Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Picking A Fight - Picking the Best Fantasy Author

By Greg Hardin

Let’s start a rumble!

This month’s post is going to be a little different.  I am hoping it will be more interactive.  That means it will need your participation.  Yes, you.  If you continue reading you will be expected to respond thoughtfully and as colorfully as possible.  It will also be extremely subjective and probably not very helpful to you as a writer.  (Wanna make something of it?)  But it should be fun.

Who is currently writing the best fantasy?  This is the simple question with interwoven sub-questions to follow. I recently had a long conversation about the quality of current fantasy writing and there was quite the argument about who the current standard-bearer is. 

I will tell you the two modern writers most discussed were George R.R. Martin and Robert Jordan.  While authors, Lev Grossman, Susanna Clarke, and Patrick Rothfuss were all mentioned as possible wildcards.  (Can’t tell just yet with them.)  Would anyone agree with the idea that either George R.R. Martin or Robert Jordan has published the best fantasy writing in the past, say 20 years?  Who would you add to that list? Does it need to be broken into further categories such as high fantasy and urban fantasy?  Give us your musings!  Be opinionated.  Pick a fight.

Sub-question: What role does Tolkien play in fantasy literature?  Is he now relegated to his role as Father of modern fantasy writing, (we will define Modern Fantasy as anything in the Fantasy Genre written in the 20th or 21st century,) or does he still hold the title for best fantasy author ever?  Or is his fantasy so different from current works it must be held in it’s own category?

This is probably the geekiest post I’ve written so far and I promise to not be so controversial next time.  I would love to hear your thoughts, though.  If only to find out what I should be reading next.  

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Crit Partner Relationship

You write in a cave. Or a dining room table. Or at a coffee shop. But, really, you write in your own head. You're alone in there, with your characters and you're the only grown up - the only one who makes decisions. This is good, at least for the first draft of your work. But soon, you'll need to let your WIP (work in progress) see the light of day - and the eyes of your crit partners.

If you don't have a crit parnter, go get one. Go ahead, I'll wait. No, not really. You need one. You need more than one. If you really haven't got one, may I suggest getting the BCWG bible, The Writing and Critique Book Survival Guide By Becky Levine? It will start you off in the right direction. You can also get crit partners via blog hops & pitchfests - like Deana Barnhart's GUTGAA. There is no shortage of resources online for getting you hooked up to a crit partner.

But what do you do when you have one and it's not working out? A writing friend recently asked me for some advice. A new crit partner of hers had come back with some negative feedback. Not constructive criticism, but the kind of feedback that's no use to anyone - unspecific, vague and seemingly intentionally hurtful. It was way off base. My friend didn't want to be treated with kid gloves so she was unsure how to respond. Was her crit partner just giving her tough love? Was her main character really so unlikable? It was enough to undermine even the strongest writer's ego - and we all know that we don't have strong egos (inflated, crazy, psychotic, yes, but not strong.)

My advice was to remember that every crit partner, no matter how good, has an agenda. They have biases - ones they may not even know they have. Take everything that they say with a grain of salt, especially until you get to know their style and quirks. When you get feedback from crit partners, put it on hold. Don't take it to heart OR discard it. Just let it sit in limbo for a while. Once the feedback has a chance to cool off, you can examine it, and your story, to see if what your crit partner is saying resonates for you.

My friend spoke to her crit partner and it turns out that there was a bias there - something the crit partner wasn't even aware of. The honest discussion put both crit partners in a better place, open and receptive to each other's feedback.

What's your relationship with your crit partner(s)? How do you keep each other honest?

Monday, October 8, 2012

Join the Fight Against Banned Books

"The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame." 
Oscar Wilde

From the top of my head to the tips of my toes, you will find every inch of my body resonating with passion. Most of the time I struggle to keep it under control. I brake for squirrels. I lend an ear to people in need. I voice outrage when groups of people are oppressed. I’m not a person who fits in a box or welcomes silence. I’m wild, loving, and opinionated.

"Books and ideas are the most effective weapons against intolerance and ignorance."
Lyndon B. Johnson

One of my biggest indignations is censorship. It really boils my blood when the choice to read is taken away. Last week, readers across America celebrated the 30th Anniversary of the Freedom to Read. Growing up, I’ve been lucky enough to read what I wanted to read without hindrance. I think everyone deserves that right. Anyone who wants to take away that right is afraid, afraid of the power of words, ideas, and individuality.

"We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasent facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people."
John F. Kennedy. Remarks made on the 20th anniversary of the Voice of America at H.E.W. Auditorium, February 26, 1962

Don’t be afraid. Open up dialogue with friends and family. Discuss controversial subjects and books. Learn. Understand that the world isn’t black and white.

"Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear."
Harry S. Truman, message to Congress, August 8, 1950

In the spirit of standing up against censorship and voicing opinions, check out what a few famous authors have to say about it:  “Sci-Fi/Fantasy Authors Sound Off About Banned Books and Censorship”

Did you do anything special for Banned Books Week?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Give Them Punctum

By Greg Hardin

I want to start this blog about writing, by talking about photography instead.  Not surprising, since I’m a photographer by trade more than a writer, but bear with me. The philosopher and theorist Roland Barthes wrote a book, Camera Lucida.  In it he coined a couple terms and phrases that influence how many look at photographs.  One of those terms is, “Punctum.” Latin in origin, the term was used by Barthes to refer to the part of an image that jumped out at the viewer, that would arrest their attention for some reason or another.  It was not a hard and fast definition.  And not all images have punctum. It could be very subjective.  While one person could be captivated by a detail in an image, another person might think nothing of it. Sometimes the punctum would not be part of the image at all, but rather knowledge of the photograph gained outside the image, able to transform it, nonetheless.

I started thinking about punctum in writing.  (Yes, I am finally getting to writing.) There are many pieces out there I love to read: books, short stories, poems, and dare I say – blogs.  Many of these I love to read because they are a good overall product.  I like the story told, or I felt good after reading them, or that kept me entertained.  There is nothing wrong with writing of this bent.  If you have entertained your reader and have kept them engaged till the end, no matter how long the piece, than you have succeeded in no small degree.  However, there are other pieces that contain something more.

When I think of punctum in writing, there are some obvious examples: reading a Sylvia Plath poem about death, knowing she killed herself some time after writing it.  That knowledge changes the way the reader absorbs the poem. 

But I don’t want to talk about that type of punctum.  I don’t think it’s a very attainable goal in writing, so it shouldn’t concern us very much.  I want to discuss the turn of phrase, or the well-worded sentence that sticks with the reader many paragraphs later.  For this, I think, is a form of punctum that we find in some of our favorite authors.  These are not the authors for who we say, “I loved their series,” but these are the authors of which we say, “they are a really good writer; the way they use words is amazing.”

I suppose an example is required now.  Evev keeping in mind that punctum is often subjective, I don’t think I will be alone in saying J.D. Salinger is this type of writer.  I finish his stories exciting not only for the journey, but for some snippet of dialogue, for some perfectly placed word, for a sentence that flowed better than I felt sentences were capable of.

In Salinger’s Nine Stories, I think I find the most examples of punctum.  In his short story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” he describes a girl by saying, “She was a girl for who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing.”  I love that phrase.  Love it.  I could care less what the story was about.  I just want to repeat that line over and over.  And I don’t care if you disagree. 

When I finish reading a Salinger piece, I often want to start reading it again, not because of the story – often the depressing subject matter is a reason not to read it again – but because of the mastery with which he crafted the piece.  I’m left with the question, “how did he do that?”  There is a polish.  And there is punctum.  There are little literary moments when I feel something in the writing grab me and command my attention. 

It’s probably easier to achieve these affects in poetry.  Word choice is everything there.  But I challenge you to do it in all of your writing.  Find those moments when you can write something that your reader will keep coming back to because they can’t forget it, and they don’t want to. Give them punctum.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Serial Fiction: A Thing of the Past?

By Laura M. Campbell

During the 19th and 20th centuries, stories from the minds of Charles Dickens, Isaac Asimov, Gustave Flaubert, Wilkie Collins, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle found their way into the hands of readers through serialized fiction in periodicals. Mind you, most people couldn’t afford to purchase books back then. Serialized fiction also helped sell the newspaper or magazine it appeared in.

Contemporary authors like Stephen King and Michael Chabon have published their novels in a serialized format as well. King gave up on his endeavor because readers were abusing his honor system. Chabon’s story was published in The New Yorker (pretty fancy stuff) with success.

Back in May 2012, Jennifer Egan published her short story “Black Box” on Twitter: 140 characters at a time for an hour over 10 days. I missed the chance to participate in the reading experience, but the first word to pop in my head is daunting. Now, if I were to imagine how I would have felt if I had participated, I think the flow might have been a bit choppy and hard to follow for me. If nothing else, it’s definitely a way to command the attention of your readers.  

Of course there are a multitude of reasons authors choose to publish serially, one being fast money. Others dole out their stories on their blogs or websites to garner readership.

So, is the publishing format of serialized fiction still viable in today’s world? Or are we trying to keep something alive that expired many years ago?

From a readers’ perspective, what’s your opinion on serialized fiction?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

And The Winner is...


Thank you, everyone, who entered our giveaway. Can't wait to visit another fest soon so we can bring you info and swag. By the way - do you know of any good Fests (any genre, we're omnivores) in the NY, NJ, PA-ish area? Will travel for swag!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Book Review: Strong Enough to Die

By Laura M. Campbell

I’ve been told that to be a better writer, you must read what you’re writing. I strive to write stories with strong female characters because they’re role models I didn’t have growing up. I came across John Land and his ass-kicking character Caitlin Strong in an online article, so I purchased the first of the action-packed series, Strong Enough to Die.

Overall, I really liked Caitlin and the fast-paced novel. When it comes to being a strong female character, her strength comes across as more masculine than feminine at times. Keep in mind she is a third generation Texas Ranger, following in the footsteps of her grandfather and father. I find it easier to relate to her when she faces societal choices (e.g. marriage, children, reputation).

Before the story begins, you learn Caitlin left the Texas Rangers after a gunfight near the Mexican border killed her partner. She makes the choice to run away, seeing it as the only viable alternative to dealing with the intense feelings. We all know running away does nothing but make matters worse, which plays out in the novel, forcing Caitlin to face all the feelings she’s locked away.

Creating a story with an interwoven past and present, Land chooses to include the scenes from both, which at first I thought would get confusing, but he indicates at the beginning of each chapter when and where the characters are in the story timeline. He skillfully leaves you curious and eager to read more at the end of each chapter that you aren’t thrown off by the jumps in time.

You want to find out exactly how things ended between Caitlin and her husband, why Cort Wesley Masters, the criminal she put away, is being released from prison, and how the gunfight at the Mexican border plays into the entire story. So, Land shows those exact scenes instead of telling you through a character’s internal or external dialogue. 

There were a few places I found it hard to understand what was going on or being said because of the sentence structure, but I’m not sure if it was due to Land’s writing style or due to reading it on my phone via the Kindle app.

Land’s storytelling hooked me by leaving little breadcrumbs of information that coaxed me through the novel to discover how it all ties together; and he created a dynamic and round character with tomboy Caitlin. She doesn’t stand around waiting. She takes charge, even if it does mean crossing a line, but she owns her mistakes and lives with the consequences and memories of crossing those lines, which I find is an admirable trait.  If you like gunfights, tough protective women, and suspenseful stories, you’ll love Strong Enough to Die.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Book Review: Try Not To Breathe

DON'T FORGET! ENTER OUR BOOK GIVEAWAY! Signed books by YA Fest authors - deets here.

I don't read much contemporary YA. I'm not really drawn to realistic narratives. I like my angst with a side of fantasy, supernatural, demons and witches. So I don't know why I started to read Jennifer R. Hubbard's  books, other than she was appearing at the YA Fest I was going to and I was curious about her work.

First I read her debut, THE SECRET YEAR. I was immediately hooked and quickly picked up TRY NOT TO BREATHE (which she kindly signed for me at the event.)

It's a very different kind of read when you read about teens and don't expect one of them to shoot sparks from their hands, or confess they are fairies. I'm not knocking those books, they are the kind I love (and the kind I write) I'm just saying that realistic contemporary books engage different, quieter parts of the brain.

Ryan is a sixteen year old recovering from a suicide attempt. It's a remarkably melodrama free situation - He's not the kind of kid that has so many insurmountable problems that you can't relate to him - he's just like you. The thing he lacks is the ability to cope when things progressively spiral downwards. Hubbard does a very good job of making his situation and his responses understandable. You may not ever find yourself in the same position, but you can see the path that Ryan took to get there.

Hubbard is never patronizing and never goes for the cheap emotional tug, even when Nicki, a girl tormented by her own father's suicide, seeks Ryan out - looking for answers he just doesn't have.

Suicide is a heavy issue, and it can be handled awkwardly by writers trying to do 'right' by such a loaded topic. But I think Hubbard's touch is light and truthful. What amazes me about both her books is how authentic the voice is - I never had that feeling of "Wait, no teen would ever say that," that I've had with some other YA books.

One last thing about Hubbard's writing. I liked THE SECRET YEAR a lot. I was looking forward to reading TRY NOT TO BREATHE, but I still was surprised at how good the writing was. It had gotten better in the second book - no small feat considering that the first book was already a win.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Book Giveaway!

Laura and I had such a great time at the YA Fest in Easton that we want to celebrate by giving away some of the awesome signed books we picked up - not to mention the SWAG!

OKAY, will mention.

Here's what we're giving away:
Signed copies of:
FAIRY TALE by Cyn Balog
YOU by Charles Benoit
ROT & RUIN and DUST & DECAY by Jonathan Maberry
Plus a ton of bookmarks, signed postcards, buttons and other goodies.

Here's what you need to do to enter your name in the giveaway:
1) Comment on this post. You can just say 'hi' and leave your email address - or you can also tell us what your favorite, quirky, writing tip - share whatever gets you motivated.
2) Follow this blog, if you aren't already following
3) Please just enter one time.

That's it! You have until August 31 to enter. On September 1st we'll randomly pick one winner and let you know by september 5th. 
Good luck!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Book Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

By Greg Hardin

Sometimes the first published novel by an author will make you want to throw up, ram your head against a wall, and go cry in a corner for a few days.  And sometimes it’s not because the novel is bad.  I tried to suggest to a new book group that our inaugural book be Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but when my friends saw the 300,000+ word count, they balked.  I read it anyway. 

Neil Gaiman said it was, "unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last 70 years." Now, that comment is a little out of context, but I don’t care.  I’m going to hold him to the outrageous statement.  Whether or not he’s right, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is an incredibly unique and well-written book that should be on everyone’s summer or fall reading list.  And it won the Hugo Award in 2005.  So, there’s that.

Now, it might be strange that I am reviewing a book that’s been out for over 7 years, but what I’ve discovered is most of my friends, who like well-written books of a fantastic nature, have never heard of this particular tome.  Sad.  I’d like to rectify that.

Almost an alternative history book, rather than a fantasy novel, Clarke’s first novel takes place in pre-Victorian England.  That’s the early 19th century for you Philistines.  The wording and style reads like a Dickens novel or something by Jane Austen.  (I almost felt at times like I was reading Pride and Prejudice and Magick.)  Clarke presupposes that there was a long tradition of magic used in England, mostly centered on mystical figure called, The Raven King, who is kind of like King Arthur and Merlin combined.  The Raven King has long since disappeared, and his disciples have also passed away or vanished.  In fact, practical magic users have basically gone extinct in England.  All that is left are theoretical magicians.  Being a theoretical magician is viewed as a perfectly acceptable profession for a gentleman and whole magician societies exist, all ignoring the painful reality that they cannot do any of the magic they discuss so much.  It’s delightful when not one but two new practical magicians appear on the scene and that is the main story:  What happens in England when magic comes back?  It puts a whole new spin on the Napoleonic wars, for one thing.  And it’s just pure fun.  The characters are dynamic and well crafted.  The plot is complex but woven together with an ease that makes it simple to keep track of everyone and every event. 

It’s a long book, but it won’t feel like it.  Or maybe it will, but you will be happy it’s so long.  As a plus, Clarke sprinkles hundreds of footnotes into the material, giving a broader background on the magical history of England and including several expository short stories.  If you like historical novels, if you like alternate histories, if you like really good fantasy, read this book. It is technically very well written, and creatively: a masterpiece. 

Monday, July 30, 2012

Music to Write By

Do you write with music? We do. Here's what on our playlists and in our ears while we perform our writerly toil.

Greg Hardin

My first inclination when I'm writing is to put on classic jazz: Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, etc.  There is an energy and rhythm to the music that carries my thoughts and allows me to explore interesting side paths without becoming distracted from the main event.  Most of the music from these giants is instrumental -- something that helps as well.  I can get distracted by an interesting riff, but I'm not going to get caught up singing along like I might if I was listening to the latest pop song.  It works.

Then, there are the days when I want and need something different.  I don't know what I'm writing as well.  I'm frustrated with it.  I want to get distracted by lyrics in the hope I might be inspired and find what I'm looking for in my own thought processes.  Then, I turn to the indie rock greats.  Sufjan Stevens, Andrew Bird, Josh Ritter, Josh Rouse, Gary Jules.  These guys are always surprising me, always challenging me to think bigger, be weirder, try something new.  And it infuses my writing.  

I wish it didn't seem like my playlist is an all-male cast, but it seems it is.  Perhaps that speaks of the dominance of male influence on the music industry for so many years.  Perhaps it speaks to my own male ego and hidden (or not so hidden) sexist tendencies.  Or maybe these artists just resonate with the inner workings of my own creative instincts and it's all just a coincidence.  I don't feel like thinking about it anymore; I'll leave the analysis to the internet and my shrink.  The artists above are all damn good and while listening to them, I can pretend I'm just as good a writer.  

Laura Campbell
Silence? Music? Questions I ask myself every time I sit down to write. My different moods and my story’s different scenes require an assortment of sounds or lack there of. Some days my scenes need a kick in the butt to maintain the speed and intensity, so I play The Mars Volta (De-Loused In The Comatorium), Yeah Yeah Yeahs (Show Your Bones), The Used (Lies for the Liars), Halestorm (Halestorm), and The Distillers (Coral Fang). Then days when my characters experience powerful emotional scenes/moments, The Deftones (Diamond Eyes), NIN (The Fragile Left), and Placebo (Meds) help me get into the zone. And for the days when I need music to focus but lyrics are too distracting, I opt for classical (Tchiakovsky & Holst), movie score soundtracks (The Matrix & Harry Potter), and Enya (A Day Without Rain), although there are lyrics on this album, her voice blends in with the instrumental parts. Of course, there’s many more than this small sampling. These just tend to be my tried and true tunes.

Alex Villasante
I need music to write. The first thing I do is put on Pandora, or iTunes, or whatever is fueling my writing at the moment. While writing BOOKEND, I listened to Mumford & Sons, Fleet Foxes and the first twilight score until I should, by rights, have been sick of them. On Pandora I have a Joy Division station - sounds depressing I know, but it pulls up some great bands and songs that I don't have on my iTunes - early Bowie, Buzzcocks, Siouxsie. If I have a muse at all, it's music.

For FIND ME, I'm trying something a little different, creating playlists for my characters. So far on Mop's iPod is: Sharon Van Ettan, TV on the Radio, Felt and Kristen Hersh.

So do you write with music? Do you need silence or white noise? What do you listen to when you are writing?

Monday, July 23, 2012

July Bunch O' Links

By Alex Villasante

This post by published author Roni Loren literally stopped me in my tracks. Blogger beware - those pictures you (and I) are populating our blog posts with could get us in to trouble.

Bloggers Beware: You CAN be sued for using Pics on your Blog.

What do you fellow bloggers think? Will this change how you blog? I know it's making me think. Greg is a photographer as well as a writer - Greg, what are your thoughts?

By Greg Hardin

Okay, so many are audiobook haters, but I find that there are so many moments in my day when I can listen to a book, when I couldn't read one.  While I'm driving.  While I'm cooking.  While I'm outside cutting the grass.  Immersing myself in good writing is a great way to become a better writer myself.  Instead of flipping the radio on in any of the above scenarios, get a good audiobook.  Not only do you gain time in your day to "read", but by listening to the pacing and rhythm of a piece, you can gain a better understanding of subtler aspects of writing.  If you don't want to use audible, no problem; check out your local library.  Libraries have tons of great audiobooks.  My recommendation is to listen to a book you have read already and were thinking about revisiting.  Listening to it will allow you to enjoy it in a completely new way.

Here are a number of free short stories by very respectable authors, (Joyce, Dickins, Conrad, Irving, etc.)  When you need some inspiration read one or two.  :)

By Laura Campbell

Glimmer Train Literary Journal
-       Very Short Fiction Award: up to 3,000 words
o   First Place Prize: $1,500, publication in Glimmer Train Stories, and 20 copies of that issue
o   Deadline: July 31, 2012
o   Details here 
-       Short-Story Award for New Writers (unpublished): 1,500-12,000 words
o   First Place Prize: $1,500, publication in Glimmer Train Stories, and 20 copies of that issue
o   Deadline: August 30, 2012
o   Details here 

Writer’s Digest Magazine
-       13th Annual Short Short Story Competition
o   Summer Tales or Summer-Themed Fictional Stories 1,200 words or less
o   First Place Prize: $3,000, publication and a trip to the Writer’s Digest Conference
o   Deadline: November 15, 2012
o   Details here 

Narrative Magazine
-       Spring 2012 Story Contest
o   Fiction & Literary Nonfiction: 15,000 words or less
o   First Place Prize: $2,500 and considered for publication
o   Deadline: July 31, 2012
o   Details here

WOW! Women On Writing
-       Summer 2012 Flash Fiction Contest
o   Open (any style; any genre): 250-750 words
o   First Place Prize: $350, $25 Amazon Gift Certificate, publication on WOW! Women On Writing and an interview on the WOW! Women On WritingBlog.
o   Deadline: August 31, 2012
o   Details here 

 New Purlieu Review
o   Seeking Essays, Short Fiction, Artwork, Photos, and Poems
o   Theme: Family
o   Deadline: August 31, 2012
o   Details here