Writing Tips: A List that is actually GOOD

One of the reasons I’ve been writing flash fiction (3 weeks, now… maybe 49 to go, maybe more…) is because I’m fishing around the little pools in my subconscious for a new book, and the short bursts of fiction not only help me hone my craft, they’re a way of baiting my hook and hopefully pulling a bigger idea out. And while I’ve finished 8 novel length manuscripts, I’ve only recently learned what works and what doesn’t. So, here is a list of things not to do in a first or second or tenth novel. Yes, I’m guilty of a few.

Top Ten Writing Mistakes

Flash Fiction: The Bottom Shelf

Everything would be over at midnight. The parties were winding down, the shops were empty, the people who just couldn’t wait were lying in the gutters. There had been a pervasive miasma of alcohol, sweat, and vomit all over downtown for the last week, and Richie was reminded of that when a stray breeze blew across Peachtree Street and almost straight into his sinuses. Like with everything else that had happened that day, a little voice in his head piped up and said “That’s the last time you’ll ever smell that.” Like with everything else that had happened, he ignored it.

He could hear drunks in the street, occasional sirens, a random sound of maybe a cat rummaging through the garbage. Pets had taken over the city; people who knew they didn’t have more than a few days left on the planet apparently didn’t care about making sure Rover or Boxy or Colonel Kittypants was comfortable. That still offended him a little, but he had other things on his mind.

The front doors of the Central Fulton County Library had long since been shattered, probably during the early days of the riots before everyone realised there was nothing anyone could do about it and everyone… and everyone was damn near a literal description… shifted into drunk orgy mode. Richie had walked past three couples, a triple, and some permutation he’d never seen out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, just in the last block. He’d been invited and propositioned in more ways than he could count. And if he was being perfectly honest with himself, he might have considered it a couple of days ago. But now, he only had an hour left, and he knew exactly whom he wanted to spend it with.

The third floor, general collections, was mostly untouched. Some of the computers had been ripped out, but by the time the looters got to the library, everyone had figured out that they couldn’t take anything with them to Heaven, Hell, or Detroit, wherever they wound up. He angled his flashlight off to the right, but not too far. Regardless of what was going on, he didn’t want to step on anything like broken glass or a book that someone had knocked off a shelf. Especially not the latter.

The card catalog had of course been moved to the cloud and was therefore completely useless, but that didn’t matter. He’d long since memorized the number that he was looking for. 821.17. And even before he learned that everything was going to blow up, he would have been able to find this shelf in the dark. Faced with a half hour left on the planet, there was only one thing that he wanted to do. And he had nothing else on his mind until he turned the corner and pointed his flashlight right into a woman’s face.

She was sitting crosslegged, across from the shelf he needed to go to, and had a camper’s flashlight strapped to her forehead. To her credit, once she blinked a few times, she adjusted to the new lighting and looked back down at her book. She kept at least part of an eye on him, though, something he did when he was reading in public and was worried someone might start talking to him. He really didn’t want to interrupt her reading, but he didn’t think there was anything else he could say in this situation.

“I’m Richie,” he said.


He slid over to the 820s and ran his light along the spines.

“I didn’t think anyone else would be doing this. It just seemed like too good an idea.”

“There’s no better one.”

“What are you reading?”

Canterbury Tales.

He turned around, careful not to point the light directly in her face. “Me, too. At least, that’s what I came here for.”

“Good choice,” she said.

“I’m looking for the original, though. The Middle English version.”

“They only have one copy,” she said, and held up her thick brown tome.

He walked across the aisle and crouched down next to her. Something crashed outside but neither of them jumped. Things had been crashing for weeks, and it it was ‘the big crash’ neither of them would have time to think about it, anyway.

“And no, you can’t read it when I’m done, either,” she said, and smiled at him.

“I’ve always liked the original,” he said. “It was a little tricky when I first tried to read it. Okay, a lot tricky. But…”

“…it’s part of English heritage. It’s like reading the DNA of our language.”

He looked at her, amazed. “Exactly. And what better way to spend the last hours of the English language than reading the first hours?”

She looked up at him. She was smiling, but there was something else in her eyes as well.

“Which one were you going to read?”

“‘The Pardoner’s Tale,’ probably. It was a toss-up between that and the Prologue. You?”

“‘The Miller’s Tale.'”

“That one? That’s nothing but a long medieval fart joke.”

“Oh, kiss my nether eye, okay? I like it.”

“Well, maybe I can just read one of the translations, then.” He was almost standing up again when he heard the most horrifying, godawful ripping noise. Then she handed him the first half of the book.

“I can’t believe you did that,” he said. “You… ripped a book?”

“I’ll buy them a new one tomorrow,” she said. “Anyway, this kind of literature was meant to be shared.”

He stretched out one hand and gingerly took the book fragment. She did have a point. And there were many worse things one could do at the end of the world.

He sat down next to her and leaned against the shelf. Without saying anything, she leaned against his shoulder so her camper’s light was pointing at their book. After he set the flashlight down, he took her hand and settled back and waited for the end of the end.







Slack-Off Saturday: Book and Soup Weather

To be fair, it’s always book weather. But even though I’m in Georgia, the temperature took a dive to 10°C and the wind picked up, and my dutch oven and stew pots are both calling to me from the kitchen. Even the cat decided she didn’t want to hang outside, though perhaps she’s just interested in what I’m going to cook. At any rate, it’s time to make sure my bookshelves and my freezer are both stocked with things to get me through the next few months.

Finished:  Jim Harrison, The River Swimmer

I rated this 4/5 because there wasn’t a 3.5/5 button and I liked his past work enough to round up. Jim Harrison is one of my favourite authors, and one of my influences… he seems to take the stripped down-storytelling style of Hemmingway and infuse his language with more meaning and unpretentious symbolism than most other modern American authors. I’ve only read four of his books so far (though I’ve read Legends of the Fall twice) and I always feel a peculiar rush of adrenaline when I pick up another of his books. Up until now, I’ve never felt disappointed by anything he’s written.

The first novella, “The Land of Unlikeness,” is perhaps one of the best stories I’ve ever read about coming to a turning point in one’s life… a ‘shit or get off the pot’ moment, where you know without a doubt that you can’t go back to what you want, and you can either keep spinning your gears in neutral and survive, or you can find another pathway ahead. The plot is fairly gentle, the characters are sharp and realistic, and the voice allows Mr Harrison to say quite a few things about art and nature and memory without being overly intrusive. I’ve already read this novella one-and-a-half times, and I will most likely take it out of the library again in a few months, or buy my own copy of it. If I ever move back to my Michigan homeland, it will be in part because of his writing.

The reason I read this a half-time again was because the titular novella was just not worth being in the same book. I am a fan of magical realism (it’s one of my two favourite fantasy genres), yet, I don’t know if he just doesn’t have much practice in it, or was going for a surreal dreamlike effect, or something that completely sailed over my head. Because of the strength of his poetry and his writing, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Regardless, in this story (which is thankfully the shorter of the two) his characters generate no sympathy, the plot is barely even present enough for it to be called a picaresque tale, and the imagery clunks and clatters on the page like a fake petoskey stone. I only rated the story 2/5 because I finished it, and I really only finished it because I liked the first one so much, and because I wanted to mark the book off as ‘read’ in my challenge to read 60 books this year. If anyone reading this review liked “The River Swimmer,” please, please comment and tell me what I missed.

Recommendation: Read “The Land of Unlikeness.” Then read it again and tell yourself you finished the book. Then go pick up Legends of the Fall (the other two novellas in that book are equally good) or one of his poetry collections.

Cross-posted in “The Saturday Review of Books” at Semicolon.

In Progress: 

I’ll have more to say about Return of the Crimson Guard (Ian Cameron Esslemont) by the end of next week. At this point in my journey through the world of the Malazan Empire (six of ten books in the main cycle, two of six in second series) I always feel a strong sense of homecoming and nostalgia when I wade back in. This (at least The Malazan Book of the Fallen, the ten-book series by Steven Erikson) is shaping up to be my favourite fantasy series, and reading another author’s take on the same world, especially an author who helped create the world, is just as amazing. It would be like if Emily and Charlotte Brontë wrote novellas set in each other’s books. (And that would mean the existence of something set in the moors of Wuthering Heights that isn’t a pile of poorly-written dogcrap, but that’s another story.) I’m halfway through this new book and I’ve gotten used to the new writing style and am definitely enjoying seeing familiar characters from a different angle. More next week.

Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools is a book I’ve heard of for years and years, probably since high school, when our class read the story “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” We’ve all read books where, after we finish them, we just want to go up to people, tie them down to a chair (preferably a comfortable one with good lighting) and force them to read it. I’m just past the first section and everyone’s on the ship and I feel like I already know all of these characters. I can’t rightly recommend it to other readers until I’m finished, but I’m already feeling that urge to make sure everyone has the chance to experience this.

What’s everyone else reading today? Send me your recommendations.




Book Beginnings Friday

I hope you liked yesterday’s flash piece. It was based on family folklore dating back to my early teens, and also a sneaking conviction that my cat knows a  lot more than she reveals. I think most writers have a similar belief. Plus, flash pieces and short-short stories help clear my mind for my larger projects, and I highly recommend them to anyone who wants to do any kind of creative work.

Today is also Book Beginnings Friday over at Rose City Reader, and while this week I’ve been a little light on the blogging (I’ve taken on a few students, and I’ve been mulling over a pretty big decision) I’ll catch up this week with my musings on books and movies and Hallowe’en and other fun things. Today’s ‘Book Beginnings’ comes from a book I just started, but one I’ve meant to read for years, Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools. No, not this “Ship of Fools,” though I confess that my musically-angled brain sings this song nearly every time I look at the cover. This one:

August, 1931 — The port town of Veracruz is a little purgatory between land and sea for the traveler, but the people who live there are very fond of themselves and the town they have helped to make… There is maybe a small sign of uneasiness in this pugnacious assertion of high breeding; in this and in the methodical brutality of their common behavior towards the travelers who must pass through their hands to reach the temporary haven of some ship in harbor. The travelers wish only to be carried away from the place, and the Veracruzanos wish only to see the last of them; but not until every possible toll, fee, extortion, and bribe due to the town and its citizens has been extracted. It is in fact to the passing eye a typical port town, cynical by nature, shameless by experience, hardened to showing its seamiest side to strangers:  ten to one this stranger passing through is a sheep bleating for their shears, and one in ten is a scoundrel it would be a pity not to outwit. In any case, there is only so much money to be got out of each one, and the time is always short.

It’s always nice to pick up a book and realise that you can safely sink into the comforting hands of a true master of the craft. As a former sailor, I’ve passed through many towns that seemed exactly so, or at least they did on the surface. Sometimes, such as in Newport, Rhode Island, you could dig under the surface a little and find one of the warmest groups of people you would ever meet on the planet. And sometimes, such as in… well, a bunch of other port cities… you find that when you’ve finally dug through the garbage, there’s nothing but sewage and pain and cynical, hardened creatures quite comfortable wearing their person-suits and pretending to be human.

This weekend:  book reviews, movies, Hallowe’en, and other fun things.


Flash Fiction: Shaggy Cat Story

Sharpclaw Invincible opened his eyes. He could smell them in the air again, already.  This was the earliest they had woken him up in a long time, but he couldn’t afford to roll over and go back to sleep, no matter how warm the Human was today. He grumbled and meowed a little, and then stretched and jumped off the bed.

Some mornings they made it easy for him, but he didn’t think today was going to be one of those days. The bedroom was a cacophony of scent and smelled of sleep, food, and Human. Whenever it didn’t clean the room, Sharpclaw had trouble telling if there was anything in the room he should worry about. This morning, the cloud of smell coming off of the pile of laundry nearly obliterated his nose, but after he stepped on the dirty clothes a few times and pawed at them, he couldn’t find anything hiding that he needed to destroy, so he padded away into the kitchen. There was no sense in just sitting around licking himself if there was food to be eaten.

There was still a little of the crunchy food left from dinner, and he started munching on that, after getting a drink from the dog’s water dish. For some reason the dog’s water bowl always tasted better than his. He was pretty sure it was a conspiracy, and if the Human were smart enough to understand, he would have long since talked to it about that. On the other hand, he’d seen what the dog did to the litterbox, so he didn’t really think he had anything to complain about.

He had just about finished eating when he saw a flash of violet out of the corner of his eye. He kept chewing but he was alert, and he slowly moved his head until he was almost looking straight at the purple urple. At the same moment, he smelled another one behind him, coming in through the window, one of their usual bolt holes. They were being smart this morning. Send in a distraction, and then while he was busy, bring in the main attack force. The last time they had gotten through his defenses, they had probably done the exact same thing.

He continued staring at the purple urple crawling through a crack in the baseboard, and then, without so much as a twitch, he jumped straight back and landed on the one behind him.

It screamed, a horrible high-pitched squeal that was almost too high to hear, and wrapped its whipsaw tail back and forth, trying to get a grip, but this was not Sharpclaw’s first trip to the litterbox. The new one stared in horror as he made quick work of the intruder and kicked what was left to the side of the room. Then he raced forward and attacked.

When he’d finally taken care of them, and two of their friends (he’d had to race clear across the front room to grab one before it escaped) he could hear the Human up and making noise in the bedroom. He caught his breath and walked over in that direction. Just before he got to the bed, a scent of purple urple hit his nose, and he realised that he still had some of their blood on his fur. The Human never seemed to notice, but Sharpclaw still thought it was safest to wash it off anyway. When he finished, the Human was sitting up in the bed, holding one of its books, and looking at him.

“You woke me up, Billy,” it said to him. “Sounded like you were running the triathlon out there.”

The noises didn’t mean much since it spoke such a primitive language and was obviously handicapped in its ability to speak a proper tongue… imagine, having only two paws to gesture with, and no tail! But he jumped up on the bed and sat next to him, anyway. It took one hand off its book and ran it idly down Sharpclaw’s back.

When he’d first moved in with this Human, he hadn’t realised how bad an infestation of purple urples it had, and it didn’t even seem to care. He was a little lax at first about killing them all, but when a group of three or four made it to the Human one morning, it was sick for over a week. Sharpclaw had to suffer through late or missing meals, a dirty floor, and being almost completely ignored by it before he realised that he couldn’t let any of those evil demons through. It was a hard job, but it was nice to have food and a roof, and a warm place to sleep.

The smell of purple urple hit his nose again, and he whipped his head around. One had gotten through, or hidden, or ran too fast for him to see, and now it was slithering around and up the Human’s arm. Luckily, he had seen the critter when he did, and one quick bite at it ripped it in half and sent it back to wherever they came from.

“Ow, Billy!” the Human said, and rubbed his arm with the hand that held the book. “Fine, I won’t pet you then.” He didn’t sound too mad, though, and Sharpclaw was able to finish washing himself in the warm spot on the bed.

It was going to be a good day.



Be a Book Friend

Today’s post isn’t about writing, or what I’m reading (Return of the Crimson Guard, Alif the Invisible, and I just started Ship of Fools). I have another flash piece coming out in the morning, too. But my life isn’t all books and reading and writing about books and reading. Tuesday, I went to the inaugural meeting of the Friends of the Ponce de Leon (Atlanta) Branch Library.

I’ve never actually been part of a Friends of the Library organization. though I’ve run the libraries on two of my ships, and worked with a couple of literacy programs. The idea, though, fascinates me, and I highly recommend everyone reading this to go check out your own library’s programs.

I’ve tagged this post “Banned Books Week” because I really wish I’d posted this last back then. It’s one thing to talk about saving a book that people are trying to ban, restrict, or otherwise make unavailable. But what about the vast majority of books that aren’t banned? Millions of them, literally, are pulped every year, and not just because they’re falling apart, or because they’re unneeded copies of books that no longer have the demand they once did; library branches close, or they can’t afford new space, or many other reasons. On top of that, while worldwide literacy (let alone US literacy) is at its highest level ever, that  does not mean everyone is book-literate, or computer-literate. Every library I’ve been to, especially city libraries, has programs to address just these issues, but people who care about books and about reading have to do something about it.

After all, the best way to get rid of something is to simply not care about it.


Happy Moon Day

I always want to say that like Tom Cullen in The Stand… “M–O–O–N, that spells ‘MONDAY.'” I’m not quite sure why. I do personally think we should pronounce them according to their etymology… Moon Day, Tiu’s Day, Wotan’s Day, Thor’s Day, Fish Fry Day, Saturn Day, Sun Day. Makes a lot more sense to me.

Since I’ve been talking about the books I’m reading at the end of the week, I figured today I could talk about movies and TV. I’ve only recently gotten back into watching TV, after cutting my cable back in late 1997. I left for Europe and Japan shortly after that, and when I came back to the US almost eight years later, I’d lost the TV habit. But partly thanks to Netflix and Hulu, and mostly thanks to the strange fact that while movies are getting more homogenous and explody every month, TV is increasingly delving into intelligent writing, great acting, and either long character arcs or serial format, I’m watching more of it than I ever used to. Maybe only a couple of hours’ worth every week, but I actually will occasionally find myself with my butt in front of the screen at certain times of the week, now, something that was always rare for this intractable biblioholic.

I’ll be doing that more in the spring when Hannibal and Orphan Black launch their third seasons. I’ve talked about Orphan Black before, over at the Way Too Fantasy blog, but if you haven’t checked it out, do so before Season Three premiers in the spring. The show is not only home to some of the best acting I’ve ever seen on a small screen, but is sensible science fiction. No ray guns and midichlorians and wacky time travel hijinks here… they take a scientific development that is most likely right around the corner for us, and postulate that it was actually done somewhat successfully in the early 1980s. I’m sure the science is stretched in spots to make a good story, but for the most part it’s grounded in reality, and the 15 hours between the two series spend a lot of time exploring ethical, religious, and sociological issues around cloning, in addition to nail-biting suspense.

Hannibal is a different story. I am generally not a fan of remakes, reboots, and relaunches. Every time I hear of, say, a Spiderman reboot, or a new Star Trek series, part of me (the loud and noisy and occasionally obnoxious side) wishes that the studios would invest in something new rather than retreading the old tried-and-true over and over. There are a few exceptions, such as Star Trek: Deep Space NineBattlestar Galactica, and the 2005 reboot of Doctor Who. The Thing might technically be a remake, but it’s closer to the source material. It’s still a very short list. So when Hannibal premiered last year, I had no intention of watching it. Understand this:  I read Red Dragon when I was a teenager and loved it. It was one of the few horror novels I was able to read with my Mom, who liked murder mysteries and suspense more than any kind of supernatural horror. Later, I read The Silence of the Lambs on a flight to my duty station during the first Gulf War just before the movie came out (or at least, before I had a chance to see it overseas) and was enchanted. I read Hannibal in hardback and had a really bad case of the “mehs.” I’ve not seen either that movie or Hannibal Rising. And, not to disparage Sir Anthony Hopkins’s performance as Doctor Lecter in the slightest, I’m more a fan of the movie Manhunter than Red Dragon. Again… not the biggest fan of remakes, especially remakes of excellently-produced films. The TV show Hannibal did seem interesting as a thought experiment… what was it like before Hannibal Lecter was arrested and he and Will Graham were friends?… but it still seemed like nothing I wanted to watch.

I ultimately blame bOING bOING. While reading episode summaries and discussions of Orphan Black, I saw that they were also following Hannibal‘s second season, and I generally like what they recommend. So once I had nothing more to watch, I pointed my Roku box over to Amazon Prime, pulled up the first episode, and figured I could give it a shot, at least for an hour or two.

If you’ve seen it, you know my reaction. If you haven’t, well, this is what I was missing by not paying attention to the show for over a year:

  • Impeccable dramatic acting, and not only by the two leads. Even the supporting cast… Lawrence Fishburne, Eddie Izzard, Gina “Zoe Barnes” Torres… are heavyweights and very well utilized.
  • Accurate portrayal of a man on the autism spectrum who is still able to function
  • Some of the most tooth-grinding violence (almost always depicted after the fact, when the body is found) ever on television. In fact, it’s kind of funny to realize that they have no problem showing people turned into trees and fungus gardens and other horrible tableau but always make completely sure that nipples are blocked out of camera. But that’s a story for Double Standards Week.
  • Use of the Chekhov’s Gun principle. We know from the start who and what that nice, brilliant psychiatrist helping the FBI is. But watching the reactions of the people who don’t know this, and how he both helps and hinders their investigation adds a unique layer of suspense to the show…
  • (Thematic Spoiler for Season Two, kind of) … which is broken all to hell in a few places later on. I’d read that the director planned on taking it in a slightly different direction than the movies took it, but I was still shocked when a couple of those different directions exploded on the screen. I don’t want to say anything else, but once you’ve made it through both of them, you’ll know exactly what I mean. I’m really, really curious to see how Season Three (which is supposed to be based on the novel Red Dragon) is going to play out.

So, those are my two shows, right now. Next Monday, I’ll pull out classic horror films in honor of October and fall and other fun things.



The Treasure of Quetzacoatl

This comes from the excellent sword-and-sorcery-and-pulp-fiction blog Karavansara. Just as I think the novella is the perfect fictional form (even as I regularly populate ‘best-of’ lists with books like Ulysses and Infinite Jest and the Malazan series) I often find myself wishing more people produced short films. Granted, television (and not just HBO) has quietly been shifting from nothing but fluff and flavour-of-the-month programming (or rather, flavour-of-last-month) to serious, well-produced drama and thrillers and horror shows, but I can never have enough well-made short films.

Sophie’s Fortune:  The Treasure of Quetzacoatl


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