Dream Ursula K. LeGuin Dispenses Inspiration in a Red Swamp Thing Diving Suit

I had a vivid and wonderful dream last night.

I am visiting beautiful, but empty country home. Like Town & Country beautiful, Martha Stewart beautiful.

I walk through the house admiring the impeccable if completely predictable interior design. Outside the windows, I glimpse the beautifully kept grounds that surround the house. Immaculate, bright green lawns lead to copses of young trees then to shaded woodland beyond. There are also ponds and rustic outbuildings.

Standing at the back door, a wood-framed screen door, naturally. I see a large shed, perhaps some kind of workshop. A sign by the screen door says, “The dog and pail are to remain on the property in memory of Lou Reed.” * I look again and a tri-color hunting dog sits next to a metal pail by the shed. The dog trots toward me, and I walk out to greet him. He was smaller than I thought he would be – as if he’d stayed the size he was when I’d spotted him in the middle distance. He leads me back to the shed, which is now mostly submerged in one of the lovely clear ponds – as if it had always been so. Only the roof and the tops of the windows are above the surface of the water, still as glass. The dog sits back down next to the pail, which is now in the grass at the edge of the water.  

Next, I’m swimming under the water, following the bright red legs and fins of a diver that leading me deeper into the cool darkness. The diver disappears through a black basement entrance and I follow. Together we swim up alongside cellar stairs to emerge at the first floor. Inside the shed is dry, watertight. Through the windows the bright sunshine and beautiful green lawns are impossibly lovely, jewel-like when seen through the prismatic lens of the crystal clear water.


Ursula K. Le Guin

I turn back to the diver. Her bright red diving suit is designed to look like the Swamp Thing with delicate scales stamped into the material. There are no air tanks or hoses. Decorative fins sprout from the sides of her helmet, and opaque eyeshapes are worked into the visor. ** She takes the helmet off and it’s Ursula K. Le Guin! This is her house and her shed (but I knew that already). We sit on tatty ottomans facing each other, both looking around at the fascinating clutter of knickknacks and curios that fill the bare-floored room.

She says, “You see? This is where all the best story material is.”


Of course.

My subconscious recruited one of my literary heroes to remind me, in its own lovely and bizarre way, that the best things are waiting to be discovered – just below the surface. ***

* I have no idea how the dog, the pail, and Lou Reed figure into this, but they were a lovely detail.

** Last night, I finished reading All You Need is Kill, where the female protagonist wears a bright red armored suit, and over dinner we had a lively discussion with the girls about the Swamp Thing!

*** As captivating as all the curious objects inside were, I was also fascinated by how strange the world above appeared when viewed through that limpid water.

Free Writing Redux

It’s been another hectic week. I’ve managed to fit in some writing, just not any blog writing. So here’s an encore post polished up for your reading pleasure. I picked this one because I’m currently expanding the project, and I wanted to remind myself of the importance of writing freely while I restructure and reoutline.

A couple weeks ago I was thinking about process and how shape an idea without ruining it. One way of not holding on too tight to an idea is to write a LOT of words around it.  It’s like flying multiple recon sorties over the foreign geography of the idea until the target — or targets reveal themselves.

Short stories have to hit an emotional and thematic bull’s eye, but they have to be free too. It’s important not to be too frugal with world, especially when developing a story.

So I’ve decided to be even more spendthrift with words. My motto: More is more! The more I write the more material emerges from the dim recesses of my subconscious were all the interesting stuff hides.

Putting the Free Back in Free Writing
I picked up Writing With Power by Peter Elbow at Half Price Books a couple weeks ago and got a lot out of it. Much of this book is about writing nonfiction, which is probably why it wasn’t on my radar. And fair warning, this book is verbose and a bit padded out. He does not include a chapter about brevity, so I guess he’s being true to himself. I got the most out of the first third of the book, which deals with getting words out of your head and onto the paper (if revision is your bugaboo he addresses that along with audience and feedback).
Writing With Power made me realize that I’ve been screwing with my practice of free writing. Due to my own impatience (writing time is always hard to come by), I have this urge to make every word count. To write always to a purpose. What I’ve come to realize is that I can’t skimp on true free writing.  It’s OK to write garbage, to allow all that flotsam and jetsam fall out of my brain and onto the paper. Overall, I need to be more free with my words in all the stages of my writing, to expect to write more words than I will keep. It’s okay to throw away, to not finish, to try things out and abandon the ones that don’t work.
Speed Writing

This leads me to directed freewriting or speed writing (Elbow calls it “The Direct Writing Process”). Once I’ve free written my “throw away” pages, I start writing around my story idea, just writing freely and attentively, trying to let the structure and the soul of the thing emerge.

Another important point Elbow makes is not to be afraid of writing the wrong thing, because when you’re figuring something out, grasping for meaning, one of the best ways to get there is to blurt out the wrong thing and then adjust what your saying, circling until you zero in. Because it’s much harder to hit a bull’s eye without first taking some sloppy shots to warm up.

Free writing and speed writing means throwing away a lot while knowing that there are more words inside me, an infinite number of words. And most importantly, that among those words are the RIGHT words, the ones that will show me the way forward.

Honorable Mention!

My story “Futile the Winds” received an Honorable Mention in L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future contest! Which, according to their website, puts me in the top 10-15% of the entrants for that quarter. While they don’t list the numbers, it’s a big contest so I consider it an accomplishment to make the Honorable Mention list. I have a new story entered for the current quarter though it will be months before I hear back on that one.

Mars sunset

I’m don’t want to say too much about “Futile the Winds” as I’m trying to place it so that you can read it, online or in print, via a pro or semipro publication. I will say that it takes place on Mars and is a story of transformation. The title is from a poem by Emily Dickinson and while there’s no other direct reference to it, I tried to steer towards the essence of that poem in my story.

Wild nights! Wild nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile the winds
To a heart in port,
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart.

Rowing in Eden!
Ah! the sea!
Might I but moor
To-night in thee!

Prompt Me!

I am girding myself for my September folly of writing a Story A Day. I have been wanting to write more flash and this meshes perfectly with my flash fiction tutorial with Cat Rambo (or hopefully it will!). I have a few ideas waiting in the wings. I’m really not worried about coming up with ideas as they do seem to multiply the more I write. That said I will not risk being unprepared on some September day when life is crazy and I feel like throwing in the towel. Here are some of the things I use in general and will have on hand next month.

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field. Each short chapter is by a different flash fiction writer or editor. One of the strengths of this book is that it presents a multitude of approaches to thinking about and writing flash fiction. Every chapter has a writing prompt at the end.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Tarot and find the cards particularly well suited to fantasy ideas. Tarot for Writers is a fun and useful book for working with the deck for story-making. If you want to delve deeper into the Tarot Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom: A Book of Tarot by Rachel Pollack is one of the best

Every weekend io9 posts its Concept Art Writing Prompt, which is both visual and genre friendly. Also, I have several camera apps loaded onto my iPod, which have been woefully underutilized. I will be taking more pictures and using at least a couple for prompts. If I get a good story out of it I’ll have an illustration built in.

Brainstormer is a beautiful little app and I’ve been using it for a while. Mostly when I have a random 10 or 15 minutes to write but am away from my desk and computer. I’ll pull this up, give the iPod a shake, pull out my pen and journal and go from there.

Rory’s Story Cubes is marketed as a game for kids. I have it as an iPod app and have played it with my girls. At first I found the images a little limiting but that only made me realize that I shouldn’t be quite so literal. Using it as directed is a good way to practice coming up with beginnings, middles, and endings.

Poetry Spinner I think I’ve made my feelings about poetry clear. This app is inspirational and you should have it on general principles. You never know when you’ll get stuck in the doctor’s office waiting room or at the bus stop. For writing, I find a good poem has so much going on that it can suggest any number of stories and/or characters.

TV Tropes   Pick two or three random tropes and join them in a story. Beware the site is labyrinthine and oh so inviting. Roll out some string on your way in so that you can find your way out with enough time to write. Oh, they have an app too.

There are quite a few writing idea generators, but my favorite is 7th Sanctum, both for it’s ample list of generators and for its sense of whimsy. Their newest generator is a SF Tarot card generator. With a couple clicks I got: Six of Trains, The Artificer of Space Stations, Eight of Singularities, The Android of Cogs. The story just about writes itself!

Chaotic Shiny is new to me but I can’t wait to explore their categories such as: culture, people, places, names, accessories, evil, plot/writing, and silly.

Creative Writing Prompts.com also has a lot of material and I like how you can scroll over the number blocks like your playing an enormous game of concentration.

Story A Day posts prompts year round every Wednesday called “Write on Wednesday.” During story challenge months she promises to post a prompt every day. I’ve signed up for them and will see how they are.

I think I’m ready. September is just around the corner. Wish me luck!

Writing Flash with Cat Rambo!

Since Armadillocon I’ve had a hard time TAKING time to write (I so want to say “finding” the time to write, but there’s no such thing as finding time, you can only take it).

I won’t roll through all the usual excuses, let’s just say summer is awesome when it comes to trips and out-of-town visitors and camps and camping and swimming, but much more challenging when it comes to finding the peace and quiet I need to lay words down on the page. I can’t wait for the first day of school and the return of our more established schedule.

I’ve got plenty of story ideas bouncing around but with less time to develop them, most days I resort to writing exercises to get keep myself in fighting shape, and that’s fine except that they tend to generate MORE ideas which  cry for even more attention…

I am still working on my process for getting stories from idea and draft to revised, focused and finished works. It’s a lot of steps to juggle, but I guess I’ll just keep juggling and hope that one day I’ll figure out how to stop dropping the balls.

I signed up for a tutorial with Cat Rambo to work on writing in general and flash in particular. Cat was one of my pros at the ArmadilloCon Writers’ Workshop and we got to visit a little bit at the con. I think she’ll be a great teacher, and I love that she offers a variety of classes online.

If I had six weeks to burn I would apply to go to Clarion or Odyssey. I don’t think I’ll even be able to get a single week for Viable Paradise or NASA’s Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop in the next couple years (maybe someday). But that’s okay because as much as I kvetch about squeezing writing into my life things are pretty awesome with my little bug-loving garden gnomes.

So, Cat’s class is a great fit. And now that she’s a World Fantasy Award nominee I feel like I got in on the ground floor!

Carried on this wave of frustration-driven enthusiasm, I am beefing up my commitment to wild, possibly irresponsible, creation and am signing on for the September Story A Day marathon.

I hope by the end of September to have 30 flash fiction stories. If even a fraction of them are decent then I’ll consider it a roaring success. I promise to post at least a couple here next month. Wish me luck!

Fairview 619

My Story Fairview 619 is now up at Revolution SF, which is exciting as it’s a great site with lots of interesting things to read.  

With this story, I wanted to take a well-worn science fiction trope and see if I could make it new again. So of course I went to TV Tropes and looked up their brain in a jar page. There are also some elements of the ghost in the machine and smart house. Oh, TV Tropes I could wander your corridors forever…

For me, so much of writing is about discovering new meaning in the familiar things that surround us. Taking something old e.g. received knowledge, cliches, tropes and trying to make it new again, forever changes how I think about whatever it was that I started out with.

Writers Groups & the Value of Critique

The ArmadilloCon Writers’ Workshop was excellent again this year. The morning was devoted to a wide-ranging discussion about different aspects of writing and publishing. Pros who write, edit, publish and review all had great advice and opinions about the process of writing and the business of getting published.

After lunch we broke into separate critique groups. The ratio of pros to students was nearly 1:1. My group had four students and three pros! (Cat Rambo, Liz Gorinsky from Tor, and Stina Leicht) Everyone, student and pro alike, put their egos aside and came to work. I feel like everyone gave and got good feedback for the chapters and stories they brought. I’ll be revising my short story next week and look forward to sending it out into the world.

I have always felt that both getting AND giving critiques are valuable tools when learning how to write. There are so many techniques that you must manage to produce really good prose. When I write I try to get inside the story, the characters, and their world. It’s easy to loose perspective about what’s working and what isn’t. Putting the work away for a few days can help (and I do that too). But getting a critical perspective on a work in progress is often what will help me take it to the next level.

The key is a CRITICAL perspective. It sounds scary, and the endeavor is not without pitfalls. There isn’t really any instruction for critiquing, so most of us just have to learn how to do it any way we can. The world of critiquing is full of trolls and ogres who will tear your work down so they can show how brilliant they are (NOT). There are well-meaning dolts, toadies and yes men (usually relatives) only interested in heaping praise on anything you show them.

Learning how to give good criticism will help you recognize and find good critiquers for your own work. I started out reading slush for the Austin Film Festival‘s annual screenwriting competition. I would recommend looking for slush work. It’s an eye-opening introduction to the basics of presentation and storytelling, and you don’t need that much experience to weed out the awful.

Most of the time the only option is to dive in. Take a workshop if you can, or look for a group in your area. Many people form their own groups after attending a workshop like the ArmadilloCon Writer’s Workshop. With Skype and other chat services it’s possible to have a real-time discussion regardless of where you all live.

Here in Austin, Texas I attend the Slugtribe writer’s group, which is an open critique group. I like meeting face-to-face because it allows for a give and take that can be useful and illuminating. People in the group can ask you questions and tailor their comments to your stated intention. Also, people can disagree, which often generates a discussion about the piece that goes in interesting places.

When you’re live and/or in-person the Milford rules are a good format, which is essentially keep your trap shut – and listen, really listen – while everyone gives their thoughts and impressions on your work. Don’t worry you’ll get your turn at the end. But remember a critique is not about you defending your work against all comers, it’s about problem solving and making what you’ve done better.

You may find that learning how to articulate how a story isn’t working, will teach you as much about writing techniques as any book or class. Good criticism requires you to fully engage with the work of others; to think not about how YOU would write this story or chapter but about what this writer is trying to accomplish.

The more you learn how to give it the easier it is to take it. Getting good criticism helps you to develop a thick skin, because you can’t write good stories without becoming emotionally involved, and even if you know they aren’t perfect, it still hurts to have their imperfections pointed out.

Also, it will teach you to be brave. By accepting errors (in a story in particular or your work in general), you reduce their cost. Once you see that the flaws pointed out by a good critique session can be addressed, you can spend less time perfecting your work before anybody sees it and more time being daring and trying new techniques.

There are also some online groups out there for genre writers. Most of them require you to critique other members’ work in order to put yours up for critique, providing both an opportunity to give and receive critiques. The downsides of these groups are the same as with any web-based endeavor of this sort: from amateur or lazy critiques to snark and worse. I still think it’s better than nothing, just gird yourself for the experience. Critters is an open and free group. It’s quite high volume and can be a good place to start. Currently, I use the Online Writing Workshop they charge a small annual fee. I feel that this investment shows in both higher quality work and better critiques.

Just remember to critique in the spirit of generosity. No matter how bad someone’s work is, they were still brave enough to put it out there, so find a way to be both kind and honest. Just remember, it’s about the work and, I believe, about supporting each other on the journey.