Archive for the ‘ writing ’ Category

Valentine’s Day Article / Interview

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

Associated Content/Yahoo! News has published a short piece I wrote for Valentine’s day, called You’ve Just Got to Believe.

Also, please check out the excellent interview of me done by Michael A. Ventrella. He asked some great questions about writing and publishing.

Kindle Version of Essays/Columns Book

Monday, January 10th, 2011

The Kindle version of my book is finally live! There’s even a nice free downloadable sample to view (which for some odd reason didn’t work well for the poetry book, sharing only a contents page).

This took me a lot of focus and work over the past two weeks, since I had to manually redo all the formatting in HTML. Thanks to a friend, who recommended downloading Kindlegen, I was able to generate a Kindle-compatible .MOBI file to check each of my changes. So ultimately, I am confident it should look and act exactly the way I want.

Please pass the word to any of your friends who own a Kindle that they should download the free sample!

Interview with Michael A. Ventrella

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

Today, I’d like to feature an interview with Michael A. Ventrella, author of the science-fiction books “Arch Enemies” and “Axes of Evil.” Ventrella is widely regarded as an animation expert, having founded the magazine “Animato” in the mid-’80s. In 1989, he helped form the United States’ largest live action role-playing organization, now known as The Alliance, and he continues to write plotlines for them. His “Rule Book” and “Players’ Guide” sell regularly in gaming stores and on Amazon.com.

Ventrella has dabbled in politics and works as an attorney. He is a regular fixture at science fiction conventions on the east coast, where he appears on panels to discuss fiction, animation, and gaming. I was fortunate enough to connect with him through the Writers’ Coffeehouse, a group begun by author Jonathan Maberry.

What’s your usual writing process, from idea to finished work?

Move the cat out off the keyboard and begin typing.

Seriously, though, it varies depending on the project. My short stories were not as pre-planned as my published novels. And the new novel has veered far from the original outline.

One thing they all have in common though is that I know how each will end beforehand. I never start off a story without planning it out in some way. My readers should always be going “Wow, what’s going to happen next?” but never think that I’m making it up as I go along.

In particular, what was the process for “Arch Enemies” and the sequel “The Axes of Evil”?

Both of those fantasy novels were very outlined and planned out, because at the root, they are mysteries. Oh, they’re not “whodunits” but there is a complicated scenario that the main character has to figure out.

In “Arch Enemies” young Terin is grabbed and told he’s the great hero that has been prophesized to save the land. Turns out he’s not, but everyone thinks he is. In the end, he saves the day not because he’s the greatest swordsman in the kingdom or because he’s got special powers no one else has (because he clearly doesn’t) but because he figures out all the “clues”. It’s his cleverness that is heroic.

In the sequel, people are now convinced Terin is special, and so somehow he keeps popping up in all the duchy’s prophecies. (This is explained, don’t worry.) Thus “The Axes of Evil” finds Terin with three barbarian prophecies (from three separate tribes) which contradict each other. Further, the Duke has ordered him to get the barbarians off the land. He then discovers each barbarian chieftain has a mysterious axe with indecipherable writing which could give him the solution he needs. Not to mention he has to kill a werewolf when he doesn’t have any silvered weapons…

In any event, he finds a way to solve all of these problems by the end of the book.

You see, I like to throw as many impossible barriers against my characters as I can and then find clever ways to get around them. Stories where the bad guy is defeated because the hero keeps hitting him with a sword until he dies just don’t appeal to me as much.

To write complicated plots like that takes a lot of planning. You’ve got to place all the clues in the story in ways that aren’t too obvious—but also in a way so that when the hero figures it all out, the reader goes “Ah, yes! I get it!” and not “Where the heck did that come from?” So my outlines are pretty extensive.

In your life, you have explored many interests, from playing live music to serving as a public defender and getting involved in politics. How have those experiences served your writing? Do you think there’s a connection between any of your other interests and writing fantasy?

I’ve just always been a person who never let anything stop me from going forward when I wanted to do something, really. I’ve failed at some, but at least I can say I tried.

I used my musical experiences to explain how the magic system works in the Terin novels. I’ve used my political experiences in the novel I am working on now (about a vampire who runs for President.) And I suppose in some ways every experience you have in life helps you to better understand people and hopefully makes you a better writer.

I’m not sure where writing fantasy comes into all that! Maya Angelou once said something like “If there’s a book you really want to read that hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I just write books that I would like to read!

You write plots for live action roleplaying games, through the Alliance. How is that different from writing a novel?

It’s greatly different. In a game, many people will all be playing at once—each wanting to be the hero. So it’s written to try to give everyone something to do. I’m also limited by the rules of the game and real world limitations of what we can represent in the game (such as huge castles, giant monsters, invisibility spells, flying, and so on). Plus since it’s a game, the players can move the plot in many directions, so you have to write it pretty open-ended (“If they do A, then B happens, but if they do C, then D happens”…)

A novel, of course, needs a main protagonist, not a hundred of them. And a novel should not be limited by artificial rules.

When I decided to write “Arch Enemies” I placed it in the world of the game because it was already richly developed. I pretty much ignored the rules completely. If I needed Terin to be able to cast a “Silence” spell for plot reasons, I didn’t care that such a spell would be impossible for someone of his talents in my game.

People who have read the novels have no idea they are based on a game, and that’s exactly what I want.

My husband is a gamer and is fond of the podcast “Gamers with Jobs.” What are the challenges and rewards of balancing gaming with your career and family life?

To be perfectly honest, I don’t game much any more. I helped to found one of the first and largest live action role-playing (LARP) games in America back in 1989, which has now become “The Alliance”. I have chapters all over the US and Canada. My job now though is more as an administrator.

Other than that, I don’t know why balancing “gaming” with your job is any different from balancing “sports” with your job or “politics” with your job. You should always find time to do what you love in your spare time.

In a similar vein, how do you balance your writing career and your law practice?

The hardest part is finding time to do everything I want to do. Life is too short. That’s why it takes years between my books, sadly.

Do you have any big plans for Arisia this year?

I love to attend Arisia. It’s one of my favorite conventions! I started attending way back when we lived in Boston. I was asked to be a guest because of my LARP in the 90s, and I’ve been going pretty regularly since then. We’ve missed the last few due to my wife’s health, but I’ve got my reservations for this one. I’m anxiously waiting to see which panels I get!

But big plans? No, I don’t have any new books to promote right now—“The Axes of Evil” came out in March of 2010.

I am editing a new anthology of stories taking place in the world of my novels. I have a story in there as well. That book will be called “A Bard’s Eye View” and no specific release date has been set yet—but I expect that will be available by mid 2011.

As a writer, how do you use social networking to help your career?

I’ve done a few things with social networking.

First, I set up a “fan” page on Facebook just for writing. This way, my other friends who couldn’t care less about my books aren’t bored when I talk about writing, and the people who only care about my writing aren’t bored (or upset) with my political comments. Plus, a fan page allows people to “follow” me without me being able to read their profiles or anything. That kind of anonymity is a good thing.

The problem is that I don’t think I deserve a “fan” page yet. I feel kind of pretentious having one. I wish they called it a “professional page” or something.

I linked my fan page to Twitter so all my updates are posted there as well, but honestly, I never saw the appeal of Twitter. It’s like Facebook for people with short attention spans.

I’m listed on LinkedIn and GoodReads and a few other places, but mostly it’s just for being listed. I hardly visit them (although I did an “Axes of Evil” contest on GoodReads and received some nice reviews and increased interest in the book because of it).

Let’s face it, time spent on those things is time that is better spent writing.

Second, I use Facebook to friend authors I like and to network with them. Then I can ask them to be interviewed on my blog! That’s where I put in an effort to have something valuable added every week. Usually, I am interviewing writers, editors and agents I have met at conventions, writer’s groups, or on Facebook. Sometimes I post a blog entry of my own, discussing what I have learned about writing and the publishing industry.

How do you see the role of technology and computers (social networks) changing for writers in the future?

Well, social networking has changed the world in many ways, and for authors there is no exception.

The biggest change for writers is the development of e-books. I sell more e-books than paperbacks, but then again, Double Dragon is the number one science fiction and fantasy e-book publisher out there.

The worst technological change is the development of self-publishing and vanity presses in that everyone can get published these days—and does!

Sometimes writers who should be with a real publisher get conned into doing a book with Publish America or Lulu or something, and then no one takes them seriously. They may actually have a good book, but the image these things have in the industry is terrible. It’s assumed that if you did this, your work wasn’t good enough, and then when you later try to sell another novel, an editor will check you out on the internet, see that you’ve been self-published, and probably not give you the consideration you deserve.

I’ve discussed this issue many times on my blog!

What advice would you offer to beginning writers?

There’s a lot. That’s the theme of my blog!

However, I have talked to many aspiring authors and there is one trend I see most often: They never finish!

Finish the book! Don’t go back and keep polishing your first chapter until it’s perfect. Finish the entire book first and then go back to polish. It’s great for your ego to get it done, it encourages you more, and most importantly, no editor will ever be interested in seeing a work in progress.

To read my blog, follow the link on my web page. Be sure to also click on the Facebook icon and become a “fan” so you can get updates as to who is being interviewed on my blog.

Cyber Monday Sale

Monday, November 29th, 2010

For Cyber Monday, I’m offering a one-day deal of $5 off my book, The Art of Life. Go to my CreateSpace store and use the discount code 3UBEBLQH (Note: this code will not work if you order the book through Amazon.com; it only works with my CreateSpace store).

This offer is good for today only. Happy Cyber Monday!

“The Art of Life” Available Now

Monday, November 15th, 2010

Production of my collection of essays and columns, The Art of Life, was delayed by the happy arrival of my healthy baby boy back in June. But finally, I managed to complete the editing and design process, and now the book is available, just in time for Christmas shoppers!

Check it out at my online store. I’m proud of this collection and believe that it’s a good sampler of my work over the past 13 years.

Here’s an excerpt:

Traveling Music

InYourTown.com, October 2000

Never let “Tangled Up In Blue” catch you unaware.

Say you’re driving down the road on a reasonably sunny day, feeling passably cheerful as the sun burns through a bank of clouds — and then out of nowhere you hear those mournful chords.

The smart thing to do is to change the station right then, find something cheerful and bouncy. But if you’re like me, you’re a fool and keep listening. You get drawn in, and before you know it, as Dylan sings that line about how the only thing he can do “is keep on keepin’ on”— by then you’re a wreck, thinking of all the missed opportunities, all the lovers come and gone, all the people you’ve known who have careened like mad comets across your sky.

And then the sky seems suddenly bleak, and the sun is a cold beam of truth. And there are no shadows anywhere, as you relive your own personal traumas.

Don’t do it. Turn the dial. Listen to G. Love or Beck. Even The Cure can’t sock you like Bob Dylan on a lonely road in the middle of bright afternoon.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you haven’t known people who flashed through your life, searing savage beauty whose aftermath is the after image of a super nova. Maybe you’ve never caught yourself wondering where they went and why — why, after all the bills you footed for them, after all the times they showed up late with no better explanation than the night was long and they took a walk before dawn — why you still miss them.

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced there were two Neal Cassadys. There was the Holy Goof, who inspired Jack Kerouac (On the Road), Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). That Neal Cassady was a manic sage and out-there poet of life, who seized the moment, who thrilled and challenged all he met.

Then there was the Neal Cassady who drifted through life like a leaf in a tempest. He couldn’t — or wouldn’t — attach to anyone, at least not for years and years. Behind him stretched a trail of tears, lovers he had left when things started to seem too good.

That Neal fractured into a million pieces. I should know, I’ve met him more than once. And every time he comes around again — tangled up in blue — I let him drift awhile with me.

In some circles, there are other names for him: nomad, drifter, liar, fool. In some worlds he is kind and blissed out, but directionless. In others he is angry, formless and righteous. He is the friend you had in high school who wrote spirals of music, then disappeared to a hut in Nebraska and later, you heard, died in a motorcycle accident, helmetless.

He is the lover who wooed you with long conversations about religion and politics and art — moved in, ran up your phone bill and left in a flurry of forgetting.

He is the nagging pain that tears at your heart — for all lost moments, the ones so beautiful they could kill you.

He and his fractured souls are why so many of us turn to writing poetry.

Or, in our weaker moments, to listening to Bob Dylan and weeping.

If we’d only been smart, we keep saying. If we’d only been smart we would have changed the dial.

A Little Less Lucy

Musings, February 3, 2009

(For LiveJournal Idol Season 5)

When we were kids, my dad used to refer to my brother and I as “Linus and Lucy,” after the Peanuts characters, Linus and Lucy Van Pelt. This was, in part, because my brother, when he was very little, carried around a blue blanket, his security blanket, much like Linus. And I suppose we bore some superficial resemblance to our cartoon counterparts: my brother, the sweet-natured dreamer, and me, the bossy know-it-all.

To be honest, I never liked that comparison. Lucy isn’t the most sympathetic of Peanuts characters. However, I’m definitely not like Charlie Brown, the perpetual scapegoat; or Sally, obsessed with her unrequited love of Linus (which would be doubly creepy, my brother being Linus, after all). I also wasn’t like Schroeder, who was always more interested in his piano than in any human connection.

Somehow, Dad never seemed to pick up on the fact that I glared at him when he called us Linus and Lucy. If he had noted it, he probably thought I looked very much like Lucy just then, so often portrayed with a whiff of smoke coming out of her head as she stewed over somebody’s inane comment.

If anything, it burnt me that my brother was the one whose artistic, sensitive side shone so brightly. I was the creative one, I thought. Or at least, I wanted to be seen that way. For the longest time, I don’t think anybody, either in my family or outside of it, saw me as anything more than a brainy brown-noser who didn’t always play nice.

In my own defense, if I yanked a football away as you were about to kick it, you probably had it coming.

From early days, I remember wishing I could be a little more like Linus. I envied my brother his ability to pull his blanket over his head at night and fall asleep, knowing himself protected from the monsters that lurked in the dark. I frantically lined stuffed animals and dolls on either side of me in my double canopy bed, including my fail-safe sentry, So Big, a doll whose hair had worn off in a mohawk. When accidentally pushed off the bed in the middle of the night, So Big would release a ghostly wail, potentially scaring away intruders. More importantly, I reasoned the monsters would get her first, since she was closer to the edge of the bed.

More than the security that his totem blanket provided him, I envied the easy way my brother embraced life, while I felt compelled to fuss about everything. Had I been born in a different family, I would have become an analyst, or perhaps a forensic scientist. My brother’s delight in the natural world, along with the conversations we shared at the breakfast table, recounting our dreams, taught me to value the beauty and mystery around me.

While my brother is a natural storyteller, I had to cultivate my storytelling ability, spending long hours writing stories, essays and poems. My brother could pick up any instrument and learn it easily, while I had to practice painstakingly until I achieved a clockwork-like precision on piano and clarinet. There was very little passion in my playing, but what do you expect from a fussbudget?

I can’t run from certain aspects of my Lucy nature. For one, I am extremely critical, both of myself and others. This means that, no matter how well the world might think I’m doing, I’m never doing well enough to feel content. While I am infallibly loyal to friends and family, I also enjoy mocking, rather mercilessly, anything in the public arena, from bad movies to kooky fashions. My husband can’t understand this tendency, but I just can’t help myself.

Fortunately, I also exhibit some of the more positive aspects of Lucy’s personality. She was always a fiercely independent soul, who believed in herself and in her own capabilities. While I’ve had some moments of doubt, I am also strong-willed; I don’t give up easily when I set my mind to something. That’s why, since 2000, I’ve managed to lose 70 pounds and maintain a healthy lifestyle. To my way of thinking, failure is not an option.

And while I don’t have a psychiatrist booth, I am a good listener. My friends often come to me to talk about their problems and hear my untrained advice. I offer no guarantees, by the way. Take it or leave it. Five cents, please.

So I guess I have to admit, I’m still a lot more like Lucy than I am like Linus, but I’m trying to overcome my default settings, to be a more well-rounded person (and certainly, no blockhead). As a result, over time, I’ve become a little more Linus, a little less Lucy.

Moral:

Life is like a comic strip, except you get more panels.

Conspiracy of Cows

The Standard-Journal, December 10, 1999

Big cows are taking over, and I want to know why.

The Associated Press carried a picture recently of the newest marketing campaign for a certain ice cream brand. Apparently, they’ve hired an oversized plastic cow to tour the country with a huge replica of an ice cream container.

And for some reason, they assume this will work.

A friend of mine is obsessed with big cows. We could be driving down the road, and suddenly, just as I’m about to switch lanes, he’ll shout, “COW!!!!”

I swerve, to avoid the cow I assume is rampaging across the road. Then I look up and see a big plastic cow, sitting smugly atop a creamery or convenience store. If the cow could speak, it would probably say, “Gotcha!”

These cows are a precious commodity. If that weren’t the case, why would college fraternities scale buildings and steal these behemoth Bessies?

Perhaps there’s something about them we don’t know. Consider this: You’ve seen these cows in various locations, and yet they all look disturbingly similar. Legs planted firmly, black and white spots gleaming, they stare blankly into space.

Who makes these cows? Does some factory churn out plastic bovines? Just how many big cows are bought every day in America?

Maybe nobody buys them. Perhaps these mild-mannered building toppings are a sort of Trojan Horse. Maybe they appear overnight on roofs, a gift from an alien race.

Maybe that’s why they’re always staring into space.

More baffling, why don’t we see other big animals? How often have you seen a huge chicken? Or a mammoth pig? Nowhere, unless perhaps in Minnesota. I drove there several years ago, so I speak from experience.

Minnesotans love huge statues. Not just Paul Bunyan, but also sports heroes, political leaders and possibly an entire barnyard of gigantic animals decorate their countryside.

Nearly every town in Minnesota brags it’s the home of the Giant Something-or-Other. Either Minnesotans are in league with the aliens or the giant statues are a navigational device. After all, they’re the only visible landmarks in all that snow.

“How do you get to Fargo?”

“Take a left at the Paul Bunyan statue, then a right at the huge ball of twine, then a left at the gigantic alien cow.”

You might think I’m crazy, but I say we’ve been nonchalant about these cows far too long. It’s time we started asking the big questions.

I urge all readers to write their congressional representatives. Here’s a sample letter: “Dear legislator, What’s with all the big cows? Are they presents from aliens or what? I’m concerned. And why does Minnesota get all that snow, when they don’t even have a decent ski resort? It’s not fair. I suggest you investigate. Sincerely, Your Constituent.”

If that doesn’t get results, I suggest we gather the cows someplace like Stonehenge and see what happens. Maybe they’re pieces to a mystical puzzle, and once we group them together they’ll herald a new age.

Either that, or we should buy tons of ice cream. Funny. Don’t know why I said that.

Writing Dos and Don’ts

Sunday, March 7th, 2010

While going through submissions recently for Wild Violet, I thought about both what I look for, as an editor, and what I try to do in my own writing. These simple rules emerged:

1) Strive for a strong opening. The first paragraph, first line, or first stanza is essential to grab the reader’s attention. Often, I find my first draft will contain extra “scene-setting” verbiage that I trim down for maximum impact.

2) Avoid anthropomorphizing inanimate objects and animals. Unless I’m going for humorous effect, I avoid writing that “the sky wept” or imagining that a robin is contemplating his tax write-offs. In a serious work, such language comes off as sentimental and amateurish.

3) Pay attention to structure and form. Whether writing a poem, a story or an essay, I try to address the main goals of that particular type of writing. In poetry, I pay attention to language and line breaks; in stories, I work to achieve a strong narrative; in essays, I lay out an argument and provide support. While I admire experimentation and have written my share of experimental works, I firmly believe in learning the basics. Even Picasso learned to sketch the human form before he developed Cubism.

4) Use the strongest possible verbs and modifiers. While passive voice (“it is,” “she was”) does have a place in the English language, active verbs guide the reader more effectively. Limiting modifiers to only those that matter likewise packs more of a punch.

5) Avoid cliches. Yes, avoid them like the plague. Nothing pauses a reader in his or her tracks quite like reading an overused metaphor. When such phrases tempt me, I think about why they popped into my head and find another way to convey that idea.

6) Know your audience. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a newspaper article or a comic strip. You need to consider who will read it and what you want them to take away from it. I try to remember to “open up” what I’m writing so my readers will understand. This means not taking explaining specialized terms unless I’m writing for an audience who will know them. I try to write in a way that’s clear enough and detailed enough for someone else to understand.

7) End effectively. Just like with an introduction, I’ve found it’s too easy to simply ramble on and on, then tie it all neatly with a bow. Often, on a rewrite, I’ll trim my final paragraph or stanza. I trust the reader to fill in some blanks, as long as I’ve done the work of the poem, story, or essay. Leave the reader with a thought. Make your words count.

Writers: What do you cultivate and avoid in your writing?
Readers: What makes you stop reading? What makes you continue?

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