Sunday, April 30, 2017

ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop Bootcamp Week 2: Playing in the Sandbox – Developing Ideas, Old and New


Welcome back to bootcamp. We’re T-minus 6 weeks to the June 11 deadline to enroll and submit your short story or novel chapter to the ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop. Last week, I talked about how workshops can benefit your writing and what you can do to get ready to write by carving out some time in your schedule and gathering ideas.

This week is a good time sort through your collection of ideas and/or unfinished projects and throw your lot in with one lucky winner. In other words it’s time to decide and develop your idea.

The first thing to decide is whether you’ll be working on a short story or the first chapter(s) of a novel. (I’m going to put a caveat in here that I am primarily a short story writer. I’ll do my best to keep the advice here universal, but this series might by slightly more adapted to short form fiction rather than noveling. I am currently working on a novel, and learning a lot, so stay tuned for more novel friendly posts in the future.)

While I think submitting a stand-alone short story might be slightly more productive for a one-day workshop, many students opt to submit the first chapter(s) – up to 5,000 words – of a novel. Since it is just a piece of something much larger, you’ll get less feedback and insight into shaping middles and creating satisfying endings. Even so, first chapters are critical to attracting readers. This is where you set up and set in motion a larger story, and there will be plenty of faculty and fellow writers who are on the same page at the workshop. If you decide to write opening chapter(s), focus on writing a scene or a sequence of scenes that create a strong hook. Introduce the main characters (but not too many all at once!). Salt in some world building and think a bit about setting the tone for the story (e.g. is it creepy, gritty horror or a space comedy).

Short stories are great for workshops in particular and for honing your writing skills in general. A stand-alone piece will give you a chance to get feedback on a complete unit of storytelling. Writing short fiction has helped me develop skills like assessing and managing the size of an idea, managing plot and pacing on a small scale, and understanding scene and sequence. It is also a place where you can try out crazy ideas, unusual forms and methods. Experimentation isn’t just a great way to master the form – it’s also a lot of fun. So, even if short stories aren’t your main interest, consider writing at least a few.

Starting from nada?
First, keep reading, listening, and viewing stories that engage your emotions and challenge your thinking. Whenever something piques your interest note it down in your journal (or wherever you keep notes) but don't stop there, riff of these idea kernels, combine them with others.

Here are a couple common ways to develop ideas. 

You can think in terms of SCENARIO. Collect vignettes, fragmentary scenarios, themeatic ideas that intrigue you. Spin ideas out by asking “what if” over and over again. Be present. Be inquisitive. We witness (and act in) a thousand little dramas every day. After you get off the phone with the Help Desk wonk, imagine that disembodied voice in a surreal scenario, if you hear a quiet argument between a couple at a coffee shop spin out your idea of what might have caused it, or how it might come to an unexpected end. Start with a moment or interaction from your day, or open up Pinterest or Instagram and look for evocative images. Get out a blank piece of paper or pull up a blank document and play around with “what ifs.” Write down as many as you can, everything that comes into your head. Try combining a couple unlikely elements into a scenario that you can develop into a complete story.

Or approach story via CHARACTER, keeping in mind that for a short story or the early chapter(s) of a novel, it’s usually best to limit the number of characters. I find that two or three characters are ideal for anything under 5,000 words. If you have some characters in mind, try putting them together in conversation, and write it out in dialogue only. Give one of the characters a secret. Think about characters who want something deeply, or want to escape something. If you have a half-formed character, interview them. Pose questions and have them state their opinion and then keep writing, letting them talk. Keep going until they say something that surprises you.

Want more? Check out John Dufresne's talk about creating a story.

The unfinished.
If you’ve been writing for a while, and you’re anything like me, you might have what I call The Island of Misfit Toys: a collection of unfinished or broken stories languishing in a folder somewhere. I keep these stories around for the day when I have acquired whatever skill I need in order to pull that particular story off. If you’re looking to refurbish a story for the workshop, this is the week to read it as critically as you can. Summarize what happens plot wise, and make notes about what you think are the its strengths and weaknesses. Be prepared to tear it down and start again from the ground up. If you’ve kept the story around, then the kernel of the idea that inspired you should survive.


So keep reading and mulling over ideas, let them grow into some vignettes and character interactions, make notes. If you have any questions, put them in the comments. 

Next week you’re writing your ZERO DRAFT.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Fantastical Fictions Book Club: Fardwor, Russia! by Oleg Kashin

(Oleg Kashin photo / Restless Books)
It's time again for another Fantastical Fictions Book Club. On Thursday, May 5 at 7:00 p.m., we'll convene around the big table at Malvern Books to discuss Oleg Kashin's Fardwor, Russia!
This slim novel is a  fascinating breezy read, if you can call a dark, satiric dystopia "breezy." It offers a glimpse of Russian culture and its complaints. 

The publisher's website describes the book this way:
     "When a scientist experimenting on humans in a sanatorium near Moscow gives a growth serum to a dwarf oil mogul, the newly heightened businessman runs off with the experimenter’s wife, and a series of mysterious deaths and crimes commences. Fantastical, wonderfully strange, and ringing with the echoes of real-life events, this political parable fused with science fiction has an uncanny resonance with today’s Russia under Putin.
     Oleg Kashin is a notorious Russian journalist and activist who, in 2010, two months after he’d delivered the manuscript of this book to his publishers, was beaten to within an inch of his life in an attack with ties to the highest levels of government. While absurdly funny on its face, Fardwor, Russia! A Fantastical Tale of Life Under Putin is deadly serious in its implications. Kashin’s experience exemplifies why so few authors dare to criticize the state—and his book is a testament of the power of literature to break the bonds of power, corruption, and enforced silence."

Dmitry Samarov, in his review of the book for the Chicago Tribune says:
"Absurdity is piled upon absurdity, but none of it is taken as anything but a matter of course by anyone involved. There is a long tradition of this sort of storytelling in Russia. From Nikolai Gogol's "The Overcoat" in pre-Soviet times to Mikhail Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita" and onward, writers have had to address the insanity of their society through indirect or fabulist means. "Fardwor" is no fairy tale. Kashin grounds his story in everyday reality. Karpov finds out his wife has left him because she has unfriended him on Facebook; the oligarch, Kirill, is named to head the organization charged with making the upcoming Olympics in Sochi a success."
All sorts of strange madcappery goes on in this pages, yet this is a book where the author's story is at least as interesting as the tale he tells in these pages. Kashin is a well known journalist and blogger who regularly writes about political issues in Russia. Shortly after turning the manuscript for this book in to his editor, he was severely beaten in what appears to be a politically motivated attack. This edition of the book comes with a thorough and engaging introduction to both the book and the author by Max Seddon, World Correspondent for BuzzFeed News. 

For more about Oleg Kashin's story here check out Oleg Kashin's Horrible Truth: A journalist is beaten nearly to death in Moscow. Is this a deliberate crackdown, or something more subtile -- and more sinister?

Read Kashin's open letter to Putin/Medvedev here

For extra credit, check out Like, share, tweet: Social media meets the Russian revolution.

Pick up a copy at Malvern today, and join us next Thursday to discuss (whether you've read it or not)!

Saturday, April 22, 2017

ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop Boot Camp Week 1: Why Workshop, What to Write, and Starting From Scratch


ArmadilloCon is one of the best little, literary science fiction and fantasy conventions in Texas. On Friday, August 4, before the convention begins, writers from near and far will gather to participate in an all-day intensive genre workshop with professional writers. I have been a student at this workshop, a volunteer, and a teacher, now I’m coordinating it. I am thrilled to be helming the workshop that helped to make me the writer I am today!

I still remember how scary it was to submit something for critique for the first time. I didn’t know if it was great or terrible or how other people would react to it. Every workshop is different, and even if the workshop experience isn’t for you, it can still be a lot of fun and a great learning experience. At the very least, you will meet a room full of other writers. If you’re attending the con, that means you’ll be seeing a couple dozen familiar faces throughout the weekend. Even if you never attend another workshop, learning to receive criticism, and to evaluate and give useful feedback to your peers will give you the tools necessary to continuously improve your writing.

Maybe you want to write, but have never written a complete short story, or started that novel that’s been bouncing around in your brain. No worries, over the next two months I’m going to write a series of BOOT CAMP posts to take you step-by-step through the creation of a piece of writing that will serve you well in any workshop.

In order to participate in the ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop you must submit a previously unpublished piece of writing (up to 5,000 words), either a short story or the first chapter of a novel. In this case previously published means anything that is out in the world, in print or online whether you were paid for it or not. This includes fiction you have published on a personal blog. The focus of this workshop is on craft; so if you’ve been writing for a while and have been published or have been publishing your own work, use this as an opportunity to write something new and challenging. The goal isn’t to bring a polished gem of a piece to the workshop, it’s to stretch and grow as a writer.

You can submit a piece and register for the workshop today, but I know how writer’s minds work, so here’s the deal. The deadline to submit/sign-up for the workshop is Sunday, June 11 a little under two months away.

If you’re starting from scratch, your boot camp assignment for this week is to PREPARE:

MAKE time to write
There’s an old saying: You’ll never FIND the time to do the things you want, you have to MAKE it. This week, think about when you can make time to write. If your weekdays are jammed then carve out weekend time. If your weekends are spoken for, try writing over your lunch hour, or getting up an hour earlier in the morning, put off your Netflix queue for a few weeks. 


Short stories for young adult readers
READ
You’ve heard it before, if you want to be a writer you have to read. This week, and in the coming weeks, you are going to be reading to a purpose.


Fantasy reprints and originals
If you’re planning on writing a short story, read (or listen to – yes podcasts count! Check the side bar for links to more podcasts.) a variety of short stories. I do much of my thinking in a journal, so you may want to write down some notes after reading/listening to a story. First, did the story move you? Was it to your taste? There is a huge range of styles and types of short stories even within the genre, so when you find a story that speaks to you (or not), think about why. What are the elements that appealed to your sensibilities or put you off?

If you want to submit the first chapter(s) of a novel, go back and re-read the first chapters of your favorite novels. Think about what drew you into the story. Was there a hook that made you commit to reading on? How much world building did the author include in the first pages? How much characterization? What did the author do to set the tone of the book? If it’s a horror book, what made it feel creepy? Science fiction, what made it otherworldly or futuristic?

RUMINATE
Throw some story ideas around. Spin ideas, characters, scenarios out in your notebook or in a document on your computer. You don’t have to develop anything yet, just compile “what if” moments, vignettes, characters. Again read, keep up with the news, follow your most esoteric interests down their rabbit holes to longreads. Bookmark what you find and make a note of why it interests you. I’ve created more than a few stories by mashing two disparate ideas together, so be generous filling your idea file.

Another alternative is to REABILITATE
If you’re like me, you have sort of an island of lost toys folder of broken or unfinished stories. Often they are broken/unfinished because there is some skill that I need to acquire in order to pull the story off. As long as they’ve never been published in any way, it’s perfectly legal to rework one of these stories. This week, visit your island of broken stories and see if there are any candidates you’d like to resurrect.


If you’re brand new to writing fiction, here's some tips from Kurt Vonnegut:



Next week I’ll talk about what kind of work is most useful to bring to a workshop or critique group, and you’ll continue to develop your idea and get ready to the first draft

If you have questions, post them in the comments and I’ll do my best to address them!