t feel contrived in any way. The protagonist just happens to be sixteen years old.

If you’re a YA author who dreams of having movie-making appeal, to write stories that take over the imagination of the world, read this book (as if you haven’t already) and take note. This is how you do it. This is how you amaze someone like me, who has no kids, comfortably watched the movie The Aristocrats, and wants to lead the horde down the FCC with torches and pitchforks every time I listen to the radio and hear an artist’s work censored. This is how you get to someone like me, who when he sees a version of a movie where all the sex and swearing removed thinks only “You took out all the best parts!”

To be fair, The Hunger Games isn’t on the young end of YA (I hope). The themes are quite mature without being adult, and the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, isn’t really all that young in a society where people die young all the time.

Still, it’s worth noting as a great member of a popular genre. This isn’t just fantastic YA, this is fantastic fiction. The Hunger Games is a great story. I wouldn’t know it was YA if I hadn’t been told. There exists good YA that fails this test, that makes you know it’s aimed at children—Harry Potter is a great example of this—but the chances of ensnaring those of us who tend to avoid the genre is far smaller.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the most glaring irritation of an otherwise fantastic book. The damned present tense. Why writers do this is beyond me. The few scenes where Katniss is narrating about the past come off far more naturally and don’t make me trip over myself. I’ve never been a fan of present tense writing; the only author I read who did it and still got me through the book is Neal Stephenson with Snow Crash—and to be fair, that’s Snow Crash and I’m a nerd so you’d have to ring the pages with Hello Kitties to keep me away. The best argument against writing present tense I’ve ever heard is also the simplest, and I heard it from Orson Scott Card (so now you have to believe it). Present tense is simply not how we tell stories. Imagine a child sitting in front of you that wants to hear the story of the three little pigs. Most of you will say that the first little pig built his house out of straw. But that could be backstory, and justifiably in the past tense even if the story is told in present tense. But be honest, how many of you included this line?

“Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin,” said the pig.

Said the pig. Not says. What happened when the wolf came to the house made of bricks? Wouldn’t it sound odd to hear me ask what happens when the wolf comes to the brick house?

There is one class of stories commonly told in the present tense. Many of them start a little something like this.

A priest, a rabbi, and a leprechaun walk into a bar…

Jokes. We tell jokes in the present tense. We also summarize in the present tense. I’d say that Katniss Everdeen takes her little sister’s place in the reaping, even though it rankles me to no end that Suzanne Collins said it the same way in the book.

I’ve ranted on long enough. Use of the present tense doesn’t kill The Hunger Games, but it could have killed a slightly less interesting story. And I suppose that’s the second (somewhat backhanded) compliment I can give The Hunger Games: it’s too good to be dragged down by reading the present tense. It’s also too good a story for someone who doesn’t read YA to pass on it just because it sits on the shelf in that genre.

That’s the biggest thing about The Hunger Games—you can’t pass on it because it’s that good. The world is beautifully put together, even though author Suzanne Collins spends very little time laying out the rules of how things work. It’s set in a dystopian future where the United States has ceased to exist and dissolved into a collection of fourteen smaller fiefdoms. Thirteen of them rebelled against the Capitol and had their asses resoundingly handed to them, culminating in the nuclear annihilation of District Thirteen. As punishment, the remaining twelve districts have to give two tributes a year to participate in the Hunger Games, a sort of battle royale where only one child lives, broadcast live on TV. Viewing is mandatory in the districts. Each district must give one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen, randomly selected (though volunteers are allowed), and all children must be eligible. The districts are all far poorer than the Capital, and District Twelve, where the protagonist lives, is the poorest of them all. You can feel the desperation, the hunger, and the resignation in all of the characters.

When I described the plot to my wife, she immediately asked why the districts didn’t rebel again. If you read The Hunger Games, that answer is clear. It’s the same reason why North Koreans don’t rebel, why warlords can run regions of Africa without fear of an uprising of the people they oppress. If the oppressed people are desperate enough and fighting just to survive, “the Resistance” with a capital ‘R’ simply doesn’t organize. The people are fighting too hard just to put food on their plates. Political dissidence is beyond their concern.

Collins captures that tension perfectly. She also does something that all good writers have to do. The protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, is by far the most interesting character in the book. You can’t help but love and respect her. You need her to win. The supporting cast is no less lovingly stitched together and interesting. Perhaps the most “YA” aspect of the book is Katniss’s confusion and utter incompetence at romance, though I can forgive her for wondering whether or not she has feelings for a boy she may or may not have to kill.

It’s a brutal and incredibly interesting world that Katniss lives in, and I found myself imagining being there, as I do with all stories that I get caught up in. And that’s when I knew that The Hunger Games was a fantastic story. In my opinion, it’s a better story than Harry Potter, though I doubt if it’ll become quite as much of a cultural phenomenon. It’ll have its day in the sun, and deservedly so.

I haven’t yet read the second and third books, though I certainly will. Of course the book ends with the conclusion of the Hunger Games, so I’m worried that in later books she won’t be able to match the intensity of having twenty four adolescents fight to the death—it’s kind of a tall order. I have enough faith in Suzanne Collins, though, that I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. I’ll even forgive the present tense.

If you’re a YA fan, you probably only read this to see whether or not you agree with me. If, by some odd coincidence, you haven’t yet read it… well… what are you doing? This is the best work of YA in the last decade. GO READ IT. If you’re like me and you tend to shy away from things intended for youths, do yourself a favor and pick up The Hunger Games. You won’t be sorry. If you hurry, you can get one that doesn’t have a movie star’s face on the cover.


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Argumentum – Previously, on Boston Legal…

Besides giving a shout out to one of my all-time favorite TV shows, I actually have a point, talking about this now. In particular, I need to talk about it before September 24th. That’s because it is (in theory) the first thing someone might read of TWDY.

I went on and on months ago about the nuances of writing a work of serial fiction rather than a book. The truth is, I’m making this up as I go along. That will continue to be the case until serial fiction writing is a class taught in the 10th grade. That being said, I constantly remind myself as I’m getting each issue ready that I’m comparing TWDY to a TV show. In every episode of Boston Legal, they didn’t take ten minutes at the beginning to re-introduce Alan Shore and Denny Crane. You just knew them – or you didn’t. A new viewer would have to get to know them fresh. They also didn’t re-hash the entire plot of the show going back to the first episode. They would have a quick scene at the beginning with a voiceover, “Previously, on Boston Legal…” and they would show you the crucial details relevant to the episode you were watching. In short, they were giving you the Argumentum.

Quoting the free dictionary: "Argument – a summary or short statement of the plot or subject of a literary work.” I’ve been told by the nice people over at the Latin forums that Argumentum is the right way to describe this same concept in Latin, and as the language of the people of Ratio is basically Latin (note: I’m hardly the first person to make up a pseudo-magical language by “just using Latin”), I thought it was appropriate to title my “previously, on Those Who Die Young…” section Argumentum. It also goes well with “Dramatis Personnae,” which is more familiar as many plays and novels have adopted that Latin title as the section containing just a list of the characters (literally translated, it means “the people of the drama”).

I honestly have no idea whether or not this will work, because I’ve never really read something like this before. I am determined, however, to do everything in my power to make Bearers of Bad News theoretically independent of Shelter From the Storm. You could enjoy Bearers even if you haven’t read Shelter, but reading Shelter absolutely makes Bearers better. I’m aiming for that same balance found in TV shows. You don’t have to see the episode where Alan and Denny, both older, single, successful lawyers, start having sleepovers like children because they’re fun just to enjoy their back-and-forth, but it makes every joke that much funnier if you have. It also makes the episode where Denny saves Alan’s life that much more powerful if you have also seen the one where they are sleeping in a cabin in the woods in British Columbia, and Denny mumbles “Denny Crane” right before he farts loudly. Some things you just have to be there for.

If I really do it right, someone who picks up Bearers of Bad News will feel compelled to go back and get Shelter From the Storm so he can see how it all went down.


Denny Crane.


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An Interview with Sarah Ketley from the #writecampaign

September 13, 2011 1:42 pm by MRM in Interviews, Writing

This is probably the eighth time I’ve mentioned Rachael Harrie’s Writer’s Platform-Building Campaign in the last four posts, but I’m doing what I can to expand my community of writers and show some #authorlove of my own. What is #authorlove? I’m glad you asked, because for this post I got a chance to ask some questions of Sarah Ketley, the originator of the delightfully hashtaggable idea and fellow indie author (sounds so much better than “emerging artist”) from Brisbane, Australia.



Michael:

Sarah, though I want to talk more about you and your writing, I have to start with what really stands out in all of your posts and why I hear so much from you online – I saw your posts on #authorlove and your contest [disclosure - I have entered her contest]. I think that’s a great way to further connections and really fits in with the model of the #writecampaign. What inspired you to start this, and how quickly did you see it start to pick up?

Sarah:

I started #authorlove and the idea of helping other authors after I realized that some people do not show this attitude. I really believe that if we want the writing industry to continue to grow, we actually need good competition. We need authors to continue to strive and produce top quality work. The best way to do this is to help foster and support authors.

I started #authorlove so I could show my appreciation to new (and some established) authors and help them move along the path to publication and producing great quality work. I believe in Karma, so hopefully one day people will help me. I don’t mean buying substandard work either, I mean by helping me produce great quality work through offering support, advice and encouragement.

I only started #authorlove a couple of months ago. So it really has only just started to pick up, so to speak. However I notice a few people using the hash tag on Twitter and more people doing positive thing on-line for other authors.

Michael:

What do you see happening in the future with #authorlove?

Sarah:

I hope to take this one step further and start a competition about it in the near future. I hope that I can get other authors to basically pick 5-10 developing/established authors that they love and spend a week creating a bit of hype for that author. Share the love so to speak. We all love recommendations and sometimes books that are awesome get a bit lost. I’ll keep you posted when the webpage is up and running.

Michael:

Are there books that you found from trying out fellow emerging writers that still stand out in your mind?

Sarah:

I certainly have these. I must admit that I found my new favourite author through my investigations for #authorlove. I offered to help India Drummond promote her first book “Ordinary Angels”. I really loved her work. Her next book was even better: “Blood Faerie”.

Blood Faerie would have to go onto my top 5 books I have read all year. Perhaps even in the second spot. First goes to Cassandra Clare’s book Clockwork Angel.

Michael:

What inspired you to start writing?

Sarah:

My inspiration to actually do this properly came from a childhood friend, Nicole McDonald who I found was just about to publish her first book. I jumped on the bandwagon and have been actively involved in the online writing community ever since.

Michael:

Was there a moment in time when you realized you could do this – that your words were worth sharing with the world?

Sarah:

That would have to be when I read a piece from my manuscript and I started bawling my eyes out. It was just so sad. I can hardly read that chapter now without a tissue. (It is the moment when my 17 year old MC finds out that she has a life-threatening Leukaemia.)

Michael:

Have you met any famous authors? What did you take away from talking with / listening to them?

Sarah:

Traci Harding would be the only one. Her Ancient Future Trillogy was one of my favourites in the early university days. I have read them many times. We went out for dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Brisbane with about 12 other groupies, perhaps I should say ‘fans’. lol

This was before I started writing and was simply because I admired her books.

Michael:

In what genres do you prefer to write? Can you see yourself switching or branching out into others?

Sarah:

Well if you read this post, I am struggling with this at the moment. I have a great contemporary YA in progress and another up my sleave. However I just love historical or steampunk YA set in the late 1880’s. I have a fantastic project lined up to write during NaNoWriMo this November. If you havn’t signed up for this you should. Basically it’s a challenge to write a novel in a month.

I read the same some of genres that I write. Historical, steampunk, fantasy, some paranormal (not that I write this) and gutsy contemporary YA.

Michael:

I noticed you have an interest in YA. What attracts you to that style/target audience?

Sarah:

Well I read YA. I love the style; it’s easy to read yet still full of guts and issues. That is why I write YA. Can’t write what you don’t love.

Michael:

What projects are you working on right now? Anything close to finished?

Sarah:

Well obviously my Day Zero Manuscript is closing on its first draft, which has taken me some time to write. (Been a busy year)

I do also have a non-fiction book in second draft. This is a book to help new bloggers/authors like myself get into the writing blog-o-sphere. It is a collection of my experiences and hands on advice that I learnt the hard way. I would like to have it out by Christmas 2011.

Michael:

Back to social media things – do you feel like the time you spend on things like #authorlove and #writecampaign intrudes on your writing? What is the hardest thing about putting yourself out there on social networks?

Sarah:

YES it intrudes on my writing. However. I have met some awesome writers on social media. I am MUCH more likely to buy books off people I know on social media. I have bought maybe 15-20 books this year simply because I have spoken to the author on-line in some way. I then felt that #authorlove moment and bought the book. 99% of the time I have been very impressed. There was only one book that I wasn’t soooo fond of.

Social media is very important to me and I will continue to use it. However sometimes I have to shut it off and “Just Write” – My motto for my blog. See here.

Michael:

Do you find it easy to manage your blog?

Sarah:

Hmm well managing the blog isn’t the problem. More managing all the social media. However blog-wise, I have struggled a little finding the voice of the blog. I think I am nearly there. A blog is like a book; it needs a specific voice to attract long standing readers. Finding posts that match this ‘voice’ can be challenging, but I believe I am getting there.

As for the technical stuff. I have learned a lot along the way. I have switched to self-hosted WordPress so I need to know a lot about designing web pages, SEO, spam moderators and so on. I have enjoyed the process.

Michael:

What advice would you give to emerging writers struggling to get noticed?

Sarah:

Buy my book when it comes out J. It’s all about finding your voice and muse in the writing blog-o-sphere. Otherwise, don’t promote yourself, try and support others. I much prefer to see support than promotion and I pay attention to this. Don’t get me wrong I promote my own posts and things as well. Sometimes a bit much, but I try and balance with supporting others as well.

I am doing a post series about this as well.

INTERACT and interaction will bring the rewards of being noticed.


You can see more from Sarah Ketley at her blog, www.sarahketleyauthor.com.

 


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#WriteCampaign Flash Fiction Challenge

September 8, 2011 11:00 am by MRM in Writing

I mentioned earlier that I’m involved in the Writers’ Platform-Building Campaign. Well, part of that is to do periodic challenges with my fellow campaigners, and this post is my fulfillment of the first of those. The challenge was to write a 200-word flash fiction story beginning with the phrase “The door swung open.”

I should mention at this point that I’ve never really gotten into flash fiction. In fact, this is the first attempt at it I’ve ever done. It was interesting, but I think I have the same problem with flash fiction that I do with short stories – I always want to keep going. I just invented three new characters – they deserve more definition… and yet… it was sort of fun in a way. I’ll never see Leslie, Mr. Vargas, or Garcia again.

Anyhow, I’m rambling. Here’s my challenge entry – I maxed it out at 200 words precisely (according to MS Word’s count). I hope you enjoy it. (Incidentally, I wouldn’t ordinarily expect you to read an entire story in italics, but… it’s only 200 words).

The door swung open. Dammit; he was a tiger today. Leslie hated tiger days. Mr. Vargas’s wound-up little son, Garcia, sprinted into the room, orange plush tiger hat strapped around his head, streamers of red paper flowing from his arms. Last month Leslie had made the mistake of asking what the streamers were for.

“They’re blood from all the stuff I kill!” he’d said.

Leslie leaned over and caught a flower vase that tiger-Garcia flicked carelessly with his hand. She wobbled perilously on one of her two-inch heels as she set it back upright. Mr. Vargas refused to childproof his house. Why should he? A big-time Hollywood producer doesn’t need to bother with such trivialities; that’s what an assistant with a film school degree was for. Besides, he couldn’t have investors and directors over with padded corners on his tables, could he? Leslie had suggested that he childproof just one of his four houses and keep his family there. Vargas had said he’d think about it.

“Grrrr! I want Lucky Charms!” Garcia swatted the full napkin-holder to the floor.

Leslie sighed. She smoothed out her blazer and tugged the bottom of her skirt. She got the milk. Damn tiger days.


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Death by Social Media : A Primer for Part-Time Writers

September 4, 2011 10:39 pm by MRM in epublishing, Writing

So, you’re a new writer, publishing a few short stories and a few pieces on Kindle, and you want to get noticed? Join the club; there’s thousands of us out here, and everyone is struggling to get that breakthrough piece, the one that actually lets people know who they are. I’m there too; if you’re reading this blog, I’ve taken another step down that road (that apparently goes through the boat. Hooray for mixed metaphors). It actually takes quite a bit just to put yourself out there, even with the strides made by ePublishing companies, eReaders, and eBookstores. I’ve written about that before. This isn’t an article about how to publish, but much more crucially, what to do next. And by next, I mean before. Before and after; it’s all crucial, and there are a million little steps to take. The sad truth is that unless you’ve taken one heck of a plunge and gone all-in on writing, you don’t have time to do them all. Incidentally, I don’t recommend “going all-in” unless you know someone or are simply the best writer on the planet, and I still don’t recommend it if you only qualify as the second of those. Yes, the quality of your writing is the most important thing to worry about, but if you wrote the world’s greatest book and published it in Kindle and Smashwords and that was all you did, you’d be lucky to make 100 sales in a year. Unless, of course, one of your sales was the right sale.

I’m certainly not an expert in this field. I have yet to make my break, but I have taken a lot of steps and seen some very positive results. Feel free to comment if you have things to add; this is a discussion, not a lecture from up above.

Without further ado, here is my checklist of items to nail down, and my thoughts on the value and importance of each.

1. The first sounds easy, and it is – if you don’t mind doing it badly. Start a blog. It sounds simple, and yet making it an effective blog isn’t. You need a lot more than just your daily or weekly musings, and God help you if you can’t post to it weekly or biweekly at least. Write, even from the very beginning, as if hundreds of people are reading. I can assure you they aren’t, but one day they might be. Every sentence you post out on the interwebs is one that people can use to judge the most important question that will determine sales of your book: Is this an author? If you have something published in any form, the technical answer to that question is yes. But there is more to that question than the technicality. People are constantly asking themselves whether or not your work is worth floating to the top of the pseudo-infinite flotsam that exists in the online market. Is this an author, or is this some jackass who figured out how to push the “publish” button on Kindle direct publishing? The sad fact is that a lot of people fall into that latter camp, and readers are rightfully wary of buying eBooks by people they’ve never heard of. It’s much easier to pick up a physical book because a reader can have faith that at least someone at a publishing house thought this was worth printing. They have no such assurances when browsing Smashwords. If you’re lucky enough to get them to your blog, then you have a chance to convince them that you are worth buying from. Consider that with every sentence you post – a potential reader might check your archives and pick out a post that has an interesting title.

So you have your blog, but what else goes there?

Do you have something purchasable? Can you post a link to it? Do you have other pages, on Goodreads, Facebook, a Twitter feed, etc (also covered below)? You need more than just hyperlinks on the side; you need widgets that show you actually use your various feeds, that attractively encourage people to follow you or check you out in as many ways as possible

With regards to your publications – you need a “portfolio” page. There are millions of WordPress themes that include portfolios, but most of them are geared towards artists and photographers. If you click on the Books link on my nav bar, you’ll find mine.

Lastly, you should always have an About the Author page, as well as a way to get in contact with you. Some of the trickier bits about WordPress that I’ve found my way around.

  1. Buy a nicely customizable theme. The free ones are out there and good, but nothing eases your mind like having the support of the theme writers, and hardly anybody who gives one away for free gives out tech support. Note: this is not just a suggestion for the tech-illiterate. I am a software engineer. That doesn’t mean I want to spend the time to write all the wicked cool PHP plugins myself; it just means I’m not scared of getting my hands dirty to edit the code. I have used the crap out of the tech support for my theme; they even answer generalized WordPress questions. It’s the best $40 I’ve ever spent. Don’t tell them, but for the support they really ought to charge more. (Incidentally, this theme is called Spicy, and I love it. None of the samples look anything like this, but I’ve modified it quite a bit and it works beautifully).
  2. Pick a portfolio theme that minimizes the emphasis on visuals. This is actually kind of hard to find, and it was one of the key reasons I picked Spicy. I want you to look at my covers, but really anything I do is going to be text-heavy.
  3. Load up on widgets, but be sure to pick compatible ones. You’ll want to allow comments, but the first time you add a hyperlink, you’re going to have dozens of spammers hit you. Add an authentication scheme. Widgets are your friend.
  4. Remember that readability is paramount. You want your text to be inviting and simple to look at. Avoid high-contrast color schemes and keep the width of your text under control; this site is actually a little wider than is advised. Long columns of text are easier to read than the same amount of text stretched across an HD screen. Also, light text on a dark background is easier on the eyes than the other way around, despite it being the opposite of how you’re used to reading physical texts. Sans serif fonts tend to work better on the web.
  5. On the topic of fonts – I don’t care how cool Estrangelo Edessa looks to you; for your actual web content, pick something that is loaded in all browsers and is easy to read. You have a choice between TNR (serif), Arial (sans), Lucida (sans), and Georgia (sans). Don’t get fancy with your fonts unless you’re a typographer and know what you’re doing (and most of them would adhere to the no-fancy-fonts rule themselves).
  6. Remember that more people access the web with phones these days than do using computers. Make sure your site is navigable via a suitably equipped smartphone.
  7. Test your site in at least four browsers, and one of those had better be mobile. There is no excuse for not doing this – browsers are free and it takes ten seconds to navigate to your site and verify that the links work. Longer if you have a slow 3G connection, but I wouldn’t bother buying extra phones just to check it out in Android, iPhone, and WP7.
  8. Minimize the graphics on your page. They’re cool to play around with, but they cause longer page load times and nobody is coming to see your wicked cool graphics anyway (unless you are writing books about graphic design).
  9. Have a blogroll. More about this later.
  10. Above all, do what you can to make it look professional. This site is your main billboard to convince a potential reader that you are for real. Using the blink tag and comic sans is not the way to do that.

 

2. The second big item is to reach out to the communities you already have in writing online. And if you aren’t an active member of an online writing community, what are you doing on here? Go find one that you like and get going. These people are valuable resources of crit swaps, honest advice, and learning experiences. They are also people with whom you can build relationships based on your love of writing and reach out when you reach that point where you start publishing. They are very much comprised of people who are now or used to be in your shoes. There’s no way for me to tell you which ones are the best; just start looking. I’m on Hatrack quite a bit, the Orson Scott Card-sponsored site, and I used to be active on the Kelly Armstrong forums. I can’t promise that either of those will work for you, but they’re both great (Kelly Armstrong’s forum software is a bit more technically savvy, but then again she was a web developer). If you have an author that you’re a big fan of, go to that author’s site and look around. He or she will probably have a link to a writing forum; by and large big-time writers are pretty cool people and are big on encouraging others. If your favorite writer doesn’t have a forum, pick your second favorite, and just go down the list. If all else fails, use the powers of Google. It’s not that hard.

When you do get on forums, don’t crit-bomb them, asking for people to read your stuff. It’s rude. Do crits of at least five people before asking for one back. Prove that you’re ready to contribute before you start asking for contributions. You’ll get pieces from people that are better than you, worse than you, and some people you don’t realize are secretly more talented than you ever knew and you just didn’t know how to see it because they don’t write the stories like you would have… if you see all of this, don’t be afraid. That’s how crit groups work. And if you read three stories in a row that you think have no potential, be kind, give advice, and keep going. If you read three stories in a row that sound massively better than anything you think you’ll ever be able to write, don’t be afraid. Give what advice you can, and keep going. Writers’ forums are the best way to start out in the online world, and I’d honestly be surprised if you found your way here without going through at least one of them first.

Most forums have a place to announce publications. Whether you do it the traditional way or go online and publish yourself, go ahead and announce it there. Don’t overdo it. Post your piece, thank the people that congratulate you, and don’t forget to check that board and congratulate others. People who have been critting your work as you were writing it might be excited to finally see it in print. It can be an important first source of sales.

3. The third big item is to engage in social media. To some, this feels like pulling teeth, but unless your name regularly graces newspapers and headlines across the country (whatever country), you need to do this. The easiest way to start is Twitter. Don’t pretend you haven’t heard of it; if you aren’t on Twitter, you might have been avoiding it for a very good reason. You might think of it as a place where celebrities tweet what they had for lunch and overly internet-addicted people tweet their “philosophies” in 140-character bursts. Twitter is absolutely both of those, but there is a side of it that doesn’t suck.

Twitter can be a rapid-fire customized news feed. Do you have blog authors that you follow? Most of them will tweet-announce new posts. I do. And I like knowing when artists and writers I enjoy, like Felicia Day, Wil Wheaton, Scott Lynch, Kelley Armstrong, or Brandon Sanderson post something new. I follow newscasters I respect and get timely updates on other things I care about as well. I’m as embarrassed about it as the next guy, but some people I follow just because their tweets are funny.

As for how you ought to use Twitter – that’s the subject of much debate. Announcing blog posts is obvious, but you need to do a little bit more than that. You’re essentially replicating the work of a good RSS feeder if that’s all you do. Tweet about what you’re working on. Tweet about what you like. If an author or artist puts out something that interests you, Retweet it (there’s a button for that) or put out a personalized tweet referencing it. It’s as easy as it sounds. I’ve been guilty of ignoring Twitter for too long at times, and I always regret it. You even have a little counter of how well you’re doing, and it’s in your number of followers.

Now, this isn’t like Facebook “friends” where the competition is to have the most. You don’t really win anything by having a lot of Twitter followers, and that’s certainly not the goal, but I do look at it as something going right if I start gaining a lot of Twitter followers. The fact is that every person who clicks to follow you is someone else that, however fleetingly, knows you exist. That person might, might, buy your book. And you can’t ignore that.

4. Facebook. Oh hell, Facebook is here. I have mixed feelings about “The Facebook,” and the utility of pages. You absolutely need to have one, and I went ahead and created it: my page exists. I’ve gotten a few “likes,” but I’m not sure how much I care about this one. A lot of people use Facebook as their only portal to the internet, and that’s not something that a smart writer ignores. I love to use Facebook in my personal life. I love being able to see pictures of my niece, my friends’ kids, places they’ve been, and generally to keep up with what’s going on with people that I don’t necessarily get to see every day. To me, that’s the point of Facebook. It absolutely, positively, is NOT a place where I browse businesses, despite the tendency of every damn store I go into these days asking me to “like” them on Facebook. Why does my local Kerr Drugs want me to like them on Facebook?!! I’ve always partitioned my zones of the internet. CNN, Slate, and NYT for news, Facebook for social stuff, Cracked, XKCD, and Fark for humor, and Wired, Engadget, and Gizmodo for tech stuff. It has never bothered me to look in different places for all of these things, and I mostly scoffed from the sidelines as I saw Google and Facebook trying to become the center of something that clearly needed no center – the internet.

I, however, am not my target audience. There is a whole world of people out there, and I want all of them to read my books. I can’t ignore this audience, and I will work with the Facebook-is-life crowd, even if I don’t quite understand them (and I consider myself well-versed in the ways of the series of tubes). The saving grace here is that you can hook up your blog to automatically post to your Facebook page. I can’t emphasize this enough – it’s a free secondary page! Your blog shows up on your Facebook page. Add your cover art, add a few “action shots,” and call it a day if you feel as I do about the Facebook. This is such simple publicity that you can’t ignore it.

5. Goodreads is a fantastic place to find out about new fiction. I used Goodreads as a reader before I ever messed around with setting up my author page. It’s a fun place to talk about books that you like, find out books that your friends like, and just enjoy thinking about what you want to read next. I was very social networking fatigued when I first set up my Goodreads page, but I did this one as a labor of love, rather than a labor of obligation (see: Facebook). And Goodreads was even kind about it. They have a tutorial about how to set up your page, and they even allow you to link your Kindle-published works directly to your page as a way for people checking out your page to purchase them. You can sell directly on there! It’s actually a fantastic service, and to top it all off they also let you automatically feed your blog there!  It’s like they went out of their way to make it as easy as possible to use a service that you already love. The only catch is that this is one that you can’t do until after your book is purchasable from at least one of the major online stores, and Kindle is the simplest. Most of the rest of these you really ought to be doing and have in place well before you put something out there, and Goodreads you can’t. I don’t really fault them for that; it’s just a fact of how they work. Author pages are for authors. You want to join the club, right? So get going.

6. The last item is to engage your community of fellow writers. It coincides with #2 above, but in this item I mean to specifically talk about interacting outside of the boards. Right now I’m involved in the Writers’ Platform-Building Campaign. I’m meeting new people, getting involved and reading more blogs and interacting with fellow artists. It’s a fantastic opportunity and a lot of fun. It’s also a lot of work, and it’s the exact sort of thing that you’ve got to do. Find events like this – they’re not as rare as you might think, and the only way you find out about this sort of thing is by engaging in all of the above steps. Meet fellow writers, engage with them on Twitter, Google Plus, Facebook, and forums. Participate actively, and do your best to be a virtual social butterfly. It absolutely is exhausting, but if you really want to get your work seen, it’s a necessary labor, and you might even find it fun once you get started.

There are dozens of other communities, Goodreads-like sites, and social services out there. I’m on Google plus, and I dig it thus far. I don’t consider it an essential step yet, though if you want to be tech-savvy, you should be there. I’d be an embarrassment as a software-engineer if I didn’t have a presence there. The key to all of these different sites is this: if you’re in, you’re in. Do not dip your toe into a service. Every place that you have a web presence is a place where people might see you and might be basing their decision on whether or not you’re a promising young amateur or a hack that likes to put his stuff in ePrint. The decision is that close; do I click the button and wave goodbye to a few of my dollars or navigate away and forget I ever heard of this guy? Nothing screams “hack” as loudly as a half-finished page.

This isn’t even half of what goes into launching yourself, and by no means am I the definitive expert. I know just enough not to trip over my own two feet. I approach every foray into the social media as a chance to get myself noticed, and that’s all I can do. Every person who hovers over a link for half a second is another person that might hover over the purchase button. Every sale boosts my rank on Amazon. And every increase in rank makes it that much easier for me to get my name out there. If you’ve read this far, and find my musings on writing interesting, then check out Those Who Die Young Issue 1 – Shelter From the Storm on Kindle or Smashwords. After all, this is my blog, and I brought you here to check out my writing.    

 


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Work and Homework

August 30, 2011 10:31 am by MRM in serial, Writing

Ugh. Homework. Even students who are excited about class hate homework every now and then, and I’m groaning because it’s time for me to get to it. I’ve written before about the “joy” of editing in the Iterative Process. Right now it’s time to get the Bearers of Bad News ready to roll out on September 24th – it’s been complete for a while, but I need to tighten it up. I need to make sure the Argumentum et Dramatis Personnae section is ready, and I need to update pictures, previews, and God knows what else. Sadly, it feels like homework.

Issue 3 (as of yet untitled) is near completion, and it’s just so much more fun to plow ahead than it is to fix up the places you’ve already been. It’s the contrast of work versus homework, and every writer needs to do it. OSC told me that the only living draft is the first draft, and I do understand what he’s getting at. I’m not going to rewrite the whole thing. I do need to fix up inconsistencies, though, make sure the plot leads where I want it to go, and make sure that my characters are developing as I want them to be. One of the advantages of only being one issue ahead of where I’m publishing is that I have a much lower chance of introducing a “logical bug” by making a substantive change. If there are seventy chapters and I change something in chapter 2, there is absolutely no chance I can remember every time in those seventy chapters where that particular fact becomes important. If I make a change in Issue 2 while writing Issue 3, it’s easy enough to fix.

I’ll chalk that up as one of the few easy parts about writing serial fiction. It’s still a learning process for me, and I’m hoping that it doesn’t feel too chopped up. I want this to play out like a good television series, with each issue having its own story arc that has closure at the end, while leading naturally into what comes next. My hope is that someone could pick up Bearers of Bad News and enjoy it without having read Shelter From the Storm. That’s the point of the Argumentum section – it’s similar to a “Previously, on Boston Legal…” segment just before the episode begins.

Besides just TWDY, I’m editing my Magi Rebellion short story before I start shopping that around, and September is the month that I’m going to go back to City of Magi to prep it for submission. It should be an exciting time. I’m also participating in the Platform Building Campaign, so I don’t plan on sleeping a lot. Later this week I hope to post a primer on the social networking bonanza of marketing my work, the steps I like, the steps I don’t, and all the craziness that goes into an online presence, but we’ll see how that goes. Right now, I’ve got (paying) work to do, and after that… ugh… homework.

As I leave – some words I’ve had imprinted on my brain for the past few months (and quoted before):

Learning to edit is, quite simply, learning to hate yourself word by word.


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Platform Builders

August 24, 2011 3:57 pm by MRM in Writing

Just a quick post, but I wanted to let you all know (if you don’t already) about the Third Annual Writers’ Platform-Building Campaign. It’s an opportunity for new writers to get together and help build their networks and work together to read, comment on, and create great new fiction.

Congrats to Rachael Harrie for coming up with the idea and putting this all together. If you’re a newly published writer like myself or just someone who loves good new fiction, you should definitely check it out.

Spread the good word if you’re a fan, and see you in there! (I’ll be joining the Adult Fiction, Sci Fi, and Fantasy groups.)


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Running, Writing, and Dieting

August 17, 2011 6:58 pm by MRM in Writing

Once upon a time, I was well on my way to achieving the perfect stereotype of software engineer / writer physique. It was unity with nature; I was fulfilling my destiny. Being a writer of science fiction and fantasy somehow made it doubly appropriate that I should swell into my maximum pear-shaped potential.

 

Fat Michael contemplating working out
Clearly, I’m thrilled to be around these strange machines.

I was writing at a decent clip then as well; probably a quarter of City of Magi was written while my BMI was pushing 30. While I can’t explain my expression in the picture, I can say I was carrying about 220 pounds. This was right after I moved to Maryland back in 2009, and for a while I was living by myself while my wife was trying to get a job in the area. I had plenty of time for writing, but I didn’t get as much done as I had hoped. I averaged something like 2500 words per week, and there was plenty of variation around that average. The DC area may have had something to do with it, but I often felt wiped out after work and really didn’t have it in me to sit down and create something for a couple of hours, even if I had nothing else to do.

Even today, writing takes energy, not just time. It’s simply not the case that any time I’m sitting down to watch TV, I could be writing. Consuming is a lower energy activity than creating, no matter what you’re talking about. Sit down and write for four hours straight and tell me you’re not tired. Compounding this may be the fact that my job is almost strictly a creativity and creation based affair – I write code. It’s quite a bit like writing fiction in many ways (as I’ve mentioned before), the principle one being you often know where you want to go, but you have to figure out the “words” that get you there. If you create for eight hours and then spend an hour or two of your free time creating something else, your ability to produce new ideas just runs out. Mine does, anyhow. And it ran out even faster and harder around the time that photo was taken.

I can’t cite a specific point of motivation, but my best guess was that I got tired of being “the fat guy” married to the fittest woman on Earth. I was jealous of my wife finishing half marathons while I couldn’t finish a mile without taking a two-minute breather. So I did something – I enacted the most complicated diet in the history of the world. If you’re inclined to follow in my footsteps, read carefully:

  1. 1. I sat my fat ass down in front of a computer. This was a familiar position for my body. Using the powers of the internet, I looked up how many calories I burned in a day, assuming little to no exercise (this was a fairly accurate assumption). It is a relatively straightforward calculation based on your gender, age, weight, and activity level.
  2. 2. I ate less than that, by about 150 calories per day.

That’s it. I’ve thought about publishing a diet book, but I have a feeling they’d want me to pad the word count. Now, to be fair, number 2 on that list is actually kind of hard to do. You have to know exactly how many calories are in everything you eat, and that’s no small feat. I recommend 100-calorie snack packs (they’re everywhere these days) and restaurant chains that reliably publish nutritional information. Fortunately, Maryland forces most restaurants to put calorie information right on the menu. My lunch and dinner of choice was Panera. Bear in mind that you can do horrible, horrible things to your diet at Panera. If you eat any bread infused with cheese, may God have mercy on your soul. Your greasy, portly soul. They also have salads and low-calorie soups. To be clear, I didn’t do anything more complicated than count calories. I didn’t avoid high fat foods, carbs, or anything like that. If I wanted a beer, I drank it. If I wanted another, I drank that too. Beer, however, is about 200 calories a bottle (good beer is; you can keep your filthy Bud Light). If I drank 400 calories, that was 400 out of my daily allotment of 2200 (my daily allotment went down over time). When I did this the first day, I was a pound lighter. So I did it again the next day, and I lost another pound. So I kept it up.

I am leaving out a key third step, though it’s required if you adhere to step 1 as a continuous function over time. I weighed myself every morning (at the same time) and plotted the results in a spreadsheet. Sadly, I didn’t think of storing the data until I was already 25 pounds down.

You hate the peaks SO much.
You learn to hate the peaks.

This covered a period from about 8/17/2009 to 12/5/2009. I should mention at this point that I’m not a doctor (though you might have ascertained that from the part where I said I was a software engineer). If you are thinking about embarking on a weight loss plan, you should probably talk to a doctor. I was kind of lax about that, and in fact this rate of weight loss is slightly faster than what is recommended. It didn’t hurt me (that I know of), but keep in mind that at the time, I was 28-29 years old and male. I’m still male, now that I think about it, but I’m not 28 any more. I’m also up at 170, but a fair amount of that is muscle gain. Anyhow, plotting my weight was extraordinarily helpful for me. Looking at that graph was a shot in the arm when I entered the new data point every morning, particularly in November when I looked back at where I once was.

The first thirty pounds I lost almost exclusively with diet; I only added exercise when it was getting way too annoying to cut down on my calorie intake. There’s a limit to how little I can make myself eat. At this point, the calculation for how much I was allowed got a little bit more complicated since I needed an accurate estimate of how many calories I burned exercising. Protip for anyone trying such a thing: never, ever believe the calorie readouts on exercise machines, with the occasional exception of treadmills when you aren’t running with an incline. I used to avoid treadmills because I thought they just didn’t burn enough calories; elliptical machines gave massively higher calorie counts. It turns out they also “overestimated” by a factor of up to 5. Seriously, screw elliptical machines. If I wrote a diet book, I would add that sentence at least once every chapter.

Eventually, I took up running again, and in October of 2009, I ran my first 5K since high school. I completed it without walking, and it was a great feeling. I thought my days of being even moderately athletic were far behind me. Now, that same day that I ran a 5K, my wife ran a half marathon and broke two hours (the half marathon was at the same event), so I had some room for improvement.

A funny thing happened to my writing as I was losing weight. It got faster. Much, much faster. By mid 2010, I was writing at least 1000 words every morning, and I never missed a morning. On weeks where I’m in Maryland (I moved back to NC in 2010, but kept the same job), I can reliably get 2000-3000 words a day. City of Magi, which I always worried I would never finish, went from a quarter done to completely finished in just over a year, and it ended up clocking in at 250,000 words. Now, I have some editing to do, but I never would have had a complete work to edit without my writing regimen, and I would never have been able to keep up my writing regimen without getting in shape. Seriously.

Getting in shape changed my life in more ways than I had ever imagined. First, I pretty much don’t get sick any more. If you don’t know me, you might not find that impressive. After all, I’m still a 30-year-old guy in good health. To me, however, this was a miracle. In 2008, I got strep throat seven damn times (they did eventually remove my tonsils). I might have just blamed it on a recurring infection, but to be honest this sort of thing happened to me all the time. I was the kind of guy who was always sick. If I didn’t have to take a day or two off of work each month to deal with a cold, it was a miracle. I still haven’t gotten used to the fact that I’m miraculously immune to disease, and it’s been almost two years now, during which I’ve had exactly one minor cold. Not getting sick removed a huge impediment to my writing; when I was ill I never felt like writing. It’s the issue of creation versus consumption; creation takes more energy, and when I was fat and sick I never had any. The other way my life changed that influenced my writing was that I gained discipline. I used to write “when I had the time.” Now, I went out of my way to make time for writing, but it was still subject to how much effort and energy I could put into it. Getting in shape got me used to working out every morning. I can’t let up, because I know how easy it would be to go right back up that weight slope, and I haven’t been thin so long I don’t remember what it felt like to huff and puff up each flight of stairs. When I get home from working out, I shower, play with the dog, and spend an hour writing. Every day, like clockwork, I get this done. This is something I just couldn’t do before. Some days I would wake up late, feel too tired to write, or decide I wanted to have a beer and watch football in the evening rather than write.

Having energy and discipline means everything to my writing, and I know that my work has gotten better as I’ve gotten more disciplined about how and when I do it. Shelter From the Storm never would have come together over the course of just a month and a half, at 37K words, without this change in my life.

There is another factor in how my writing has changed. It’s actually what I meant to write this post about, but it sort of took on a life of its own. Running. In the spring of 2010, I was determined to stretch out the distance that I could run without stopping. It was my favorite new measure of my health, particularly since I wasn’t losing weight any longer. I worked up my endurance and ran in the Cherry Blossom Ten Miler in DC, and then I knew I was up to the challenges of races that had the word “marathon” in their name. I did my first half marathon that April. After that, my wife convinced me to join the Raleigh Galloway program, where I got it into my head that I could run a full marathon.

As my runs stretched longer and longer, I would have to find things to occupy the time. I’m not the most talkative man on Earth, so I would find hours passing in relative silence, with only the occasional shout-out of “Post!” breaking my concentration. Writing became my natural mental companion on the Greenways of Raleigh. Entire sub-plots would play out in my head over the course of a twenty mile run. New twists gave me the excitement I needed to make it up a hill. It became my inspiration. I couldn’t wait to get what I dreamed of down on paper. Running was the perfect “muse time” for my work, and it’s hard for me to imagine truly progressing in my work without it these days.

It has other benefits too – it’s easy to stay focused on writing for an hour or two when I’m used to keeping at the same task for three or four hours at a time. The energy boost I got from losing weight was nothing compared to what I gained from my marathon training. It’s to the point now where every step of a training run fuels another page.

Getting to the point where I could take up running has made more of a difference in my writing career than just about any other step I’ve taken.

-1 item on the bucket list
Outer Banks Marathon Finish Line, November 2010

There’s the intimidation factor to consider as well. Finishing a book is hard. I went through three failed efforts before finally finding a story that could finish and finish well in City of Magi. Finishing a marathon is pretty tough too. When I weighed 220 pounds, I never imagined that I would be able to finish a marathon in just over a year. I also worried that I would never finish a book, and that I would always be one of those people working on a never-ending novel project, chasing a dream I couldn’t ever hope to reach. I certainly haven’t reached my dream yet – City of Magi is finished, not published and there’s a lot of work to be done before it gets to that point. Those Who Die Young is in its infancy, with only one issue in the market and the other in editing.

The thing is, after finishing a marathon and training for more (I got injured and had to miss what would have been my second this spring), getting to that next step doesn’t seem so impossible any more. I have a short story that I’m putting out there. My serial issues are churning along and turning into something I’m really proud of. Polishing, editing, and shipping out my novel is on the horizon, and unlike before I know I can get there. It can’t be harder than running 26.2 miles.


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OSC Writing Class and First Thirteens

I had the good fortune recently of attending an Orson Scott Card writing class – I highly recommend it if you have the means and he happens to be holding one in a place you can get to. There were a lot of topics he spoke on that helped me think about my writing in a better light, but the issue I’m most compelled to talk about is that of openings, largely because it made the most dramatic impact on how I write. I’ve been a member of Hatrack River Forums (the OSC-sponsored writing forum) and they have a concept of a “First Thirteen.” What they mean by that is the first thirteen lines of your (appropriately formatted) story. The reason they place such emphasis on it is that an editor will often only look at the first page of your manuscript before deciding whether your story belongs in the slush pile or in the pile worthy of further attention. Editors are overworked and underpaid, and your story needs to fight for their attention. Thirteen lines is (approximately) what fits on that first page.

I spent a long time working on the first thirteen for my story to submit to get in to OSC’s Boot Camp. It was what I was going to use as the introduction to Shelter From the Storm. I didn’t need to worry about an editor (since I was my editor) on Shelter, but I did need to worry about getting people to buy it. That opening was still important.

I spent a long time doing everything I could to create the perfect first thirteen; these would be the best-written, most beautiful thirteen lines I had ever written and put at the front of a story. This is what I wrote.

Erica was cold, wet, and tired. Tired was a feeling she didn’t mind; it was only natural. Hiking seventeen miles in a day gave her no way to avoid it, particularly as the trail went up the slope to the plateau ahead. After a while, the gentle tug of fatigue at every step on the grimy, ill-kept path started to feel familiar. Her aching feet reminded her that she was alive. There had scarcely been a time in her life when she hadn’t felt tired. Tired was an old friend. Wet, though, was a feeling she hated. She’d been on the road for almost a week and had exactly one sunny day, most of which she’d been in a forest. Wet made her feet and thighs itch; it gave her blisters on her toes. Wet was an annoying cousin that ruined her socks, spoiled her mood, and made every footfall treacherous. Cold was worst of all. Cold made the wind bite through her leathers; it made the rain her enemy. Cold could be deadly if she didn’t keep her wits about her. Cold, wet, and tired. The life of a traveler.

The sun hastily made its retreat below the horizon, leaving her to make out the trail in rapidly dimming light. One more ascent stood between her and the plateau roads. If the stories were to be believed, roads on the plateau were covered in straw on the sides for those on foot and brick in the middle for carts. Half-true would be a blessing.

I loved it. It has rhythm. It has symmetry. It’s pretty. It was also rejected, and rightfully so.

It took me a while to really figure out why it got rejected. That first opening was beautiful, but it didn’t tell the reader anything about the story. What do you know after reading that? You know Erica is cold, wet, and tired. You know she’s on a long hike – you don’t even know where she’s headed, except “the plateau.” You know that things are slightly nicer there, or at least they’re rumored to be. You also find out it’s getting dark, and you get a vague impression that she’s had a tough life when I say “There had scarcely been a time in her life when she hadn’t felt tired. Tired was an old friend.”

A few weeks after I got that rejection, I finally realized that the opening to the first story I was ever going to publish was crap. OSC (and the other Boot Camp slush readers) were right. It’s fun for me now to look at the changes I made and look at whether or not I changed it for the better. Let’s see. Here’s the beginning of Shelter as it was published.

Nothing was ever as easy as it sounded. Deliver the letter to the Viscount – that’s it. That was the one and only task Erica’s half-brother Markus had entrusted her with, along with four coppers for lodging along the way. Maen wasn’t hard to find; follow the big road out of town. She’d know she was there when she got to the top of a plateau and found a huge city. Markus had even pointed out the trail on a map for her. Six days ago she had actually been excited to be finally trusted with something important for the family business. Six days ago she had been dry and the city guard had assured her that the road was safe and that it only took four days to make the trip. Five and a half days ago, a cold west wind had blown in and brought a storm that had yet to let up. Nothing had gone right since.

Only one farm that she passed would even let her stay the night – and they had demanded a whole copper! She didn’t know whether to count herself lucky or cursed that she hadn’t found another place to stay on the road. The cold and the rain was miserable, but it was free, and she’d have to make the trip back with just the three coppers in her pack. Five and a half days of constant marching along a road that was rocky at the best of times and a soupy mess now was beginning to wear on her. She’d been through worse. This, at least, was only physical discomfort.

The opening of a story is all about making a contract with the reader. What is the story about? Why should he care? Let’s look at Shelter’s new beginning and see how I improved it.

In the first two sentences, you know Erica’s objective. It’s all she’s trying to do for the first story, and (not a huge spoiler) it is the task she completes at the end of the first issue. What else do we know? After the third sentence, we know she was sent on the trip by her half-brother Markus. We know why she’s going. We know she was given four coppers. We don’t know whether or not that’s a lot of money, but we get the impression that it isn’t, especially later.

In three sentences, I’ve made the story more interesting than I did in the entire opening that I submitted for Boot Camp. Shelter was improved by this change – it is a much, much better story after having been rejected by OSC. I thanked him for that personally. I don’t think I would have seen how horrible my original beginning was without his input.

osc

Let’s keep looking at the second opening to find out what else we learn. We learn she’s been walking for six days, and that the trip was only supposed to take four. Things have gone very wrong on her trip; it had been something she was really eager to do. We find out how short her money supply really is; the first place she stayed charged her a quarter of her funds for a single night’s stay. We also find out that she wasn’t expecting it; four coppers is a lot of money to Erica, but not to the owners of that farm.

We learn a few other things by implication as well. Markus had to point out the route on a map for her, so she either isn’t very familiar with how to read maps or just plain can’t read. We’re also left wondering – why is Markus sending his half-sister out on a four-day journey by herself? This implies she’s an adult or that Markus is a grossly negligent caretaker. We also are left with the somewhat vague statement that she’s had a tough live, but we have something more to go on here than we did in the first opening. “She’d been through worse. This, at least, was only physical discomfort.

One big takeaway that I got from OSC’s class was that the worst sin a writer can commit is to withhold information from the reader. Tell the reader what the story is going to be about. You gain nothing by leading him along bit by bit, because he only ends up feeling cheated at the end. If Erica knew what was in the letter she was carrying, it would be pointless of me to hold that information back until it was crucial. It violates that contract that you make with the reader, that if he is in the mind of a character, he knows what that character knows. The reader should never be operating blind.

So what contract have I made with the reader? What is this story going to be about? Just from the intro, we know it’s a story about a journey. We have a sympathetic female protagonist. We know she’s had a tough life, we know things are all going horribly wrong, and we know she’s got a lot to overcome. We know she’s trying to deliver a letter for her family. All of these are important to the plot as it moves forward, so I think I’ve done a fairly good job of giving the reader a reason to care. Having taken the class and had the “no withholding” concept drilled into me, I probably could have improved it, but then again a story can always be improved. There’s no such thing as a perfect manuscript. One of the other big points OSC made in his class was that you shouldn’t tinker. You will rarely improve your first draft – that is the only living draft of the story, and aside from copy editing (correcting your grammar, fixing misspellings, etc.), there’s not a lot you should do.

If I were writing it again, I don’t think there’s much I would change. I might do away with the first sentence, or perhaps transpose the first two. I would probably mention that she knows the letter has something to do with taxes, since that’s the extent of her knowledge. You don’t meet Lear for five more paragraphs (about two pages), so I might bump that up, but I don’t think I would put the wizard in the opening. Erica doesn’t know Lear when the story starts, and the story is her story, no matter how interesting the land of the wizards is. She is the woman trying to find her place in the world, no matter how hard it tries to reject her. Those Who Die Young is now and will always be a single viewpoint story. I don’t always write single viewpoint stories; City of Magi jumps around from chapter to chapter, and I think it works beautifully.

When I mentioned to OSC what a positive change his rejection had made in my story, he said that was the first time someone had ever thanked him for rejecting them. Aside from taking it personally, I see no reason not to learn from a rejection. It’s an objective evaluation of whether or not your story (or portion thereof) is good – you need to improve it. The matter is settled. He also suggested I submit it for IGMS, now that I had improved it, but of course I couldn’t do that because it had already been published. Also, it’s 37000 words, a bit longer than that which is usually in IGMS. I will, however, be submitting something for IGMS, having had such a great time in the class, and I can’t wait to send it in. Maybe it’ll even get rejected.

PS – For the curious, the short story I’m working on will be set in the City of Magi universe, and I’m actually really psyched about it; it’s turning out to be really interesting and very well-suited to short story format. I’ll keep you posted about how things go. And don’t worry about Bearers of Bad News, that’s in copy-editing and final revisions stage already. It should be ready to go by the planned release date of September 24th.


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