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What’s in Your Way?

Aftersight

I started writing fiction regularly in college. I remember that time well, especially the summers there in my bedroom, sitting behind the desk as a warm evening breeze wafted through the open windows. Even now I can put myself back there and recreate it exactly in my mind: the feel of the chair beneath me, the texture of the keyboard under my fingers, that tiny Macintosh SE screen lighting up the room, the scent of trees and river and freshly cut grass.

When I first started writing, conditions had to be perfect. My homework had to be done. I couldn’t have any crap piled on my desk. My room had to be picked up. Bed made. Clothes folded and put away.

It occurred to me recently that maybe the reason why my writing sessions are so clear to me all these years later is because they happened so rarely. Conditions had to be just right before I wrote anything. Often, too many piles were stacked up between me and opening that word processing document.

Yes, those moments when I actually was writing, like those lovely, luxurious summer vacations described above, were romantic and pleasure-filled. But they were all too rare.

I think now about how my writing has evolved. When I’m in The Zone, I’m writing all the time: In the morning at my desktop, on the bus on my notebook computer, dictating on my phone as I walk to and from my bus stop, writing emails to myself when a compelling description or plot point or line of dialogue comes into my head. Now, I write on the go and fuck the piles and obligations and the perfect conditions that would ideally exist before I put fingers to keyboard. Now I just have to write.

What conditions have to exist before you allow yourself time to channel the muse? Does it have to be absolutely silent? Do you need long stretches of unbroken time? Do the kids need to be at school or at camp or daycare?

Is all that really true are or they just excuses? Do you really not have time to write or is there something more to it? Is there a fear keeping you from what you really want to do, one that you haven’t even consciously acknowledged?

Maybe it’s time to put all that aside, put your butt in the chair, and write.

Mastering Astral ProjectionBrian Mercer is the author of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body Experience (Llewellyn, 2004) and the Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, he is the webmaster of and occasional contributor to Author Magazine. When he’s not working as a programmer analyst or exploring alternate dimensions out of body, he can be found writing novels. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara.

Site: http://www.brianmercerbooks.com/

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/BriMercer

Twitter: @BriMercer

 

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No Life but in Things

Because You Have To            Two lines from two famous poets come back to me whenever I think about the life of objects in writing.

One is the brilliant, beloved Richard Wilbur’s Love calls us to the things of this world, from the poem of the same title, a gorgeous meditation on the difficult (but desirable) balance between concerns of the physical and the spiritual in the human heart. The other, from the equally brilliant, beloved William Carlos Williams, is the phrase No ideas but in things, which was, as I understand it, a kind of rebuking manifesto to other poets of his time (quoting online analysis here), urging “simplicity of language” and the “precise placing of each visual element [as] an argument for clear sight in poetry, stripped of conventional symbolism.”

Those two lines re-awaken me, by dint of their beauty, simplicity, and joy, to the artistic fertility of objects, places, weather—all the physical incarnations of life on earth, including the inanimate—in writing. The way written things can embody what a writer strives to convey, relieves that writer of the deadening effort to spell it out conventionally; to tell instead of show.

This is why I exhort myself, in the raw hours of making new work, to pay ravenous attention to the physical world of my stories, to rove my  imagination’s eye around the street or room, and (like a Ouija board’s token) see where it alights—more accurately, what it alights upon. Curtains, walls, chairs, paintings, photos, trinkets, laundry, beds, food, flooring, light through windowglass—a wealth manifests before the mind’s eye’s slow-panning camera.

The writer’s job is to transcribe what she sees as fast and capably as she can.

Somehow in the very mundane-ness of those objects, qualities, and surroundings, dwells a kind of gold: what playwrights sometimes call the reflector, or (more simply and usually) concrete details. They help the story tell itself. Their effects carry the story into the reader’s body—because the reader’s body recognizes the things of this world, and gladly (in Sven Birkerts’ words) “bustles about” furnishing its vision of the story with those items. And once inside, like a Trojan horse emptying itself of secret soldiers, the inanimate thing releases its cargo of emotion: sadness, jubilation, bewilderment. A writer learns to trust her instinct to deeply (if selectively) involve the life of objects in her storytelling. Magically, she is made larger for it, right along with the reader.

Because You Have ToJoan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Lifejust nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.

Site: http://www.joanfrank.org/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/joan.frank.9?fref=ts

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Scattering Seeds

Aftersight

Okay, here’s the scenario: You’ve been writing a while, right? You have a story you’re passionate about and you’ve been devoting your spare time to writing, editing, and generally educating yourself on what it takes to create a great novel, one that might get published one day.

You think you might benefit from some outside advice, maybe network with other writers, so you join a writers group. Now you’re getting to know people. They’ve read your stuff and like your writing. Would you mind reading their stuff? They’d really like your opinion. This would mean taking time away from your writing, but it’s only fair. They read your stuff, right?

You learn that in order to get published, it helps to have a platform, get your name out there, so you start blogging. And your blog is growing a following. People like what you have to say. Sure, it’s taking time from working on your novel, but the way you see it, you’re planting seeds, hoping something will grow. You never know who might read your blog. Maybe it will lead to something.

And it does. A fellow blogger likes what you’re doing and invites you to guest blog on her site twice a month. It turns out, she has a huge following. This would be great exposure for you, so you agree. Add it to your list of writing tasks. You’re planting seeds, hoping to see something grow one day.

Then one of your writing buddies informs you that he’s starting a site featuring book reviews. It’s a paid gig. Not much, but it’s a writing credit. Something to fill in the blanks in your query letter. You sign on.

Someone at work hears you’re a writer and asks you to submit an article with him. It’s not a done deal, but it’s a possibility. He’s providing an introduction to the publication’s editor. A great contact, so you go for it. More seeds hit the ground.

Okay, you with me? Now, here’s the thing with the seed-planting metaphor. Planting seeds, the way a gardener plants seeds, is a very prescribed process. The seeds go in the right soil at just the right depth, and at just the right temperature, and exposed to just the right amount of sunlight and water. If the conditions are right, as they are for a seasoned gardener, it’s not long before flowers blossom.

The writing scenario described above isn’t really planting seeds, is it? It’s more like scattering seeds; flinging seeds around and hoping that one hits the dirt and gets lodged just deep enough so that the right combination light and moisture and heat will cause the seed to germinate.

It’s rare, but that kind of thing does happen, like in my scenario. But is the growth leading in the direction you want to go? Is the kind of plant life that’s coming out of the ground what you want to reap?

There’s nothing wrong with networking with other writers, getting your name out there, or earning publishing credits. Yet for those with “day jobs,” time devoted to writing is limited. Look at the pie chart of your time. How big a slice of that pie represents your writing time? Now how much of that slice are you devoting to writing your manuscript?

At some point, you have to reassess. It’s okay to say no to the guy who wants you to read his stuff. If your blog is taking too much time, scale back. If someone asks you to write an article on a topic that doesn’t interest you, just say no.

What story inspires your passion? Are you writing it?

Mastering Astral ProjectionBrian Mercer is the author of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body Experience (Llewellyn, 2004) and the Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, he is the webmaster of and occasional contributor to Author Magazine. When he’s not working as a programmer analyst or exploring alternate dimensions out of body, he can be found writing novels. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara.

Site: http://www.brianmercerbooks.com/

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/BriMercer

Twitter: @BriMercer

 

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Take Three Titles and Call Me in the Morning

Because You Have To           Feeling lost and lonely? Need to laugh? Get hold of some Nora Ephron, David Sedaris, or Dave Barry. (Or Kingsley Amis, whose Lucky Jim surely remains one of the funniest novels  ever written.) Crave soothing? Read some E. B. White, or a book that tracks the painting of a portrait. (Man With a Blue Scarf, Martin Gayford.) Need a bracing draught of coziness-with-pitiless-psychological-acuity? Curl up with a pile of Jane Austen or Henry James—or for literary smack-pow insight, the essays of James Wood. Want the equivalent of a shot of absinthe? Wild Sargasso Sea. Seek American characters who’ll intrigue and compel, yet feel familiar? Grab some Elizabeth Strout, starting with Olive Kitteridge. Jonesing for a candy assortment, where you can skip around and pounce on all the dark truffles? Best American Short Stories. And please don’t forget the immeasurable power of childhood or young adult favorites for any malady— including that of the aimless need to reconnect with life, history, adventure: The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Out of Africa; The Great Gatsby; Swiss Family Robinson, Charlotte’s Web.

            (This list, of course, scrolls infinitely on. My own pulse quickens with literary lust, just thinking about certain titles I long to revisit for no other reason than that I love them foolishly.)

            My dearest friend and I fantasize about creating a newspaper column premised upon exactly this transaction: books as medicine; indeed, as some of the best, most effective medicine ever. The suffering citizen would write to us, describing her or his symptoms. And we wise people-of-the-book would advise that person, in a column functioning like a friendly forum—other citizens could scan it for helpful advice. (My friend teaches now, but she sold books professionally for some time, and still practices this prescriptive therapy.)

Artists and writers, naturally, are not only not exempt from the folds of the ailing: often we may be found slumped at their front lines, wearied and wounded from the good fight, pining for inspiration, for courage, for galvanizing vision and energy. Look no further, fellow pilgrim, than your local library’s or bookstore’s shelves—then follow your heart’s divining rod for the exactly the right antidote. What’s most splendid about this whole exchange is the vastness of the range of brilliant remedies. In fact I’m about to walk right now to my own local library, where three wonderful titles await me.

Nothing feels better.

Because You Have ToJoan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Lifejust nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.

Site: http://www.joanfrank.org/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/joan.frank.9?fref=ts

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That Little Voice

AftersightHave you been there? You’re writing your novel and everything is going splendidly. You’ve created engaging characters, built tension, added a sprig of humor in just the right places. Then you hit that spot that you’ve been building up all through the first act, that scene that the readers have been waiting for since the protagonist heard her call to adventure.

You’re writing the scene you thought would captivate, but it feels flat. Everything that’s propelled you to this moment is beginning to slip away and that little voice in your head starts to talk to you: This sucks. Where is this going? What am I doing? All these cool things I have planned for the rest of this book, if I can only get past this scene.

Doubt creeps in. You think, If even I’m bored with this scene, how can my readers get through it? Is this where I lose them?

Suddenly, you’re finding excuses not to write. If you do, you find yourself working and reworking that scene, trying to discover what’s missing, trying to make it shine. It’s not writing anymore. Now it’s work when everything before it came so easily. You’re losing the magic and you don’t know why.

There are things you can do to overcome this. Some people will choose to write, “Chapter 9: Boy Meets Girl” and move on. Others will step back an analyze their story for plot flaws or try to rework their outline. Still other will mentally talk to their characters and let them inform them what’s not working. There’s nothing better than when your characters start to speak.

For me, I get this feeling in scenes when nothing surprising is happening. Characters are saying and doing exactly what you’d expect characters would say and do in this situation. The magic is gone because it feels like a path you’ve been on before, like that last mile or two before you arrive home, the stretch of road that’s so familiar it becomes backdrop.

I ask myself, “How can I surprise the reader? What aren’t they expecting? How can I introduce a roadblock in this route that they think they already know?”

If you’re an outliner, this is going to feel uncomfortable. This might screw up all your carefully wrought plans. But it could just introduce an entirely new element to your story that adds depth and tension to the scenes you already have mentally plotted out.

Think about the novels you’ve read and the scenes that caught you so off guard that you couldn’t believe that the author did that. George R.R Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series excels at this and drives the story forward masterfully because you saw exactly where the story was going…  But you were wrong.

You remember those times when you were reading and something in the story made you gasp? Those surprises, that masterful slight of hand, is what your reader is going to remember when they close the book and long for your next story.

Challenge yourself. What is the reader expecting? Now how can you screw up their assumptions?

Start with your troubled scene. Now think, What if…

Mastering Astral ProjectionBrian Mercer is the author of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body Experience (Llewellyn, 2004) and the Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, he is the webmaster of and occasional contributor to Author Magazine. When he’s not working as a programmer analyst or exploring alternate dimensions out of body, he can be found writing novels. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara.

Site: http://www.brianmercerbooks.com/

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/BriMercer

Twitter: @BriMercer

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Totem Animals

The NSA FilesMy totem animal, at the moment, is the hawk, but I can feel eagle pressing forward lately. Totem animals come and go dependent on whether we feed them or not, whether we recognize them around, and what we need at the time. I’ve often had snake as a totem animal, and owl, and even dragon, which occasionally starts out as snake. Don’t ask why, because I’m not sure I could tell you. I’ve also had coyote come to me when needed. And raccoon.

 

While growing up in the woods, I remember my first totem animal being deer: a quiet urging toward new experiences. Over the years, deer has gone on to others. I often think children have deer as a totem animal. Deer are often gentle and shy in a very important way. My dad possessed bear for many years, but also had groundhog and squirrel when he needed them. The rest of my family don’t speak of these things, but I could often see a totem animal around them when we were together…in the ways they expressed themselves.

 

A good friend of mine has worked with snapping turtle for years. He’s a great, quiet man until you piss him off, then it’s full force and head first! Knowing this about him makes it easy to be around him. And that’s what I propose, is that we recognize our own totem animal whenever we can. Feel free to call on them when needed. You want a raise at work? Call on cougar: be stealth, but focused, and don’t be afraid to pounce when the time is right.

 

There are books about totem animals, but one of the most efficient ways to learn about them is to read about their habits and habitats. Read about whether they mate for life or not, whether they hibernate or save for the winter. Notice how they treat their young, and what they eat – definitely what they eat, because having a totem animal show up in your life might mean you need to change your diet.

 

The idea of totem animals works for me. It allows me to focus on where life is helping me. I recommend everyone try to notice such things. It may help you become more aware.

Ten Months In WonderlandTerry Persun writes in many genres, including historical fiction, mainstream, literary, and science fiction/fantasy. He is a Pushcart nominee. His latest poetry collection is “And Now This”. His novels, “Wolf’s Rite” and “Cathedral of Dreams” were ForeWord magazine Book of the Year finalists in the science fiction category, and his novel “Sweet Song” won a Silver IPPY Award. His latest science fiction space opera is, “Hear No Evil”, his latest fantasy is “Doublesight”, his latest mainstream/literary novel is “Ten Months in Wonderland”.

Site: http://www.TerryPersun.wix.com/terrypersun

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On Ghosts in the Machine

Bone RiverI’ve been rediscovering something I’ve always known, though it’s been brought home to me a bit more recently, and that is that the things you don’t write are often as important as the things you do.

I don’t mean this in the classic way: that stories are made stronger when you choose exactly the right words and take out the dross. Of course that’s true. What I’m talking about is the way research informs a work, and how the thorough knowledge of a place, or a character, or a thing, has a resonance even when you’ve never written the words to begin with. Ghosts in the machine, if you will.

There is a phenomenon that happens when you get a place or subject firmly in your head, when you know it inside and out. Even if you don’t write it down, that knowledge somehow gets on the page. It gets into the words you choose and the things you describe, even if you don’t realize it. It imparts layers and richness. It’s in your subconscious, and as bitchy as she can be, that subconscious is constantly working. Knowledge is a ghost, and one that stays, hovering over every plotline, characterization and description. It even gets into dialogue and style. This is why, no matter what you’re writing, you should understand the very bones of the subject you’re writing about. Even if you choose not to write every detail of how a blacksmith makes a horseshoe, you as a writer must know them. The ghost of that knowledge informs the way you describe him; the way he moves, the things he says, the essence of who he is.

I have often said that even if you’re writing contemporary fiction, it’s important to research your setting back to its founding. Why? Because places are what they are because of the people who chose to live there.  New York City’s rationalist Dutch heritage still informs it. The difference between LA and Boston is profound—LA was predominantly a transient population in its early days, men who only wanted to make money and move on. Boston was founded by religious mandate—it was to be a shining city on a hill for believers in a Christian God. These cities are what they are because of their pasts. The ghosts never leave.

This is what happens when you research too.  The things you learn stay in your head and color every choice you make. These ghosts in the machine give your work depth, and that is why it’s important to feed them from the start—they are the truth and the essence of everything you write, even if they aren’t on the page.

Bone RiverMegan Chance is the critically acclaimed, award-winning author of several novels. The Best Reviews has said she writes “Fascinating historical fiction.” Her books have been chosen for the Borders Original Voices program and IndiBound’s Booksense. A former television news photographer with a BA from Western Washington University, Megan Chance lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two daughters. Find her at: http://www.MeganChance.com.

Site: http://www.meganchance.com/

Twitter: www.twitter.com/MeganSChance

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Megan-Chance/116492864590

Blog: http://meganchance.livejournal.com

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