Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Under Ground Writing Project

Hey guys -

For all those who have followed this blog, I just want to say a hearty THANK YOU!! It's really been a pleasure. I can't even begin to tell you how much I've learned from the experience.

However, Ali and I have decided to head up our writers group's blog: Notes from Under Ground. We'll be talking writing, publishing, books, and whatever else comes into our heads - along with the rest of our gang. Please come by and chat with us, we'd be super sad to miss anyone!

The posted articles will remain here, just in case any one particular post inspired you...or maybe you need a direction for a school paper. =)

Happy writing and reading to you, my friends.


Saturday, June 9, 2012


Are you strapped for time?  Trying to write, but in the mood for something short and sweet?  The Foundling Review has you covered with their Pachaas contest.  Write a story that's exactly 50 words long and send it their way.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Library Run and Chickens

Last night I went to pick up a stack of Alice Walker books.  I'm going to start diving in today and I'm not quite sure what to expect.  On one hand, this is a woman who can go to dark places in her writing, and on the other hand, this is a woman who has published a book titled, The Chicken Chronicles: Sitting with the Angels Who have Returned with My Memories... the rest of the title names the chickens.  I have decided this is the book I will read first, because seriously, how could I not?

In the first few paragraphs, I found this passage:

Once I stopped moving about quite so much my interest in chickens, and memory about that particular chicken, asserted itself.  I realized I was concerned about chickens, as a Nation, and that I missed them.

Hrm... What am I getting myself into here?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Tournaments, Cross Dressing Princes, and Mini Operas: A Tuesday Post of Accountability

Ali:  No breaks in this week's chain, I am pleased to report.  Also, I made cookies and went on a seven mile hike over the weekend.  As of yesterday, I'm only two miles away from hitting my work out goal for the week (a seven mile hike helps a lot).  Work in progress for this week = a fairy tale about a cross-dressing prince.

Jenny: Breaks all over the chain! Two words for you: Baseball Tournament. Actually, make that three words for you: Surprise Baseball Tournament. Wait. Make that ten words: Badly Scheduled and Badly Given Notice of Weekend Baseball Tournament.

It was a hot, rough weekend my friends. I should also mention that this weekend was the first practice for Owen's second  baseball league. Yeesh.

Anyway, as far as writing goes...

1. Finished rewriting a chapter of La Llorona and marked up the next phase of the novel. Soon I'll be at the point where I can write fresh words from scratch -- meaning I'll probably go a little faster.

2. Also, I have nine days to really finish a short play that I'm working on for a local theatre festival. I'm not quite there yet, and it's the baseball tournament that I largely blame for this.

3. At some point soon we should be hearing the results of ENO's mini opera contest...but my formatting was so bad that I'm not holding my breath. If you'd like to see how jacked up it got in translation from Blogger to ENO's website: here ya go. (And if you're so inclined, feel free to hit 'like' and show me a little pity.)

What've you guys been up to? Lots pages? Lotsa brainstorming?

Monday, June 4, 2012

Pitfalls and Unexpected Benefits of the Epistolary Form

Welcome to June and our new mentor: Alice Walker!!!!
Alice Walker, Miami Bookfair International, 1989

Alice Walker, as you may or may not know, is the Pulitzer Prize winner author of The Color Purple (you may’ve seen the Oscar nominated movie starring Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg).

The Color Purple was on my to-read list for a looooong time. And I have only one, somewhat shallow, reason for this. I hesitated for so long because The Color Purple is an epistolary novel. Just in case you need to know what an epistolary novel is, don’t run to Wikipedia. It’s a novel written in different media – like letters, emails, news articles, etc. Some very famous, iconic novels have been written in this format. Dracula and The Sorrows of Young Werther are two classic examples. Bridget Jones’s Diary and World War Z are a couple contemporary examples.

As fun as a few of those are, I have found epistolary formats troublesome. In my opinion, epistolary formats automatically kill some of the suspense that a novelist tries to build.

Take World War Z. It’s an epic, hugely sweeping novel of the (possibly coming?) zombie apocalypse. By writing it in an epistolary format Max Brooks has made sure the reader understands two things off the bat: 1. The apocalypse has happened and the zombies were, essentially, defeated and 2. The humans have survived. I’m not spoiling anything. As a reader you figure this stuff out after the first couple pages. You know these two things are true because people have to be around in order for documentaries to be made – so people lived. And, if people have moved on enough for documentaries to be made, the zombies can’t be posing a daily threat anymore. So you know the ending before the story has even really started.

So, if you’re going to use an epistolary format, be aware that there is an inherent loss of tension that comes along with that choice.

I managed to get past my epistolary hang-up (which is just a personal, reader preference – the way many people get annoyed with first-person, present-tense formats) and read The Color Purple.

The opening scenes are so emotionally wrenching that I wasn’t sure how the tension could be held throughout the book. Celie (in the movie: Whoopi Goldberg) writes to God about her shitty – sorry, there’s really no other word for it – circumstances. Later she writes to her sister, Nettie, who also writes letters to Celie.

And here is where it gets interesting. Nettie’s letters to Celie are held back from Celie by her jerk of a husband (played wonderfully in the movie by Danny Glover). Celie finds the letters and is quite, quite angry. When Celie starts to direct her letters to Nettie, there’s no way for the letters to be delivered. She has no address. She has no point of contact at all. Nettie is on a different continent. Celie keeps talking to her sister, but her sister can’t hear her.

I found this to be technically brilliant. One of the underlying thematic elements of The Color Purple is the question of faith – who keeps it in the face of adversity and who loses it, who gains it where they never had it, and how to hold onto faith once it’s found. Sending a letter that will never be read by its intended recipient is a gigantic leap of faith for Celie. And Nettie’s constancy with her own letters – when she has no guarantee that Celie is receiving them – shows Nettie’s faith. They cling to each other in spite of the silence on either side. It’s a really beautiful, poignant undertone to the story that couldn’t have been achieved without the epistolary styling.

So, I suppose the point to take away is this: be aware of the pitfalls of the form. (I knew Celie wasn’t going to die, for example, though her life could’ve gotten progressively worse.) You’re going to have to build tension in a different way with an epistolary format.

Some of the things that can be played with – and played with gusto – within an epistolary format:

1.       Silence vs. noise. What is being said, and to whom? Why? Who can overhear or intercept the message? Aside from the reader, who has access to the information presented via letter/note/news column/whatever?

2.       Lending credence to unbelievable events. This is where World War Z is effective. A documentary is a trustworthy source, presumably. If someone is making a newsy story about zombies, it adds a certain buyability to the story. (Also one of the reasons District 9 was such an effective movie.)

3.       Multiple viewpoints. Most of the epistolary novels I’ve read, including The Color Purple, utilize multiple points of view. Journals and letters are the ultimate first person POV. It’s next to impossible to get a full story when the cards are held so close to the chest. Celie and Nettie exchange their stories – and both stories inform the main narrative, fleshing it out whereas a single POV would’ve been very one note. (And, as a side note, I think this is a flaw with the movie version. It’s all Celie, all the time. And the viewer of the movie doesn’t get a lot of Celie’s vivaciousness because there’s no letters to read.)

4.       Stream of consciousness. This is always a risky bit of territory, but the epistolary form allows the free flow of thoughts, one connecting to the other, the way real people think.

What are some other possible pitfalls or benefits to the epistolary form? Have you read any books recently that used letters or journal entries to great effect? Have you ever written anything using an epistolary form? How was that experience? Did the story work to your satisfaction?

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Bedtime Stories

As soon as I saw this call for submissions, I thought of how perfectly it fit with our conversation with Alameddine.  Wicked East Press is currently collecting submissions for not one, but three anthologies featuring bedtime stories.  Check it out.  The deadline is June 30th.

Happy Writing!

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Guest Post: When Women Write Men

Today, I bring you a special edition guest post from our friend John.  Last week, I talked about men writing women, and we thought it would be fun to get the other side of the story.  So, without further ado, here's what John has to say about it.

"How do you write women so well?"
"I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability."
-As Good As It Gets

It is in the spirit of gender equality, that I say women can't write men either. Or rather, women who do a good job of writing men can still fall short.

I tried to read My Sister's Keeper, but I was so put off by Picoult's absurdly written lawyer, I nearly threw the book across the room. There was no way anyone could convince me that this was a real human being. However, Carolyn Parkhurst with The Dogs of Babel has written a protagonist that is not only believable as a human being, but you might even get the sense that you have met a guy like him before.

There are a couple of issues at work here. First, you have to understand the human condition enough to create a believable human being. Second, when it comes to anything that modifies a character beyond just being human, you have to focus on perspective.
Full disclosure, Ali really is a woman, and I really am a man. I also happen to be over a foot taller than her. Now, just from a physical standpoint, she has the advantage of seeing things on the bottom shelves of the bookstore where I possess the advantage of seeing the things on the top shelves. In this case the key to understanding each other's perspective is to either squat down or learn how to build a ladder.

There is another issue at work here: Double Standards that often get ignored. When a man "can't write a woman," he is viewed as inexperienced in talking to girls and is to be pitied or ostracized. When a woman "can't write a man," it's because "men folk are just too confusing to understand." Which I find particularly amusing, because men generally aren't a very complicated group of creatures. If you can't figure them out, I challenge you to reassess how much you're really paying attention. 

Also, it is a fundamental fallacy to assume that the experience of a group is completely homogenized. Just the fissures between feminists regarding how to fight for equality is enough to know that if you're going "to talk to women," you're best served talking to a variety of women. I've met Stepford Wives with some of the most awful, degrading opinions of men, and granola hippy feminists who are able to tick off rather unique things men have to endure, and respect men for doing so. You have to make sure you've got your newly acquired perspective in perspective as well.

Basically, it comes down to the same things you have to keep in mind with any topic you wish to write about. Do you due diligence, stretch your imagination to include a perspective that doesn't come naturally to you, and make sure you're not building your ladder wrong. This is not anything new, regardless of the topic.

As for all of this talk of women depicted in chainmail bikinis: Yes, they're impractical. Yes, they are probably uncomfortable. But, the goal of putting a woman in a chainmail bikini is NOT to present a believably strong woman. Fun Fact: A character called Jirel of Joiry was written in the same era as Conan the Barbarian. She was written to be just as physically strong as a man, and wore armor, but it was always worn with practicality in mind. She was the creation of a writer called C.L. Moore, who also was a woman. However, if you look at the cover of Weird Tales where Jirel first appears, she is in no way dressed as she was in story. She wore something more befitting an alluring damsel in distress.

Here's why women get dressed up in chainmail bikinis and are forced to stand in ridiculously uncomfortable and awkward positions: All of that work makes them look AWESOME. Men who see a woman in a chainmail bikini are more likely to spend money on whatever creative vehicle is being advertised with a woman in a chainmail bikini rather than a regular bikini, and especially rather than something practical. Some businessman took biology and eventually discovered the connection between spending tendencies and how they are tied to evolutionary-borne instincts that are steeped in how humans go about looking for a reproductive mate. 

In other words, sex sells. But, it's not always the writer's fault that their characters are being tramped up. If you're going to take issue with that, take it up with marketing executives and book cover artists first. If they blame the writer, then you know where to go next.

And just for the record, C.L. Moore's depiction of men was fairly thin and one-dimensional as well.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Birthday Blip: A Tuesday Post of Accountability

Ali: I did a lot of stuff this week.  I went on three hikes, I made muffins, I went on a food tour, I turned a year older, and I mostly kept up with the chain.  I gave myself two days off for the holiday weekend/my birthday.  But, I also finished transcribing Chapter 2 of the Sleeping Beauty project and sent it off to Jenny for her to take a look at.  I also wrote about 2/3 of a new short story which I'm writing as an exercise in starting with a bad situation, then escalating it.  Even with two days off, I'm pleased with how the past week has gone.

Jenny: Happy Birthday to Ali!

I'll keep it quick, since this is posting so late (my bad). Good news: my chain continues to grow!

1. Finished rewriting a chapter of La Llorona.

2. Am halfway through a short play I'm working on for a local theatre festival.

How are y'all doing?

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Mistresses of the Macabre

Since my last post was about gender & writing, it caught my eye when I saw a call for submissions from Dark Moon Books that wants horror written by women: "No doubt about it, woman view the world differently than men."  The deadline is June 30th.

Time to get your creep on.

Sorry boys, this one is girls only.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

When Dudes Write Chicks

I the Divine was the first book I read by Alameddine.  When I picked it up, I had a moment of skepticism because here was a dude writing a book with a female protagonist and some of the chapters are even in first person.  Right around this time, we had a couple of guys cycling through our writers group who were trying to write female protagonists and failing spectacularly.  So, I was in a cynical frame of mind.  However, I was pleasantly surprised because Alameddine wrote his protagonist like she was a real human, not just a male fantasy.  Imagine that!

Why is it so hard for guys to write authentic female characters?  Or, rather, why is it so hard for some guys to write good female characters?  Maybe because a lot of our contemporary fiction is pretty short on strong female protagonists - a lot of times, a "strong woman" gets translated into stereotypes and a chain mail bikini. 

But, I say cheers to all the male writers out there who actually understand that women are people too.  If you haven't already seen Jim Hines' blog post where he mimics the poses of women on book covers, click over right now.  It's not only hysterical, it makes great points, too.

Another piece that makes some great points is an article author Greg Rucka titled Why I Write "Strong Female Characters".  One of my favorite parts of the article is when he's talking about preparing to write Shooting at Midnight, which was written in the POV of Bridgett Logan.  Here is what he has to say about preparing:

"Bridgett was not my first female protagonist, clearly, but it was the first time I was diving into such deep waters. I was going to be in her head, see through her eyes, and while I knew her personality, there were many gaps... And despite my best empathy, I didn't know what it was to see the world as a woman."

My favorite comment of Rucka's is the one that the problematic writers I mentioned earlier really need to hear and understand, because that's the crux of where they go wrong.

"But the best thing I did, the thing that helped the most, the thing that became the guiding principle, and has been ever since, was also the simplest.

I talked to women."

See, these guys who were problematic would bring their work to the writers group, then the women in the group would give them feedback about the characters, and the guys would blow it off.  They thought they understood women better than women did.  No wonder their female characters were disasters.

Let's go back to women on covers.  Consider the difference between the woman portrayed on the cover above and the woman on the cover of one of Rucka's comics below.  Which woman would you take more seriously?

On a final note, it wouldn't be fair to talk about men writing women without also talking about women writing men.  Next week we'll be featuring a guest post on the topic written by a feller.  Stay tuned!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Let the Chain Be Unbroken: A Tuesday Post of Accountability

Ali: Today's our first joint accountability post.  I've been doing well with my calendar chain strategy.  One week of X after X on my calendar and no gaps.  When I started, I was nervous.  I've been on a long slacker stint and I was going to have to get back into a groove that I'd been out of for a while.  Luckily, the beauty of the chain is that it's not a question of quantity, but consistency. 

Each day, if I write (or revise, or transcribe) I give myself an X.  Some days, I think about skipping.  One skipped day isn't the end of the world, after all.  Then, I remind myself that I just need to do a little.  I tell myself, "Don't worry about it, just do a paragraph and you're good."   One paragraph?  That's easy enough.  So, I sit down to write one paragraph.  It never ends up being a paragraph, though.  I write my paragraph, then I figure that wasn't so bad, I'll write another one. 

Yesterday, I sat down to write one paragraph and ended up with almost three pages instead.  Okay, so they're three pages in a small notebook, but three pages is better than a paragraph, and a whole lot better than nothing.  I'm liking this chain approach.   It's deceptively simple.  Even better, it's helped me finish a first draft of Chapter 2 and start Chapter 3.  I think that's pretty cool.

Jenny: I'm with Ali. Totally digging the calendar chain. However, having been at this for only one week - gasp! - there is already a gap in my chain:

Behold! The Gap of Doom!
I know, I know. I'm so ashamed. But let's not focus on the single negative, gigantic circle that resembles a zero.

Let's look instead at the stuff that was accomplished. For example, I now get to say that I've written an opera. You can read it here if you wanna.  (A mini-one, but it's still a libberetto!)  The low-down on this particular project is simple: Neil Gaiman, Will Self, and A.L. Kennedy are the judges for the script portion of the English National Opera Mini-Opera competition - they get the links to the blogs that have posted scripts, they read them, judge them, and pick the top ten to move onto the soundtrack portion of the party. (Announcements will be made by June 4 for the book portion.)

When the top ten soundtracks are picked, the finalists then move onto the film portion and winners are picked from there.

I saw this via Neil Gaiman's twitter feed and thought, "I never thought to write an opera. Wouldn't it be cool to write an opera?" So I did. And let me tell was tough. I feel like a better person for it, sure, but it was still pretty wracking, even before blogger refused to accept any of my formatting. Grrr. That gap there on the 18th is actually where I was banging my head against the wall for trying this.

Okay, so it wasn't that bad. I also managed to get through Chapter Four on rewrites for La Llorona.

AND GREAT NEWS! The littlest kidlet just got into preschool! So I just have one more summer to make it through and then there will be MORE WRITING TIME. Fear me!

So all, in all, I guess that circle looks less like a head-banging zero and more like a hug surrounded by kisses:

Behold! A hug on a bad day.
Gotta love it.

(P.S. Ali - see? Pictures.)

Monday, May 21, 2012

How Do First Chapters Work?

Rabih Alameddine's novel I, the Divine is a novel told entirely in first chapters. As a reader, the whole-novel-as-first-chapter concept put me in an immediate state of: What do I have to follow here?

(The answer is: Sarah's life. It wasn't as difficult a read as I thought it would be. Alameddine flows the first chapters together so gracefully that Sarah's story is a mosaic - broken, but you still get the full picture.)

As a writer my brain went: Does it work? Why? And

What's the purpose of a first chapter?

In his blog post The All-Important First Chapter, writer Nathan Bransford says that "the first chapter is a promise to the reader. It tells them what kind of story they're going to be getting, and what to expect."

And, ya know, technically, in Alameddine's first first chapter (yes, you read that right) he does promise the readers that they'll be reading about Sarah, her life, and her relationships. But what's interesting is that you could open up any of Alameddine's first chapters and understand the same thing: that you'll be reading about Sarah, her life, and her relationships. 

In one chapter, you learn about Sarah and her first boyfriend; in another, you learn about her second husband; in another, her grandfather or an AIDS patient or her mother...and so on. Technically, Alameddine promises in each of his first chapters - regardless of POV, tense, or length. 

According to Bransford, the first chapter should also set up genre - and I think genre is the secret to why this book works like it does: it's very literary. If Alameddine meant to write a high fantasy or a romance novel or a mystery, he couldn't have done this.

This is a story about a woman's life and relationships. In a real person's life you can start anywhere. And I think that's one of the points Alameddine is trying to make: there is a promise made at any point in a person's life.

This promise is tied to something else Bransford says readers should know by the end of the first chapter: "have a good sense of who (what type of person) the main character is, and how their world is changing." In a real person's life, any moment can tell you who that person is. In a real person's life, any moment can change the trajectory of their life. Their world changes.

So, Alameddine's book is a crash course in how first chapters can work. If you're stuck and don't know how to start your story, here's a few pointers inspired by Alameddine's I, the Divine:

1. Set your chapter waaaaay earlier than you think is necessary for the story. Conversely, set your chapter waaaaay later than you think is necessary. Can you make either/both work?

2. Write a few first chapters - some long, some short; some in first person, some in third; some in present tense, some in past. Mix it up. See what feels right for the characters and the book. It's just the first chapter - it's playtime.

3. Keep the setting and main character in place - but mix up who the side characters are. Let them interact with your main character. How does that change things? How does it bring out different sides to your main character? At the very least, you might get an important scene for later down the road.

But, most importantly and regardless of genre, you have to pick the key moment. The moment the world shifts.

Do you guys have tips for first chapters? Or any chapters in between?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

We Break Your Bones: Entry for ENO's Mini-Opera Competition

This is a piece for a Chorus (Villagers) and three soloists (Wife, Husband, and Death). The place is an unnamed Iranian village.
                                                                Hear how she begs…
                                                                But no mercy
                                                                She spread her legs
                                                                Our verdict is read
                                                                Bury her
                                                                Up to her head
I’ve done no wrong
I’ve known no hand
Only my husband
                                                                                                                                Save your last breath
                                                                We condemn you to death.
Wife is buried up to her neck as Husband continues:                                    Husband
                                                                                                                                We gather here
                                                                                                                                We gather stones
                                                                                                                                You are my shame
                                                                                                                                We break your bones
                                                                                                                                And cleanse my name
Wife                                                      Villagers                                                 Husband
Once we were one                       Draw a circle around                                 Once we were one
Days filled with grace                  the wife – a border                                    Days filled with grace
Now we are cursed                      they must stand outside of                      Now we are cursed
In this dark place                          when they throw stones -
                                                         as the Husband and                                 Because of your face
                                                         Wife confront each other                       A seductress
                                                                                                                             A slut temptress
A wife, mother,
A daughter.
I kept your home
                   You shamed me there
I bore your son
                                                                                                                             And you he shuns
It’s me he loves                                                                                                As a harlot, a whore
Liar!                                                                                                                    Liar!

                                                                The circle is drawn
Wife                                                       Gather around
I’ve done no wrong                             The circle is drawn
No crime, no sin                                  Gather around
I’ve done no wrong                             The circle is drawn
No sex, no men                                    Gather around
                                                                The circle is drawn
                                                                Gather around
I’ve done no wrong –
                                                                                                                                Begin. Throws first stone.
Wife                                                      Villagers
No! cuts off halfway                           Justice and peace
through villagers                                 Honor and blood
                                                                Justice and peace
                                                                Honor and blood
                                                                Justice and peace
                                                                Honor and blood
                                                                                                                                Justice and peace
                                                                                                                                Honor and blood.
                                                                                                                                Drops his last stone.

The Villagers and Husband move to the background – focus shifts to the Wife, who has died.
Enter Death, dressed as a normal man. He goes to the Wife.
                                                                                                                                Time to rise
                                                                                                                                The winds blow in
                                                                                                                                The horizon clouds carry
                                                                                                                                The dust of the dead
I’ve done no wrong –
                                                                                                                                helps her out of the hole
                                                                                                                                You committed no sin
                      the winds blow in
I’ve done no wrong                                                                                             You’ve done no wrong
Committed no sin
Still the winds blow in
The horizon clouds carry                                                                                   The horizon clouds carry
The dust of the dead.                                                                                         The dust of the dead.
                                                                                                                               Walk past the circle
                                                                                                                               Wait for the wind.