Save the Date Writing Butterflies, This Year’s Armadillocon Writing Workshop is Friday, August 3!

 Crack your knuckles and warm up your keyboards, it’s time to polish up your short story or first chapter for the annual Armadillocon Writing Workshop!

 Submissions are DUE Friday June 15, 2018

This is an excellent, low-cost workshop for writers who want to:

 Work with professional writers and editors familiar with speculative fiction, science fiction, and fantasy. 

  • Learn how to give and receive critique in a small-group, face-to-face setting
  • Find out if workshops and in-person critique groups are useful to their writing progress
  • Find their tribe and make connections with others that will serve their writing year round.
  • Take their writing to the next level.

The workshop will be Friday, August 3, 2018 

We will spend the morning in panels on the craft and business of writing and doing a writing exercise or two. Then, lunch with the professional writers and fellow students in your breakout critique group. The afternoon will be spent in in-depth, collaborative critique sessions where you will be both giving and receiving critique. 

Just $90 gets you the full-day workshop and a full convention membership to attend all of the activities for the entire weekend. ArmadilloCon is an excellent regional literary convention, which means there will be lots of great panels about writing, reading, and the state of the genre (there are also panels about movies, tv shows, gaming, and everything geek). 

Sponsored seats for writers of color!

We are committed to promoting diversity and access for all workshop attendees. Writing in a genre centered on exploration and encountering the Other must include voices and visions from writers and readers of all kinds. The Workshop actively seeks to include students, faculty, visiting scholars, and volunteers from a variety of backgrounds including, but not limited to race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, economic status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, and ability. 

To that purpose we are offering a limited number of sponsored seats to the workshop for writers of color. To apply for a seat, follow the link on the workshop page.

 If are interested in sponsoring a seat for a writer of color, contact me at armadilloconwritersworkshop@gmail.com

ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop T-Minus 36 Hours: Letting Go

The aphorism, “A good conversation never ends, it’s only interrupted” comes to mind. I feel the same about the stories I write. Creators, artists, and writers are always striving to improve their craft. Reaching for perfection, always falling a few inches short. This is why it can be hard to determine when to call a piece you’ve struggled over finished. For me, it’s more about knowing when to let it go.
Creating something is its own reward and its own punishment. Every story starts with some nugget of inspiration, a character, a mood I want to capture, a moment I want to bring to life. It’s this vision that compels me to create the first draft. Invariably, after writing it out, and working through however many revisions, what I end up with is NEVER what I originally imagined. I won’t say it’s better or worse, but it is different. Even when I am happy with the final result, there is always a tiny nagging feeling of missing the mark.  
If you keep writing and working to improve, you will look back at old stories, even the ones that are published and see ways that they might be improved. I remind myself that that was the best story I could produce last week or last year or three years ago. M. Rickert says her old stories are like snapshots of the writer she was at the time she wrote them.
It’s important to strive for excellence, at the same time once you feel you’ve made a story the best you can – let it go. It may be flawed, have some element that you wish you could manage more astutely, but if it’s viable (i.e. has a plot with a beginning middle and end, a character who changes or comes to a realization, etc.), then it’s time to let it go (today, that might mean sending it to the ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop). Submit somewhere for publication and move on to the next story with the goal to make that one better.
Whether I see you at the ArmadilloCon Writers Workshop or not – I hope you go forth and write story after story. I look forward to reading all of them out in the wild! 

ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop Boot Camp Week 5: Give it a Rest!

Noon: Rest from Work by Vincent van Gogh
Three weeks to go before the June 11 deadline to submit work and sign up for the AmradilloCon Writing Workshop. There is still time to go through the entire boot camp program from the first post and create a short story or novel chapter in order to participate. Consider blocking off a few chunks in your schedule if you can, take a vacation day from work, or bargain with your family for some “away” time and create your own mini writer’s retreat.
If you’ve been following along with the program so far you’ll have a rough draft in hand that has the essential elements of characterization, plot, and worldbuilding in place. Now it’s time to give it a rest. I firmly believe revising my own work effectively depends on my ability to see it with new eyes. One of the best ways to do this is to put it aside for a while. If no deadlines are involved, I find a week or two to be ideal, but even putting something down for 24 hours can be immensely helpful.
In this post, I’m going to talk about both resting and your next revision. Because, as I mentioned before, there’s no rule against submitting your work early!
For me looking away from my current writing project is just as important as the time I spend focused on it. If, like me, you have a few pieces in various stages of completion resting one piece means that you can turn your attention to a different one for a while. If you don’t have anything else on deck, then spend a day or two with your reading. If you’re working on a short story, pull up some short stories online (see the fiction links in my sidebar for a start). If you’re working on a novel chapter, read the first chapters of the novels in your bookcase or at your local library or go to Amazon and preview a bunch of first chapters.
Resting, in this case is, more like what happens when bread dough “rests.” After activating the yeast and kneading the dough a baker covers it and lets it rest. But a lot is happening under that kitchen towel. While the baker is attending to other things, the yeast ferments, the dough expands and the final loaf’s signature flavor and texture are formed. When the baker returns to the dough, it is something different. For writing the transformation takes place in your head. Your subconscious is always percolating themes and ideas and this process doesn’t stop during revision. Time away from your piece can give you space to solidify what is important about this story and what elements might need to be enhanced or minimized in order to refine it.
After you’ve given your piece a rest, read through it again. If you feel that everything is roughly in place then it’s time to start refining your piece with a more granular revision. (If, on your read through you find a logic problem or plot hole, go ahead and excise or plaster in some words or a scene before you go on to the next step – all of these revision stages can be repeated as needed.) If you’re ready to refine what you have, here are some things to focus on:
Transitions
These are the breaks between scenes, changes in location, point of view, or gaps in time in the story. An extra space, a short line of asterisks, or a transitional sentence can mark these changes. Generally, I find that too many transitional separators are often a sign that the story (especially one limited to 5,000 words) is perhaps trying to paint on too large of a canvas. If you have a lot of disjointed scenes, consider scaling your story down, e.g. by narrowing the amount of time it covers or number of characters. When I write a first draft, I can be pretty lazy about writing transitions between scenes, this draft is where I write those sentences that link adjacent scenes together. If you are looking to write a story that is more conceptual or is set in a vast time scale you can use alternative forms. For example, when I wanted to write about all of the different ways we think about time, I did it as a list story.
Paragraphs
Once you’re happy with the way your story flows from one scene to another, turn your attention to your paragraphs. A good paragraph, like a good story, will have a beginning, middle, and end. It should progress to a tiny resolution of it’s own. At times, for impact, you might want to have a one sentence or one word paragraph.
Dialogue
Is tricky, because in fiction dialogue is not the same as natural speech, which is often rambling and circular. Dialogue has to accomplish something while looking like it isn’t, to be intentional without appearing intentional. Dialogue often moves the plot, but it really shines by revealing character. Employing dialect can work, but it is often more effective to think in terms of individual habits of speech. Actors often do this when creating character, think of how Lumbergh in Office Space almost always starts off with a long, irritating “Yeah.” Try to give your main characters unique speech patterns and check that all the dialogue is accomplishing something, either moving the plot forward or revealing character (preferably a little of both).
As you’re refining your piece the ultimate goal is to focus it both structurally and for emotional impact. You’ll be surprised how much you can dial up the conflict and drama of by making small adjustments at this point.
Next week we’ll talk about the final polish, and working at the sentence level for clarity and grace. There’ll be a bit about dun DUN dun! Grammar.

If you have any questions, put them in the comments and I’ll address those too!



NOTICE: Diverse writers welcomed here!
Diversity is vital to speculative fiction. A genre centered on exploration and encountering the Other must include voices and visions from writers, readers and thinkers of all kinds.

This year the Armadillocon Writing Workshop has sponsored seats for writers of color! Visit the workshop page for more information and to fill out the sponsorship request form!

ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop Boot Camp Week 4: What have you got?

We’re About a month out from the June 11 deadline to turn in your work and sign up for the Armadillocon Writing Workshop (of course you can turn in your piece early – hahaha! No, seriously, the door’s open). If you’ve been following this boot camp program you should have a messy zero draft in hand. (If you just found this, it’s not too late to catch up. Scroll back to boot camps one and two for gathering and developing ideas, and week three for writing your zero draft.)

NOTICE: Diverse writers welcomed here!
Diversity is vital to speculative fiction. A genre centered on exploration and encountering the Other must include voices and visions from writers, readers and thinkers of all kinds.
This year the Armadillocon Writing Workshop has sponsored seats for writers of color! Visit the workshop page for more information and to fill out the sponsorship request form!
This week it’s time to set aside your writer’s hat and start revising. But when it comes to revising you’ll need more than one hat. I’ll call this first hat the big picture hat. This is where you need to assess just what exactly you’ve got.
Sometimes our stories are buried beneath our conscious thought. If you wrote your first draft free and fast, new story elements or characters may have emerged or changed direction on you. Instead of forcing things back into your original plan, this is an opportunity to see what this draft has to say to you.
This is big picture editing. Start by simply reading through the mess and listen for the piece’s beating heart. What are the things your characters believe in? Fight for? What is won or lost? Try not to be distracted by scene details or sloppy sentences. Resist the urge to do any housekeeping at this point. Try to get a bead on the essence of the story, the thing that will guide your revisions.
Now that you’ve read your draft for you, it’s time to pick up your pen (or put your document into revision mode) and read through it with your readers in mind. Is your story coherent or are there places where you might lose your reader logically or emotionally? This first revision is where it’s easiest to make big structural changes. Move the furniture around, write new material, change a character’s motivation, age, gender if you need to, try different dialogue.

Oscar Wilde’s handwritten manuscript 
page of The Picture of Dorian Gray

Mostly, I’m drawingwith my red pen here, circling text to be moved, crossing out chunks, writing brief notes for new scenes or dialogue. Here are some things to think about:
Plot:
Is there a beginning, middle and end to the story? Does the protagonist change in some way? Do they succeed or fail at something? Do they have a goal or desire? Did the characters get side tracked? If so and if the story lost its focus you can either redirect the characters to your original idea or explore the alternate story that the sidetrack suggests. It can be helpful to write a brief reverse outline here. Make a list of each thing that happens to see if you have cause-and-effect chain of events running through your story.
Pacing:
May be wonky at this point. Frankly, pacing can be tricky in shorter forms. Five thousand words can go by in a flash, so check for long stretches of description or rambling characterizations. Try to keep things concise and make sure events are progressing in a way that increases the tension (i.e. keep tightening the thumb screws on the protagonist).
Clarity:
Are there logic holes or missing steps in the chain of events that will confuse the reader? Are there places where you can adjust the description or characterization that will make the ending resonate more powerfully? In theater, early rehearsals are devoted to blocking out the actors’ stage movements. Think in terms of blocking. Make sure it’s clear to your reader where your character is in the room/woods/spaceship/etc., and in relation to other characters.
With scribbled up draft in hand or on screen, you are ready for your first big rewrite. You’re not shooting for perfection here, just improvement. Try to improve the overall shape of the story, dial up the conflict if you need to, refine the characters and their desires. You can rinse and repeat this process throughout the week. Hell, if the zero draft isn’t cooperating, you have time to start over from scratch. Maybe there’s some moment within your first try at a story that branches off, intrigues you, go ahead and see where that one leads you. Your goal is to come out of the week with something rough but cohesive, something with all the moving parts in the right places.
All of this advice holds for an older piece that you want to refurbish. Except that what you have may be more polished, and it might be harder for you to scrap big sections, rearrange or take the story in a new direction. If so, this is the week you kill your darlings. No matter how beautiful your sentences, how shapely your paragraphs, if the story isn’t working it’s going to have to change and probably change into something very different than your original idea. Sometimes I feel better if I keep the stuff I amputate in a folder with the idea of using these scraps in something new someday.
Next week will be a rest/catch up week. I will also talk about revising for style and grace (that other editor’s hat) for writers who may want to fast track and get their story in early.

ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop Bootcamp Week 2: Playing in the Sandbox – Developing Ideas, Old and New

Welcome back to bootcamp. We’re T-minus 6 weeks to the June 11 deadline to enroll and submit your short story or novel chapter to the ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop. Last week, I talked about how workshops can benefit your writing and what you can do to get ready to write by carving out some time in your schedule and gathering ideas.

This week is a good time sort through your collection of ideas and/or unfinished projects and throw your lot in with one lucky winner. In other words it’s time to decide and develop your idea.
The first thing to decide is whether you’ll be working on a short story or the first chapter(s) of a novel. (I’m going to put a caveat in here that I am primarily a short story writer. I’ll do my best to keep the advice here universal, but this series might by slightly more adapted to short form fiction rather than noveling. I am currently working on a novel, and learning a lot, so stay tuned for more novel friendly posts in the future.)
While I think submitting a stand-alone short story might be slightly more productive for a one-day workshop, many students opt to submit the first chapter(s) – up to 5,000 words – of a novel. Since it is just a piece of something much larger, you’ll get less feedback and insight into shaping middles and creating satisfying endings. Even so, first chapters are critical to attracting readers. This is where you set up and set in motion a larger story, and there will be plenty of faculty and fellow writers who are on the same page at the workshop. If you decide to write opening chapter(s), focus on writing a scene or a sequence of scenes that create a strong hook. Introduce the main characters (but not too many all at once!). Salt in some world building and think a bit about setting the tone for the story (e.g. is it creepy, gritty horror or a space comedy).
Short stories are great for workshops in particular and for honing your writing skills in general. A stand-alone piece will give you a chance to get feedback on a complete unit of storytelling. Writing short fiction has helped me develop skills like assessing and managing the size of an idea, managing plot and pacing on a small scale, and understanding scene and sequence. It is also a place where you can try out crazy ideas, unusual forms and methods. Experimentation isn’t just a great way to master the form – it’s also a lot of fun. So, even if short stories aren’t your main interest, consider writing at least a few.
Starting from nada?
First, keep reading, listening, and viewing stories that engage your emotions and challenge your thinking. Whenever something piques your interest note it down in your journal (or wherever you keep notes) but don’t stop there, riff of these idea kernels, combine them with others.
Here are a couple common ways to develop ideas. 

You can think in terms of SCENARIO. Collect vignettes, fragmentary scenarios, themeatic ideas that intrigue you. Spin ideas out by asking “what if” over and over again. Be present. Be inquisitive. We witness (and act in) a thousand little dramas every day. After you get off the phone with the Help Desk wonk, imagine that disembodied voice in a surreal scenario, if you hear a quiet argument between a couple at a coffee shop spin out your idea of what might have caused it, or how it might come to an unexpected end. Start with a moment or interaction from your day, or open up Pinterest or Instagram and look for evocative images. Get out a blank piece of paper or pull up a blank document and play around with “what ifs.” Write down as many as you can, everything that comes into your head. Try combining a couple unlikely elements into a scenario that you can develop into a complete story.
Or approach story via CHARACTER, keeping in mind that for a short story or the early chapter(s) of a novel, it’s usually best to limit the number of characters. I find that two or three characters are ideal for anything under 5,000 words. If you have some characters in mind, try putting them together in conversation, and write it out in dialogue only. Give one of the characters a secret. Think about characters who want something deeply, or want to escape something. If you have a half-formed character, interview them. Pose questions and have them state their opinion and then keep writing, letting them talk. Keep going until they say something that surprises you.
Want more? Check out John Dufresne’s talk about creating a story.
The unfinished.
If you’ve been writing for a while, and you’re anything like me, you might have what I call The Island of Misfit Toys: a collection of unfinished or broken stories languishing in a folder somewhere. I keep these stories around for the day when I have acquired whatever skill I need in order to pull that particular story off. If you’re looking to refurbish a story for the workshop, this is the week to read it as critically as you can. Summarize what happens plot wise, and make notes about what you think are the its strengths and weaknesses. Be prepared to tear it down and start again from the ground up. If you’ve kept the story around, then the kernel of the idea that inspired you should survive.

So keep reading and mulling over ideas, let them grow into some vignettes and character interactions, make notes. If you have any questions, put them in the comments. 

Next week you’re writing your ZERO DRAFT.

Fantastical Fictions Book Club: Fardwor, Russia! by Oleg Kashin

(Oleg Kashin photo / Restless Books)

It’s time again for another Fantastical Fictions Book Club. On Thursday, May 5 at 7:00 p.m., we’ll convene around the big table at Malvern Books to discuss Oleg Kashin’s Fardwor, Russia!

This slim novel is a  fascinating breezy read, if you can call a dark, satiric dystopia “breezy.” It offers a glimpse of Russian culture and its complaints. 

The publisher’s website describes the book this way:

     “When a scientist experimenting on humans in a sanatorium near Moscow gives a growth serum to a dwarf oil mogul, the newly heightened businessman runs off with the experimenter’s wife, and a series of mysterious deaths and crimes commences. Fantastical, wonderfully strange, and ringing with the echoes of real-life events, this political parable fused with science fiction has an uncanny resonance with today’s Russia under Putin.
     Oleg Kashin is a notorious Russian journalist and activist who, in 2010, two months after he’d delivered the manuscript of this book to his publishers, was beaten to within an inch of his life in an attack with ties to the highest levels of government. While absurdly funny on its face, Fardwor, Russia! A Fantastical Tale of Life Under Putin is deadly serious in its implications. Kashin’s experience exemplifies why so few authors dare to criticize the state—and his book is a testament of the power of literature to break the bonds of power, corruption, and enforced silence.”

Dmitry Samarov, in his review of the book for the Chicago Tribune says:

“Absurdity is piled upon absurdity, but none of it is taken as anything but a matter of course by anyone involved. There is a long tradition of this sort of storytelling in Russia. From Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat” in pre-Soviet times to Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita” and onward, writers have had to address the insanity of their society through indirect or fabulist means. “Fardwor” is no fairy tale. Kashin grounds his story in everyday reality. Karpov finds out his wife has left him because she has unfriended him on Facebook; the oligarch, Kirill, is named to head the organization charged with making the upcoming Olympics in Sochi a success.”

All sorts of strange madcappery goes on in this pages, yet this is a book where the author’s story is at least as interesting as the tale he tells in these pages. Kashin is a well known journalist and blogger who regularly writes about political issues in Russia. Shortly after turning the manuscript for this book in to his editor, he was severely beaten in what appears to be a politically motivated attack. This edition of the book comes with a thorough and engaging introduction to both the book and the author by Max Seddon, World Correspondent for BuzzFeed News. 

For more about Oleg Kashin’s story here check out Oleg Kashin’s Horrible Truth: A journalist is beaten nearly to death in Moscow. Is this a deliberate crackdown, or something more subtile — and more sinister?


Read Kashin’s open letter to Putin/Medvedev here

For extra credit, check out Like, share, tweet: Social media meets the Russian revolution.

Pick up a copy at Malvern today, and join us next Thursday to discuss (whether you’ve read it or not)!

ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop Boot Camp Week 1: Why Workshop, What to Write, and Starting From Scratch


ArmadilloCon is one of the best little, literary science fiction and fantasy conventions in Texas. On Friday, August 4, before the convention begins, writers from near and far will gather to participate in an all-day intensive genre workshop with professional writers. I have been a student at this workshop, a volunteer, and a teacher, now I’m coordinating it. I am thrilled to be helming the workshop that helped to make me the writer I am today!

I still remember how scary it was to submit something for critique for the first time. I didn’t know if it was great or terrible or how other people would react to it. Every workshop is different, and even if the workshop experience isn’t for you, it can still be a lot of fun and a great learning experience. At the very least, you will meet a room full of other writers. If you’re attending the con, that means you’ll be seeing a couple dozen familiar faces throughout the weekend. Even if you never attend another workshop, learning to receive criticism, and to evaluate and give useful feedback to your peers will give you the tools necessary to continuously improve your writing.

Maybe you want to write, but have never written a complete short story, or started that novel that’s been bouncing around in your brain. No worries, over the next two months I’m going to write a series of BOOT CAMP posts to take you step-by-step through the creation of a piece of writing that will serve you well in any workshop.

In order to participate in the ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop you must submit a previously unpublished piece of writing (up to 5,000 words), either a short story or the first chapter of a novel. In this case previously published means anything that is out in the world, in print or online whether you were paid for it or not. This includes fiction you have published on a personal blog. The focus of this workshop is on craft; so if you’ve been writing for a while and have been published or have been publishing your own work, use this as an opportunity to write something new and challenging. The goal isn’t to bring a polished gem of a piece to the workshop, it’s to stretch and grow as a writer.

You can submit a piece and register for the workshop today, but I know how writer’s minds work, so here’s the deal. The deadline to submit/sign-up for the workshop is Sunday, June 11 a little under two months away.

If you’re starting from scratch, your boot camp assignment for this week is to PREPARE:

MAKE time to write
There’s an old saying: You’ll never FIND the time to do the things you want, you have to MAKE it. This week, think about when you can make time to write. If your weekdays are jammed then carve out weekend time. If your weekends are spoken for, try writing over your lunch hour, or getting up an hour earlier in the morning, put off your Netflix queue for a few weeks. 

Short stories for young adult readers

READ

You’ve heard it before, if you want to be a writer you have to read. This week, and in the coming weeks, you are going to be reading to a purpose.

Fantasy reprints and originals

If you’re planning on writing a short story, read (or listen to – yes podcasts count! Check the side bar for links to more podcasts.) a variety of short stories. I do much of my thinking in a journal, so you may want to write down some notes after reading/listening to a story. First, did the story move you? Was it to your taste? There is a huge range of styles and types of short stories even within the genre, so when you find a story that speaks to you (or not), think about why. What are the elements that appealed to your sensibilities or put you off?

If you want to submit the first chapter(s) of a novel, go back and re-read the first chapters of your favorite novels. Think about what drew you into the story. Was there a hook that made you commit to reading on? How much world building did the author include in the first pages? How much characterization? What did the author do to set the tone of the book? If it’s a horror book, what made it feel creepy? Science fiction, what made it otherworldly or futuristic?

RUMINATE
Throw some story ideas around. Spin ideas, characters, scenarios out in your notebook or in a document on your computer. You don’t have to develop anything yet, just compile “what if” moments, vignettes, characters. Again read, keep up with the news, follow your most esoteric interests down their rabbit holes to longreads. Bookmark what you find and make a note of why it interests you. I’ve created more than a few stories by mashing two disparate ideas together, so be generous filling your idea file.

Another alternative is to REABILITATE
If you’re like me, you have sort of an island of lost toys folder of broken or unfinished stories. Often they are broken/unfinished because there is some skill that I need to acquire in order to pull the story off. As long as they’ve never been published in any way, it’s perfectly legal to rework one of these stories. This week, visit your island of broken stories and see if there are any candidates you’d like to resurrect.

If you’re brand new to writing fiction, here’s some tips from Kurt Vonnegut:




Next week I’ll talk about what kind of work is most useful to bring to a workshop or critique group, and you’ll continue to develop your idea and get ready to the first draft

If you have questions, post them in the comments and I’ll do my best to address them!