Post #20 – Finding Inspiration

Featured

5/10/18

Last week, I promised two things: details of my unusual writing circumstances on April 29 and where I intend to draw inspiration.

On April 29, I attended the National Gallery Writing Salon with my fellow Northern Virginia Writers Club member and one of my beta readers, Michelle McBeth. Indeed, she has my gratitude for registering for an extra spot, which she then graciously allowed me to use. By the time I was ready to register, the salon already was wait-listed.

The salon was at the Smithsonian’s National Gallery of Art – East Building, and the topic was flash fiction. The idea was to view Edward Hopper’s painting Cape Code Evening (1939), which is the featured image for this post, and work through five writing exercises involving the painting. By the end of the 2.5 hour salon, the goal was to have most of the elements of a flash fiction piece written.

When the first writing exercise ended, I had the plot of my flash fiction story.  When the third concluded, I’d written most of the story. On the subway home, I wrote the introductory sentences to each of the three sections of the story. The next day I put it all together and had the first draft of a 500 word piece.

Did I find the salon useful? Yes and no. First, I’ve never liked group discusses where people talk about how they feel or what they think this or that means. That went double here where most of the writers attending do not write speculative fiction and were focusing on things irrelevant to my writing. Luckily, when we broke off into groups of two, I, at different times, teamed up with Michelle, who writes speculative fiction, and a gentleman, who also happened to write speculative fiction. That made at least pairing up bearable because we were all on similar wavelengths.  For example: “The darkness of the woods does not represent the sadness felt by the woman in the painting. The darkness is a non-corporeal being coming to eat them.” That’s my type of analysis! At the same time, I will give credit where credit is due. The painting and the salon did give me an idea for a piece that I enjoyed writing and one I hope gets published.

My other source of inspiration lately, like many sci-fi writers, is science. I may be one of the few people who still receive a physical paper every morning, the Washington Post. One of my favorite sections comes on Tuesdays, Health & Science. The health stories usually are interesting, especially the medical mysteries, but they haven’t inspired any story ideas yet.

The science stories, on the other hand, are great sources of information. Orson Scott Card, in Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction: How to Create Out-of-This-World Novels and Short Stories, says he usually does not rely on one idea for a novel, instead he likes to have two and weave them together into a single story. When I read that, I asked myself how does that work? Then I read a science article in the WashPo and thought that would make a good idea for a story. Later I read a second science article, thinking that too could be the basis for a good story. Both stories involve very unusual reproduction outcomes from two different animals. I plan to use both but in a single story. Like Card, I will mesh the two ideas into one story, hopefully making it better.

I envision the story will involve two alien races, each exhibiting one of these reproduction outcomes, meeting and cohabiting. I think it was David Gerrold, in Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, who mentioned a certain scientist’s opinion on how to make an alien race believable. (I need to dig this guy’s name out.) He advocated the unusual characteristics of the alien race should exist somewhere in the animal kingdom on Earth. Earth’s fauna are so varied they essentially encompass every characteristic possible in life anywhere in the universe. I’m not sure I agree with that, and what fun is it to create an alien race that exhibits elements we’re already familiar with? And what if the element present in an Earth animal is so obscure, like discussed in the two articles I’m drawing from, the average reader has no idea such elements appear on Earth? I understand the desire to ground a new race in what is known, but is it practical?

For me, at least this time, it doesn’t matter. My two alien races will have a solid grounding in obscure Earth fauna reproductive outcomes. Maybe I should include a bibliography with the story to prove the bona fides of my two alien races.

Photo credit: Smithsonian’s National Gallery of Art

Post #9 – Resources 3 – Formatting and Editing

2/22/18

Here I am back to writing resources again. As a new writer, I started from scratch in a lot of ways.  One of those was learning how to format a work as expected by publishers. For short stories, almost every publisher’s submissions guidelines say to use Shunn’s manuscript format. Between that and Word’s manuscript template, my short stories at least looked professional from the beginning.

Some publishers look for stories in non-traditional formats. In the submission guidelines for several publishers, they state they actively seek stories in non-traditional formats.  Examples provided include a story written in the style of a web chat or series of text messages. The concept of using non-traditional formats goes back at least as far as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and probably further, where the narrative appears in a series of journal entries and correspondence. More recently, the same concept was used in The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.: A Novel by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. An author in my critique group experimented with using a Dracula-style format for her novel but abandoned the idea, citing difficulty in making it work. I have not tried the concept myself, though I did include an email exchange in one short story.

With formatting out of the way, I needed to learn stylistically how to write. Again, if your story calls for a non-traditional style, go for it. But for a traditional story, if I want to be published, the style should conform to that expected by most publishers. Stephen King advocates using The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. It’s short at about 80 pages. There’s also The Chicago Manual of Style.  I happened to have an abbreviated version of this lying around.

The reason I knew to use “lying” instead of “laying” just then was because of Blood from Your Own Pen: A Practical Guide on Self-Editing and Common Mistakes: For Beginning Authors Who Intend to Survive to Publications by Sam Knight. I love this book. I recommend it for any novice writer. For starters, it’s funny, which I always appreciate. Second, the advice is solid. I often found I’d read a chapter, and then the next time I was editing a story, I’d catch the mistakes Knight just told me about. Also, as I receive rejections of stories I have out now, I’m finding myself re-editing them to eliminate the errors he discusses. That makes the turnaround time for resubmitting those stories slower, but maybe the revised stories will appeal more to subsequent publishers.

Post #5 – Resources Part 1 – Books

1/24/18

Besides being a big reader of speculative fiction, especially science fiction, I have no writing credentials.  I didn’t study creative writing in college.  I haven’t attended any writing workshops, though I may.

I repeatedly hear two pieces of advice on how to improve my writing.  The first way to become a better writer is to be an avid reader.  Check.  Of course, the second thing they say is to write.  However, I feel simply writing alone cannot make me a better writer.  How do I avoid repeating the same mistakes?  If I do not know how to develop characters, or plot, or theme, can I grasp those concepts intuitively just from reading other fiction?  I doubt it.  So instead of simply reading genre fiction, I also have read books recently on the art or how-to of writing speculative fiction.  Below are some of my favorites so far.

Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by David Gerrold

Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction: How to Create Out-of-This-World Novels and Short Stories by Orson Scott Card

On Writing by Stephen King

King’s is more high level and much more personal.  For example, he discusses where he writes and when he writes and how much he writes each day.  The first part of the book is a true memoir and discusses his childhood and his early writing while addicted to drugs and alcohol.  I found that all fascinating but not very helpful in developing my writing skills.  Unfortunately, I do not plan to become addicted to drugs or alcohol any  time soon.

The other two books listed above are more about the nuts and bolts of writing speculative fiction.  I found Worlds of Wonder especially practical.  For example, Gerrold devotes one chapter to the questions an author should ask when developing an alien race.  He devotes another chapter to the questions an author should ask when developing a new world.  While an author is not expected to include the answers to all these questions in a work, it seems logical that an author can only fulfill the old adage of writing what you know if you’ve developed the alien race or world to the point where you truly know it.

I don’t plan to stop with the books above.  I have a list.  I always have a list… for everything.  Below are a couple on my To Read list.

Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story by Ursula Le Guin (RIP, 1929-2018)

Characters & Viewpoint (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Orson Scott Card

In addition to the craft of writing, I’ve read a couple books on the business of writing.  Writing will not be my career any time soon, but I found the following two books to be immensely helpful in understanding the ins and outs of writing as a business.

The Magic Bakery: Copyright in the Modern World of Fiction Publishing (A WMG Writer’s Guide) by Dean Wesley Smith

Q&A for Science Fiction Writers by Mike Resnick

I bought both of these as part of Story Bundle’s 2017 NaNoWriMo bundle.  I’m still working my way through the remaining titles in that bundle.  Resnick’s take is a little dated since it mostly was written in the early 2000s with the occasional update in 2008 and again in 2012.  Much has changed since the early 2000s and even in last five years, especially with electronic publishing.  Regardless, many of Resnick’s points remain applicable.  Smith’s take is more current, and he does not come off nearly as arrogant as Resnick.  (I’m not saying that arrogance wasn’t earned, but it’s there.)  That said, I felt I benefited from the two contrasting viewpoints.  Now I just need to learn about writing viewpoints.