Saturday, January 6, 2018

A Texan's literary perspective on 2017, part 2

A bestselling Aussie author dropped in on Dallas, while a local writer revived my interest in short stories. Dallas got a new independent bookstore, and an iconic blast from the past. And I learned the literary value of theology, among other lessons from 2017.
6/22/17 Kate Forsyth’s secrets for page-turning suspense

So, the book started off great. And then . . . you as a reader found yourself flipping pages, looking for something to catch your eye until you finally put the book down. Never to pick it up again. And probably never, ever to buy another book by that author.

Kate Forsyth
Now you’re the one writing a book. And from time to time, you glance at that long-neglected volume on your shelf, and a chill runs down your back as you wonder whether readers of your book will grab it happily also, only to put lay it down well before they finish. Never to look at it, or any of your books, again.

What we need here are Australian author Kate Forsyth’s secrets for keeping those pages turning. 

Her tips, offered at a Dallas workshop, included likable (although not perfect!) characters, surprises, multiple forms of suspense and minimizing the gore. “If you’ve seen 17 characters skinned alive, what’s one more? Meh.”

7/11/17 Tall tales told briefly

I confess: after publishing nearly two dozen short stories, I’d given up. Writing workshops were starting to tell me my tales didn’t fit into the few-thousand-word format of a short story. Flash fiction, micro fiction? Forget about it!

Then at a recent meeting of the Dallas Mystery Writers, I heard short story writer Ann Fields speak on the few (but basic) principles, and thought, maybe I’ll find the courage to try the short form again. I’ll think of it as a summer wardrobe for my writing. Fewer pieces, no layering, just the basics. 

“I loved the long form, but I had a day job and found it hard to keep my focus. So, I took a detour through short form and fell in love with that form of writing,” she told her mystery-writing audience.

Her suggestion is, rather than fixating on word-counts, simply to write the story in your heart in the way that seems natural to you – and it. 

8/15/17 VooDoo and Oil: Will Clarke’s homecoming

The night at Interabang Books in Dallas looked like a home coming for author Will Clarke as he read and signed copies of his third novel, The Neon Palm of Madame Melançon to a standing room only crowd. There were a lot of hugs, a lot of well-wishing, more than a little wine flowing.

Will Clarke
Madame Melançon (and Clarke, her creator) had just received a glowing tribute from Dallas Morning News writer Robert Wilonsky. Clarke himself looked no older than he had when his first book, Lord Vishnu’s Love Handles, appeared more than a decade ago. He was all smiles at Interabang, the city’s newest (and chicest) independent book store. 

Clarke’s books are the written equivalent of a dizzying roller coaster. Which way is up, which way is down? How fast are we going? Will we survive? Who knows? All we can do is hang on. 

10/13/17 A whole lot of pages, but is it a book? 
There was standing room only this week at Interabang Books in Dallas, as writers and would be writers packed into hear a panel sponsored by the Writers League of Texas. Four North Texas authors, moderated by the League’s executive director, Becka Oliver, shared their methods for turning the mass of pages they sometimes end up into actual publishable – and published books.

“When you talk to four writers with four different kinds of backgrounds, you know we’re really going to dig in,” Oliver said, as she introduced writers Jeramey Kraatz, author of the Cloak Society and Space Runners novel series; Sanderia Faye (Mourner’s Bench); Mike Merschel (Revenge of the Star Survivors); and memoirist Sarah Hepola (Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget).

In case you don’t already know from reading these posts, where there are four writers in a room, there are will be four different methods of writing and revising that writing. I, and probably the rest of the audience, listened, hoping to find a little of this and a little of that we could put together to find our own recipe for success.

10/17/17 Flesh and blood characters for standout stories
You know how, when you’re thinking about something, everything around you seems to be that same something? For me recently, in writing, that “something” has been character. Everywhere I turn, strange, even bizarre characters have appeared. First, there’s the news, replete with characters to study. Then the writing course offered by NaNoWriMo through the online site Coursera includes a segment on character. Even when I turned to what seemed to be a delightful book about a woman and her pet bulldog, darned if the “character” aspect didn’t appear again. (For both woman and her canine friend!) Finally, half of this fall’s writing workshop sponsored by the Writers Guild of Texas hinged on the aspect of character. 

Creating fictional characters, we as human beings can relate to is such an essential element that the basic formula for story is: character + action = plot. But how to create those characters? 

During the Coursera lessons, novelist/instructor Amy Bloom noted, “Most of us have enough trouble being ourselves, without having to then take on the task of (inventing) other people. But when you’re a writer, that’s the job. You have to enter into their body, into their soul, and see the world as they see it.”

So no wonder that after bestselling romantic suspense author Cindy Dees, who taught the WGT workshop, confessed that character development isn’t her strongest point, she developed an entire course on the subject to help her compensate,
with character spreadsheets that included side by side listings for both the main character and another primary character (and can be expanded to include multiple other characters). 

“Is there a moral crisis that challenges (the character’s) values? If there’s not, why the hell are you writing the book?. . .What makes (the character) argue passionately about after they’ve had a few drinks?”

10/31/17 Writing the Bradbury way

While dithering recently over whether to register for the Roanoke Writers Conference, I checked the list of presenters. There were some fine ones, writers and instructors I already knew and appreciated. And then there was Sam Weller, the authorized biographer of Ray Bradbury

I spent my middle school and high school years devouring everything my small-town school libraries contained of Ray Bradbury writings, and still check for newer works. (Bradbury died in 2012, long past my middle school years.) So, yes, I pulled out my credit card and signed up for Roanoke, to learn from a teacher who had learned from Bradbury.

Bradbury’s method of teaching himself to write fiction was simple but grueling: write one story every week for a year, deciding that it couldn’t be possible to write 52 bad stories. In the first year of this experiment, he sold three stories. The next year six, then nine. Five years after finishing high school, he became a fulltime writer.

11/17/17 Anne Lamott on the ‘kind face’ of mercy for the world

It’s not often I attend a theological convention. But I’d been looking forward to Anne Lamott’s appearance at the fall convocation of the Perkins School of Theology for the past year. Anne Lamott, author of the beloved writing handbook, Bird by Bird, teaching something that sounds as dry as theology? But after devouring several of her nonfiction books (and a novel or two), what other word would I have chosen to describe her earthy, funny, painful, joyous and heartrending words except – theology? At its best.

After Texas’ trials of hurricane and, little more than a week before Lamott’s appearance, the most horrific mass murder in the state’s history, “We’re had Texas in our prayers a lot,” Lamott told the audience that nearly filled McFarlin to capacity. “I love Texas. And,” pausing a beat, “I especially love Texas when it’s not summer.” One hundred plus degree summer days in the Lone Star State? Everybody in the audience understood that one, and alternately laughed and applauded Lamott throughout.

“I accidently wrote this book on mercy,” Lamott continued. Pondering where to turn for hope and guidance in “these agonizing days, she had searched her Bible from the beginning, finding little help until she reached the Old Testament book of the prophet Micah. “He must have looked a stoner. Or a Game of Thrones extra, and smelled like a goat,” she said, “but his admonitions struck her: do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with your God.

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