NaNoWriMo 2019

November 1, or the start of NaNoWriMo or National Novel Writing Month is just around the corner. Basically, NaNoWriMo is about writing a 50K work novel in month, by writing a little every day. Not revising or editing, just writing. The emphasis is on completing 50,000 words. You can read more about planning for NaNoWriMo, but today I want to call attention to some of the free the resources available on the NaNoWriMo web site (and don’t forget the Absolute Write NaNoWriMo forum NaNoWriMo and Beyond).

NaNoWriMo has a complete and free step-by-step course about How to Participate in NaNo Prep 101. It’s designed to be completed before NaNo starts, with one step allocated per week. It started in Mid September, but it’s not too late to catch up. The course outline so far:

  1. Develop a Story Idea (September 9-13)
  2. Create Complex Characters (September 16-20)
  3. Construct a Detailed Plot or Outline (September 23-27)
  4. Build a Strong World (September 30 – October 4)
  5. Organize Your Life for Writing! (October 7-11)
  6. Find and Manage Your Time (October 14-18)

It’s not too late to dive in. There’s even a downloadable NaNo Prep 101 .pdf if you want to go it alone.

Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose

Constance Hale. Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose. Three Rivers Press; Revised, Updated edition, 2013. ISBN: 978-0385346894.

Ari Meermans

From the quirky and playful title to the jacket copy (“Today’s writers need more spunk than Strunk”) to the introduction, Sin and Syntax makes promises no book on grammar — those dull, sometimes impenetrable, and often pretentious “rules” — could possibly deliver. Or could it? Could a book on grammar be a fun as well as an informative read that will teach us how to write “wicked good prose,” prose we all dream will bring a gleam to an editor’s eyes, leaving her morning coffee to grow cold while she reads on?

I had to know.

I also thought it important to know the credentials held by someone promising so much for one volume in the already crowded field of books on the craft of writing. Constance Hale is an author of stories appearing in newspapers from the Los Angeles Times to the Miami Herald, as well as in magazines such as The Atlantic, National Geographic Adventure, and Smithsonian and has been published in anthologies including France, A Love Story (Seal Press) and Best Travel Writing 2006 (Travelers’ Tales). She is also a founder of The Prose Doctors (an editors’ collective) and today edits for Harvard Business Press and works at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. She should know a thing or three about writing prose that sells.

That settled, I dove into Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose.

***

People often think that this is just a grammar book, but it’s really about putting it all together — words, phrasing, rhythm, imagery — and arriving at a distinctive voice and style. — Constance Hale  

Turns out Sin and Syntax isn’t just a book on grammar. Oh, the grammar is there on the theory you have to know the rules before you can bend or break them, but Hale’s point throughout Sin and Syntax is that prose (flesh) “gets its shape and strength from the bones of grammar” and I think it’s an apt metaphor for the reason for those stuffy and sometimes pompous grammar rules: to bring clarity to spoken and written communication. Once we accept that grammar is more about making the underlying structure of our writing clear, precise, and interesting and less about correctness, the fear of the rules falls away and we’re better able to make them work for us.

Many of the books on the craft of writing — of which there are far too many and at last count I own thirty-seven of them by various authors — range from reasonably good to quite good at the what to do and why to do it yet leave many an inexperienced or not well-read writer to wail, “But how do I do it?” I thought if Sin and Syntax could show writers how to bring grammar and language together to craft prose that excites, on how to fine-tune our prose to bring life and movement to our writing it would have lived up to its promise. The book does that far better than most books on writing in the depth of attention it pays to each passage provided for examination. Hale highlights and breaks down extensive passages of stellar and engaging writing and speaking — from Shakespeare to Joan Didion to Cormac McCarthy to Muhammad Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — and explains in detail how the author or speaker’s intended effect was achieved from carefully chosen nouns and the words surrounding them to the rhythms and lyricism (musicality) the authors instilled through their sentence structures. Yet, she maintains a relaxed and conversational tone and lets her witty style shine through and this makes the book an easy and enjoyable cover-to-cover read.

***

The three-part structure Constance Hale chose for Sin and Syntax is simple and progresses smoothly from the basic to the sophisticated through Words, Sentences, and Music, making the book accessible as a reference or refresher for the parts of grammar each of us finds trickiest.

Part I: Words covers the eight parts of speech, each with its own chapter: Nouns, Pronouns, Verbs, Adjectives, Adverbs, Prepositions, Conjunctions, and Interjections. (Have you ever been told you use too many adjectives or that your descriptions are too wordy or boring? You might want to look at your nouns. Or, that your verbs are weak or that your adverbs are redundant? Yep, that’s covered here, too, with examples that bring it home.)

Part II: Sentences addresses how these parts of speech are brought together to begin to form the bones of communication, again each with its own chapter: the Subject, the Predicate, Simple Sentences, Phrases and Clauses, and Length and Tone.

Part III: Music. The four chapters in this section delve into the ways we, too, can find our own unique voices and grow our own individual styles. These chapters are devoted to Melody, Rhythm, Lyricism, and Voice.

Does it surprise you to see music included in a book on writing prose? It shouldn’t; it is in the beauty, rhythm, and lyricism of the English language that we find the emotion and the ability to make the connections to other humans we strive for in our prose.

Each chapter in each of the three parts includes five sections:

Bones (the underlying grammar framework).

Flesh shows us how to bring life to our prose through specific word and phrase choices while playing with sentence structure to enhance those choices.

Cardinal Sins debunks grammar myths such as admonitions against split infinitives — just make sure you have a good reason for splitting that infinitive and can pull it off with panache — and ending sentences with prepositions (of course, we can). The “cardinal sins” sections also give examples of convoluted, stilted, and stylistically terrible sentences to be avoided, many of which we learned in school and business and technical writing and find so difficult to unlearn.

Carnal Pleasures — Ah, you were wondering where the “sin” in the book’s title comes in, weren’t you? — shows us how to break grammar rules knowingly and effectively to inject power and energy into our writing and grow our authorial voices as well as create unique voices for our characters and the voice of each story and story world.

Catechism sections conclude each chapter with quirky exercises to help us with such things as the exploration of the sounds of the words we choose in our writing, the sounds we hear in the world around us every day so that we can reproduce them for effect in our writing, and the metaphors we either create or employ in unexpected ways.

***

Great writers understand the richness of the English lexicon, and they take time to choose their words carefully, especially when revising. — Sin and Syntax

The English lexicon is indeed rich — in history, in variety, and in nuance — and it’s that better understanding of nuance which can elevate prose to the memorable, the precise, the profound, and the beautiful. If I have a quibble about Sin and Syntax, it’s that it does not address more thoroughly the importance of creating nuance along with the necessary precision in word choice.

Right here is probably a good place to mention Hale’s “five new principles of prose” which she revisits throughout Sin and Syntax:

  • Relish every word.
  • Aim deep, but be simple.
  • Take risks.
  • Seek beauty.
  • Find the right pitch.

It wouldn’t be a bad idea to tape those principles just above your keyboard or writing station as a reminder of what you’re seeking to accomplish in each writing session. I did.

So does Sin and Syntax live up to the promises made that the information contained within will help us write “wicked good prose”? Overall, I think it does and I recommend Sin and Syntax as an addition to every writer’s bookshelf.

See Contance Hale’s Website Sin and Syntax | An online salon for those who love wicked good prose. Ari Meermans has been a teacher, technical writer, and Software/IT project manager. She is a language and writing enthusiast and chocolate fiend. When her nose isn’t buried in a book, she can be found at Absolute Write.

Interview: Donna Migliaccio

Donna Migliaccio, familiar to AWers as mrsmig, is a professional stage actress with credits that include Broadway, National Tours and prominent regional theaters. As a writer, Donna Migliaccio’s short work is featured in the anthologies Medusa At The Morgue and The Art Of Losing. She has just re-published Kinglet, the first novel in her epic fantasy sequence The Gemeta Stone. She kindly set aside some time for an Absolute Write interview.

What’s your elevator pitch for Kinglet? (Or for the Gemeta Stone books as a set)?

A gentle young prince must recover his courage and his family’s legendary talisman to free his kingdom from a powerful magician.

Man, that seems so . . . bald. The overarching theme is about how Kristan Gemeta has to learn to balance his compassionate nature against the sometimes terrible things he has to do to achieve his goal. It’s about his external conflict with the bad guy, yes — but his internal conflict is just as vital to the story.

Did you have a playlist for Kinglet (Or for the entire Gemeta Stone sequence)?

I had a playlist for the first couple of books in the series that was heavily Celtic, but as the series progressed that playlist has spread into other genres: a lot of world and ambient music, or more recently, no music at all. I find I can delve into the story without needing a “score” now.

Were there any surprises for you as you wrote Kinglet? Character developments or plot twists that you didn’t expect?

The character of Heather Demitt was the biggest surprise. I conceived her as the love interest for the main character, but she was so interesting that she developed into a co-MC. She’s the yin to Kristan’s yang: impulsive, outgoing and hopeful, compared to his more introspective and less self-assured character.

I was also a bit taken aback at how dark the story got. At its heart it’s still a story of hope, but the ordeals the characters, especially Kristan, have to endure . . . well, my mother, upon reading the third book, said “Isn’t this poor guy ever going to catch a break?” (The answer was “yes, but it takes a while.”)

Kinglet is the first book in the five-book Gemeta Stone series. Did you start out intending to write a series?

Well, I certainly didn’t think it was going extend through five books (plus a prequel)! I thought I’d have a trilogy, maybe.

You originally sold the rights for The Gemeta Stone books to a small publisher, and you’ve recently regained your rights and are republishing as your own publisher. What advice can you offer other authors who have decided to self-publish after regaining their rights?

I’m still learning the self-publishing game myself, so I’m really not in a position to advise others — but the one thing I’ve learned is that you have to be patient. It takes time to gain traction, and without the marketing and promotional advantages a good trade publisher can provided (and I emphasize the word “good”), the onus is on you and you alone to get the word out there about your books. Do what you can to promote, but remember that your primary job is to write.

What’s your writing process like?

I’m slow and meticulous. If I produce a thousand words a day, that’s big progress for me, but the result is closer to a second or third draft than a first draft. I’ve never been able to just spew words onto the page and say “I’ll fix it later.” The spelling, punctuation, grammar and construction all have to be correct, and the paragraph as polished as I can make it, before I can move on. If I get bogged down, I’ll write out of sequence. And I always try to make myself stop for the day when I want to keep going — that way I’m eager to begin again the next day.

What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?

I prefer to write at my desk, on a full-sized computer, but I also have a tablet that I’ll carry with me to rehearsals or keep backstage during performances so I can write during my downtime.

You’re also an accomplished professional actor; how do you see your two careers influencing each other?

They’re both about telling a story, aren’t they? About motivating a character’s actions; about finding the truth in what they say and do. As a result of my stage work, I think I’ve developed both a good sense of pacing and an ear for dialogue, and as a writer, I’m able to flesh out a character’s backstory and give it some extra veracity.

From the popular Foxy Visitors thread on Absolute Write, I know you set up some trail cams and have gotten some wonderful shots and video of foxes. How did that start?

I had been in NYC for almost all of 2017, understudying Patti LuPone on Broadway in the musical WAR PAINT. When the show closed in November I was exhausted from the whole experience, frustrated with my then-publisher and burned out on my writing. I went home and spent a lot of time looking out my deck window, usually at the birds visiting my feeders, but then I noticed foxes visiting the yard, fairly regularly. In years prior I’d see them occasionally — just a glimpse now and then — but this time I had a trio of regulars. I think they were attracted by the gray squirrels, who were in turn attracted by the bird feeders. One of the foxes was infected with a terrible case of sarcoptic mange. She was so pitiful – basically denuded of fur from the ribcage down — that I wanted to help. I started researching, figured out what medicine to provide and how to deliver it, and in the end was able to get poor little Wisp through the winter. She ended up having a pair of kits in the spring, and so I had more foxes to watch. My husband gifted me with a pair of trail cameras, so I’m better able to tell them apart, not just by their appearances but by their individual quirks of behavior.

What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?

Robert McFarlane’s The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, which is a series of essays on exploring old footpaths in the UK and Europe. It sounds like a pretty dry topic, but it was actually fascinating, and McFarlane’s prose is both evocative and lyrical. Gorgeous book. I’ve also read and enjoyed The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild by Lyanda Lynn Haupt and Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird by Tim Birkhead. I read both of them because of my interest in wildlife, but the latter especially because I have a shape-shifter character who’s introduced in the third book of my series, and I wanted a little more grist for that particular character’s mill.

Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?

I found Stephen King’s On Writing and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft to be particularly helpful.

Is there a question that you’ve never been asked that you’d really like to answer?

Not so much a question, but I’ve always wanted to go in-depth about my experience with my publisher — more as a cautionary tale than anything else. But that would take way more time (and room!) than we have here. I may eventually do a blog series about it.

What’s your favorite charity?

In lieu of opening nights gifts for my shows, I usually make a donation in the company’s name to a classroom project via DonorsChoose.org. When I was doing a production of The Music Man I donated to an Iowa school’s music department so they could buy band supplies; when I was doing a world premiere musical in which a guitar was destroyed onstage every night, I donated to a local classroom wanting ukuleles so their students could learn to play.

What’s your current projected schedule for publishing the books that follow Kinglet in The Gemeta Stone sequence? (I really enjoyed Kinglet and am looking forward to the rest of the story).

I am guesstimating that Book 2 in the series, Fiskur, will be re-released in mid-June. I’m hoping to get the other two books out before the fall, and then publish the prequel soon after that. And I’m praying to have the first draft of the fifth and final book finished by October!

You can find Donna Migliaccio on Twitter, and at Donna Migliaccio’s Website, as well as on AW as mrsmig. Kinglet is currently available on Amazon.

Interview: Suzanne Palmer

Suzanne Palmer, AW’s own zanzjan, won 2018’s Hugo Award for Best Novelette for “The Secret Life of Bots.” Her short fiction has won readers’ awards for Asimov’s, Analog, and Interzone magazines, and been included in the Locus Recommended Reading List. Palmer has twice been a finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award and once for the Eugie M. Foster Memorial Award. Her debut novel Finder will be released by DAW on April 2, 2019.

What’s your elevator pitch for Finder?

Fergus Ferguson is an interstellar repo man who has gone off to a backwater, deep space settlement to find and take back a stolen spaceship, and gets caught up in the middle of an escalating feud between a crooked junk merchant and a family of lichen farmers. Plus: mysterious marauding aliens!

Did you have a playlist for Finder?

I need very different music when I’m working on a first draft versus while revising, and the first draft of Finder feels like ages ago now and I can’t remember what I was listening to back then, but certainly something high-energy like Florence & The Machine, Snow Patrol, etc. My go-to music in revision is usually Bonobo, along with Euphoria, Thievery Corporation, and other fairly mellow, largely instrumental music.

Were there any surprises for you as you wrote Finder? Character developments or plot twists that you didn’t expect?

Hahaha, the whole thing? But seriously, I am not much of a planner, and when I start a new project I usually only have a few tiny “seeds” of what I want — a character, or a setting, or a small scene — and I just throw it down on the page and see where it goes. I can usually tell within a few paragraphs from how the story language wants to pace itself, and from how quickly more idea bits are accumulating onto the growing mass how big it’s going to be, and with Finder I thought early on I was heading into novella territory, but I was nervous about letting it go longer. In the end, the story insisted, so I went along with it.

What’s your writing process like?

First drafts are an absolute chaotic mess, with a lot of back and forth and dead-end alleys I need to back out of and find a better path forward, and I often have only a vague idea where I’m going until I get there. The joy of discovery, of finding that you left yourself perfect breadcrumbs without even realizing it, is for me not only one of my favorite parts of the experience, but a necessary part of it. If I know too much about the story I get bored trying to write it.

Once I get to the actual end, and I have the big picture of what the story is and I start to revise, if it’s a longer piece I’ll usually build an outline retroactively as I work my way through, which then gives me a handy roadmap for a lot of the fiddly but critical work making the whole thing come together.

What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?

I do almost all my writing at home, in a small home office where my chair looks out over the woods in the back yard. I’ve seen moose, barred owls, coyotes, and a lot of wild turkeys out there, though I’m perfectly happy with just the clouds and trees. Inside, my writing buddies are a pair of lovebirds named Beetle and Boo, who are noisy as hell but adorable. I do my writing on a Mac, using MS Word, because despite its occasionally aggravating flaws it’s just easier for me. (I write very linearly, so more complex tools which are often wonderful for other writers don’t do much for me.) I will also often leave myself notes or doodle elements from whatever I’m working on, be it aliens or ships or maps of where things are, so there tends to be bits of paper everywhere and up on the bulletin board behind my monitor. I don’t write much longhand because my handwriting is horrible and gets exponentially worse the more I’m trying to write at once.

Back in 2012 your story “Mandrake’s Folly” was published in Absolute Write’s Absolute Visions anthology. I really loved the characters and world building. Any plans to return to any of it?

Actually, a lot (although not all) of my science fiction is set in the same contiguous universe, and there are characters and/or places that drift through multiple stories. “Mandrake’s Folly” has several connections of that sort with other stories, although the closest tie is to “Surf”, which was my first sale to Asimov’s (also in 2011) and which has a character in common, although there’s a time gap between them.

I think about it a lot like the pointillist paintings of Seurat, one dot of color at a time, except probably I work in a much more ADHD way than Seurat did. As a viewer/reader, the dots maybe don’t connect yet in apparent ways, but *I* know that, dammit, those two dots are part of a tree and that dot is a monkey, and that informs where the next “dot” goes.

One of the things I loved the most about Finder was the world-building. It’s very clear that you know a lot more about the peoples and places you’re writing about. How are you keeping track of all you know about your universe?

I have a wiki! Seriously, as soon as I had written enough stuff with shared universe elements that I found myself having to dig through old manuscripts to remember how I described something or when something happened or where, I decided it was easier to just start keeping details in my own personal wiki. It’s not a perfect solution because I’m not always sure what *is* an important detail except in hindsight, or how in the long term I want things to connect, and sometimes I’m lazy about keeping it updated, but I do eventually manage to keep up. I also have a lot of sketches and maps, some scanned in, some in notebooks, that I can go back to when needed. Do you have plans to write more about Mattie “Mother” Vahn and the Vahn clan? I would love to revisit Mattie Vahn some day, and I’m open to the idea, but so far the right story for her hasn’t come my way. There are other Vahns we will certainly see again. I’ve got about half a short story set in the Sunshields, because I fell in love with the Shielders and wanted to spend a little more time with them on their own terms, and hopefully I’ll have that finished this spring. I think for me one of the ways I know a character is working is when they start demanding their own stories, and there were quite a few secondary and minor characters in Finder that are still trying to get my attention — too many to get to, and their numbers keep going up, but I’d never say never on any of them.

I know that you built an incredible “book alley”. Would you tell us a little about that?

The Book Alley! I have, unsurprisingly, way too many books, and I made the mistake of buying a house where the entire downstairs is an open floorplan filled with windows — great for sunlight and looking out at the gardens in the summer, but absolutely miserable for trying to put bookshelves in. So I built the Book Alley, a 10′ wide room the length of the back of the house, and for the first time in my life all my books and magazines are shelved and out and there whenever I want to curl up in a comfy chair and read. Which I don’t do nearly often enough, but I’m trying.

Entry way to the book alley
The Book Alley entrance Image: © Suzanne Palmer

 

The book alley with books in place Image: © Suzanne Palmer

 

Book alley with shelves and furniture
The Book Alley in use Image: © Suzanne Palmer

What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?

It is a truly sad thing that writing comes directly out of my reading time, so I’m always behind the curve on what’s new, especially novel-length stuff. But last year I found and totally fell for Martha Wells’s Murderbot series, which I just can’t recommend highly enough. Right now I’m reading Charlie Jane Anders’s The City in the Middle of the Night, which is brilliant so far.

Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?

This may seem an odd choice, but Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. While it’s ostensibly focused on visual, sequential narrative, there is so much information in there about storytelling and pacing and engaging with your material that it’s a phenomenal resource for almost any kind of creative pursuit, and certainly looking at comics through that lens has impacted how I approach and engage with many other kinds of narrative as well.

You’re a Viable Paradise graduate (VP IX 2005). What advice do you have for prospective VP students?

When I attended VP, I was in a place where I wasn’t sure if I was serious about writing, or more importantly, if I was brave enough to be serious about it. Imposter Syndrome has always been a steady (and super-clingy) companion, and I think I spent too much of the first few days of the workshop feeling like I couldn’t possibly belong there. And that’s the thing about VP — if you’re there, it’s because they believe you belong there, and then it’s up to you to make sure you don’t get in your own way taking full advantage of what the experience has to offer. Even with my own hangups going in, it was a life-changing experience for me, and I wish I’d been more centered in it from the start. So leave the insecurity (or overconfidence!) behind, plenty of time for those later (-:

What’s your favorite charity?

I support my local animal shelter, because they’re really good people, and my local library which is teeny-tiny and trying to raise funds to expand. I also donate regularly to Médecins Sans Frontières, aka Doctors Without Borders, because I can’t imagine more difficult or more vital work.

Is there a question that you’ve never been asked that you’d really like to answer?

Why “zanzjan” ? (My nickname almost everywhere.) The very first thing I wrote, as an adult, was a novel that was set on a planet named Zanzjan Minor. Although that novel never quite made it, it was the central hub of much of my subsequent story world, and it has showed up in small ways and in the background of a bunch of stories. Going back to my Seurat analogy earlier, there’s a blank space in the cluster of dots of my worldbuilding where that novel originally fit. Someday — possibly when I’m done with Fergus Ferguson — I’m going to take apart that old manuscript, steal back the important bits and elements, and build a whole new novel to fit in that space.

Having read Finder, I can tell you it is a funny, bodacious space opera with quality world building and characters. Palmer has just turned in the sequel, and I can’t wait to read it.

Suzanne Palmer has a Website, and is active on Twitter and Facebook. You can find her debut SF novel Finder at your local independent bookstore, buy it from Amazon.com | Amazon Canada | Amazon UK | Barnes & Noble  iBooks | Kindle | Kobo | Powells.

 

This post contains Absolute Write affiliate links.

Sol Stein, Stein on Writing (1995)

Carla Miriam Levy

About a third of the way through Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing, there is an anecdote that changed the way I think about scene construction and dialogue. When Stein was a young playwright participating in a workshop at Lee Strasbourg’s famous Actors Studio in New York, he and another participant were instructed to improvise a scene. The workshop leader, the Academy-Award-winning director Elia Kazan, took Stein aside and privately instructed him on his role: He was the headmaster of an elite private school, and he had expelled a disruptive miscreant of a student who had defiantly squandered many chances to right his behavior. Stein was to meet the boy’s mother, he was told, and though she would beg him to readmit, under no condition should he agree.

Then, outside of Stein’s hearing, Kazan conferred with Stein’s improvisation partner, Rona Jaffe, author of the bestselling novel The Best of Everything, who was to play the mother. Kazan told Jaffe that her son was a bright and well-behaved boy, that he had been persecuted by his teachers, and that she must insist that the headmaster must take him back to the school immediately.

Two participants in the scene, two radically varying interpretations of the world. How could a setup like this yield anything but fireworks?

Stein’s point in recounting this episode is that you can create conflict by giving your characters opposing desires, opposing goals—but why not go even further? Why not place their entire worldviews in opposition, their entire notion of truth? Stein’s headmaster is certain that the boy is a rotten apple beyond correction. Jaffe, as the boy’s mother, takes it for granted that her son can do no wrong. Not only are the characters’ desires at loggerheads; so are the fundamental facts through which they interpret everything they see and hear.

This passage, like many others in Stein on Writing, had me itching to rush back to my manuscript and start fixing things. Stein had given me a clear new lens through which to examine any scene that flagged, any dialogue that didn’t crackle as it should. After reading the passage I was ready to examine every scene in my novel and ask myself, what facts does each character take as given that the other does not know or not believe to be true? The potential is thrilling.

* * *

Sol Stein knows a few things about making fiction and nonfiction ready for publication. A bestselling author himself, he also edited bestsellers by others, including Kazan and James Baldwin. In Stein on Writing, first published in 1995, he indulges in some name dropping, recounting his experiences learning from and teaching writers like these. But the book is not a memoir, nor even a memoir-advice hybrid. It is, as Stein frames it, “a book of usable solutions.” Stein aims to teach you “how to fix writing that is flawed, how to improve writing that is good, how to create interesting writing in the first place.” He states up front that the goal of his book is to help writers create writing that is suitable for publication. The famous names are his résumé.

In chapters covering everything from strong characterization, to developing tension, suspense, conflict, and plot, to trimming the “flab” from your writing, to tackling the revision of a novel-length manuscript, Stein provides a toolbox of techniques that, like the lesson from his improv session with Kazan and Jaffe, take familiar writing advice and carry it further, providing a new angle from which to interrogate your own writing.

For a writer like me, Stein’s formulations are fresh and intriguing. I am something of an advanced beginner at fiction. Professionally, I have written everything from legal briefs to technical documentation, and I am an experienced writer of critical essays. In fiction, though, I am just finding my legs, laboring through my first novel and publishing a short story or two in the meantime. If you have thought about craft a great deal already, you might find Stein on Writing solid and helpful, if not revelatory. For me, much of it is downright inspiring. The advice is accessible and actionable, with something in nearly every chapter that makes me think, “Yes, I can do that!” It leaves me charged to go press Stein’s techniques into service on the page.

Stein emphasizes that much of his guidance applies with equal force to both writers of fiction and writers of nonfiction, and he invites each to eavesdrop on the sections directed at the other. Most crucial to Stein is that, whether writing fiction or nonfiction, the writer never lose her bead on the foremost purpose of writing: “To provide the reader with an experience that is superior to the experiences the reader encounters in everyday life.” Other common goals of writers—to express oneself, to be adored by fans, to make money—might be achievable side effects, Stein says, but the primary intention must be to create enjoyment for readers:

Sex has to be good for both partners. That is also the key to writing both fiction and nonfiction. It has to be a good experience for both partners, the writer and the reader. And it is a source of distress to me to observe how frequently writers ignore the pleasure of their partners.

Most of the book aims to guide writers through the work of creating that pleasurable experience for the reader. A recurring theme in the book is something Stein calls particularity, and it is one of the concepts that drives me back to my manuscript busting out with ideas for improving my characterization and description. Particularity is Stein’s refinement on the notion that “detail is the life blood of fiction,” his way of shining new light on that common bit of writing wisdom. Stein notes that it is not merely detail that distinguishes good writing, but detail that is carefully selected to individualize. What he calls particularity is “the detail that differentiates one person from another, one act from another, one place from any others like it.” Particularity steers the writer away from generalizations and clichés, and toward details that are surprising and evocative. “Thou shalt not saw the air with abstractions,” Stein writes, in concluding remarks structured as a tongue-in-cheek tablet of Commandments for the writer, “for readers, like lovers, are attracted by particularity.”

Indeed, much of Stein’s guidance comes by way of adding his own particularity to common writing shibboleths, turning advice you’ve heard many times before into exercises and techniques that may offer new insight. In the chapter titled “Come Right In: First Sentences, First Paragraphs,” Stein expands on the common idea of starting with action using a metaphor of an engine turning over. The goal of the opening paragraph, he observes, is to excite the readers’ curiosity. It is not necessarily action that does this—Stein points out that we must know who is in the car before we see it crash—but rather a sense that conflict is brewing. He illustrates techniques to rev the story’s engine as early as possible, using characterization, setting, omens, or surprise to engage reader curiosity right in the opening paragraphs.

Stein’s application of particularity for improving characterization includes an idea-provoking discussion of what he calls markers, the details of appearance or behavior that particularize character background, class, or other traits in a vivid instant. Such characterization, executed well, can even generate conflict on its own, especially when distinct characters are trapped together in a crucible, Stein’s concept of a place or situation that characters cannot leave, such as a school or a marriage. The notion of the crucible lends particularity to the general idea that stories thrive on conflict; it brews ideas for how to create conflict.

In a later chapter, “Liposuctioning Flab,” Stein provides a systematic process to back up the common advice to write concisely and trim unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. The exercises and examples he provides encourage the writer to think carefully about meanings, weighing one word against another. Urging that “one plus one equals a half,” he drives home (with some very funny examples) the point that using two descriptors or two images most often weakens the effect of both. It’s advice that can make you feel like a better writer the moment you read it.

In another thought-provoking discussion toward the end of the book, Stein explores the concept of resonance, which he describes as “an aura of significance beyond the components of a story.” I was particularly intrigued by this notion, as a first-time novelist very keen to produce a novel that is about something. Unlike characterization or suspense or adverb trimming, the generation of resonance is tough to teach through a systematic and practical technique. Stein lists off some ways that writers can achieve resonance, including biblical or historical allusion, reference to life and death, the use of aphorisms and philosophical statements, even made-up psychological theories and technobabble. All of these strike me as questionable on the surface, perhaps even dangerous if not handled with extreme care and expertise. But it is to Stein’s credit that he broaches the subject at all, rather than restricting himself to nuts-and-bolts advice that can be distilled into to rules of thumb and exercises for practice. It’s a more open-ended chapter than some of the others, leaving one with rich questions to ponder, if not immediate inspiration for the editorial pen.

* * *

Still, Stein on Writing is not without its blemishes. Stein provides many examples to illustrate his pithy points, but too often they are drawn from his own work, and in some cases, one wonders whether he could not have found better examples had he searched further afield. His chapter on love scenes, for instance, contains some solid advice about generating tension and producing an emotional response in the reader. But he smothers the advice in with a lengthy analysis of a love scene from one of his novels that relies on a rather cliché and unerotic device, a man spilling drops of wine on a woman’s breast and licking them off. More disappointingly, the scene reveals almost nothing of the point-of-view character’s feelings as the seduction unfolds, despite Stein’s instructive emphasis on the importance of those feelings. It’s a rather poor example for much of what he says is crucial to a good love scene.

And some of Stein’s advice betrays the book’s 1990s vintage, particularly in the last section which covers resources for writers; at one point he instructs you to use Google, “www.google.com,” and “in the search box, write writers’ conferences.” Such advice, along with mention of printed industry guides that can be found in libraries, rings quaint to the twenty-first century ear.

But the foundations of craft in the book are solid, and as close to timeless as writing advice can be. “Most writers reveal what others conceal,” he notes, emphasizing that all his technical advice is meant to help you expose an emotional core of truth that creates a meaningful experience for readers. And even if you have quibbles or questions about some of the specifics—as I do—every chapter is at the very least thought-provoking, and most deliver real workable guidance to improving your writing. Read this book, and then get back to your manuscript and start making it stronger.

Carla Miriam Levy has been a physicist, a lawyer, a film critic, and a technical writer. Her published work includes essays on Indian film in Outlook Magazine and a short story in GNU Journal. She posts on the AW forums as Lakey and tweets occasionally at @carla_filmigeek.

Reading Challenges for 2019

Writers generally like to read, and with the distractions offered by WIPs, alternate media, work, and home life, it’s increasingly important to make time to read. Reading is good for your brain, it’s good for your writing, and reading is an opportunity to engage in something that’s quiet and peaceful to give your hind brain a chance to work on What Happens Next in your WIP.

stack of books on a table Sacred Britannia, Toujours Provence by Mayle, Island at the center of the World, Norton Critical Editon of the Bible,

One way to make time is to schedule your reading, both in terms of your day-to-day planning, whether on a calendar or a bullet journal, and what to read. A reading challenge is a simple way to plan what to read and schedule when to read it. A reading challenge can be as basic as the Goodreads Challenge, where you decide how many books you want to want to read in 2019 (from 1 to ???) and track your progress on the GoodReads site. But there are lots of other reading challenges (far more than I can cover here).

hamster reading a tiny bookFor AWers, there’s The 2019 AW Book Reading Challenge. This challenge is an annual event, created by AW members using a variety of categories. The goal is to pick 12 books, each of which fits one of the 50 categories. You read your books, and track them in the 2019 thread, and discuss them with other readers, if you’d like. There’s also the very active and venerable Absolute Write  YA 100 Books challenge, which challenges you to read and list 100 (or 50 or 25) YA books you read during the year.

For the first time, in 2019 AW also has a Short Story Challenge. The goal is to read a pre-determined number of short stories in 2019, and track them in the thread. You can pick 52, one a week or whatever number works for you. There’s a lot of short fiction out there, a lot of it is free and on the web, so this is a great way to read more and to read differently than you might otherwise. Short stories make it easy to fit reading time into a busy schedule, and to try something by an author new to you.

Consider the 2019 Sirens Reading Challenge, with a goal of encouraging people to read fantasy by women and non-binary authors.  This challenge is presented by the Sirens Conference, and the goal is to read 25 books from a list with several categories and many choices. There’s even a GoodReads Sirens discussion group for support.

BookRiot is again (for the fifth year) running their Read Harder Challenge for 2019; the idea behind it is to read 24 books that you might not ordinarily read; the idea being to push yourself by offering 24 “tasks” or different kinds of books. The goal, as BookRiot notes:

We encourage you to push yourself, to take advantage of this challenge as a way to explore topics or formats or genres that you otherwise wouldn’t try. But this isn’t a test. No one is keeping score and there are no points to post. We like books because they allow us to see the world from a new perspective, and sometimes we all need help to even know which perspectives to try out. That’s what this is—a perspective shift—but one for which you’ll only be accountable to yourself.

There’s a BookRiot Read Harder discussion group on GoodReads, if you’d like to follow along with others working on reading harder in 2019.

If, like me, you aren’t as familiar with Aussie books and authors as you’d like to be, you might be interested in the Aussie Author Challenge 2019. There are three levels of participation; Wallaby (3 books) Wallaroo (6 books), and Kangaroo (12). The various levels encourage you to read books from very broad categories (Australian women, Australian men, authors new to you, etc.). There are lots of suggested lists for locating books on the Aussie Author Challenge page, which means you could easily add an Aussie author to your own challenge.

Want something a little less theme-and-genre driven? Bookstr has you covered with reading challenges based on cover art color, geography, genre . . . all sorts of different ways to challenge and plan your 2019 reading.

POPSUGAR has a new 2019 50 book challenge, 40 books for their “regular” challenge with an optional additional ten books. There’s even a printed checklist and reading planner. There’s also a very active GoodReads POPSUGAR Reading Challenge discussion group.

And don’t forget there’s a wealth of public domain legal-to-download ebooks out there too, ranging from classic canon novels, to more recent works. This is especially handy for people wanting to participate in the Jane Austen Reading challenge or the Back To the Classics challenge.

You might want to check your local public library not only for book reccs, but because they may have their own book challenge. My local Seattle Library sponsors book bingo every summer. Bookish has regular monthly book bingo challenges; here’s the January Bookish Bingo challenge.  Bookish is also running a year-long 2019 Kill Your TBR (your TBR can be a stack of To Be Read books, an ebook list, or audio books). There’s even a #killyourtbr hashtag.

I want to make a special mention of the LibraryThing 75 book challenge. LibraryThing is my personal favorite, by far, of the various book cataloging and social sites. The 75 Book Challenge description on LibraryThing says:

Anyone can join. Just start a thread and begin listing the books you have read in 2019. You don’t have to begin on January 1! Last year, some members just listed their titles and authors while others posted a mini-review of each book. It’s all up to you. It turns out we care less about the numbers than we do about the exchange of book info and the community of readers.

I’m barely skimmed the surface of all the book challenge opportunities; there are lots more, and there’s one to suit every reader. Why not find yours and start reading?

On the Importance of Community

Writing has a reputation as a solitary profession. We picture authors curled in their hermitages, pouring out words hour after hour and not interacting with another human for days.
I wasn’t immune to this preconception, so it has been one of my greatest surprises that my writing profession has leaned on community in ways I never thought possible. In fact, I would say it has been dependent on the communities I’ve joined and the ties I’ve formed.

After finishing the first draft of my novel Zero Sum Game, I went online to search for writing forums. I joined a whole slew of them, some of which I meshed with and some of which I didn’t. The one with the most staying power for me was far and away Absolute Write, where I found a diverse crowd of smart, informed people all exploring writing the same way I was. On Absolute Write, I found my betas, my writing group, and lifelong friendships.

Later on I joined the Codex Writers’ Group and got active with science fiction and fantasy Twitter, and, as I worked up in my career, I began being invited to private author loops. These days, if I have a question, want to talk shop, or simply want to commiserate about the day to day of writing, I have plenty of people to reach out to, and it’s made the most profound difference for me. Here are just a few of the ways community has been make or break for me:

Betas and Critiquing

One of the most obvious ways a writing community is invaluable is in the process of writing. I’m downright lucky to have found a writing group who will always step in to read for me and who have a wide diversity of experience and perspectives. We also help each other brainstorm and check each others’ expertise. My first readers are incredibly skilled and have leveled me up significantly from where I started.

But I’ve leveled up equally from being the critiquer myself. It’s something I consistently recommend to new writers as being one of the most helpful learning tools possible, as critiquing other people’s work helped me see the transparency of what prose was doing more than anything else. I beta’ed over thirty novels and countless short stories in the first few years I was meeting other writers, and I suspect it helped me just as much as it helped them.

Learning the Business Side

I can’t imagine where I’d be without being able to compare notes on the business with other writers. When you’re just starting out, it’s near impossible to know the norms of the industry, and I had countless gaps in my knowledge about how professional writing works. I learned—and am still learning!—an incredible amount by listening to my peers shop talk or by asking them questions, and I try to pay forward what I get by sharing my own knowledge.

It’s amazingly useful to compare notes to try to figure out if a contract is predatory, if a request is unusual, if a payment seems reasonable, or a whole slew of other things. This is especially true when publishing turns bad—like all industries, it has its bad apples and its ugly side, and writers might have no way to know they’re being taken advantage of if not for community.
Before I joined writing communities, I had no idea just how much I didn’t know.

Referrals, Blurbs, and All That Jazz

This is that nebulous thing people call “networking”—but it’s not so mysterious, and it’s not a dirty thing at all. I never, ever go into a relationship with a writer or publishing professional with an angle or expecting something out of them, and I don’t think most of my peers do either. Instead, we’re all just sort of… mucking through this whole chaotic business together, and when we get a chance we help each other out, and other people do the same for us.

I’m extremely indebted to many, many people for taking the time out of their schedules to do something for me, and with no expectation that I could do anything for them in return. People have given me advice that set me on a solid path, or made introductions for me that changed the course of my career. People went out of their way to refer me, recruit me, signal boost me, or give me publicity blurbs for my book.

And now I try to do the same. I feel absolutely great when I’m able to make a connection between two people I think are cool, or recommend someone for something I think they’d be fantastic at. My friends and colleagues include so many kind, wonderful, talented writers, and I want to see them succeed. I want to go out of my way for them.

I like to think of it all not as a quid pro quo, but as a great web of people cheering each other on, and all mutually boosting each other whenever we have a chance. And the point here is that it starts with community. We start by having a genuine interest in seeing each other succeed—and then it all builds from there.

Surviving the Day to Day

Out of everything, however, the place my writing communities really keep me on an even keel—maybe the least obvious and most important way—is the day to day. I go online with my writer friends and we support each other through the emotional ups and downs of writing, the motivational failures, the bad releases or the internet trolls. And we celebrate with each other, too—if my friends receive good publishing news it makes my month!

I think of trying to do all of this alone, with no one to turn to for a virtual hug or a sympathetic groan, and I shudder.

Writing is Full of People Worth Knowing

But even all of the above doesn’t encompass how vital my writing communities have been for me. The people I’ve met through writing have twined into my life in unexpected and irreversible ways, until I can no longer imagine their absence. They’ve filled gaps for me and become family to me, filling in missing parts of myself that I didn’t even realize I needed.

I have met so many thoughtful, smart, wise, and richly varied people through writing. I learn from them as both writers and people. My life would be poorer without them.

Even if I never wrote another word—if I gave up writing entirely and no longer “needed” any of the benefits of a writing community—I would still stay a part of that community, grown together with the longtime friends I’ve made here.

SL Huang is an Amazon-bestselling author who justifies her MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction. Her debut novel, Zero Sum Game, is upcoming from Tor in 2018, and her short fiction has sold to AnalogNature, and The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016. She is also a Hollywood stuntwoman and firearms expert, appearing on Battlestar Galactica and Raising Hope, among other shows, and worked with actors such as Sean Patrick Flanery, Jason Momoa, and Danny Glover. She currently lives in Tokyo. SL Huang has a website and she’s active on on Twitter as @sl_huang. You can see AW’s SL Huang interview here.

Interview: SL Huang

Cover of S L Huang's Zero Sum game showing a bullet hole in glassAbsolute Write’s own slhuang has kindly found some time for an AW interview. Tor releases the first of Huang’s Cas Russell books, Zero Sum Game, on October 2. Some of us have been following Huang’s self-publishing journey for a while. We aren’t even a little surprised that her Cas Russell books were picked up by Tor, but we’re hoping that #5 appears Real Soon Now.

What’s your elevator pitch for Zero Sum Game?

Billed by Tor as “the geek’s Jack Reacher,” Zero Sum Game is a science fiction thriller1)Some might call it a math thriller, too. starring a mercenary antiheroine whose superpower is doing math really, really fast. She uses it to kill more people than is strictly polite.

Did you have a playlist for Zero Sum Game?

You know, I can’t really listen to music with lyrics while I write. But like all Asian children, I was contractually obligated to grow up playing the violin, and it seeded a lifelong love of classical music in me. Back when I was living in LA, the radio station Classical KUSC probably saved me from countless roadrage-induced traffic collisions, and I still like to stream KUSC wherever in the world I am.

Also, classical music announcers are so delightful I even like listening to KUSC during their fundraising weeks.

Were there any surprises for you as you wrote Zero Sum Game? Character developments or plot twists that you didn’t expect?

Oh, yeah. I’m mostly a “pantser,” which means I’m writing without knowing in advance where the plot is going and figuring it out as I type. So most of the developments and twists were a surprise to me!

I had a few vague ideas of where the plot might go, but at least some of them were wrong—to the point that at least one person I thought would die didn’t, and vice versa. Shows how much I knew.

Zero Sum Game has one of the best openings I’ve read in a very long time. Did you come up with it when you first started to write the novel, or was it added later?

Aw, thank you! The opening of Zero Sum Game was the third Cas Russell scene I came up with, and it was, indeed, the very first scene in Zero Sum Game I ever wrote. The first scene I penned didn’t feel like the beginning (it ended up in book 3). So I wrote an earlier-feeling one, which still didn’t feel like the beginning of her story, and I put it in book 2. Then I wrote the beginning of book 1.

The way I write, I usually have to nail the beginning before going any further. If I can’t write a good beginning in short order, for me it usually means the idea still needs work.

One of the things I loved about the Cas Russell books was that you initially published them under a Creative Commons license. Now that Tor has picked up the books, was the CC license a problem ?

Not an insurmountable one, obviously, but it did create some complications. One thing my agent warned me about is that CC licensed-works are an even bigger stumbling block for overseas publishers, so I do worry it may interfere with our ability to license foreign editions — but I have agreed to release the new, edited Tor editions under a traditional, all-rights-reserved copyright, so hopefully we’ll be okay. And I’m extremely fortunate to have an agent who knows CC licensing better than anyone else in the industry, because he also represents Cory Doctorow! So that has helped tremendously — I don’t think I could have navigated this without his help.

But yeah, Creative Commons is still, unfortunately, a little bit hard to make compatible with commercial publishing. For example, from the beginning, some of the agents I queried didn’t feel equipped to take on CC-licensed work at all.

I’m a little sad to let the CC licensing go—the original editions always will have that licensing, of course, and I still love Creative Commons dearly. But my idealism is tempered by pragmatism and also by competing ideals about accessibility. And I hope that by being flexible on agreeing to a more traditional copyright, I’m enabling my books to have higher levels of more traditional success — and thus they can become one more example of Creative Commons interacting with the publishing industry, and in turn make CC just a bit less scary and unknown to publishing professionals.

I’ve wondered for quite a while now: the backgrounds of the covers Najla Qamber originally did for your first three self-published editions of the Cas Russell book all have equations in the background. Are those actually part of something coherent or were they chosen purely for aesthetic values?

Purely aesthetic, but I was also very careful to point my designer to stock art that wasn’t nonsense! Nothing is worse than math texture that is actually incorrect gibberish.

But no, it doesn’t have any meaning in the context of the books. Think of it like English words that are indeed actual words but not at all chosen for their meanings. I told Naj I wanted mathematical texture that was more complicated and abstract than simple arithmetic, and, well, it turns out there is surprisingly little stock art of higher mathematics—we were fortunate to find this artist! And I was thrilled with what she did with it.

When Tor redesigned the cover, they actually asked me for correct mathematical equations for their texturing on the cover, which tickled the heck out of me. I broke out all my college textbooks and sent them a PDF of all the prettiest formulas I could find.

What’s your writing process like?

Oof. Not formulaic or repeatable enough for my tastes! Every book feels different, and every book there’s a point at which I feel like the car is completely disassembled on the garage floor and I’m not even sure I have all the right parts and also that bit over there is actually from a refrigerator and I am bone-certain even if I get it put together there are going to be three screws left over.

I start with a vague structural idea according to the Save the Cat three-act arc, but after that I often have to “write through” my thoughts to see if they work or not—which means I end up with almost as many scrapped words as stay in the final novel. Someday I will figure out a way not to write every book twice. Someday . .  .

It’s very clear after reading the first three Cas Russell books that you have a story arc in your head. What kind of planning did you do in terms of the arc, and how to you keep track of the back story?

As I wrote Zero Sum Game, a lot of the greater mythology unfolded in my head naturally as I figured out everything in the first book. So as I wrote Book 1, I also wrote hundreds of thousands of words of what I would call “fan fiction” on my own universe — in-between scenes, scenes from other perspectives, backstory scenes, and tons and tons of possible future scenes. I had scenes from book 5, book 7, book 8 written before I published book 1 — not the plots of those books, but important pieces of the mytharc.

I write an extensive reference guide with characters and timeline after I finish each installment, retroactively, and that helps for looking back at what I might forget. But the future bits of the storyline are almost all stored in prose snippets rather than anything useful or logical like spreadsheets or lists!

What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?

I change it up. My most usual work environment is curled up on a couch or comfy chair with a laptop, but it helps me shake things loose sometimes to vary it — sometimes sitting on a yoga ball at a desk, sometimes flopped on my bed, sometimes (rarely) switching to longhand if I’m feeling blocked somehow. I also used to coffee shop it a lot, especially in Japan, where I’ve been living for most of the past three years — my room in Tokyo was so small it pretty much only held my bed, so that was also where I had to work when I was home!

Probably the #1 most productive environment for me is Amtrak cars, for some reason. I’m not sure why, but something about the comfort, lack of distraction, and limited time really focuses me. Maybe I should take a cross-country train trip the next time I have a deadline.

What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked? I always ask this question, but in your case, since I know you write short fiction, please recommend short fiction, too.

These questions are why I’m really thinking I need to start tracking my reading better. I have such a terrible memory for what I’ve read recently. But here’s a whack at it — I’m sure I’m forgetting a lot of stuff, but these are all great!

Books:
Kintu, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders
Death’s End, by Cixin Liu
The SEA Is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia, edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng
Alice Payne Arrives, by Kate Heartfield
Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse

Short fiction:
• “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” by K.M. Szpara
• “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™,” by Rebecca Roanhorse
• “Secondhand Bodies,” by JY Yang
• “Monster Girls Don’t Cry,” by A. Merc Rustad
• “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington,” by Phenderson Djèlí Clark
• “Mother Tongues,” by S. Qiouyi Lu

There’s a lot of short fiction being published, especially in SF/F. But sometimes short fiction gets lost in the background noise. Any suggestions for finding short fiction?

Some of the best SFF magazines are free online. For people just getting into reading shorts, I’d recommend browsing the archives at Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, Apex, The Book Smugglers, or Tor.com. All of those places have quite a lot of quality short fiction.

But you’re right, even after finding publications that generally hit well for your tastes, it can be really easy to miss other great stories! The SFF short fiction scene has a couple of sketchy review outlets I wouldn’t trust, but two I do are by the following amazing reviewers who are extremely dedicated and thoughtful:

• Bogi Takács at Bogi Reads the World reviews a lot of short fiction (and also novels!) with a particular focus on diversity.
• Charles Payseur’s Quick Sip Reviews focuses on short fiction only, and Charles also does monthly public (not patrons-only) roundups of queer short SFF on Patreon.

Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?

Save the Cat (and its companion book, Save the Cat Goes to the Movies) are the only writing books I use. I got them to learn how to write a screenplay, and instead learned a structure I really like using for novels — my books usually diverge from the beat sheet pretty far by the end, but the Save the Cat structure helps me hold the feel of the arc in my head. I find that very helpful for getting the emotional payoffs I want.

For writing science fiction, Michio Kaku’s popular science books are my absolute favorite inspirations, especially Physics of the Future and Physics of the Impossible.

Is there a question that you’ve never been asked that you’d really like to answer?

I just did an interview in which I was asked what my favorite gun is, but nobody’s asked me yet for my favorite topological space! (It’s SΩ.)
The above is also likely a good answer to the question, “just how much of a math nerd are you?”

What’s your favorite charity?

What a great question. The charities I donate to most are:

• The ACLU, because I am a staunch supporter of civil liberties.
Lambda Legal, because I particularly want to support the civil liberties of queer people.
• The EFF, because protecting our civil liberties online is horrendously, terrifyingly important. (There might be a theme here.)
The Southern Poverty Law Center
The Trans Lifeline
The Trevor Project
Planned Parenthood

In these present times I often add in organizations like The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) or immigrant and refugee-centric charities.

I donate mostly to domestic U.S. charities because I feel a personal connection and responsibility there, but I also want to give a shoutout to organizations that fight global poverty overseas, which are a favorite of one of my good friends. These charities figure out how to make a dollar go as far as possible, and put the money where it’s most effective at pushing back against wealth inequality on a global scale.

SL Huang is an Amazon-bestselling author who justifies her MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction. Her debut novel, Zero Sum Game, is upcoming from Tor in 2018, and her short fiction has sold to Analog, Nature, and The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016. She is also a Hollywood stuntwoman and firearms expert, appearing on Battlestar Galactica and Raising Hope, among other shows, and worked with actors such as Sean Patrick Flanery, Jason Momoa, and Danny Glover. She currently lives in Tokyo. SL Huang has a website and she’s active on on Twitter as @sl_huang.

This post contains affiliate links.

References   [ + ]

1. Some might call it a math thriller, too.

Interview: Peter McLean

AW’s own Peter McLean kindly consented to an interview. McLean’s fourth novel, Priest of Bones will released by Ace on October 2,2018. Priest of Bones is the first of McLean’s War for the Rose Throne series; the second novel, Priest of Lies, is scheduled for release in July 2019. I’ll definitely be checking it out, but in the meantime, McLean’s previously published urban fantasy Burned Man trilogy (Angry Robot) is a great way to spend time waiting for the next book in the War for the Rose Throne series.

Peter McLean’s bio from his Website says:

Peter McLean was born near London in 1972, the son of a bank manager and an English teacher. He went to school in the shadow of Norwich Cathedral where he spent most of his time making up stories. By the time he left school this was probably the thing he was best at, alongside the Taoist kung fu he had been studying since the age of 13. He grew up in the Norwich alternative scene, alternating dingy nightclubs with martial arts and practical magic. He has since grown up a bit, if not a lot, and spent 25 years working in corporate IT. He is married to Diane and is still making up stories.

What’s your elevator pitch for Priest of Bones?

It’s The Godfather meets Peaky Blinders, with Swords.

Did you have a playlist for Priest of Bones?

Oh yes, I always write to music and it’s always stuff I know so well I don’t have to listen to it, just feel it throbbing away in the background. Priest of Bones was written almost entirely to a steady stream of the marvelous Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, along with various 80s heavy rock albums.

Every main character get’s their own theme music, in my head — Tomas Piety’s theme tune is Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand”, which is also the title music to Peaky Blinders. Bloody Anne’s is “It’s My Life” by Wendy O Williams, and Ailsa enters to “Sanctified” by Nine Inch Nails. Billy the Boy gets “Dio’s Evil Eyes”, and Jochan’s is “Reckless Life” by Guns n’ Roses.

Were there any surprises for you as you wrote Priest of Bones? Character developments or plot twists that you didn’t expect?

I’m largely an outliner so I usually know where the story is going overall, but all my stuff grows arms and legs while I’m writing it so there’s always something to discover on the journey. I’d never planned for Billy to develop as quickly as he does, and had envisaged Old Kurt being his “wise old mentor” figure. Turns out Billy wasn’t having that, and I wasn’t going to argue with him!

Priest of Bones is the first in the War for the Rose Throne series. Did you set out to write a series, or did it evolve into one? 

I originally wrote an outline for a single book, but by the time I’d drafted the first fifty thousand or so words and was still on the first paragraph of my synopsis I realised it was going to be half a million words or something ridiculous if I didn’t break it down into multiple books.

I’m mostly a plotter but still partly a discovery writer. I always have the main plot points outlined, and I sometimes even write the very end first, but as I said my stuff always evolves in the writing process and ends up twice as long as I think it’s going to be — and it still always gets longer in edits. I may write a stand-alone novel one day, but this is not that day.

The second instalment, Priest of Lies, is scheduled for release in July 2019

What’s your writing process like?

Chaotic. I’m not one of those rigorous “write x number of words every day” people, my head just doesn’t work like that. I’m absolutely a binge writer, and as I work a day job those binges are usually Friday and Saturday nights, often going to 3 or 4am if I’m in the groove. I’m naturally nocturnal, I’m sure I am, and I’m never much use creatively in the mornings so I take the opportunity when I can get it.

I’ll start with a rough idea for a setting or a character, sometimes both at once if I’m lucky, and just doodle a few thousand words to see if I like it. If I do, I’ll decide how the story wants to end and write that bit, or at least the last few lines to set the closing tone, then outline my way from beginning to end.

Once I start actually writing it’s start to end in chronological order, with no jumping about, and I absolutely do edit as I go despite what everyone says about that – it just works for me. Each writing session starts with tidying up the previous session’s work then blasting out a new chunk, which can be anywhere from 1000 to 8000 words at a go. I’ll also go days without writing anything at all, but if I get a neat idea for a line or a scene I’ll jot it down somewhere and slot it into the outline next time I sit down at the computer.

One thing with me: once it’s written it happened. I very rarely go back and fundamentally change something, so sometimes the plot goes a bit off piste and when that happens I’ll adjust the outline to fit the story rather than the other way around. The upshot of that and the continuous editing is that once my first draft it done (three to four months for a 100k novel) it’s pretty clean. I don’t do re-writes or multiple drafts. Once it’s done I’ll park it for a few days, then print it out and do a pen-and-paper edit, make the changes, read it through once more and it’s good to go to my agent.

What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?

I’m really lucky with this – we only have a small house, but the previous owner had the garage converted into a self-contained annex and that is now my office. It’s the place I can sit and write until the early hours and blast my music as loud as I like without my wife wanting to murder me!

Tools wise I’m very straightforward – it’s MS Word, and that’s it. Publishing runs on Word and Word comments and Word track changes, and trying to use anything else just feels like making life hard for yourself, to me. All I ever need is Word and a web browser and connection, and I’m good. My PC is an ancient, on-its-last-legs Windows 7 box that I flat refuse to upgrade because it just works, but I have a high-end keyboard and monitor as those are the only parts of the system I really interact with.

You have created a rich multi-cultural world with multiple religions. Any particular suggestions about world building? 

Oh boy, I can geek on about this for hours! The key thing for me is making it all work as a consistent whole. You can have magic in your world, sure, although I don’t personally like to have too much of that, but I still need a fantasy world to actually work properly. You can’t put a city in the middle of the desert, for example, without me immediately wondering where their food and water comes from. You can’t have Irish nobles wearing silk without evidence of international trade, which means foreign traders and the resulting ethnic diversity that they bring. If you have gunpowder weapons, which in Priest of Bones I have, then you need a sufficient level of industry to manufacture the cannon, which means foundries, which means mining, and so on and so forth.

I really don’t like settings that feel like a stage set, where there’s nothing there that the characters aren’t going to interact with. There are things in Priest of Bones like the Temple of the Harvest Maiden on Trader’s Row which is just there because it is, because there’s more than one religion in the world because of course there is, because there would be. In the same way there are black and brown people and children and gay people and old people and disabled people in Ellinburg because of course there are, because why wouldn’t there be?

I absolutely obsess about this stuff if I’m reading anything other than pure mythology, so I went to a lot of trouble to get as much of it right as I could. I’m no historian so I’m sure there are things I’ve missed or got wrong, but I certainly tried to make my setting feel like a real, living country rather than a stage set.

What inspired  Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows, the deity your hero Tomas Piety serves as Priest? (For those who have not yet had a chance to read Priest of Bones, Tomas has this to say of Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows: 

Our Lady doesn’t help. Not ever. She doesn’t answer prayers or grant boons or give a man anything at all however hard he might pray for it. The best you can hope for from her is that she doesn’t take your life today. Maybe tomorrow, aye, but not today. That’s as good as it gets, and the rest is up to you.

I build the worship of Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows around Tomas’s character. He’s not a particularly religious man by nature, so I had to come up with a faith that he could actually get behind. Some reviewers so far have referred to Our Lady as the Goddess of Soldiers, but she isn’t that. She’s worshipped by soldiers, yes, but really Our Lady is the Goddess of Death. As Tomas also says:

Us conscripts don’t want glory or honour. We just want to not die today. That’s what Our Lady offered, if you were lucky and you fought your balls off.

Worshipping of Our Lady is basically appeasing Death, so She doesn’t take your life today. Soldiers have always been a superstitious lot and Tomas has always had to make his own way in the world, and that’s sort of what I was going for here – the idea that there’s no help in this world, you own your destiny and you can make of your life what you will if you just fight hard enough for it, so long as She doesn’t take your life today. So you offer up a prayer to Our Lady, and go out and take it for yourself. I think that’s exactly the sort of religion that would appeal to a man like Tomas Piety.

What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?

Oh wow, there’s been so much brilliant fantasy out in the last year or two and so much of it from new authors. Big favourites of mine have been the Empires of Dust novels by Anna Smith Spark, The Court of Broken Knives and The Tower of Living and Dying, and also Blackwing and Ravencry by Ed McDonald.

They’re two incredibly different series, but both absolutely marvellous. Smith Spark’s work reads like real mythology, powerful prose designed to be read aloud, while McDonald’s are gritty, noir, magical post-apocalyptic thrillers. I’m currently reading RJ Barker’s Assassins trilogy and enjoying that a great deal as well.

There are as many ways to write a novel as there are writers, and everyone is different. The trick is to find your right way to do this, and in my opinion that’s something that only comes from writing, not from reading books about writing.

Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?

I’m not honestly a big fan of books about writing. I read Stephen King’s On Writing and thought it was a fantastic autobiography, but his method and mine are so wildly different that I found I didn’t really agree with him about almost anything on the subject of craft. What he does obviously works brilliantly for him, but it wouldn’t work at all for me. My head just isn’t made the same way his is, and that’s fine. I think a mistake a lot of beginning writers make is thinking that there’s one right way to do this, and there just isn’t. There are as many ways to write a novel as there are writers, and everyone is different. The trick is to find your right way to do this, and in my opinion that’s something that only comes from writing, not from reading books about writing.

Is there a question that you’ve never been asked that you’d really like to answer?

I think I’ve already been asked just about everything that I’d be prepared to answer in public by this point! I did a speaking engagement in a prison once, and some of their questions were really quite extraordinary: have I ever been in prison? No. Am I a real gangster? No. Have I ever hurt anyone on purpose? Yes. Did I win the fight? Yes.

What’s your favorite charity?

Cancer Research UK. I lost my mother to cancer a long time ago, and my wife has had it twice and been successfully treated both times. Those people are literally helping to save lives.

 

You can find reviews of Peter McLean’s Priest of Bones at Publishers Weekly and at Fantasy Book Review. Peter McLean has a Website, and you can find him on Facebook. You can buy Priest of Bones and Peter McLean’s other books at online retailers including Amazon.com, Amazon Canada, Amazon UK, and Apple, as well as your local independent book store.

Exclusive Book Giveaway for Absolute Write Members: The Fortress At The End Of Time

By Ari Meermans

Cover of Joe M. McDermott's The Fortress at the End of TimeWin one of five (5) copies of The Fortress at The End of Time
by Joe M. McDermott. The giveaway will run from Sunday, July 29, 2018, to Sunday, August 12, 2018, and is open to Absolute Write members worldwide with a physical mailing address.

To learn more about the giveaway and to enter for your chance to win one of five (5) copies of The Fortress at The End of Time see Exclusive Book Giveaway for Absolute Write members.

Long-time Absolute Write member Joe M. McDermott is the author of the novels Last DragonNever Knew Another , and Maze. His shorter works have appeared in Asimov’sAnalog, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. He holds an MFA from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Program.

About The Fortress At The End Of Time

Captain Ronaldo Aldo has committed an unforgivable crime. He will ask for forgiveness all the same: from you, from God, even from himself.

Connected by ansible, humanity has spread across galaxies and fought a war against an enemy that remains a mystery. At the edge of human space sits the Citadel—a relic of the war and a listening station for the enemy’s return. For a young Ensign Aldo, fresh from the academy and newly cloned across the ansible line, it’s a prison from which he may never escape.

Deplorable work conditions and deafening silence from the blackness of space have left morale on the station low and tensions high. Aldo’s only hope of transcending his station, and cloning a piece of his soul somewhere new is both his triumph and his terrible crime.

Reviews for The Fortress at the End of Time:

“The Fortress at the End of Time is an essential read, and feels like a throwback to the era of classic science fiction from authors such as Frank Herbert or Ursula K. Le Guin.” — Andrew Liptak, The Verge

“McDermott manages to paint a vivid world in a few pages.” — The Washington Post

“The story works on many different levels . . . readers will be sucked in.” — Romantic Times

“I can say this, Joe M. McDermott’s Fortress at the End of Time is an intellectual bombastic space opera.” — Paul Jessup, author of Glass Coffin Girls

“The Fortress at the End of Time is a brilliant novel.” — Geek Ireland

The Fortress at the End of Time will hit all of the right spots with science fiction fans. Fast paced, but incredibly thoughtful, McDermott creates an unforgettable world at the end of the universe.” — Teresa Frohock, author of Los Nefilim

“A highly original, completely affecting work.” — Mysterious Galaxy

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