Sunday, August 31, 2014

How to Become a Writer

So you want to be a writer, eh? You've just put down a book that stunk and thought, "I could do better than that!" Most people feel that burning desire to create something better than that horrid trash they just finished (or couldn't finish) reading for about five or ten minutes. Then, like a mild case of indigestion, the feeling goes away.
If the burning sensation you felt after declaring to every friend you have on Facebook that you could write a bestseller doesn't go away after a day or two, you might be on the precipice of becoming a writer. Perhaps you are the skeptical sort. "But Jen, it might just be a longer lasting case of bad-book indigestion because the writing was just that awful." If that's the case, I'm guessing you aren't a writer. Instead, you are an Amazon Top Reviewer in the making and you should hie yourself hence to inform the world of the good, the bad, and the stinky.
If the idea of critiquing other people's great works of literary art makes you itchy and the burning sensation remains, you are either allergic to your laundry detergent or a writer. Take your pick.
The rest, as they say, is easy peasy pudding pie. (What? They don't say that? Are you sure? What's wrong with peasy pudding pie, I ask you?)

Here are some tips for becoming a writer, in order of importance:
1. Write.
That one was easy.
2. Call yourself a writer. 
Yeah, I know, it's tempting to say, "aspiring writer" but those are the people who sit around coffee houses with their laptops open, wearing berets and sucking down $40 cups of coffee. If you're a writer, you can afford to aspire, so stop it. (Unless you've recently won the lottery and/or Uncle Frederick von Richie Pants died and left you his millions. Then, by all means, call yourself what you want.)
3. Read.
"Pish posh," you say. "I've read all I need. Don't want to taint the ole imagination pool." This often comes with a jaunty tapping of the skull, in case no one else knows where the ole imagination originates. 
To get this notion out of your head, go read some of the submission guidelines for publishers, whether or not you're planning on going that route. You'll see the exasperation in them. "For the love of all that's unholy, stop sending us evil babies suck the souls out of ducks, stories!" (I have it on the highest authority that evil babies sucking duck souls is way overdone. Ignore at your own peril.) You'd know that this is overdone if you bothered to read in your genre.
4. Be not afraid of trodding the well-worn path.
Wait, what? Didn't I JUST say that you needed to read in order to discover what not to write? Or read in order to know what has already been done a thousand times before?
Yes. Yes I did. Here's the difference. People like, say, secret baby stories or chosen one stories because it resonates with something deep down inside them. The problem is authors who don't read in their genre and therefore end up with nothing new to offer the trope. If you can bring your own unique spin to the secret baby romance, then it becomes a valuable story to the people who love secret babies. (They love them as long as they aren't angry, duck-soul stealing babies.)
5. Write.
Said it again. It's important.
6. Finish what you write.
Yeah, it's fun to talk about what you're writing but at the end of the day, you need to finish the damn thing. "Writing is a journey!" It may very well be, but do you want to be forever on the road, with no place to call home? No pillow on which to drop your weary head? ARE YOU MAD? Finish it. Then write the next thing. Finish it. Then write the next thing. Do that until you drop dead over your keyboard. 
So, how do you become a writer? Sit down and write. There really isn't much more to it. You could add studying grammar rules and learning vocabulary words and reading writing books but in the end, if you read a lot and write a lot, you'll learn 90% of the things you really need to know.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Art of the Tell

A politician on television answers a question from a news reporter and raises and lowers only his right shoulder in a shrug. His chin is raised and the corners of his mouth are down-turned. He repeatedly touches the underside of his nose and then lets his hand fall to his side, where he makes a slight waving gesture.

Someone well-schooled in the art of the tell, or the study of body language, would tell you that this politician is a big lying-liar. That one-sided shoulder shrug says loudly that he has absolutely no confidence in what he's just said. The raised chin and down-turned mouth scream embarrassment. And the nose touching and hand waving? Yep, you guessed it—he's telling a whopper and trying to hide it.

Reading someone's body language is great if you're a reporter, a lawyer, a cop, or a parent. But how does knowledge of body language help you as a writer? We're often told to show and not tell, and there's nothing more showy than writing about your characters' body language. Here's a few gestures to get you started:

  • Hand to forehead means shame
  • Breaking eye contact during a recollection and looking to the right is an indication of lying
  • Arms crossed over your chest means you're defensive and probably lying
  • There are no wrinkles at the corner the eyes if the smile is not genuine
  • Thrusting your chin out during a conversation means anger
  • Lifted brows and a curled upper lip are signs of contempt
  • Liars often make more eye contact. They need to see if their lies are believable
  • Arms resting on hips establishes dominance
  • Leaning away from someone during a conversation means disagreement or dislike for the other speaker
  • Leaning toward someone during a conversation means respect, agreement, and interest in the topic and/or speaker
  • If someone has their hands folded together and their thumbs are raised, it's a good indication of positive thoughts
  • Touching one's neck says emotional discomfort, doubt, or even insincerity

The next time you write a scene with two character speaking, remember to use some non-verbal communication and show your character's emotions, instead of telling your readers about them. I wouldn't, however, suggest using your new knowledge of body language during a fight with your significant other or parents. It might get you into more trouble.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Don't Fear the Time-Eaters: How To Write with Children Around

I have two kids.

Not big kids. Littler ones. My son’s eight, and my daughter just turned five. They both have special needs—that is, my son’s autistic (though he feeds, toilets, dresses himself) and my daughter has some communication difficulties, whether as a result of influence (older brother) or because she has autism herself. We aren’t sure yet.

Anyway. People ask me all the time how I do it. How am I building a writing career with two kids? This is the simple answer: I want it enough. I’ve been dreaming of this for a long time, and I will make it a reality.

My kids don’t get as much Mom Time as they would if I were only a stay-at-home mom. That’s true. I work long hours, and sometimes I feel guilty, like I think every working mom does, but I have to believe it’s good for them to see their mother chase a goal.

People ask me how I get my kids to let me work. Part of it is that they’re used to my working. Another part of it is books, puzzles, tablets, even—gasp!—the television. They have plenty of things that they want to do on their own, or can do with minimal help, sitting next to me at the table where I type. I use a laptop on the dinner table so I’m available to them in a central location.

I also have a wonderful and supportive husband, who recognizes my need and helps me carve out time when he’s home from his own job.

My kids go to school during the day now, and I get to write. I have written until 3 AM when I had to be up the next morning. I have written before they get up, after they go to sleep, while they were awake. After a while you get used to the noise. I write in the waiting room while they have their therapy for the week, and I think about writing while I clean my house.

I am more than a little obsessed. But I’m not sure this is a career path for the casual in any case. I have stories I need to tell, and my sanity is pretty strongly tied to being able to do that. My kids need me sane, so I write. If you need to, you will. That’s flat.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Evil Flash Challenge (Part Two)

Here is part II of the Scriptorium’s ode to all that is evil:

First up, Matthew Green:


There were two dead men in the cafe.

Plenty of living ones too, but my binoculars were on the walking corpses.  Sitting, in this instance, but I wasn’t going to split hairs.  I could hear Val breathing heavy over the mic, psyching herself up.  It was just the two of us, now.  Those things and their buddies in the government had got the rest of us.  Casey and Anna were dead.  Really dead, I made sure.  Kristoff and Meg had gotten arrested, and I don’t know if that was any better.  Hell, maybe it was worse.  The news calls them terrorists.

I wonder what’s going to happen to them in prison.

So it’s just me and Val and a box of Molotovs.  I hear Val suck up all the air and my muscles get tight.  Showtime.

I see a small spark in the alley next to the cafe.  A second later it flares up and I hear the crash of glass over the mic.  There’s a bright light in the alley now.  Fire’s spreading in front of the exit.

Then there’s Val, screaming something I can’t hear and tossing another Molotov into the cafe windows.  When it shatters it’s just like, waves of fire smashing up against the building.  That’s when the real screaming starts, and I know it’s not going to be anything compared to the screams when they discover there’s no way out.

One of the dead men, the bald one with horn-rimmed spectacles, backs away from the curtain of fire, his face stiffening in fear.  I smile to see a bloodsucker scared of us.  I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of seeing that.

The other man, a tall black guy, doesn’t look that concerned.  Hell, his ~arm~ is on fire and he just rips the sleeve of his suit off like it’s toilet paper.  Underneath I can see bones and the slimy remains of flesh.  His expression doesn’t even change as he just takes this big step through the window, through the fire, and now he’s just this huge fucking flaming skeleton and he’s grabbing Val by the neck and oh god, I can hear him through the mic.

I’m running down the fire escape, jumping blindly and I can hardly believe I make it to the ground and he starts talking.  “Oh, how clever.  A radio.  I suppose you can serve another purpose, then.”  Val screams and it’s not like any scream I’ve heard a human make, like an animal, like….

The next few days are a blur.  I ditched my phone, I ditched the mic, I burned my wallet.  I’m out here in Rock Creek Park living under a fucking ~rock~ and it’s almost a relief when they catch up to me.

“Federal Marshals, son.”

“Did I get it?  Just tell me, did I get any of those

A sigh.  “You just pissed them off.  Killed a bunch of innocent folks, though.  Was it worth it?”

It was.


R.L. Wicke

When he closed his eyes, he could hear the survivors crying. Bribing. Lying. Opened them again to see wounds oozing, stomachs shrinking with hunger, pulses racing with desire and flattening out with boredom. Hungry, angry, lonely, tired; were any of them happy for longer than the time it took their orgasms to fade?

He hadn’t caused the plague that put the mass of humanity out of their misery. Not his style. He got off on happiness. Had been a junkie once, but smart enough to drop out of a losing game. Still did pot when he could get it but that was pretty rare on the east coast. Out west where he came from...

Where had he come from?

The past was pretty hazy. Mother and Father from somewhere north. There was a joke in there somewhere, but he’d forgotten the punchline. They’d put him on the road young. He had a mess of brothers, all turned out across the country, but all unsympathetic to his quest. He’d stayed with each one in turn. Gambled against one in Vegas, hitched a bike ride with another across Kansas plains. He’d met another in Memphis, and together they’d walked right through the brick wall that once kept the rabble out of Graceland. Messages of love scribbled in Sharpie on the crumbling bricks had faded nearly invisible.

Big fuck deal. Graffiti replaced by invasive vines. The Jungle Room was inhabited by real animals now. A decaying monument to another wasted life.

That brother, too, had been welcoming at first. Tried, with growing concern, to talk to him about rhythm and soul, then finally turned him away.

“The survivors,” his brother asked as they parted ways. “Why do you hate them?”

“Hate them? I, a survivor walking among them? I love them.”

“Then why this aim, brother, to chain and dominate them?”

He’d laughed. “You’re wrong about me, little bro. I love them better than all of you do. I won’t leave them hobbling in the snow on broken legs like cast out wolves. I will bind them together and teach them to fly.”


One of the survivors lay in his bed. Corn-silk hair. Nice hips. Eager to please. A pleasant, if empty-headed, companion before the jealousy had kicked in. But permanent? Hardly. His confidante, his consort, the mother of the king over men; she would understand how survivors thought, would feel how they felt, but also possess the grace and intelligence to rise above their weakness.

“I seek the Uber-wench,” he said. Chuckled. “Uber-wench. Get it?”

She didn’t laugh.

He threw the empty beer bottle at her head. It bounced off her mouth, twisting her lips crudely, landing on the quilted comforter. “Aw, don’t make a face, darling, it’ll freeze like that.”

She was beginning to stink. Leave her behind right now or toss her in the Olympic-sized algae farm under the hotel and keep the room another night?

Go. His gut said north, and the DARKNESS always listened to his gut.


Fiona Skye

When the phone rang at midnight, I knew it wouldn't be good news. Who phones at that hour, besides cops calling to say that there's been an accident and your loved one has been seriously hurt or even killed? The Publisher's Clearinghouse people never call you up at midnight to tell you that they're on your front porch with one of those ridiculously over-sized checks made out for millions of dollars and it's got your name on it. The man of your dreams doesn't ever stop by at oh-dark-hundred to say, "Hey, this is crazy, but I'm desperately in love with you. Would you like to go to Denny's for coffee and a Grand Slam?"

I reluctantly answered the phone, knowing that I should just let the call go to voice mail. "Huh-lo," I mumbled half-coherently into the receiver, hoping that at least I wasn't holding the phone upside down.

"Lindsay?" It wasn't a voice I recognized, but the male caller had at least gotten my name correct. I sat up and rubbed bleary eyes.

"Yes, this is Lindsay. Who's this?"

"You are in serious danger." The man's voice was completely free of accent, pleasant to listen to but there was nothing that stood out as particularly remarkable. If it was a color, it would be beige.

I was stunned into silence. Then I started to get mad. This guy had interrupted a really nice dream about George Clooney and I on a beach in the French Riviera. "Who is this? Did Darlene put you up to this? I'm gonna kill her! Do you realize that it's –"

"You must believe me," the guy interrupted. "Haven't you noticed the black van following you? Or the men in black suits who are always present?"

I stopped for a moment and listened. Oh, my God. He was right. I had noticed a big black windowless van in my rear view mirror more than once in the past couple of weeks. I had even made a comment about it to my mother, saying something about it being a pedophile's car. She encouraged me to call the police and report it but I'd just shrugged it off as paranoia. And there had been a table of three men all wearing black suits in two different restaurants I'd gone into in the past week. I'd just assumed they were Mormon missionaries.

I was scared now. "Who is this? Why are they following me? Who are they?"

"I am going to help you, but you have to trust me."

"Tell me who you are first." 

"My name is Norville. Go to your window and tell me if they are out there."

"Yeah, okay." I slid out of bed and peeked through the curtains on the window that faced the street in front of my house. Sure enough, there was a big black van parked two houses away. "Oh, my God. They're out there now!" I whispered into the phone, panic making my voice harsh. "What do I do?"

"Get dressed without turning on any lights. Go out your back door and into the alley behind your house."

"Okay," I said hesitantly. He hung up before I could say anything else. I stood stock still for a moment, deciding if I wanted to call the police. I heard a car door closing and it was all the motivation I needed. They were coming for me. I knew it.

I quickly got dressed, not even caring if my socks didn't match, and slipped out the back door. I kind of hunkered down a bit and quickly crossed my yard. God, this was insane! Who were those people in that van? Who was Norville?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

You Are Too Old to Think About Writing

Notice I didn’t say that you were too old to write. Or to even begin writing. You’re only too old to waste time considering it.
When I was in middle school, there was no doubt about what I was going to do for a career. I was going to write. I devoured novels like pancakes and kept telling myself that Stephen King couldn’t hold onto his title forever. This passion followed me through high school and into college.
I majored in English, of course. When I wasn’t writing papers for my classes, I was writing short stories about whatever twisted thought leapt into my imagination. I was never without a pad and a pen, working on three or four projects at a time. The novel would come later, I told myself. First I was going to hone my skills with shorter works.
However, as I’m sure you all know, Life tends to get in the way of Art. And that’s what happened to me. I’m not going to go into the details about what happened, but my life took a massive side turn and the passion to create got snuffed out like an extinguished candle.
Forever. Or so I thought.
But to reverse paraphrase the show Once Upon a Time, “Creativity isn’t made, Dearie. It’s born.” And even if you’ve never pursued any type of outlet, that creativity is still there. It’s an itch you can never scratch. A nagging right behind your eyes that makes you occasionally see the world a little differently than everyone else. If you were born with that, it will never truly goes away.
Just because you’ve never started writing, or even if you’ve stopped, the fact remains that you can create.
No matter your age.
Seventeen years. Approximately. That’s how long it was from the day I stopped writing to the day I started again. In those intervening years my imagination never stopped pushing me to create. To build.
To write.
I would tell people about how I used to write. It was a conversation piece. “Oh, I had a short story published once in a magazine.” An ice-breaker. A way to introduce the me of now by making a casual remark to a major accomplishment of the me of the past. As if it were a phase or a fluke.
I used to be a writer.
I missed it. I missed it something fierce. My wife, who only knew of my writing through discussions about my past, encouraged me to start again. I didn’t, of course. I’d wave my hands and insist that was a part of my past. It was who I used to be.
I didn’t want to start writing again because I was Too Old. It was too late for me to take up the proverbial pen and try to create again. So much easier to make an excuse and try to find contentment in the glory days.
I joined a few groups on Facebook. Groups that appealed to me and my tastes; science-fiction and fantasy. Some of them were even artists’ groups, pulling together like-minded creators who shared their art with their fellow members.
One day, there was an open call. One of the members of a group had published a novel and was trying to put together an anthology based in her imaginary world. She solicited in the group’s post that she was looking for contributors. As usual, the thought of taking part occurred to me. Only this time, something changed. This time, I wrote.
I wrote a short story and passed it to her. I didn’t care if she liked it or even wanted to use it. I was more excited about the fact that I wrote it and liked it. It needed polishing and some heavy editing. But the block that had held my imagination prisoner in my own head was broken. The excuses became transparent-thin and meaningless.
And the writing began again.
I wasn’t too old.
And neither are you.
If you’ve always wanted to write that novel, make a record, paint a canvas, compose a poem … do it. Pick up the required instrument and do it. Who cares if it sucks in the beginning? It doesn’t mean a damned thing if you have no idea where it’s going to go. Just create. It used to be impossible for me to believe that anyone born with the spark of imagination could never take the chance and make something from it. Now I know better.
I don’t care if you’re 50, 60, or 90; you’ll be too old to create when you’re dead. And not a moment before. You can turn the thoughts and dreams in your head into something beautiful. Even if you never sell it or achieve fame from it, it is still something of yours. A piece of your soul that you have shaped and put out into the world.
And that, my friends, is what life is truly all about.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Jumping the Snark: 9 Tips for One-Liners That Slice

Ever have that moment when somebody says something to you and you just have that perfect comeback on the fly?
Yeah. Neither have I. That’s why I’m here to give you my tips for writing snappy one-liners.

1.       Read them out loud.

I’m a big proponent of doing this with all your fiction, but if you read nothing else out loud, read these. To get the sound of the wisecrack, crack wise, my friend.

2.       The setup.

Remember, the burn is only as sick as its victim. Maybe your setup is a lesser burn, or maybe it’s a straight line, but a one-liner is at its most satisfying when it hits a deserving target. Take aim at the right one.

3.       Try them different ways.

Write it a dozen times. Sometimes your first shot is perfect, but sometimes it falls short. Write it two dozen times. Read them aloud and pick the one that makes you giggle the most. Preferably the one that makes you snort, and your child/significant other/patrons in the coffee shop/whoever give you a strange look.

4.       Test them out.

What’s humor when it doesn’t make other people laugh? Test them on a writing partner or six. Lucky me, I have the Scriptorium, but if you don’t have something like it (which you should make if you can’t find!), get some friends, make sure they know what you’re doing, and let it fly.

5.       Read great snark.

Books that make you laugh. I recommend Dave Barry (say what you want, he turns a phrase), Ogden Nash, Chuck Wendig, Terry Pratchett—but if none of these hits your funny bone, find something that does and strip it for parts.

6.       Remember your character’s voice.

If some incisive Jon Stewart-style line is coming out of your hillbilly himbo, you’d better think again. That character type can be hilarious to a high degree, but it isn’t going to come out the same way, so put some thought into it. If you have to think dumber than you are, have a few drinks and get back to me. If you have to think smarter, do it sober.

7.       Words that sound dirty, but aren’t.

Oh, baby. Where do I start? Mukluk. Moist. Pulchritude. Mastication. Squelch. Blast. They add rhythm and flavor. Find some favorites. Red-breasted warbling cuckoos or something. It’s fun.

8.       Rudeness.

You don’t get the good stuff by holding back. You can be subtle, imply a world of rude and nasty things, if that’s appropriate for the character, but go for the throat.

9.       Fucking swear [optional].

A personal favorite of mine. Look, words like ass and cock and shit and fuck just sound funny. Every other word? No. But spice it up a little. Call the guy a ten-pound bag of assholes. That’s funny right there.

Now you’ve heard my advice. Let’s hear some of your wicked burns. Comment below, you red-breasted warbling cuckoos, you.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Flash Challenge (Part One)

For the corporate post this week, we each wrote a flash story from a villain's point of view with a target of ~500 words. Some of them ran long, so we've decided to split up the stories into two posts. Here are the first four! A couple of them might be NSFW. Enjoy.

First, from S.J. Delos:

The Bargain

“Sir?” Miss Winter’s voice was sensuous, like a slowly removed silk stocking. “Your two o’clock is here.”

Seven minutes and eighteen seconds early. Of course, better early than late. I pressed the button on the intercom. “Show him to the library and make him comfortable. Oh, and this will be a brief meeting, Miss Winters. So keep your libido contained.”

“Yes, sir.” Disappointment filled her response.

Exactly seven minutes later, I rose from behind the black marble desk and crossed to the door, ash-carved cane in hand. The wood was infused with blood spilled at Golgotha and protested being in my grip.

The Fae sat on a leather sofa, trying to ignore the raven-haired beauty standing nearby. His thoughts wandered back to the way the tight charcoal skirt showed off her curves and legs.

I dismissed her with a curt nod and she departed in an angry click-clack of stilettos, closing the door behind her loudly.

Having a succubus for a secretary had its tribulations.

The man stood, hands out in supplication. “Mr. Valak, I know we had a deal—”

“Just Valak.” I smiled, lips remaining together.

He nodded in a jerky motion that threatened to pop his head off his shoulders. “Okay… Valak.”

I held up a finger. “You agreed to provide me a vessel in exchange for curing you. In fact, you ~promised~.”

His eyes widened. “You can’t seriously expect me to do this.”

I sighed. Silly Fae. Always trying to renegotiate. Not their fault, I suppose, considering what passes as leadership among them.

“Mr. Michaels, I negotiated in good faith. However, since I am nothing if not fair, you have a choice.” I smiled with a mouth full of serrated teeth and pulled a black leather choker from my pocket. The dark ruby pendant greedily absorbed the light. I let my gaze linger for just a moment on the stone before holding it to him.

“What is that?” The tremble in his voice tickled my ear.

“A trinket. A trifle. Nothing of concern.” I returned my hard gaze on him.

“Put this around your daughter’s neck tonight before her First Change.”

I tingled with glee as he pleaded. “She’s only fifteen. Don’t ask—“

“I am not asking. Refuse and ogres will repeatedly rape your precious girl in front of you until she dies. I promise you.”

His hands shook with desire for violence. Fortunately, common sense prevailed and the Fae hesitantly took the choker. “Will it hurt her?” Ah, parental concern. It will make one irrational.

“No, but my associates certainly will.” The door opened to reveal Miss Winters. “One little thing, Mr. Michaels, and your debt is settled. Good day.”

Later, as I was reviewing other contracts, Miss Winter’s voice came through the intercom. “Watchers say the girl is wearing the pendant, sir.”

“Excellent. Kill the father tomorrow and bring her here.”

“Yes, sir.”

I glanced over and touched the smoky glass orb sitting on the desk. “Soon, dearest. You will have a new home.”

Next, from Jen Ponce:


The magic was wild inside him. Made him have to concentrate mighty hard to remember why he was in his tent in the middle of the day and why Inna was on her knees in the dirt in front of him.

“I’m sorry, Leon. Please don’t hurt me.”

Her whimpering was getting on his nerves. “When have I hurt you where you didn’t deserve it, little girl?” The buzz and itch of magic swelled until his eyes watered from the pressure. Then her face swam into view. The virgie bitch who swaggered around his Carnicus, poking her fucking nose where it didn’t belong. “You’re mine, Inna. Won’t tolerate any talk about that goddess. Won’t tolerate you thinking you can disobey me just because that stranger don’t know her place.” He reached out and stroked her hair, enjoying how she trembled at his touch.

“I just got carried away. I wanted to impress—”

Her snagged her chin, viper-quick, and pinched her ‘til she squealed.
“She ain’t nobody you need to impress.” He waited until she nodded before releasing her. “I don’t know what she’s up to or even what she is, but you stay clear of her from now on. I’ll deal with her, when the time is right.”

“Of course.” She lifted her gaze to him, peeping at him from under her lashes. “Can I go?”

He didn’t answer. Surely she knew nothing was that easy. If he let her go now, the whole camp would think he was going soft. Instead he shifted, leaning back, spreading his legs so even the dumbest of his crew could have understood what was expected of them.

She dared shake her head. “I can get Amani—”

“Oh no. Amani didn’t break the rules. Amani didn’t disrespect me in front of my people.” Energy crackled over his skin, eating at his pores like worms digging through the soil. It made him itch and he knew his sister had roamed too far away from him. He’d have to have a little talk with her, too. But first. “Maybe I should tell you a little story, Inna. A story about a young witch boy taken out into the Anwar to die. I bet you didn’t know there are Wydlings out there that like to break witches, like to watch us bleed, like to say it’s in revenge for what we done to them. You know what it takes to break a witch’s magic? Pain. Fear. And lots of it. It ain’t a kind way to kill a boy. And Inna?”

Her eyes were wet as she gazed at him and he liked the look of fear swimming in her tears.

“I ain’t dead.”

One sob, tightly reined in. She knew he didn’t like it when she cried. Knew it like she knew she’d better swallow her punishment like a good little girl. She fumbled about a bit, but when she settled in, he closed his eyes and smiled.

From M.A. Ray:

When I Was a Child

“So no shit, there I was, in front of this huge friggin guy. I mean, he’s big, he’s tall, he’s broader than an ox, and he’s got this red hair sprouting out of his head and ears, I mean, I swear he must’ve been half troll.” Arkady wet his whistle with the mug of small beer, ridiculous that was all Ryan’d allow him at his age. He was a damn man, never mind he hadn’t won his leaf. “So he says to me, like grunts at me, ‘You better not talk to my sister.’ And I says to him, ‘I didn’t know she was your sister, I thought she was your girl.’ If I’d known she was related to this guy I wouldn’t’ve had a thing to do with her, I mean, what’d the babies look like?”

The bartender shook his head. “Kid, you’re not selling it to me.”

“No, look!” Arkady pointed at the scratches on the side of his face, which he’d actually picked up tripping into the bramble patch yesterday, but so what? “He rubbed me along the ground for fifty yards and busted my leg like kindling. I swear on my sweet mother’s grave it’s nothing but the truth.”

“Okay, Arkady,” said Ryan, “why don’t you let me have a try?” His mouth kept twitching at the corners, which Arkady couldn’t like by half. He patted Arkady’s ankle where it rested, in its cast, on the stool between them.

“Ow,” said Arkady, out of habit more than anything else.

Ryan ignored him. “Once upon a time—”

“Ow!” he said, louder.

Ryan sighed. “Sorry, Arkady,” he said, out of habit. “Once upon a time, there was a prince who lived in a tower, and he’d never been out. His father the king was so afraid for the prince’s safety that he kept the young man locked away …”
And on and on in the warm voice, telling the very same story that had charmed Arkady out of cozy Castle Markov in the first place, with promises of fairy bears with beautiful women under their skins and butterflies that might actually be vampir. It had all sounded so exciting! Well, he could live with the monsters being only in stories, and after all Ryan hadn’t promised those things would be real.

But this. No, not this. Arkady swung his leg—almost healed, really—off the stool and took the crutches from each side. He made sure to land on the good foot; Ryan glanced over at him, but kept telling, and Arkady heard him all the way up to lie on the bed. He blew out the candle.

Later Ryan came up and stood highlighted in the door, a solid round shape. “I’m sorry, Arkady,” Ryan repeated, like he always did. “I thought you’d like to hear your favorite.”

Arkady pretended to be asleep, pretended not to hear, and Ryan didn’t wait long for a response. He left, closing Arkady into the dark behind him.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

6 Reasons to Damn the Haters and Write the Prologue

Your journey as a writer will lead you into the orbit of many other wordsmiths, and by now you may have realized how important it is to learn from the Ancient Graybeards, from She-who-has-her-shit-together, and let us not forget, The Published One. However, every now and then advice that is common among the almost-pros will turn out to be meaningless swill, peddled in the format of listicle blog posts aimed at self-conscious, young writers (all inferior to this listicle blog post aimed at way cooler young writers, rest assured, dear reader).

The swill I intend to excoriate today is the “damn the prologue!” fever gripping writerly circles.

It happens the same way again and again. Some neonate author will plunge into the vast nest of cats, caffeine, and self-obsession that is a writer’s group and ask whether their intro (almost invariably a prologue) “works,” by which they actually mean, “Praise me and tell me I’m good, the same as my mother does.”

I always cringe, waiting in silence as the respectable types in their dark hoods look up from the freshly feasted-over dreams of the last writer whose work they stripped dry. They swarm to the youngster. “No, no, NO,” they rationally explain, “Do you want the spray bottle or the newspaper? No prologues. NO. PROLOGUES.”

Today I pick at the thread of conventional wisdom and seek to unravel the dark robes of the Prologue Haters. What I reveal beneath is the fetishization of “Do Not” checklists and confusion over what the device actually does.

Here is my checklist: The six major myths and realities of prologues.

MYTH #1:

If you want to be a Grown-Up Writer, you should listen to “Do Not” checklists that condemn prologues and other storytelling tools.


This is the worst possible way to improve your writing.

“Do Not” checklists are the empty calories of the writing-advice world—and I’m bitter because they get more clicks than I do. If you want people to read your blog post, write a “Do Not” checklist. It either validates or angers young authors, and they will share it with their friends either way.

In short, these articles rarely rise above the function of masturbatory aids for your ego.

You’ll never get better by avoiding things. Write them, assess whether they worked, and if they did not, then just rewrite them.

Why are you so terrified of mistakes? Don’t write like it’s a minefield. The English language contains over a million words, writers employ hundreds of literary devices, and there are over 20,000 tropes. It’s not a minefield, it’s a diamond mine. Write like it’s a dance floor and you know one million moves. Somewhere in there, there are moves that will make your defenseless readers feel something, think something, or want something.

Stop avoiding. Take risks. This isn’t medicine, and you get as many do-overs as you need. Never stop taking risks. I broke three “Do Not” rules in the opening sequence of my latest work-in-progress. I only wish I’d broken seven.

MYTH #2:

“Don’t call it a prologue—just label it ‘Chapter One.’”


The number one argument employed by Prologue Haters is that you don’t need them—typically followed with, “At least, not if you’re a good writer, like moi.”

If what you’re saying is so important, they might add, “just label it Chapter One.” This is a statement bereft of understanding.

A prologue is like punctuation for your chapters. A period gives you pause and notes a transition to the next thought. Prologues are the same thing for chapter structure—a transitioning device.

Consider: When you see the word “Prologue,” you know that you are reading something that is apart from the main work. There will be a barrier between the prologue and Chapter One—some type of significant break, change in narrative or character, or shift in trajectory.

The two most important pieces in the anatomy of a prologue are the break between it and Chapter One—which can mark some of the sharpest transitions in literature—and the word “PROLOGUE” at the start, which informs the reader what to expect ahead, in exactly the way “appetizer” informs the diner that there is more (and different) to come. Alerting the reader to that forthcoming break is what makes a prologue different from Chapter One.

People blame prologues for employing false protagonists. This is nonsense. If you read a prologue about a character and are SHOCKED that this character might not turn out to be the protagonist*, then you’re too dim to be reading anyway. Go watch TLC**. The whole point of the device is to note that “this is what comes before the story, so be prepared for us to shift gears.”

Prologues and first chapters are not interchangeable. Learn what prologues do before you use them—but for the love of the Inklings, try to learn what they do before you give bad advice regarding them.

*--If you're not shocked, but just upset because you bonded to the character in the prologue, then you're fine and the author is probably a dick. And also probably me. (Thanks for pointing that out to me, Amanda.)

**--Don't actually do this. TLC will just make it worse.

MYTH #3:

“You never actually need a prologue.”


It’s not about “need.” Good writers don’t set impossible standards for a device, such as, “Can I think of any way to do this without the prologue?” They ask, “What is the advantage to a prologue? What is the disadvantage? Now, with my audience in mind, is it a better story with or without the prologue?”

Like short chapter breaks, or first-person perspective, or non-linear narratives, they have both strengths and weaknesses. A lot of writing is about managing tradeoffs between the strengths and weaknesses of various devices. We’ve talked about how prologues are great at making transitions, so now let’s talk about their downsides.

Why some people hate them: Prologues are strong for the same reason they are weak. They are the beginning of a story that is different from the story. Some folks just want you to get to the point. Never mind the anticipation of a four-course meal, they want their cheeseburger right now, goddamnit.

And hey, sometimes I want my cheeseburger right now goddamnit, too. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But when people issue a Fatwa on appetizers, some of us are ready to draw blood on behalf of our cheese sticks, thanks.

Why prologues fail: Prologues fail when they are used for the sake of establishing things that you don’t need a sharp transition to establish.

The number one complaint is when prologues are used to “infodump.” It’s difficult to find successful prologues in literature that are solely infodumps—Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” is the best I could come up with, and he may have needed it because Fantasy wasn’t a well-established genre with reading rules until he came along. So it’s safe to say you need to do more than infodump.

But there’s also a whole world of effective transitions for you to exploit. Some people like them purely for the sharp contrast—introduce a character in the prologue before they were broken and cynical, and then in Chapter One reveal who they have become. The huge gap between the character’s past and present that the writer has created can catapult the drama forward in a way that “seeding” the protagonist’s back story could not.

Whether they do character, setting, or plot work, prologues create an “establishing shot” that can be contrasted to or used to condition what is happening in Chapter One. For writers who love to employ stark contrasts and sudden transitions, it’s a powerful tool.

Good writers use prologues to heighten the narrative. They accept that it makes for a slower start, but if the appetizer is delicious enough, they know most of their readers will hang through and then love them for it.

MYTH #4:

“No one reads prologues.”


Nearly everyone reads prologues.

This is the part where the Prologue Haters try to validate their opinion through cynicism. If you can’t convince them it’s bad art, convince them it’s bad marketing.  I’ve seen it come off as nearly a veiled threat, as if to say, “Yes, it’s a matter of taste—but if you don’t change your taste, then you won’t sell.”

I don’t buy it for a minute. It doesn’t pass even a preliminary smell test, since tens of thousands of books use prologues, and they continue to be used by talented authors. If no one reads them, why are there so many? Second, I have never heard someone complain about prologues unless they are writers who read a lot of bitching from agents. Prologues are mostly a weird agent hang-up, because they get so many bad ones.

I cannot think of a more cynical, less interesting writer than the one who takes seriously the bitchings of professional agents. The whole reason agents exist is to tell crappy writers “no.”  While a talented agent will know a good story when they see it, they have far fewer productive things to say about what authors should write, or else they would be writers and not agents.

But hey, you know what’s great about a cynical point like this? It’s an empirical question. We can answer it through the magic of surveys. As best I can tell, it’s been answered already here, here, and here (and a hat tip to J. Scott Savage). Would I like a larger sample size and a more randomized draw? Sure. But it’s the best data I’ve seen, and it confirms my commonsense intuition.

Namely, the percentage of people who usually or always skip prologues ranges from between about 5 and 16 percent. That means the overwhelming majority—about 85 percent or more at the lowest—are reading prologues. Moreover, the survey that offered the best question methodology (the widest range of frequencies for prologue reading, and written in the most neutral fashion) is the one that shows 95 percent of people will read a prologue at least some of the time.

If you know anything about the percentage of people who start and then never finish books, you’ll realize that people are more likely to read your prologue than your epilogue.

If you can’t tell, this is the moment in my listicle in which I drop the mic.

(And then pick it up again, because I’ll not only kick a man when he’s down, I’ll kick him until I’m out of breath).

MYTH #5:

“But AGENTS won’t read your prologue.”


No, agents will not black list you because of your prologue. They will cast it a critical eye because they do get a lot of bad ones, or at least so says David Powers King—a fine, sweet gentleman kind enough to interview some agents on Twitter (seriously, he appears to be one of the internet’s most jovial writers).

According to King’s Twitter exchange, the important thing agents are looking for is that you used the prologue correctly. That’s all. That’s everything.

Agents want to read the best thing you can produce. Yes, crappy writers do more prologues than the professionals, but professionals still write an awful lot of them.

If you’re super worried you’ll get the brush-off for a prologue, just send them Chapter One instead, and include the prologue when they ask for the full manuscript. Or whatever. I know a lot about writing, but I admit, my relationship with the marketing side of the business is roughly what you would expect from someone who publicly derides “bitching” from agents.

MYTH #6:

“I’m just expressing my harmless opinion about prologues!”


You’re spreading misinformation that percolated out of the frustrations shared by a few agents, and which don’t reflect readers at all. You are also backhandedly insulting a shit ton of talented writers by claiming prologues aren’t something “good authors” do.

Prologue Hate is a massive misunderstanding wrapped in a humblebrag. A few agents griped about wanting more writers to get right to the story, and now it’s taken as Gospel that there’s nothing worthwhile in the device. And that Herculean leap of logic is perpetrated by almost-pros who want to give worldly-sounding advice to novice authors. It’s an attempt to say, “Look at me, I don’t make this common mistake that the riffraff make. Be like me.”

Prologues aren’t a mistake. They’re a device. As a writer, you are responsible for knowing the tools in your toolbox. If your story calls for one, then damn the haters—full speed ahead, and write the prologue.