The One Piece of Advice That Made Me A Better Writer

9 07 2015

Is not about writing. It’s about pride in your work and the threshold of what you will do for your work.
This advice made me send my work to loftier markets, where I was surprised to be accepted. This advice forced me to up my game and not be comfortable with my current skills. This advice found me friends and advisers of high caliber, who have done more and who know more. Editors, pro writers, semi-pro writers all follow this advice.
What small success I have had I owe to this:

Do not work for free. Yes, “for exposure” counts as “free”.

I Have To Kill A Character! How Do I Tell The Kids?

10 06 2015

I’ve mentioned Unreality Mag before. Here is an older article I came across with advice on giving your characters to a nice farm family where they have lots of room to run and have other characters to play with.

Can you imagine if Martin did that on Game of Thrones? “Joffrey’s got his own yard by a lake where he can chase rabbits and geese and romp with other Grimdark psychopath royalty.”

Super Short Story Formula! This Is Boss and Should Be Read!

26 04 2015

How to write a short story from author Vylar Kaftan!


13 03 2015

The world has turned too many times. The era for the satiric British voice passed away last decade and the cavalier remark died in this one. My regret is not just appreciating Sir Terry while he lived, but that his like will not come again.

I have read very little Pratchett. I tried but my Brit humor nerve had been burned out long ago. People I admire admired Pratchett, though. I read the subjects he tackled and quotes from his work and I sorely felt the fault for my limitation.

I read the major publications and keep track of novel releases and for the life of me I can’t imagine who else examines the human condition, darts in, and tickles it. Would such a writer have a chance in today’s market?
Short stories? As far as I can see, the only venues publishing blithe and pithy humor are Asimov’s, F&SF, and Daily Science Fiction. Pratchett’s work was too Eurocentric and too lacking in florid or floral language for any other venue. Not enough pop culture references to get on McSweeny’s.

Who would publish his novel? Orbit? Baen?
Of his first three novels, the first was an ill-received fantasy and the next two were Niven parodies. What publisher would have stuck with him beyond those to take a risk on Ankh-Morpork?

I am not alone in my lack of appreciation. SFWA had many chances to give Sir Terry his due with Hugos and Nebulas. Not one nomination over decades, except for one near the end of his life. He refused the award. Good for him.
SFWA joins every other literary body and the MPAA in being too insecure to acclaim some joke-teller. He’d be too British to get a Twain.
Who growing in our midst could be a quasi-Pratchett? Alex Shvartsman? Grady Hendrix?
Neil Gaiman has reverted to formula.
Jeffrey Fford?
Esther Friesner? Another humor writer without a Hugo or Nebula.

The fragmentation of Genre markets have made a writer like Sir Terry almost impossible. The Genres are being crushed by seriousness. The vitality and irreverence that Sir Terry thrived on is fleeing into Young Adult and Romance fiction, or trying to define itself as Weird, Bizarro, or Superversive (google them).

It may be decades before we see the likes of him again, if ever.

Writing “The Other”. Then Driving “The Other” Mad. Then Eating “The Other’s” Cat

2 03 2015

As a thinking human, I reserve the right to change my mind.

There are concerns in the genre communities about cultural appropriation and writing The Other, meaning a character who lives beyond the experience of its author. Being a heterosexual, able-bodied, European-descended, middle-aged man, for me The Other is anyone not sharing any one of my traits. There is a lot of discussion about the proper method of assembling The Other.

Let’s consider assembling a character and also the nature of identity. I have dozens of attributes. Only a few of these would have any bearing on the plot of a short story. More attributes, maybe a dozen, are needed to write a character rounded enough to maintain a reader’s interest in a novel.

I had an idea where the latest technologies could be combined to create a robot existing unseen in a population as it spread terror. How would I best demonstrate this critter? Turn it loose in Philadelphia.

How could a character get involved emotionally in this critter? Make her family a victim? Too easy, plus there’s nothing to keep tension. The authorities could be contacted at any time to combat the critter with guns blazing. I prefer to write tight, claustrophobic stories.

Ah! The critter needs a friend who shares its motives, or who it can seduce into its motives. Which would make this less “The Terminator” and more “‘Short Circuit’ Meets ‘Rosemary’s Baby'”.

I needed someone who was suffering and faced huge social challenges. Not me.

Statistically, I needed woman from a racial minority. How should I attempt to write a young black woman in the U.S.?

The essays and comments I’ve read about Writing The Other fall within a spectrum. On one end, writers say “You cannot write outside of your experience capably. Do not try.” The other end: “Research as much as you can, then have the character vetted by a person sharing the traits of The Other, then use that finished story as the beginning of a dialogue with your reader, so that critiques become learning experiences.”

This other end is more reasonable. However, it does bring up a further perspective.

Every character in a story is supposed to be plausible and elicit sympathy. Even the ones who are just like the author.

Every individual outside your skin and not wearing your shoes is “The Other”.

Every character has fears. Every character has A Need (One Need per story). Every character has a rationalization that makes her the hero of her story.  No matter race, creed, preferences; the writing process makes every character into the Un-Author.

With this perspective, I began writing. I based the character loosely on a woman I knew. She had a cat, and pets are great foils and empathy-creators. She was educated and had been laid off from retail jobs. She was a reader of F & SF, which I used as the critter’s entre into her confidence. The critter used her yearning for a meaningful life to manipulate her into a quest against society. I included her tastes and preferences. I tweaked the character enough to suit the story’s needs, had the story vetted, then in a move that still unsettles me, I emailed the story to the woman.

It seemed the right thing to do. If she approved of the character, I must have done it right. The days of waiting for a response was unnerving. Had I offended her? Then I got her critique.

She was happy I kept the cat’s death off-page. Otherwise, she seemed content. Except she said, “This is a horror story? I thought she’d gone off and had adventures.”

I was startled. Then I realized I made the one big mistake: the story drove her instead of the other way around.

I rewrote and had the critter give her choices. Had her be more aware of what was going on, and knowing that she was in an ambiguous situation: was this a quest or some means of terrorism?

Does the story work? I got good critiques from my writers’ groups, but no one’s bought the story so far.

If this story gets published, I foresee getting mail from people taking issue with my writing someone who is not like me. Because the character is a woman and a minority in these tense times of the U.S., the mail may be confrontational.

I want to be a nice guy. I do not want to offend.

No level of research is going to be comprehensive. Not all criticisms are valid. In short, even if you get it right for the story, it will not be universally approved.

The best I can do is remember that no character should be taken for granted. Attention to details may not circumvent criticism, but it will make me more confident in all my choices.









How To Write: 1. Establish Goals

4 02 2015

I reserve the right to change my ideas and methods at any time. So should you.
It is said that one can’t learn to be an artist. One might be born with the need to think up cool things while ignoring friends, family, and bill collectors. That is an artist’s perspective. But that’s half of the making of an artist.
The other half is having an artist’s skills. One can learn those skills to create something others will want. It takes practice and humility to want to learn them. And a specific type of epiphany to spark that desire.
My epiphany came when I (as a dreamy reader and player of “Dungeons and Dragons”) read a science fiction anthology: “Mirrorshades” edited by Bruce Sterling. There was a story in it that inspired me. It motivated me. It made me say what all artists says throughout their careers:
“This got published? I can do better than that!”
Artists have two motivations: “Spiteful Pride” and “The Zone”.
“Spiteful Pride” is the belief that the world will benefit from your effort, and “The Zone” is the feeling of being lost in the act of writing. The former is the thrill of a reader liking your work and chasing that thrill. The latter is being so involved in an activity that you’ve lost awareness of where you are, and that so much time has passed. Both feelings make a human healthy.
What was that story and who was that writer? “Stone Lives” by Paul Di Fillipo. He’s had a dozen novels and fifteen short story collections published. I have no doubt that someone similarly acclaimed gave Di Fillipo the same epiphany that he provided to me.
What is the most important quality to writing?
In ruminating about this, I discovered my priorities. If I fulfill the higher ones, then I worry about the lower tiers. From top-to-bottom, the most important qualities to writing:
1. Fun – Did you enjoy the overall process? Did you enjoy paying your bills with the paycheck?
Education – Did you learn something from the experience? Chances are “yes” even if you do not like the result. There is no such thing as a failed experiment.
2. Innovation – Did you try something new to your genre or at least new to you?
3. Acceptability – Did your work achieve the results you wanted for your target audience. Did the horror horrify? Did the joke make them laugh?
4. Plot – Setting and character are equally important to the impact of your plot. To use something from (I think) Stephen King: Switch Hamlet and Othello. Hamlet would have second-guessed himself until he realized Iago was playing him, and Othello would have killed everyone by halfway through Act One.

You will note that I do not mention “theme” or “style”. At this point, I have found that those two are results of a polished work. If I try to force either one of these onto a story, the weight of my intention crushes the story. The characters become passive pawns swept by events. Their dialogue turns into plot points spoken aloud. The narrative voice becomes affected and distracting.

Using this tier, I plan on expanding on these topics in future posts as time provides.

Horror Writing Prompts and Ideas

24 11 2014

Monsters Used Rarely. Blaze your own trail with these creatures.


Botany Turned Magic. A neat world-building detail.


1970s Spooky Anthology TV Series. Anything useful here?

I’ll See Someone (You?) At PhilCon!

15 11 2014

On Friday (my only day allowed from my Big Box job), I will be at three panels and a friend’s booklaunch at PhilCon: Philadelphia’s Science Fiction Convention. It’s the oldest running con in the US.

Keeping Morale Up During NaNoWriMo

13 11 2014

I hadn’t tried to work on NaNaWriMo, because my self-esteem isn’t great enough to handle anything resembling a competition. I know the purpose of NaNoWriMo is to kickstart your own work and keep a steady pace, and it is barely even a competition with yourself. Yet the reluctance was there.

This year, I started work on a novel in October, so by coincidence here I am in NaNoWriMo like it or not.

I decided to write the first draft long hand. Working that way for the first six chapters of “Flesh Sutra” felt comfortable. It got me back in touch with writing when I was in high school, when I wrote for pure enthusiasm and without my brain demanding I win acclaim for my effort.

So. I became discouraged with my output. I’m a 50+ year old man working on my feet all day. A few hundred words here and there for the last two weeks.

Gathered the pages together and arranged them in a binder. Lo and behold! 18,000 words?! Not counting the first chapter written in October! I estimate I’m 2/5ths through, maybe 3/5ths! A flush of pride and accomplishment!

My characters went off the track and discovered: an underground railroad for paranormal insurgents; a society desperate to ignore said paranormal in the rush to rebuild from its onslaught; the ingenious location of a paranormal spy; a theme reflecting our current cultural struggles.

Writing is a way to explore the uncomfortable. This story is helping me hash out our current mess in speculative fiction and society.

One side has dolts whose hearts are in the right, but has very few actual thinkers.

The other has good thinkers with practical opinions and observations. It also contains (to me) a stunning lack of self-insight.

Both sides have reflexive, simplistic dogmatists.

The best symbolism is accidental. Whatever comes out of the writing, it’s best that I’m surprised.

Meanwhile, have you visited ? A nice guy and a good writer.

I Have A Goal & It’s Boss & Challenging!

26 09 2014

It is said among the writers that one could make a living if one has ten novels in print.
I’ve done research and found writers who have made that work.
Why them and not me?
I will write six novels in the next three years. Each novel will be from 50K – 80K words. So, a half million words in the next three years.
I am outlining three novels right now. I’ll let you know how they are going.

Novel 1: Haunted House Big Box Store
The alienation found in haunted house stories like “The Haunting of Hill House” can also be generated through anomie, or being lost in a crowd. I already have jokes in here. I will be using experiences gained through my part-time job at the Big Box store.

Novel 2: Real Politik Black Satire Fantasy Fiction
Set in the world of “The Mad Earl’s Homecoming”. The main character is an anti-hero who is part Elric and part Blackadder.

Novel 3: “Sour Crude Dead”
A new take on post-apocalypse zombies. The first chapter is done and I hope to sell it as a short story.

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