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Collaboration Leads to 1800’s Witchery: The Violin Maker’s Wife

Luc's writing projects

I met fellow writer Maya Lassiter (who writes an eclectic and highly entertaining blog about her yurt-living, kid-and-goat-raising, writing life) back in 2001, when Orson Scott Card ran his first annual writing week, called Uncle Orson’s Literary Boot Camp. The workshop was open to 20 of us, who auditioned with writing samples, and it was completely transformational to my writing. Scott Card was the first one to get me to understand that you didn’t have to wait for ideas, that you could go out and find them whenever you needed them. He was the one who explained that most of us write about a million words of garbage (literally) before we really start getting good. He was the one who explained to me the principles of writing clearly rather than prettily.

It’s not a great surprise to me that many students of that Literary Boot Camp have gone on to substantial success. Doug Cohen became a successful fiction writer and the editor of a major fantasy magazine. James Maxey authored multiple successful novels, including the Bitterwood and Dragon Age series. Jud Roberts‘ deeply-researched and adventure-filled Strongbow Saga has garnered eager fans for its first three books, with a fourth on the way. Ty Franck’s collaboration with Daniel Abraham (as James Corey), Leviathan Wakes, became a bestseller. I could go on.

In any case, I later founded a group called Codex, which many Boot Camp alums joined, including Maya, and on Codex we like to have fiction contests. When we held a collaboration contest, Maya and I got together and came up with a story about violin making and badly-understood magic, a novelette that was eventually titled “The Violin Maker’s Wife.” It won that contest.

A couple of months ago, Maya and I decided to put the story out where it could be read and published it for the Amazon Kindle. Note that Amazon Prime members can read it free by using their free monthly Kindle rental.

Maya worked with her regular cover artist, Ida Larsen to devise a cover, and recently we finished the formatting and took it live. Here’s the description:

“The Violin Maker’s Wife” is a historical fantasy novelette, set in 1870s Missouri, and is about forty pages long.

Nora Warren always knew there was something uncanny about her husband Tom’s work. What she didn’t know what that his enchanted violins could be deadly. Tom’s friend has one of the exquisite instruments, as does Tom himself. So does Garrett, Nora’s only son.

But Tom has looked too deeply into his own magic, and Garrett is in danger. Now Nora must find the answers Tom can’t give her, even if it means searching for spells hidden in his workshop, questioning a secret society of musicians, and following dangerous lights out into the wilderness. Tom has looked where he shouldn’t, but to save Garrett it’s Nora who must find who–or what–has looked back.

 

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Critique, Mentors, Practice, and a Million Words of Garbage

Writing

This post originally appeared as part of my column “Brain Hacks for Writers” on the now-dormant online magazine Futurismic.

Do writers who use critique groups do better than writers who don’t? Do writers need mentors? What differentiates a bad writer from a good writer, and a good writer from a great writer? Does it always take time to develop writing skills, or do some people just have them right off?

All complicated questions. Here are some answers.

Born with it?
The first thing I have to tell you may not go down easily if you haven’t come across it already. This is it: you were born with pretty much no talent for writing. The same with me. Also Stephen King, William Shakespeare, and the screenwriter forDude, Where’s My Car? … well, let’s not look too closely at that last example. The point is, virtually all writing skill islearned.

I can understand if this isn’t easily believable. The myth of talent is rampant in our culture: the standard idea is that any time we see someone who can do something really well, it’s because that person is just naturally gifted in that area. It’s an understandable mistake to assume that, but other than in very limited ways, like physical build for some kinds of athletes and range of intelligence for many fields, genetics does not determine what a person will be good at.

What does? Practice: lots and lots of focused practice, with lots and lots of feedback. Toddler Mozart practicing music for hours and hours every day under the watchful eye of one of the most celebrated music teachers in Europe at the time–his father. Tiger Woods got long, intensive golf lessons at a very young age from a highly accomplished golf teacher–hisfather. And so on.

Practice and feedback
I won’t work too hard to convince you of the importance of quality practice here, but if you’re interested (or absolutely disbelieving), try my post Do You Have Enough Talent to Be Great at It?, or read Geoff Colvin’s extensively-researched book Talent Is Overrated or the first part of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. Skill and artistry come from deliberate practice, which is to say practice that is undertaken in a smart way, that presents challenges, and that gets constant feedback.

Getting deliberate practice means pushing ourselves. Just showing up and putting in minimal effort doesn’t get us anywhere, which is why a mediocre accountant can keep books for 40 years and retire not much less mediocre than he started, if he doesn’t actively try to get better with challenges and feedback.

The feedback part is especially crucial. The process of improving our skills in a particular area is essentially one of try-get feedback-incorporate feedback-try again. If we don’t get feedback, then we have no useful information to apply to our next try, and we’re not likely to get any better.

Ways to get feedback
Fortunately, sources of feedback for writers abound. First of all, our own reactions to our writing are feedback, and while that feedback isn’t unbiased, it can be useful. For instance, if I write a story and am excited by what I’m writing–whether it’s coming out easily or has to be dragged word by word from the gaping pit of Hell–then that bodes much better for the work than if I have no strong reaction to it, or only have vague hopes that it might be good enough.

But feedback from others is even more valuable, because other people will react more to the story on paper than to the story the writer is imagining. Every story critique we receive, every family member who sits through reading something we’ve written or starts to read it and then makes an excuse to put it aside, every rejection letter, every personal note scrawled in the margin of a rejection letter, every acceptance and rewrite request, every review, every letter from a reader who loves or hates the story helps tell us how we’ve affected one particular reader–and in the case of editors and agents, that reader’s professional opinion of the impact of our writing will likely have on other readers.

The problems are that every reader is different and that some of the feedback we get isn’t even a faithful representation of what the reader really thinks. A writer I know, for instance, went through a critique group where she was energetically encouraged to submit a book–a book that it later turned out most of the encouraging parties hadn’t even read. Then she switched into a critique group where one particular member seemed to be certain that she had no idea how to tell a decent story, on the theory that his opinion alone was valid to tell what was and wasn’t decent writing. (More on these particular incidents can be found in my article Telling Bad Advice from Good Advice.)

Still, it’s essential to get some kind of outside feedback on writing, even if that feedback is only rejection slips, acceptances, or sales figures–with more feedback being better as long as the writer can keep up with it. But it’s also essential to realize that no single person can give complete feedback on any piece of writing. A person can only pass along an individual reaction and, if that person is an experienced professional in writing or publishing, conclusions based on professional experience–which can also easily be off. For instance, J.K. Rowling’s agent had to spend a full year finding a publisher for the first Harry Potter book because publisher after publisher kept rejecting it: their experience told them it was too long to sell. They were right, in a way: the recent successes for that age group were much shorter books (although it’s hard to say if that was in part self-fulfilling, that no one would publish longer books due to the conventional wisdom that longer books wouldn’t sell). Like everyone, these publishers have individual tastes and limits to their knowledge. No one opinion can be comprehensive.

Yoda, Gandalf, Donald Trump
Which brings us to mentors, who can be incredibly helpful or the worst possible influence. After all, if a mentor has very high credibility then we tend to put a lot of weight on whatever they say, whether they’re saying that your story is great and should sell to a major market (Orson Scott Card, speaking to a writing student whose story sold immediately on being sent out) or San Francisco Examiner editor who reputedly rejected Rudyard Kipling with the words “I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.” If the mentor has low credibility, then we tend to disregard what they’re saying unless it completely agrees with our own already-formed opinions, but a high-credibility mentor can create beliefs about our work that may or may not be any help to us going forward. One writer I knew wrote a piece of flash fiction that was praised highly by a seasoned pro. The writer, preoccupied with the high praise, rewrote the piece over and over for years as it grew into first a short story, then a novelette, and then a novella. To the best of my knowledge, he never did sell the final version.

The worst mentors, though, are those with high credibility but little real experience. For instance, while some college writing professors are excellent mentors, others may have no successful experience of their own in the kinds of writing that interest you. For instance, if you want to write historical romance novels, what’s the value of feedback from a professor who doesn’t read romance and whose own publications are limited to intensely experimental fiction published in tiny literary magazines? We won’t even talk about a writing teacher whose work hasn’t been published anywhere significant at all.

But if we imagine for a minute a mentor who has good credibility and whose comments tend to offer a lot of insight that the student doesn’t already have, it quickly becomes apparent how useful one can be. Someone who really knows what they’re talking about can set the record straight very quickly and accelerate the process of becoming a better writer. At “Uncle Orson’s Literary Boot Camp” in 2001, Orson Scott Card talked to me and the 19 other participants about actively coming up with ideas instead of waiting for inspiration to strike, and then had us use different strategies to come up with those ideas until we saw that we could conjure them on demand. At the Writers of the Future Workshop in 2003, Tim Powers talked about the importance of using the senses in writing (for example, he recommended knowing where the light was coming from in every scene), and that good advice has stuck with me, too.

Fortunately, mentors also come in convenient book and blog form. Books like Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel, Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages, Orson Scott Card’s Characters and Viewpoint, or Stephen King’s On Writing (other suggestions in comments are welcome) deliver an enormous amount of useful information that can prevent having to learn their lessons through years of trial and error, or worse, never learning those lessons at all. But this isn’t feedback per se, just ideas that we can incorporate into our own attempts. Feedback from ourselves and others will eventually tell us how successful those ideas were.

The real magic starts happening once we write and send our work out into the world–to a friend, to a critique group, to a magazine, to an agent, to a mentor, or anywhere where it can be praised, scoffed at, devoured, or ignored. Card theorized that writers have a million words of garbage to write before their writing gets consistently good, and this might be a pretty good rule of thumb–something along the lines of Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion (which he does a good job of backing up with evidence) that regardless of the skill, it takes about 10,000 hours to become really world class (not just professionally competent) at something. In both cases, the pages and hours are practice, and practice is more effective when it’s more challenging and when it includes more and better feedback–so that the length of time and the amount of work between where we are now and where we want to be as writers becomes shorter the better the quality of our practice and feedback.

Photo by /Sizemore/

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How Do You Research Characters and Settings So That They Feel Real?

Writing

Old Vermont barns like this one were part of my experience I wanted to use in the setting for my novel of curse-keeping in rural Vermont, Family Skulls (see left sidebar)

I try to limit the number of posts I make on the craft of fiction writing, because while I’ve been seeing some great success in my writing, it’s not as though I’ve written the Great American Novel and hit the bestseller lists, so advice on how to write a story seems like something I should be careful not to give out too much of. However, a reader recently wrote to me saying she was concerned that she might not be able to learn enough about her characters and settings to write a novel that feels real, and asking what kind of research I do when writing fiction to make sure that these elements work. Feeling that I had some useful information on the subject, I replied. Here’s what I wrote:

Based on my own experience and on many discussions with other writers, there seem to be a lot of different approaches to researching character and setting. Some of us just dive right in and either stop to do research as necessary or make notes about what we need to research and just keep writing around the blanks. Personally I’m not a fan of putting in a blank and expecting to fill in with research later, because I think good research can weave itself deeply into the story, but I can’t deny that it works for some good writers.

Using research to make a story work well and feel real isn’t especially difficult, but it does take time and effort.

Approaches for characters
I’d suggest taking different approaches for characters and setting. For characters, unless you’re the kind of person who (like me) likes to try to draw characters out while writing the story, I’d suggest putting down some key information about each major character first. Basic life facts and physical information are important, of course–What are their hair colors? How strong or weak, heavy or light are they? What kinds of medical problems have they had to go through? How tall or short are they? What were their families like as children, and who was in those families? What are their family or living situations like now? How do they get along with family members in the present? How far have they gotten in school? How did they do? What job, if any, do they have?

Even more importantly, though, you can delve into what drives them. I don’t think it’s necessarily important to know what a character’s favorite color is or what that character ate for breakfast unless that’s very meaningful to who they are or to the story–though some writers disagree and feel that this kind of extreme detail is worth gathering. For my money, though, what’s important is what the character desires, what they’re afraid of, what their doubts are, what kinds of situations get under their skin, and that kind of thing.

Strengths and schemas
I often use strengths and schemas, at least informally, to flesh out characters. The 36 strengths outlined by Marcus Buckingham, et al. (see http://www.strengthstest.com/theme_summary.php ) are one good way to find out what characters are good at. The 18 early maladaptive schemas from schema therapy (see http://www.lucreid.com/?page_id=1292 ) can be used to find at least one major personality flaw for each character. Real people have multiple strengths and usually multiple schemas, though some may be milder than others. Characters don’t necessarily have to be fleshed out with a cocktail of five strengths and three schemas, for instance, unless it’s really necessary to get that deep to figure out what they’ll do.

Have reasons for your choices
One piece of this process that seems essential to me (and that I forgot to mention to my correspondent on the first pass) is that I don’t see any point in coming up with arbitrary choices. I’d advise choosing character details because they grab you, because they make the character more interesting and complex, because they’ll drive the story, or because they make an interesting cocktail with other characteristics. If your character creation process contains steps like “I guess she’ll have been brought up by a single mom, because I know there are a lot of single moms,” then I suspect you won’t get much juice out of that fact of her upbringing. If you say, though, “I guess she’ll have been brought up by a single mom, and the mom was an alcoholic, so my character had to be the parent to her own mom as she was growing up,” or “I guess she’ll have been brought up by a single mom, being told her father was dead, and then in the story her father will show up at some crucial point when she can’t afford to spare any attention to connect with him.” … well, then maybe you’ve got something.

Personally, I tend to try to let characters emerge organically as I write them, and only stop and question myself about them when they’re not already coming alive. However, this approach takes some practice to work well, doesn’t suit everyone, and may not be ideal anyway. My suggestion in regard to how to come up with characters, as with everything else, is to try everything … then spend a few years getting better at the techniques you decided to use and try everything again. Write, grow, repeat.

Approaches for settings
For settings, I’d suggest starting with a place you have easy access to if possible and paying close attention to the sights, sounds, smells, and physical experience of being in that place. If that’s not practical, it’s worth digging up photos, videos, articles, or other materials that give you a lot of physical specifics. Writing comes alive when it’s full of fresh, unusual, accurate sensory details–and ideally not just sight and sound, but all the senses. If you go too far with this, it begins to get overwhelming, but one or two good sensory impressions per page really pack a punch.

The facts about a location are easier: you can use Google Maps or Google Earth to find out how things are laid out, look up construction of houses or how an office is furnished, etc. I tend to do a lot of research looking for images and videos, because they give me much more of a feeling of being in a place than a simple description.

A couple of writing books you might really like, in case you haven’t already read them, are Orson Scott Card’s Characters and Viewpoint and Stephen King’s On Writing. Between the two of them, they can give you a lot of tools, explanations, and confidence.

Photo by Beth M527

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Orson Scott Card announces 2011 Writing Class and Literary Boot Camp

Writing

 

Card and others during story critique at Literary Boot Camp in 2009

Aspiring SF and fantasy writers may be interested in multiple Hugo and Nebula award-winning author Orson Scott Card’s annual Writing Class and Literary Boot Camp in Greensboro, North Carolina this August. I attended both the first year Card offered them, and for me, at least (as well as for essentially all other attendees I’ve talked to), they have been of enormous value.

Uncle Orson’s Writing Class
August 8-9, 2011
$175.00

This seminar is open to novice and experienced writers alike — college-aged and older.  Students in Uncle Orson’s Writing class take part in two days of discussions, lectures, and idea sessions, right along with participants in the Literary Boot Camp.

Literary Boot Camp
August 8-13, 2011
$725.00

Literary Boot Camp is open only to writers — college-aged and older — who are serious about professional level work.  Following the two-day Writing Class, the Boot Camp writers go on with four intense days of creating and critiquing new stories developed at the beginning of the week – all under the leadership of noted author Orson Scott Card.

Enrollment for each Literary Boot Camp is limited to no more than 14 participants and is by application only.

Location: Sheraton Greensboro Hotel at Four Seasons
Joseph S. Koury Convention Center
3121 High Point Road
Greensboro, NC 27407
Link: http://www.hatrack.com/misc/bootcamp2011/

Photo courtesy of Steve Stewart

 

Uncle Orson’s Writing Class
August 8-9, 2011
$175.00
This seminar is open to novice and experienced writers alike — college-aged and older.  Students in Uncle Orson’s Writing class take part in two days of discussions, lectures, and idea sessions, right along with participants in the Literary Boot Camp.
Literary Boot Camp
August 8-13, 2011
$725.00
Literary Boot Camp is open only to writers — college-aged and older — who are serious about professional level work.  Following the two-day Writing Class, the Boot Camp writers go on with four intense days of creating and critiquing new stories developed at the beginning of the week – all under the leadership of noted author Orson Scott Card.
Enrollment for each Literary Boot Camp is limited to no more than 14 participants and is by application only.
Location: Sheraton Greensboro Hotel at Four Seasons
Joseph S. Koury Convention Center
3121 High Point Road
Greensboro, NC 27407

 

 

 

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