blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)

Amazing Stories columnist and fellow VPXV alum Chris Gerwel talks this week about The Care and Feeding of Chapter Breaks.

Chapter breaks are one of the tools writers use to form and direct the reader’s experience, and every break does, as Chris says, “bridge our emotional engagement with the chapter that follows.” That “bridge” is a role often overlooked, as the focus of chapter creation tends to be on its individual arc. But the ending of a chapter is the writer’s means of influencing how the reader feels beginning the next chapter. While chapter breaks in general are what controls a story’s flow, it is the chapter’s final paragraph, sentence, and word that control the story’s pull.

It’s easy to think of the chapter’s end as the conclusion of the action. Truly, that’s the sort of ending that should be used most sparingly. Instead, chapter endings should happen in the middle of movement, before the final actions, near the moment of revelation. Those can be expressed with a bang or a whisper, with speed or caution, but not a neat wrap-up of all that has gone before.

Before I thought to be a writer, I worked as an actor and educational outreach performer focused primarily on the works of Shakespeare. I spent five years performing, assisting, or directing Shakespeare–everything from a few scenes for prison outreach programs to full length productions with regional theater companies. Before that, I performed in community theater and semi-pro productions for ten years. What that gave me is a writerly mindset that wants to structure stories as scenes and acts.

I often advise beginning writers to read and watch plays as a means to studying story structure. Plays are structured in deliberate acts as well as scenes–giving the director/actor/reader concrete cues as to where emotional highs and lows are to be placed, even inserting an intermission when the audience is intended to consider and discuss how what has already happened will control what is yet to come. Internalizing the successful flow of one scene to the next, feeling the difference between scene and act, improves one’s ability to pull the reader along chapter to chapter.

Watching plays–particularly the same play performed by different companies–gives a range of ideas about transitions between scenes. Has the director chosen a full and silent blackout, as a writer might choose an abrupt ending for a chapter? Did another director choose the end the same scene with a slow fade, a lingering gaze between the actors, and few sad notes from a flute? How did you, the audience member, experience the next scene differently?

Watching movies… Okay. If you’d rather. But there are so many advantages to be gained from live theater, I wouldn’t call it an even trade-off. I’ll talk about what I see as those advantages in future posts. Am I biased? Probably. I’ll accept that.

blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)

I read a trilogy recently that had me so captured, so invested, that there were times I felt I couldn't read quickly enough to find out what happened next.  I was frantic in a couple key scenes.  I can still hear the voices of the characters, still remember their expressions, still clearly picture the world in which they lived.  I've already purchased more books by the author, even though I think the writer made some missteps in the trilogy's final chapters.

See, I had to force myself to pay attention to what was supposed to the big climactic scene of that trilogy—not because of the frantic can't-wait-to-find-out feeling, or because it was a bore to read.  No, I felt adrift and disconnected during the climax because the writer had dumped so much "Cool Stuff" in at the end.

Cool Stuff is the unique collection of setting, culture, character and magic that make our fantasy stories fantasy.  Presentation of the Cool Stuff—aka worldbuilding—makes or breaks a novel within the first chapter or two.  Too much Cool Stuff at once, and the reader doesn't have enough of the familiar to anchor her; she will spend too much time figuring out the world, and not enough time connecting to story and character.  And once the Cool Stuff is established, the reader trusts the writer to maintain it.  It must be as consistent as from which horizon the sun will rise.  Proper use and introduction of Cool Stuff enables the reader to accept the magical and spiritual, and invest the rest of her reading time connecting with characters.

If the Cool Stuff was the most important factor, everyone would buy Guide to the Ring's Power rather than Lord of the Rings.

So there I was—happily reading along, thrilled with the world, loving the characters, feeling both thrilled and anxious as the trilogy's characters prepared for the final confrontation.  Then all of a sudden, this non-industrial world gained a cool underwater city with elevators and cool bits of technology disguised as natural vegetation.  And the grand revelation of the Story's Whole Point was pretty cool, too.

Even though the ideas were awesome, they were revealed at the worst possible time.  I wanted to know what they characters were thinking, feeling, hoping and fearing.  Instead, I got characters extrapolating about how this Cool Stuff must have come to be, what it might mean, and how it might work.  I got descriptions of all these new things punctuated with bits of action--action that was more difficult to envision because nothing about the setting was familiar.

Totally dissatisfying.  Y'see, I wasn't reading along to discover new pieces of worldbuilding in the final chapters.  I was reading to find out what would happen to the characters.  Alas, the characters—their fears, losses, challenges and victories—all took a backseat to integrating new Cool Stuff into an existing and stable (and fascinating!) world.

On the other hand, I recently beta-read a novel by one of my VPXV classmates.  It was filled with Cool Stuff from the page one.  I had the same urgency to read it as I did with the trilogy mentioned above, and I approached the climax with the same anticipation and excitement.  The writer delivered a final confrontation that was engaging and satisfying and filled with Cool Stuff.  But no new or special or astounding Cool Stuff was introduced.  Instead, the characters confronted variations of existing Cool Stuff, and used their Cool Stuff skills in special and astounding ways.  That left me, the reader, free to engage with the character at his most critical moments.

And what do we really read fiction for?  Character.

I think there's a writerly temptation to "save the best for last," holding back what we think are the most awesome pieces of our imagination until the Big Special Moment when we will just blow the reader away.  But what really blows the reader's mind isn't the Cool Stuff.  It's how the characters use/confront/transform the Cool Stuff.  Cool Stuff is a tool, and a true craftsman doesn't admire tools for their tool-ness, but for what the tools can help create.

blairmacg: (Chant)
To date, I can claim about 40 reported sales--which is about 30 more than I expected.  Those 30 sales are in all likelihood due to the wonderful review [ profile] sartoris gave the novel at BookView Cafe and Goodreads, and the support of my VPXV classmates.  (Where would I be without you guys? :)  The majority of sales came through Amazon, though it also sold through Apple, Kobo, BN and iTunes.  Readers made their purchases in the U.S., Canada, UK and India.  This pleases me.

I don't expect much more in the way of sales until two things happen.  First, I must have more material published.  Second, strangers must like the book enough to review it.  The first I can control, and the second I cannot.  That's why my expectations were, and continue to be, low at this time.  Late summer is my target timeframe for having more fiction available, and thus the time during which I'll seek out non-annoying marketing options.  I did put some feelers out for one option, and should hear back in a couple to three weeks on it. 

Late next week, I'll be back on the fiction-writing wagon.  This weekend, I'm planning to finish the first draft of a short wellness text on how to find quality supplements when the market is saturated with substandard products, artificial ingredients, and contaminated materials.  Then I must make forward progress on the stress book as well because I now have an actual deadline: I'm teaching a workshop on the topic, and participants want the book, too!

blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
Fellow Viable Paradise alum Stephanie Charette has posted her answers for the Next Big Thing: The Blood of Wolves

Her answer to the question of what would pique a reader's interest has certainly piqued mine.  I would very much like her to finish it by Spring. :)
blairmacg: (Chant)

This is fun: writers answer ten questions about a new or upcoming project, then tag other writers to do the same.    [ profile] sartorias was kind enough to tag me, and the writers I'm tagging will be listed at the bottom of the post.  I'll link to their answers next week.

Here we go:

What is the working title of your current book?

Sword and Chant

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Different parts came from different places.  The central characters and their relationships came from a horrid, derivative, pseudo-Celtic fantasy novel I'd written years and years and years ago.  It was my first attempt at a novel.  The characters and their relationships were interesting but everything else was...  Ugh. 

Worst of all, I actually sent it to a couple publishers.  Once I'd learned enough to know how terrible it was, I lived in fear I'd someday hear it read aloud at one of those "It Came From the Slush Pile" convention panels.

Many years later, while writing four other novels that shall one day be revised, I became interested in the social and political dynamics of the Kashmir region, Afghanistan in the 1990s and the events surrounding Six Day War.  Those ideas freed the characters of my first attempted novel from the prison of derivative plot, and I combined them with different elements of setting and culture.  Some beta readers have said the setting feels like Turkey, and some say it feels like northern Africa.

The primary antagonist—the Chant—evolved from musings about the nature of sacrifice: the cost to the one making the sacrifice, the one causing the sacrifice to be made, the one accepting the sacrifice, and the willingness of all parties to participate in the sacrifice. (Those ideas will get more stage time in the sequel.)

What genre does your book fall under?

Fantasy, most certainly.  Epic fantasy, I suppose.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

First of all—movie!  Woohoo!  Unless, of course, it's one of those horrid adaptations.  Then it would be awful, and the actors actually playing the roles wouldn't want to admit their involvement.


In my mind, the characters look and sound like themselves, not actors, but I can come up with a couple ideas for the secondary characters.  I could age Grace Park many, many years so she could play Nikala, one of the warlord-chieftains.  Andre Braugher could to play Yasid Sword, and Joy Bryant could play his daughter.  But for the main characters...  I'm clueless. 

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Seriously, it took me months to write a blurb that was under 200 words, and even then someone else had to fix it.  One sentence?  Gah. 

It could be: Jaynes will do anything to avenge his father's murder, but his triumphs as a warlord didn't prepare him to face the threat of civil unrest, foreign invasion, and the seductive promises of the exiled god of sacrifice.

Or it could be: Shala Sword emerges from hiding to prevent the god of sacrifice from conquering the tribes, but finds the most brutal battles are against mortals intent on exacting revenge for sins committed a generation ago.

Or it could be...  Well, you get the idea.


Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I chose to self-publish, for reasons outlined here.  It's currently available as an ebook through online retailers and in multiple formats.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Once I decided what I wanted to do with the old manuscript, I futzed with the opening chapters for about three months.  Then 9/11 happened, and the last thing I wanted to do was write about asymmetrical warfare, insurgencies, and guerrilla tactics.  When I was finally ready to face it again, I tore into it with a fury.  It was the first novel I'd written from a detailed outline. I finished within three months, and came in at nearly 160K words.  I later cut out enough words to make another short novel, had those chopped words not been so worthy of chopping.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Yeesh, I hate doing that.  It's epic fantasy with a large cast of characters, gods who speak with mortals, battles and arguments, love and loyalty and loss, and a subtle form of earth magic.  It's like other books with those things in it.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My own internal debates.  What happens when lifelong enemies decide they're tired of fighting, or when the leaders want to end the fight but those they lead don't want to?  What are the personal costs of fighting a weaker opponent who refuses to give up?  What are the moral implications of fighting an enemy who is weaker but more ruthless than you are?  What are the moral implications of not fighting, if that choice enables the enemy to hurt someone else?  When is it ethical to sacrifice your life—whether through action or death—and when is it ethical to use the willing sacrifices others make?  When does the act of defending one's self cross the line to excessive aggression?  Why do people insist on saying, "It's really that simple" when it obviously isn't?

Odd as it sounds, I think about these things a great deal.  However, I very rarely discuss them because folks usually want to deal with real-world examples, and as soon as real-world examples are used, the discussion becomes one of politics.  And once politics enter the picture, Someone Must Be Right.

Sword and Chant lets me explore what happens to a culture, and to individuals, when they can't find solutions that are good and right, and find themselves instead trapped doing what is ugly and necessary.

What else about the book might pique the reader's interest?

It's filled with women and men who have families and friends, who argue and fight, who fall in love and defend one another, who are sometimes proud and sometimes ashamed, who have to lead with confidence even when they know they haven't a clue what to do next.

And there is the Chant—god of sacrifice and patron of unfulfilled dreams.  He controls a skilled assassin who has an attitude, who'd be a pretty cool guy if he weren't a god-enthralled killer who's quite good at his job.

Who did you tag?
I tagged two of my VPXV classmates--LaShawn Wanak and Stephanie Charette--and my longest-running critique partner and VPXVI grad Sandy Skalski.  There are a couple others I'll be adding to the list, too.

blairmacg: (Default)
You have four weeks to prepare and submit your submission for Viable Paradise

My primary post about Viable Paradise is here, and the post includes links to posts from some of my VPXV classmates, and their posts include links to more.

Still wondering if you're "good enough" to even bother applying?  I played that wondering game for many years.  But here's the truth: the piece of writing I submitted last year to VP was written many years ago.  My insecurities (and, frankly, the youthful belief there would always be "next year") rejected me, preventing VP from ever getting the chance.

Don't do what I did.  Don't press the hold button on your writing development because you feel more comfortable wondering than risking. 

Questions? Ask 'em here or email 'em my way.

blairmacg: (Default)
I had a story-dream last night--long and detailed, unfolding around me like a hologram movie I could stand within.  Kevin Spacey and Morgan Freeman played key roles.

Then I woke up in a dark movie theater, and it took me a moment to realize I'd fallen asleep during a movie I was seeing with the students and instructors of Viable Paradise.  [ profile] sartorias leaned over to tell me she'd poked me in the ribs because I'd been snoring.  Then, because I was so excited about the story-dream, I whispered the whole thing to [ profile] sartorias and [ profile] skzbrust while some other film played on the screen.

Just before I got to the climax scenes, I woke up to the sound of the dog barfing beside my bed.

After cleaning up that problem, I wrote down everything I could remember from the dream within a dream.  It's actually quite workable, though the part with the murderous sea lion is just plain silly.

blairmacg: (Default)

Saturday, I leave for Hawaii.  It's a business trip, I swear.  I love it when conferences are scheduled in cool places, and when I can take Dev with me.  My parents will be there as well, which is a fact more cool for Dev's sake than mine, really.  Dev and my father will spend a week doing pretty much whatever they want while my mother and I spend a goodly number of hours seminar-ing.  (I do, however, have two days free for playing.)  I've nearly finished packing.  I'm not going to have much use for sundresses and shorts--let alone an evening dress--in the next few days.

Fellow VPXV alum [ profile] jazzfish recently discussed personal hinge points, considering what a single different decision in the past would have changed.  He points out something important: the decisions made were the best that could have been made at the time.  (He has other cool things to say, too, so read the whole post!)  His comments made me think differently about my own hinge points, particularly the one I think most affected the course of my life.

Cut to spare those who don't want to read my babbling... )

So perhaps my true hinge point wasn't when one path was chosen over another, but when I understood why that path was chosen.  Maybe the truer one was when, once aware of the why, I opted to do differently.

In other news, my VP wall story is still out there.  I've past the "You can query after..." date, but decided not to bother until the trip is over.  If I did submit it incorrectly, and my waiting thus far has been in vain, another couple weeks isn't going to make a difference.

blairmacg: (Default)

Via [ profile] sartorias, I see submissions are open for Viable Paradise.

This is a Viable Paradise entry for those folks who have gone searching for Viable Paradise information--hoping it will help them decide to apply--and somehow ended up at my little LJ.  I know I went looking, and read every little comment I could find.  (I did that for years before I actually sent my writing sample along.)  There are posts about my VP experience on the LJ, too.

Most folks want to know what the experience was like, if the workshop really made a difference in the writing, and if attending is "worth it."  Short answers are: life-changing, absolutely, and without a doubt.

Want to know more? )

I have yet to read a review of Viable Paradise that said, "Total waste of my time!  Didn't learn a thing!  Not a single valuable experience all week!"  So even if you're not certain the workshop is "right" for you, give it a shot.  You will not come home empty-handed or empty-headed.

Do you have questions?  I know I did.  If you think I can help, ask away.

ETA: Links to my fellow VPXV-ers (with more links to be added...)
[ profile] aanna_t, Fran Wilde, Kelly Lagor, [ profile] tbonejenkins, [ profile] jazzfish, [ profile] aamcnamara,

blairmacg: (Default)
This last year ended up being so very different from anything I could have predicted.  I learned so much about people, and about myself, but in ways I never would have sought.  Yet learn I did, those lessons of love and mortality and loss and parenting and doing what I never thought I'd have the strength to do.  I didn't know what raw emotion was until I held someone as he died.  I didn't understand grief before I lost someone I wish I'd had more time to love.  I didn't understand parenting until I realized I'd have to do it alone.

Then I learned lessons about reconnecting with lost friends and making new ones, rediscovering cool parts of myself I buried years ago, and reigniting my passion for creating and creative people.  I didn't realize how lonely I'd been until I not only opened my arms to people I hadn't spoken with for years, but to new people I hope to know better in the years ahead.  I didn't know how flat and closed I'd become until my old California friends reminded me of who I had once been.  And until Viable Paradise, I had forgotten how critical--how vital--it is to surround one's self, as often as possible, with people who thrive on the glory of creation and exploration.

Great big lessons, all of them.  I am grateful for all of you who helped me learn those lessons, and for those who will help me learn lessons in the year ahead.

If I made resolutions last year, I can't remember them.  I don't think I made a single one.  I felt depressingly out of control at the time anyway.  This year, I am committing to practice greater kindness, to ask more questions than I answer, to give more than I take, to let myself enjoy more than I fear.  I want to spend more time zip-lining--literally and figuratively--and less time fretting over the possibility of falling.  I will be a better parent, a better sister, and a better daughter.  I will strive to be the kind of person that the wonderful people in my life deserve.

I have but one writing commitment this year: I will publish in a pro market.  Short story, novella, novel, whatever.  That third sale will cross the SFWA-eligibility threshold.  To meet that commitment, I'll have to do all sorts of things like write new stuff, revise old stuff, get feedback, give feedback, and send stuff out.  But the actual commitment is the sale.  Nothing less.

That's it.  I'm going to make it happen.  Period.

blairmacg: (Default)
I came out of my individual meetings with instructors knowing I had a huge amount of work to do, but also knowing I didn’t suck.  One instructor even took me through her word-by-word edit of my first fifteen pages or so, explaining the reason for each little mark.  It was uplifting.  Exciting.  I could see the problems and the potential solutions.  That’s what I came to Viable Paradise to discover.

One evening, [ profile] matociquala mentioned the frustration of getting “close but not quite” rejections.  There’s nothing wrong with the story, but no one will buy it.  Bob knows, I’ve complained and whined about that!  Then she said it wasn’t enough for there to be nothing wrong.  It had to have more that was right.

Seems obvious, I know, but internalizing that shift of perspective is a tad more difficult.  “Something wrong” can be pointed at, explained, and changed by other readers because it deals with what already exists.  “Something right” does not yet exist.  It must be identified and created before it can even be determined as wrong or right.

On a similar note, I’m viewing my third chapter through the lens of TNH’s comment during critique: “Your reader can’t tell you what she doesn’t need to know.”

But the biggest job ahead of me is fixing the omniscient voice.  Painfully obvious, that.  Challenge the first, per [ profile] sartorias's advice, was determining the precise identity of the narrator.  Nothing was really working for me until, at three o’clock Wednesday morn, it burst into my head fully formed.  By the next day, I had all the reasons he would want to tell the story as well.  Now I need to let it simmer, let the story absorb the new flavor, before I begin editing the novel itself.

In that sense, it’s good this first week home is crazy-busy.  I have a major report to finish, a wellness project to revise, dojo promotion to perform, food drives to coordinate, and my son’s school work to check.  And laundry and dishes and yard work and teaching and clients.  I have begun a countdown to when certain responsibilities are fulfilled, and am determined not to fill those slots with more.

I have made two little tweaks to my VP short story and shall place it in the mail tomorrow.
blairmacg: (Default)
I attended Viable Paradise for writerly reasons, and received a monumental amount of guidance and information and advice and inspiration and and and...and you get the idea.

But here's what's true: By the end of the week, the most important gifts of the week were not about ink and paper, or the craft of putting the former on the latter in recognizable patterns, or what to do with the paper once it has been perfectly inked.  No, what I was given last week was time, space, tenderness, friendship, and joy.

Aside: If you came this way via, you already know the strain of the last few years.  If you don't know, just consider it backstory that will likely be revealed as time goes forward.  Suffice it to say I came to VP carrying an immense amount of emotional luggage because, as Pastor Bob says, people like me "don't do" process well or willingly.  (I once explained something to him by starting with, "As you know, Bob..."  But I digress.)

The VP workshop schedule isn't crammed and frantic.  It's lovely.  A good thing, that, because I needed the time.

I cried often during the week.  It had nothing to do with my writing.  (In fact, I have never felt more confident about the writing!)  There was so much going on that was positive, uplifting, encouraging, and personal...  It caught me unawares.  It pushed in before I realized what was happening.  And since I'd been so full of other emotions for so very long, something had to give.  The old emotions, dense and heavy, leaked out.  I did not find this depressing.  When I shared my teariness with a couple friends there, the response was "Good!"  I felt lighter and truer every day.

I discovered some people think I'm a likable person when they meet me, and a few still think that when they get to know me.  My world has been so small for so long--there haven't been many opportunities to meet people in recent years--I admit I was more nervous about the social side of VP than the writing one.  I shouldn't have been!  I made new friends, talked writing, talked life, talked love, talked fears, talked fun.  Talked about food and runaway kids, awesome dogs and religion, myths and sex and the importance of letting folks know you care. 

I ate remarkable food like ginger potatoes, black bean mango salad, cranberry chocolate chip cookies and white chocolate ginger lime fudge.  Took night walks by myself and with others.  Danced the can-can, the kick line, and the Safety Dance during a game of Thing.  Drank too much good whiskey with just the right amount of people.

I did not feel awkward.

And I'm terribly envious of the VP instructors and staff.  They get to do it all again next year!

Yes, yes, I know I should relate the writerly part.  I'm getting there, promise.

blairmacg: (Default)
I stood on the ferry with fellow VPer Douglas, accepting the fact I'll be without my cell phone for quite some time since it fell out of my pocket during the ride from Island Inn to Vineyard Haven.  The ferry was only minutes from leaving the dock, after all, and we've been unable to reach Bart because of the island's unpredictable cell service.

Then, from the upper deck, Douglas sees Bart striding across the parking lot, a phone in each hand.  I run down the ferry's stairs, off the deck, down the ramp switchbacks to the dock.  Bart meets me with the cell phone.  I was so jazzed I gave him a huge hug and planted a kiss on his cheek (which, ya know, may have been a bit much from Bart's perspective).

Couple minutes later, the ferry pulls away as Bart walks off into the mid-morning light, having proven yet again that VP Staff are awesome folks.

Immediately, we VP students rewrote the ending: Bart reached the dock just as the ferry was pulling away, and had to overcome the shame and grief of his failed minor-league baseball career to perfectly pitch my life-saving medication across the roiling Atlantic waters.


blairmacg: (Default)

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