Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Ghost of the Writing Streak

Scott D. Parker

Last night was Day 200 in my consecutive-days writing streak. What’s funny about a habit, no matter what it may be, is the subtle joy you experience when you realize you have internalized the habit. For those first two or three months, I was obsession both about writing and the marking of the red X on the calendar. Now, I got days without marking the Xs on the calendar. It’s a great feeling.

What’s not so great is the spirit of the writing streak. Once I started writing again and especially in June when my consecutive days streak began, I’ve told myself to write at least a minimum amount of words. This has been a year of discovery for me and, for most of the year, writing a minimum of 500 words was pretty straightforward.

Until recently.

I’ve discovered something about myself in the past few weeks: I really enjoy reading, especially Christmas-themed works (remember that post a few weeks ago about my seasonal reading?). I really enjoy writing. There are only so many hours in the day. The streak has continued--but believe me, there were days when I thought about stopping it partly because I was tired and partly because I wasn’t doing too well with the current story. But I told myself that me not feeling it on a particular day or me not truly knowing what the next scene is proves to be stupid reasons to break the streak. To have broken the chain of Xs with either one of those reasons as the source would have resulted in a pretty bad result.

So, I’ve kept the streak alive, but the spirit of the streak has waned in recent days. I’ve not achieved the minimum on numerous days, but the streak has continued. Is that a good thing? I believe it is. Joelle wrote about that a few weeks ago. It was a nice thing to read at that time: to give yourself permission to produce less in this holiday season. It’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve moving the story *slowly* forward but reading a whole lot more. It’s a Win “win”. It’s a Win because I’m reading what I want to read. It’s a ‘win’ because I am writing every day but just not to the level of early this year. But I’m learning about myself. And I know what I'll be doing next year...and in January.

Do y’all learn things about your writing selves along the way and adjust?

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Entertainer

By Russel D McLean

The other week, I was out at Literary Death Match (where, by the way, I won the evening...). Its an odd mash up of literary event and game show where four writers read in front of three judges who choose the two "best" to go into a head to head competition tangentially linked to literature. Hosted by the effervesent mass of energy that is Adrian Todd Zunga, LDM is a fantastic night and well worth attending. The mix of standard literary stuff (the readings) with more fun additions (the standoff, the occasionally insane judging commentary) makes for great entertainment, and its no surprise the show has been optioned for television.

But it got me thinking about authors and reading. Generally I don't do much reading at my events. The main reason being I can barely concentrate on the whole thing as a listener. I admit I drift off during most author readings, because most authors aren't trained performers. There are exceptions, of course. Stuart MacBride is a great reader. But he really plays the parts he's reading. However, most authors tend to lose any traction they've built up prior to reader by mumbling the words off their books. Sometimes this is down to ability, but often I think it's lack of preparation. I admit I read by the seat of my pants. I will change my mind about what I'm reading at the last moment, but I am confident in the fact that I'm two steps ahead of the words that I'm speaking in my ability to edit as I read, to change words and tones to suit the drama of the moment (ie, I edit my own work as I'm reading it). But as one writer told me on the night of LDM, they cannot read without knowing exactly what they are going to say. And I suspect many writers are similar, and yet I get the feeling they don't practice over and over again with their readings. Because they are never told how to.

Writers are expected to perform their books. Where the truth is that most writers don't know how to perform expect on the page. They can create stunning words, but reading those words is not enough. Our brains perform for us when we read words on the page, but its the rare untrained reader who can then perform in a way that brings that to life.

And while I claim to be a seat of the pants reader (when I do read; most of the time I talk about things that interest me, or about the stories behind the books or that time I got chucked out of an internet cafe while doing research for a novel when I was a teenager), the truth is that I always practice my voice and intonation. I may not read what I expect to read when I go up there, but I have always prepared myself with a tone of voice and feeling I want to convey. When appearing with other writers, I make sure I have a few topics we can both talk about just in case we dry up. I have spent hours thinking about how I want to appear and the kind of mood I want to create.

Because an author event is an event. You can't just show up. No other business in the world would allow a performer to show up and not have prepared to engage with the audience. And yet so often in the world of literary events, writers are let loose with little to no idea of what kind of structure or tone they are supposed to be shooting for with an evening.

LDM sets its tone nicely with the pre-event communication. It lets writers know what they need to do. But I do think that writers (none of those I appeared with at LDM, by the way; its just that this is the event that got me thinking) need to understand more about presentation and showmanship. We are writers, but if we insist on turning up to meet and greet our readers we need to give them something more. We need to give them a show. We need to give them a good time (by which I mean interesting; you can be serious, and it can be equally as much fun as someone who is laugh a minute if you are passionate and interested in the subjects about which you talk).

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Malachi Stone Interview

By Steve Weddle

The world of Malachi Stone is an experience. Not just the books, of course. His personas. The Facebook army he's created. Roughly 48% of my friends on Facebook are Malachi Stone. Recently, he took time out of his busy schedule of creating personalities and writing novels to chat with me.

Steve Weddle: When I try to explain your writing style to people, I say it has a certain gravitas implied, as well as a complete disregard for normalcy. I say it’s like Theodore Dreiser meets Kurt Vonnegut in the middle of a Sunday sermon. Does that seem accurate? Am I missing an important element? 

Malachi Stone: Wow! Thank you so much, Steve! May I lift a quote from that and use it as a blurb? Actually, I have a passion for originality. If, after I've written something, I detect the faintest hint of imitation, I delete it and start over. My worst nightmare is publishing a novel and then discovering there's unconscious plagiarism lurking somewhere.

SW: What sort of element – plot, character, setting – do you start with when writing a novel? 

MS: Not to be flippant, but I just start writing and before long the characters write themselves. I do tend to favor dark characters with strange and powerful obsessions, who inhabit convoluted plots and exotic locales like Belleville IL, which, as you may know, is the sister city of Paderborn Germany.

SW: Through the years, you’ve been active in Smashwords, Authonomy, and the Amazon direct publishing, as well as other online sites. Is it helpful to go the agent route or is direct publishing a solid plan? Aside from “Write a good book,” do you have any strong feelings on the state of publishing from an author’s point of view?

MS: Like so many others, I fell back on DIY only because I was shut out of traditional publishing. Once upon a time I had been represented by a capable literary agent/editor who threw her best efforts into it but after more than three years couldn't "find a home" for any of my novels, as the saying goes. I'm far from bitter about it; she worked hard and never made a dime off me.

Maybe I'm too personally invested in my novels to be able to bear seeing them homeless. Whatever the reason, I don't take rejection well. My wife says she remembers me staying up all night after the breakup with my agent. Writing, I've always believed, is a form of performance art. When one editor after another rejects my books, it's like I'm center stage in an old vaudeville theater, giving them a righteous buck and wing, while out in the audience all these assholes are lobbing overripe tomatoes at me—tomatoes like, "people don't want to read about negative protagonists," or "too much explicit sex." So, unwilling to give up on writing, I started looking around, and self publishing seemed to be the only option.

Amazon is the big dog on the block, of course, but I also publish on Nook Press (Barnes & Noble) and on the two aggregators Draft2Digital and Smashwords. Smashwords is not only an aggregator but also publishes ebooks on its own site. Draft2Digital offers user-friendly formatting but charges you ten per cent off the top for that service. Nook Press is a no-brainer. You just slap your .docx manuscript up on their site and you're published, Dude. The others require a bit more effort, but anyone can do it with a little practice. I taught myself to format my novels for Kindle, Smashwords and, more recently, CreateSpace for POD paperback editions of all ten.

Self publishing is a daunting and yet exhilarating experience for an author. You're putting yourself on the line balls-out, with no copy editor, no story editor, no legal department, no publicity department and no sales team. (Notice how I eliminated the Oxford comma in that last sentence? Why? Because I wanted to, that's why.)

As to formatting, you're better off doing it yourself rather than ponying up money to somebody else to do it for you. I've found out that you CAN teach an old dog new tricks, especially when that old dog has an aversion to paying other people to format books that, if they sell at all, will net me less than two bucks a throw. CreateSpace took me nearly a week, off and on, to master, but I'd rather do it that way than pay CreateSpace's people $399 and up to do it for me. Now that I know how, although I'm by no means an expert—my knowledge is limited to Word 7, for instance—I'd be happy to help anyone who wants to go the do-it-yourself route. Just email me at and I'll send you a flowchart I developed specifically for CreateSpace formatting. It may not be perfect but it worked for me.

Smashwords is another challenge to master, but they do offer you a free ebook style guide that tells you everything you need to know about formatting your book for epublication on their site. Here's the link: It's 27,600 words of mind-numbing boredom (just kidding) but if you follow it step by step you will wind up with a manuscript that will pass perfectly through Smashwords' meatgrinder software.

As to the state of publishing from an author's point of view, the Internet has radically changed the game. To be blunt, now any dumb ass can write a book and see it in a digital format that looks just like it was professionally published. In fact, in ebooks published by the Big Five one can often spot glaring errors of formatting, grammar and composition, even spelling, despite the fact that we live in the spell check age.

The single most daunting problem confronting any self-published author is this: PROMOTION. I can furnish no useful advice about promoting one's novel, online or otherwise, even though promotion is the key to success. I do know a few things that have not worked for me. For instance, despite the fact that at last count I have 1130 FB friends (three of whom are me), 600+ Twitter followers and 266 people who like my FB author page, I've found Facebook and Twitter to be utterly useless for book promotion. Likewise, I have failed to create an audible blogging buzz. More of a popcorn fart, really. Pimping for reviews has proven a total waste of time. So what does that leave? Door-to-door sales? Cold calling? Infomercials featuring ShamWow's Vince? You tell me.

SW: How did the creation “Malachi Stone” come about?

MS: Malachi was derived from Malachi Chapter Three, where God promises His people that if they bring their offerings into the storehouse He will open the windows of heaven and pour down for them more blessings and more bounty than they can hold. Stone connotes enduring strength. Stone is the one thing that lasts. For all we know the ancient Egyptians may have had iPads, but only the hieroglyphics they carved in stone remain.

SW: Is it not possible to publish these novels under your own name?

MS: No. In my conservative profession and conservative church it might cause my family and me some grief. Not that I think there's a thing wrong with any of my novels—I've moved beyond my initial ambivalence in that regard—but why tempt fate?

SW: I imagine the nom de plume has helped in some ways, but has the “Malachi Stone” persona limited you in a way?

MS: He's overborne my real personality in a Jekyll and Hyde takeover bid. (Or is it Heckle and Jeckle?) While I don't think I'm anything like my pseudonymous alter ego, I find him wasting more and more of my time on Facebook spreading his own peculiar and toxic brand of misanthropic and transgressive humor. One of his most popular FB features is Perverts on Parade, also Not This Guy Again, The Fake Cop News, and Belleville IL: Honey, Let's Stay Here Forever. He's become like a guy with ten followers and his own nightly webcast who thinks he's the next Howard Stern. Talk about performance art!

SW: With a dozen books out there already, where do you suggest a new start? Do you think some of the novels are more "accessible" for a new reader? Do you see of them as more plot-driven? More of a character piece?

MS: Currently I'm around 16,000 words into writing a legal thriller with the working title WANTON AND WILLFUL, about a lawyer whose ambition to be a judge hooks him up with a powerful political boss known as The Junkman, a wheelchair-bound scrap metal dealer. The Junkman views our hero's headstrong wife as a career liability. Later that night, hero catches his wife at home with a young stud, and accidentally dials 911. The police show up, cast him as the bad guy and order him to leave the house for the night. Hours later, after doing a little drinking, he comes back home anyway where he discovers his wife's car still in the garage and something banging away off-balance in the washer. He lifts up the lid and, guess what? [Cue Bernard Herrmann PSYCHO score] Inside is his headstrong wife's severed head.

That's all I have so far. I don't know what I'll do with my latest novel once it's finished. I hate to throw it down the dumper of self publishing because it may be one of the best things I've ever written. On the other hand, I balk at the idea of sending out a couple thousand email queries and getting stiffed again. But I'm damned if I'll let this indecision keep me from finishing, even if I have to write the rest for the sheer pluperfect subjunctive hell of it. Had I finished...?

As to accessibility, all of my novels score in the high seventies to low eighties on the Flesch Reading Ease scale (That's easier to read than the Reader's Digest) and land around the fourth or fifth grade level on Flesch–Kincaid Grade Level test. Other than content, all my novels would qualify as YA fiction. Since something like 80% of YA fiction is read by adults (a depressing statistic in and of itself) my novels should pose no problem as far as reading difficulty is concerned.
Other than that, my personal favorites among my novels are CONJURER'S OATH and DEVIL'S TOLL, both for the magical realism, the humor and the characters. Let's face it, character is everything. If you enjoy legal thrillers and watch Nancy Grace, try HARD BREAK. Prefer scary shit but burned out on Stephen King? Read OZARK BANSHEE. (One older gentleman came up and told me after I'd performed a reading of OZARK at Subterranean Books, a St. Louis indie bookstore, that the passage I'd read was so scary it would surely give him insomnia. I still treasure that compliment. And don't call me Shirley.)

PRIVATE SHOWINGS and WICKED KING DICK are two novels I wrote years ago, and are the most traditional in terms of writing style. Both are more plot-driven than my later works. ST. AGNES' EVE is the first novel I ever wrote. It has undergone extensive editing by professionals. HEARTBALM is a sequel to ST. AGNES' EVE but stands alone. Personally I prefer the sequel, again for the humor and characters. (There's a horny woman of a certain age with ridiculously overdeveloped breasts and a spastic neck condition, a seven-foot biker street-named Snuggle, and a hottie secretary who shifts without warning into the persona and patois of a forties film noir gun moll.)

Rounding out the field of ten are DEAD MAN'S ACT and SHARP FORCE TRAUMA, my Bosco Hoël series. Bosco Hoël is a small-town attorney who encounters more than his share of grisly murders. Both books have elements of magical realism. In DEAD MAN'S ACT, Bosco is targeted by a bloodthirsty Odinistic cult wreaking havoc in a Midwestern farming community. In SHARP FORCE TRAUMA, a novella, I was going for a Nick and Nora Charles flavor in the dialogue between Bosco and his attorney-wife Brenda. Read it and see whether I succeeded. And don't miss the goofy nut in SHARP FORCE TRAUMA who cross-dresses as a nun, haunts the corridors and the chapel of a Chicago hospital, and engages Bosco in abstruse theological discussions peppered with dirty jokes and sudden violence. Or is he/she merely a hallucination brought on by Bosco's sleep disturbances? SHARP FORCE TRAUMA is my latest completed work and I'm kinda proud of it, as you can probably tell.
All my novels are available to sample or purchase here: Amazon refused to publish RUDE SCRAWLS, my short story collection. Never fear. You can order RUDE SCRAWLS from Barnes & Noble's site and from many other fine retailers. RUDE SCRAWLS is not for bluenoses, as the plain-brown-wrapper book ads in men's magazines used to say when I was a kid. It's "a compendium of short stories featuring adults misbehaving in various and sundry ways. None of the characters in this anthology of modern day morality tales are any better than they have to be, and some are quite a bit worse than they ought to be," quoting the book description. In RUDE SCRAWLS I'm going for the kind of stories you might get if John O'Hara were living today and wrote for Hustler. Enjoy.

Find out more about Malachi Stone at Smashwords and Amazon.

Thanks to Malachi Stone, wherever and whoever he is.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Truth is Harder Than Fiction

by Holly West

A few months back, Joe Clifford asked me to participate in Lip Service West, a literary event he co-produces with his wife, Justine. Located in the San Francisco area, it features artists reading their gritty, true-life stories aloud.

Though flattered by the invitation, my first impulse was to decline. You see, I write fiction for a reason: on the surface, it seems a whole lot easier than delving into one’s personal story, digging for nuggets of truth that may be painful to examine in the harsh light of day. Lip Service West’s tagline is “Everyone Has a Story.” Well, I’ve read Joe’s memoir, Junkie Love. I’ve also read Josh Stalling’s memoir, All the Wild Children. I’d heard TomPitts read and knew something about his struggles with drug addiction. These were some of the artists I’d be reading with, and my story has more in common with Snow White’s than it does with theirs. I couldn't imagine what I had to offer such an event.

Except that even Snow White had a wicked stepmother who tried to poison her. It doesn’t get much grittier than that, does it? I knew I had a story or two to tell; the only question was whether I was brave enough to put one of them on paper and read it aloud. I didn’t give myself too much time to ponder it before I typed a hasty acceptance to Joe’s invitation.

As expected, it turned out to be one of the hardest pieces I’ve ever written. Once I’d settled on a topic—a difficult task in itself—I struggled with just how much to reveal, how vulnerable to make myself. The first draft was charming and funny, full of witty observations about the event I was describing. Then I read it to my husband and he told me that all of my "clever" commentary was getting in the way of the interesting bits of the story.

<Ba dump dump>

In my attempt to protect myself, I realized I'd tried to cover up the truth by injecting too much of myself into the story. I've always said that I admire Josh Stallings greatly for the authenticity he brings to his writing--I now understand what a difficult thing it is to do. Because my impulse, whether I'm writing fiction or non-fiction, is always to protect myself. To never make myself truly vulnerable.

To be certain, I'm in no hurry to write another true-life essay. However, I learned something from this exercise that applies to my fiction: those uncomfortable passages that make me squirm in my chair? The ones that make my cheeks burn red or tears fill my eyes? The ones that I'm afraid my parents will read? Those are the keepers: they're the ones that make me a better writer.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Other People Podcast with Colum McCann

Colum McCann was a guest on Other People last week. One of my favorite podcasts overall and a favorite episode. Check it out to find out why:

Colum McCann is the guest. In 2009, he won the National Book Award for his novel Let the Great World Spin and this year published a new novel calledTransatlantic. He is also the curator of a new anthology called The Book of Men, available now from Picador.  The Book of Men is the official December selection of The TNB Book Club.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Advancing The Plot

Last week, Amazon launched StoryFront, stepping into the short story publishing arena with names like John Connolly, LJ Sellers, JA Konrath and Charlie Williams.

I was fortunate enough to be involved, as well, and I hope that writers who have works gathering dust in a drawer might find some encouragement from this story.

Several years ago, I took a creative writing course.  At the time, I really wasn't sure what I wanted to do with my writing.  Okay... that's not entirely true.  I wanted to write novels.  The problem was, I didn't know what to write about, or how to get started.

As I began to experiment with different genres and formats, I wrote a short story that I submitted to a small Canadian short story magazine.  It earned me one of my first high level rejection letters, with a personal, hand-written note saying it had been close.

The story still ended up gathering dust in a drawer.  When I dusted it off earlier this year, I did find that it needed some true dusting.  Part of that is what you learn about writing as you become more experienced.  It's a bit of a different structure for me, but when I re-read it, I was struck by my own interest in the characters, and the greater story that lurks in the shadows around the edges of this tale.

It could be because I got the idea for this story from a real event that happened in a small, Alberta town, many years ago.  My ex-husband had a remote connection to the events, and told me the story, and I started to wonder if there was a way it could have been murder... how.... and why.

The result is The Death Run.

The greater result is a reminder to writers, that an idea or project might have great potential.  It just might have to wait for the right time.  If this story had been published all those years ago, I would have received a check for $25 and a publication credit.  It would have been nice, but nothing compared to the perks of working with Amazon on this launch.

Sometimes, 'no' feels like an obstacle keeping you from success, but it's really like an obstacle that advances the plot, that sends you down a better path for a better result.

All you can do is keep working, learning, and improving.  I may not have a great supply of patience, but when I can tap into it, there's almost always a better outcome in the end.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Survival tips for writing during the holidays

by: Joelle Charbonneau

I don’t know about you, but for me, writing during the holiday season isn’t just hard.  It’s near impossible.  Between the gift buying, gift wrapping, Christmas card sending, cookie making, tree trimming, outdoor light stringing, birthday (yes, we have a birthday in our house) celebrating, holiday school stuff and dozens of other things that make the holiday seasons festive, it is more difficult than usual to find not only the time, but the focus to get words on the page.

What’s a writer to do?

Well, here are five ideas that I have, which could aid you in your quest for holiday writing sanity.  Not all of them will work for you.  So treat this like a box of cookies and only consume those that are to your liking.  If the gingerbread cookie doesn’t ring your bell – don’t eat it.  (I will.  I LOVE gingerbread.)

1)  If  you don’t have a looming deadline and the holiday festivities combined with writing is making you feel like the Grinch that drop-kicked Christmas – stop.  Give yourself permission to take time off from writing.  Really…the holidays are about family.  If you don’t have a deadline and the additional stress of writing is causing you to be irritable and annoyed, ditch it and decompress with those you love.  The story will be there when the last tree is trimmed and the final gift is unwrapped.  Time with family is precious.  Don’t waste it.

Sadly, many of us can’t afford to stop writing for the next couple of weeks.  (I wish I could, but the INDEPENDENT STUDY tour approaches and I am pretty sure my writing time is going to be seriously impacted in the month of January.  YIKES!)  So, if you have to move the story forward, here are a few suggestions.

2)   Set reasonable-for-the-holiday-season goals and be happy when you meet them especially on the busiest weeks.  Don’t use your non-holiday goals for productivity during this time of year.  Trust me.  I’ve been there and done that.  All it caused was sadness and frustration.  Yes, you need to move the story forward.  Celebrate every day that you do that, but don’t expect yourself to write 5-10-or 15 pages every day.  (Unless you really are the Grinch and you closet yourself in your room and refuse to come out until after the New Year.  If so…ignore all of this.)  Set low benchmarks so you don’t set yourself up for failure.  Failure leads to unhappiness and stress.  And aren’t the holidays stressful enough?  Don’t add to it!

3)  Reward yourself—a lot!  For every page your write sneak a cookie or a chocolate covered pretzel or a wreath-shaped Rice Crispy Treat.  Treat yourself to blaring your favorite holiday tune.  Kiss someone under the mistletoe.  Whatever it takes to get you through.  Personal rewards are always a good idea to help self-motivate.  For this time of year, I suggest you bump those rewards up and enjoy each time you get one.

4)  Take a break from social media.  Let’s face it…as fun as tweeting and posting on Facebook can be, those things suck up time.  And time is precious during the holidays because there never seems to be enough.  So, take the fifteen minutes or hour or more that you spend on social media and use that to write.  Trust me when I say, most people are so busy during the holidays, they aren’t going to notice if you aren’t discussing your work in progress or whatever show you watched last night on television.   You can also stretch this to blogging and other online activities.  Scale back where you can and put the time you save from those adventures into writing and holiday fun.

5)  Make Santa and his Elves do the writing for you.  Sigh…sounds great, but none of us would ever actually allow someone else to write our stories.  So, instead, each time you pull yourself away from holiday preparation or make yourself leave a party early in order to get those pages done remind yourself of the reasons you write.  Go over the reasons that you chose this job in the first place.  Lord knows it wasn’t for fame, fortune and stress-free holiday seasons.  Think of each time you sit down at the computer as a gift you are giving yourself and a gift that you will at some point in the future give your readers.  It doesn’t make it easier to write the words, but remembering how much you love telling stories can ease some of the annoyance you might feel when you can’t watch It’s A Wonderful Life for the hundredth time.

Deadlines can be stressful.  The holidays, as much as most of us love them, can try even the most patient and organized soul.  The combination of the two can lead to some really unhappy moments if you don’t give yourself permission to make some adjustments to your writing routine.   You might be that super person who can work through the holidays at the same pace as every other time of the year, but if you’re not make sure you develop a plan that allows you to get the most out of the last days of 2013.  And if you have any other suggestions for writing survival throughout the holidays please share.  I need all the help I can get!