CRAFT


by Jessi Cole Jackson

Steven L. Peck

Steven L. Peck is a university biology professor and teaches classes on ecology, evolution, and the consciousness of the human mind. He has published over 50 scientific articles. Creative works include three novels with mainstream publishers, including  A Short Stay in Hell and the magical realism novel The Scholar of Moab, published by Torrey House Press and named AML’s best novel of 2011 and a Montaigne Medal Finalist (national award given for most thought-provoking book).  He has been published in Abyss & Apex, Analog (Fact Article), Daily Science Fiction, Journal of Unlikely EntomologyNature Futures, Pedestal Magazine, Perihelion, and many others.

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  Could you talk a little bit about the inspiration behind “Tales from Pleasant Grove”? 

Pleasant Grove is the small town in central Utah where I live, and it is so ordinary as to be rather unexciting sometimes. I began to imagine short vignettes about a much stranger city. I wanted a Pleasant Grove that was weirder and more exciting. I started writing these down, and soon I had an entire collection of Pleasant Grove stories that portrayed a world where anything could happen. I tried to keep the small town feel, but mixed it with far more magic and adventure.

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  What is your typical writing process look like? How do you come up with your ideas? Do you have any rituals or superstitions attached to your writing sessions? 

That’s a great question. I usually try to write at night at a given time, but I have to admit I’m not very consistent. Sometimes, though, especially when I’m really excited about a story, it takes over my life and I can’t put it down. Usually, so much that I’ll lay awake at night running through the story in my head. Several times this has produced new characters or even new plot lines.

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  I love the details of your story. They are specific and telling, making each moment feel real and immediate. At the same time, your protagonist is an everyman who could stand in for any one of us. Do you think most people would swap out their fears, or be like Hal, comfortable with the devil(s) they know?

Steven L. Peck: I think I’d be more the Hal type. I like the devils I know. And there is a slight streak of superstition that runs through me whenever there is a change, for example when I have to change seats on an airplane there’s always this discomfort that I’m not where I was supposed to be. I don’t take it too seriously (I’m a scientist after all), but it’s still there putting a little pressure on something that really is silly to worry about.

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  Is there a fear you would get rid of? Which jar would you choose to take its place? 

Steven L. Peck:  I wish I could lose the fear of pickpockets. I travel a lot, and I have this irrational fear I’ll get pickpocketed. I never have been, but I’m always on the lookout. It’s completely crazy. It’s almost as if I think pickpockets are magical beings that can get through any defense and that I’m helpless to their tricks. I’d take a jar with some fear I was absolutely sure that I was never going to run into, like a fear of deep sea angel fish that live so far down in the ocean depths that my chances of ever running into one are almost non-existent! (But as the story shows, these things have a way of backfiring).

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  The voice of your protagonist is very distinct. Did you work on cultivating his voice or did it come to you? Do you do anything to ‘find’ your characters? 

Steven L. Peck:  It seems to me that it’s almost as if my characters find me. They just appear whole-cloth as if we meet by accident. One of my novels (The Scholar of Moab) was about an ordinary kid working in the mountains for a geology company. I didn’t expect it, but one day in my mind’s eye a conjoined-twin cowboy road up and started talking to my main character. It changed the entire book, and I never saw it coming. Characters are like that when I write. They seem to exist almost independently of me and I am only a kind of medium that encourages their visit from another world.

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  I’m always interested in what people do when they’re not writing. You’re a scientist, philosopher, and professor, correct? Where’s the intersection between those passions and fiction for you? 

Steven L. Peck:  It seems funny to say, but in being a scientist and a philosopher of science I’ve found that my imagination the most critical talent I have. I’ve always loved discovering things, and I’ve found that the real art of good science is the ability to ask the right questions. The hard part of science is looking at the world and trying to discover what’s the next question to ask. Answering them is usually the easier part. Find good questions and discoveries follow. I think it is the same in fiction. Asking questions of our characters and settings are what set up the magic that follows. Trying to see what motivates them and what situations will best draw out the question you are exploring in your fiction, I think are the hardest parts of all. I honestly believe that my being a fiction writer and a scientist really play on the same strength.

 

Jessi Cole Jackson:  What projects are you currently working on? Could you point readers to other stories of yours, either forthcoming or published? 

 Steven L. Peck:  A lot of my previously published short fiction can be found on my website, including my Daily Science Fiction short story and myNature Futures story, including a number of others. In addition to the collection of Pleasant Grove stories I’m working on (and my hope to find a publisher soon!), I have a book of short stories coming out later this summer, called Wandering Realities, published by Zarahemla Press, which I’m very excited about. It’s about one half speculative fiction and half literary fiction. My most popular book is A Short Stay in Hell and a volume of short stories set in the Hell of this novel is going to be published soon as well (with one by me, too!). It’s got some best selling horror writers contributing (I’d name them but contracts have not been finalized—watch my website for news). The book also is going to be made into a full-length feature film by David Spaltro (Director of the just released horror film, In the Dark) and filming starts at the end of this year. I’ve also got a couple of novels I’m putting the final touches on and hope to start shopping them soon. One is a follow-up to my book, The Scholar of Moab, called Gilda Trillim: The Shepherdess of Rats, and the other a young adult fantasy called, The Airships of Gumpta.

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Jessi_Cole_Jackson-150x150

Jessi Cole Jackson lives and works in New Jersey, though she’s not from there. By day she builds costumes for a Tony Award-winning theatre. By night she writes stories, questionable poetry and lots of abandoned outlines. When she’s not working she enjoys cooking, reading, and exploring local farms. You can read more about her sometimes exciting (but mostly just normal) life at jessicolejackson.com.

by Glenn Mori

I am chagrined when I critique someone’s writing and point out a lack of tension and emotion (the grit under interactions, the differences in perspectives, the micro-tension on the small scale, crisis and conflicts on the larger scale, and ask ‘where’s the anxiety, worry, irritation, miscommunication?’), then discover the same failing in my own fiction.

The source of the problem (for me at least; I’m not sure about my writing partners) is usually multifaceted.

Writing from plot. I don’t always write from plot, but when I do, I can be in a hurry to move up the story ladder. Quantity of description falls, line-by-line writing quality drops, characters become inconsistent or cardboard or boring. I’m not putting myself in my character’s skin to look around and experience their world.

I’ve failed to communicate what I intended. When I proofread my writing, I read between the lines and don’t realize it.  Instead of seeing what’s written, I re-experience what I was thinking when I wrote it. This kind of writing is useful only if no one else reads it; a diary, for example, or a personal blog.

These problems can occur simultaneously. I might design characters around a plot and believe that I’m ready to write, but in reality I have flimsy character sketches zap-strapped to my plot skeleton and I don’t see weaknesses because I sense more in my words than I’ve actually written. I suspect this happens often with beginning writers who try to patch it with “interesting traits” or “examples of conflict” from a website to fill the story out.

Also,

Some of my characters are close friends.  They have similar values, similar goals, get along well. But if there are no differences, they are essentially a single character. I’ve swapped internal narrative and solitary ventures for conversation and a wingman.  Without diversity it can be boring to read. A sidekick has to have more reason to exist than to replace introspection with dialogue.

These are not uncommon issues for a first draft, but it may require the comments or questions of an experienced reader to point out the weaknesses, and then self-evaluation to determine the reason.

And something I’ve discovered recently,

I write like a reader, not a writer.

As a reader, I may be looking for adventure and excitement. If I carry that into my writing, then I’m fine.

Other times I become too attached to the characters to enjoy the ride. When I’ve identified closely with them, then difficulties or dangers worry me. Conflicts and misunderstandings stress me. It’s uncomfortable to read a scene where two friends disagree. Obvious bad decisions are frustrating. Foreboding circumstances and increasing tension distress me. Inescapable positions generate claustrophobia. Occasionally I’ll find myself speed-reading through passages of high anxiety.

As a writer I can avoid stress by skipping the sources. Husband and wife don’t have to have underlying resentments. A friend doesn’t need misgivings about the heroine’s date. Partners can be in full agreement about the next step in the investigation. Everyone interprets the information or data exactly the same. No one argues, feels lazy, is naïve, makes mistakes, acts condescendingly, is irritable because of a cold, or loses things.

In real life, when the bulk of our interactions with family, co-workers, and fellow transit passengers doesn’t get our heart rate up, we live a comfortable life. I’m certain there are portions of some genres where this is common, but it’s pretty hard to make interesting reading from untroubled characters leading a stress-free life.

So, love your characters as you love yourself. But look for the emotion in their lives, and if you find you haven’t included enough, figure out why. Slip inside their skin, search for the tension, and communicate it to the reader.

When someone critiques your work and suggests it lacks tension or drama, don’t get defensive. Don’t start listing all the worries and concerns they’ve missed because odds are, if someone says it’s lacking, there’s either too little and/or it’s not well communicated.

Don’t write a fantasy about how wonderful your life could be. Write like a writer.

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Fiction is Glenn’s most recent area of study. The first discipline was music, where he completed a masters degree in music composition, followed by accounting, more practice with jazz music, and then writing about online poker, where he remains winning micro stakes player. His ruminations about fiction can be found at www.intermittentrain.com.  Follow him on Twitter @gmori.

by Camille Gooderham Campbell

Camille Campbell

This post first appeared at the author’s website, Copy. Edit. Proof.

We all read through filters of one sort or another.

Some filters are highly specific. There’s expert knowledge — the cop who rolls his eyes over procedural inaccuracies, the doctor who shakes her head over medical impossibilities — and there’s genre expertise — the avid science fiction fan who recognizes themes and plots that seem fresh to more general readers, the 18th century literature student who recognizes allusions and in-jokes that most other readers would miss. Without the resources to hire expensive expert consultants at every turn, there’s not much an editor can do but hope nothing too egregious slips by.

Other filters are recognizably subjective. When a dude dismisses a story as chick lit, or a “serious” reader with a preference for award winners and the literary elite dismisses a story as fluff, a subjective filter is being applied — the story is being judged in comparison to the reader’s preferences. The reverse can happen, too; a fondness for a particular theme or interest in a set of characters can cause a reader to overlook prose issues or plot holes, and even fill in gaps and ascribe depth to the material that isn’t there. Genre conventions sometimes permit and even invite elements that would, in a different context, be met with scorn.

The most subjective filters of all are, of course, filters of emotion. It’s virtually impossible to be purely objective when reading a story by a spouse, child, or dear friend. Nor is it reasonable to expect objectivity or even a rational response when reading a story that triggers some past personal trauma.

Personally, I don’t think anyone is capable of reading entirely without filters. The reading experience is a combination of what the author gives to the story and what the reader takes from it, and any time perception and interpretation and taste come into play, we’re automatically applying our filters to what we’re taking in — sometimes even to the point of not actually hearing what’s being said or absorbing what’s on the page.

The big question is where the responsibility lies for recognizing those filters.

One can’t say that the end reader “ought to” realize that s/he is reading through a complex set of preferences, biases, emotions, and possibly specialized knowledge. That’s not a reasonable demand, because the end reader (by which I mean someone who buys or borrows or is given a book to read for his/her own pleasure — the end consumer, in a reading sense; the general public) isn’t answerable to anyone for his/her reading. If I choose to pick up a random book and read it, I don’t have to justify that choice or provide a critical assessment of that book; it’s just… what I happen to be reading. We are all, sometimes, end readers and entitled to just enjoy (or, er, not enjoy) a story without having to explain ourselves.

On the other end of the spectrum, publishing professionals absolutely must recognize their personal filters and guard against them. When choosing and recommending reading material for others, it’s staggeringly important to be self-aware and to strive for an impartial, objective assessment. Particularly when it comes to rejections, for example, a responsible editor needs to make choices based on readership preferences rather than personal preferences. I’m not perfect, but I do my best, and it’s not unheard of for me to ask one of my co-editors for an additional opinion when it comes to a story that I recognize to be outside of my individual comfort zone (e.g., “guy humour” — sometimes I need to ask a male editor about those ones, because I *know* I’m just not appreciating all there is to be appreciated). I’m including professional reviewers and librarians in this category, with huge respect, both for their roles in recommending books to readers and because there’s an expectation of impartiality and having the best interests of the end reader at heart.

But what about independent book bloggers, commenters on stories at EDF, social reading enthusiasts connecting on Goodreads and LibraryThing? Somewhere between a public professional life in reading (editors, publishers, professional reviewers, librarians) and a completely private life in reading (someone who just reads for pleasure or self-edification and doesn’t talk about it), there’s a grey area of what one might call personal commentary. There’s no professional requirement or standard to start a book blog, to write a review and post it on a social reading site, to get involved in commenting on stories published online. And there’s absolutely no way that an external source could impose moral/intellectual requirements or standards on personal commentary, because it’s just that — personal. Websites can ask for courtesy and delete responses that fail to comply, block specific words earmarked as inappropriate, or hold comments for moderation until a staffer has a chance to review them for suitability, but there’s no way to make participants recognize or turn off their natural filters.

The question is, do readers engaging in personal commentary have any responsibility within themselves to recognize and/or acknowledge that there may be filters involved in their perceptions?

I don’t know.

On the one hand, I want to recognize every reader’s right to have a genuine and natural opinion without worrying about what it means or whether s/he should feel that way. On the other hand, as soon as one engages in expressing an opinion in public and to strangers, isn’t there some responsibility to balance that opinion with an acknowledgement of the factors that might influence it?

And then, I suppose that’s the funny thing about responsibility in general. You can’t make someone else take it. It has to come from within.

____________

Camille Gooderham Campbell is Managing Editor of Every Day Fiction and one third of Every Day Publishing. She has an Honours B.A. specializing in English Literature from the University of Toronto, where she was privileged to study creative writing with Professor J. Edward Chamberlin. She has also studied advertising copywriting and marketing communications at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.

This post first appeared at FFC on August 26, 2013.

by Beth Cato

Most articles and blog posts on resolutions hit the first week of January. “Being timely” and all that. It’s silly, really. People start the year all motivated. By February or March, reality sets in. Those helpful articles on losing weight will be replaced by advertisements for chocolate.

No matter what writing goals you set, take heart! All is not lost (unless your hard drive died, in which case it IS lost, but don’t let that kill all of your motivation to write).

 1) Set a new start date.

January 1st is not the only day you can set as a start date for goals. Look at the excitement that builds for NaNoWriMo every November 1st. It’s a set date when the magic happens. Make your own magic, even if it’s May 22nd, June 2nd, or September 13th.

 2) Make your writing goals specific.

This is one goal that resolution mumbo-jumbo writers like to harp about, but it carries truth. There’s a world of difference between saying “I’m going to write this year” and “I’m going to write at least 30,000 words of short stories and keep at least two on submission at all times.” Goals are designed to keep you accountable, so if your goal is wishy-washy, it gives you too many excuses to be wishy-washy.

This is one reason I like Write 1 Sub .  It gives you a specific time span to achieve your goal: one story written and submitted each week, or one story and written and submitted each month.

 3) Reward yourself for a job well done.

Look at this bullet point on the small scale and big scale. Meet your weekly goal? Get yourself a treat–Starbucks, an evening out, a new writing journal, something. If you meet your big goal–say, finish NaNoWriMo with over 50,000 words–go big. Get yourself a new monitor, or Scrivener. Something cool, something useful. If money’s tight, make your reward an experience–a day trip or a visit to a friend or teacher you haven’t seen in forever.

It’s sometimes nice to have a deadline right before a vacation; that way you can work yourself into a frenzy, get it done, and then give your brain a break.

If you don’t make that deadline? Go home. See #1.

 4) Accept that writing time isn’t just about writing.

A writer should spend the bulk of time writing, yes, but there are other essential parts of a writing career: filing, blog posts, research, revisions, critiques (giving and receiving), industry blogs, market research, etc. I have spent whole days looking at poetry markets. I classify this as writing time. It’s something that needs to be done. It’s also something I might use as a semi-break after I do something like spend three days on a short story rough draft. Then the next day, I can proceed with revisions.

 5) Keep a writing day planner.

One of the best ways to know what you need to do is by knowing what you’ve already done. Every year I get a day planner to use for my writing. I use it to plan ahead for goals–market closures, scheduled blog posts, personal deadlines–but most importantly, I write down what I do each day. That includes places I submitted works, how many words I’ve written, what I have edited, etc.

For example, today is a lighter day of writing for me because I did errands and my son has a shorter day of school. This is what I have listed:

X – Bready or Not post: Chewy Raisin Cookies [scheduled]

– Write Chicken Soup holiday story [1100 word max]

– Blog prep

What I’m doing now is classified under blog prep, but I also went on LJ and scheduled three forthcoming posts on my blog. I have the opening of the Chicken Soup story done, but I’ll have the rough draft by the end of the day and note that word count. The Bready or Not (my weekly recipe blog) post was scheduled, and I verified that it posted, so I checked it off.

Writing can be discouraging at times, especially when it feels like you’re not making any progress. It makes me feel better to look back and see I edited so-and-so, sent off submissions, wrote a poem, and started on a new story, all in a week. If you’re just starting out, it’s great to just start by doing one writing-related thing each day.

 6) Accept that life happens.

Goals are great. Being kept accountable by a planner is great. But life is mean and nasty and crappy things happen. You get sick. The kids gets sick. Your hard drive dies. Your cat is deathly ill. There’s a horrible deadline at work. You’re on a road trip and it’s just plain not feasible to write.

There are valid reasons to not write. But if you feel that itch to tell a story, you know there are even more valid reasons to write. Take care of yourself, your family, the job that pays the bill. Then take care of your soul and tell those stories.

No matter what the day of the year it is, go back to #1. Reset your goal. Find where you saved last. Resume the journey.

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Beth Cato is the author of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER steampunk fantasy series from Harper Voyager. Her short fiction is in InterGalactic Medicine Show, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Daily Science Fiction. She’s a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cat. Her website is BethCato.com and she’s on Twitter @BethCato. (Updated from original.)

 

by Beth Thomas

Beth Thomas

In flash fiction, we make up our own rules. Sure, story matters. Something has to happen. Characters must develop and change and become or unbecome. But flash allows you to skirt those hard & fast rules, to pick around the edges of plot, to whisper behind plot’s back, to refuse to look plot in the eyes, and still tell a full story.

The dust on the gate, a reflection in a broken window, a little boy and his kite on a stormy beach and that hollow flapping sound, weathered gray doors hanging cockeyed and loose like they’ve taken a beating, walls that are blue and faded and full of holes like the pants you used to wear to garden. I write flash fiction because these little things matter. They are not just scene setting or transition from one event to the next, or a throwaway character description. Sometimes they can be the whole of it.

I started writing flash fiction in 2003. I had just wrapped up my MA in creative writing and was looking for a new workshop group. This is how I found the online workshop called Zoetrope, and how I discovered Flash Fiction. I joined Zoe intending to workshop some back-burner short stories that hadn’t made the cut into my master’s thesis, but was immediately drawn to the Flash wing, where story turnover was insanely high (300 stories up for workshop at any given time, with several new ones being posted every day), and where the tight-knit community passed out constant support, brilliant critiques, and sincere high-fives.

I read flashes by some of the greats—Kathy Fish and Myfanwy Collins come to mind now—and realized that there was a whole other world of writing out there. A whole other kind of story to be told and way of telling it. I realized I didn’t have to write from A to B then C to the end, and wrap everything up nice and neat. And so I tried it. I tried and failed (hitting upon every flash cliché I’m sure) and tried again.

It was in Zoetrope that I learned the art of the not-saying. The art of the cut and white space and the silence between notes and the importance of the words  themselves – not just their meaning but the sounds they make next to each other, their cadence and mouthfeel and taste.

I write flash fiction because I suck at deliberate, complicated plotting and three-act structure. I suck at writing A to B then C to the end, then having that progression of things mean something. And in writing, as in real life, I have learned through trial and error that my instincts are not necessarily to be trusted. In plotting, this leads me to long arguments with myself about what would REALLY happen. What SHOULD happen. And… Am I getting this story WRONG? I go in circles and get nowhere.

I write flash because I like to experiment. I can try something new – a new angle at an old tale, a new voice or psychic distance or structure, and if it’s terrible, I am out a few hours or days, not months or years (as with the half-done novels sitting in my Writing folder). And if it’s not terrible, then I have grown and can push elsewhere next time.

And honestly, I write flash fiction because I like writing little things that people can read without some big commitment of their time or cash. I like being able to tell people, “Look at this little thing I wrote,” and they can just click and read and 2 minutes later it’s over and they know me a little better.

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Beth Thomas is a writer living and working in the desert southwest. Her flash fiction is full of dust, bones, arrowheads, and thunderstorms, and has been published in dozens of online and print venues including Wigleaf, Abq Free Press, El Portal, PANK Magazine, Corium Magazine, and SmokeLong Quarterly.

 

 

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