Ten Ways To (Seriously) Improve Your Writing (via Broadside)

An awesome post for writers who are at any stage in the game–but especially those who want to take it seriously. Her advice for dealing with rejection, listening to feedback, and doing things to improve yourself, really ring true to me. Maybe they will for you too.

Ten Ways To (Seriously) Improve Your Writing It’s commonly said, (among writers who do it for their living), that blood to a surgeon is like rejection to a writer — a necessary part of every day’s work. Whether a surgeon likes blood is irrelevant. Do professional writers — and ambitious amateurs — enjoy rejection? Irrelevant. It’s not a game for d … Read More

via Broadside

Harry Potter Diary: Harry, the Suppressed, Closeted Wizard

At 41, I’m reading the Harry Potter series for the first time.  Outside the demographic for the book, I was wondering what I would latch onto as an adult.  What would speak to me?

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, HP1, gives us a kid whose true identity is being suppressed.  His muggle guardians KNOW he is a wizard, but they are hoping that he will just not learn about this heritage, and certainly won’t become a wizard.  They never mention his parents were wizards, never tell what really happened the day his parents died, and they never want to hear if he has any wizard “tendencies”… and they punish him severely whenever those “tendencies” appear—when Harry acts on his wizarding nature.

I always found the scene when the owls try to deliver his welcome letter from Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft to be quite moving.  While on the surface it looks like the Dursleys are merely being subverted in their plan to keep Harry from knowing the truth–it is a moment where Harry learns WHO he is and that he has great potential.  Without this moment, there is no Harry Potter or Harry Potter series.

The urgency with which the owls start tossing their letters into the house; the extremes that the Dursleys go to hide away from the letters finding Harry; this is no small event.  I would say it is the biggest turning point in Harry’s life–because afterwards he will understand who he is, and be given the skills to fulfill his destiny, while before he is humiliated and punished when any sign of his true nature reveals itself, and living as a secondary person, almost a slave, in the Dursley household.  He lives in a closet under the stairs!  (I mean, really, people… a closet???)

It’s hard for me to escape seeing this as a coming out moment for Harry, or see this as a metaphor (at least for me) of a boy society has been trying to make more and more “straight”–who just can’t help certain natural tendencies.  As a gay man, I saw myself in Harry.  Society hides our history from us, brands us as immoral, makes us feel humiliated for being who we are–if we even get to know that information–and somewhere along early puberty, the signs start coming in unusually fast… the letters telling us who we are and what we are capable of start flying in.

I had great parents.  No, they didn’t know what to do either when I started exhibiting behavior outside of what they had expected.  I don’t think they ever tried to hide who I was, though; they were afraid to mention anything, uncertain if this might be a tipping point where I would start to explore what this meant.  But certainly my religion tried to separate me from the immorality of a whole group of people, convincing me that I could never be a “homosexual”– because I was a good boy, a good Christian.

If I’d only had a list of the great gay and lesbian people of history, or that so many of our revered American writers were gay or lesbian.  If only I’d realized how much we contributed to history.  Or known what was happening to me physically and mentally and sexually.  I’m glad that Mason Crest Publishers recently announced a line of books for middle-schoolers about being gay, about coming out, about gay and lesbian role models, history, religion.  Like 15 letters!  I want to own those books.

In my life, though, the letters stopped coming, the owls gave up.  I never realized I was gay until I was 34.

But in Harry Potter, the Dursleys can’t prevent Harry from knowing who he is because a giant comes through the door.   Hagrid—man, would I love my own Hagrid!—breaks down the door of the shack on the island where the Dursleys and Harry have hidden.  And he is angry when he finds out that Harry’s history has been suppressed, that Harry’s true nature has been ridiculed and been denied him.  There is triumph and relief in that moment of comeuppance for the Dursleys.  Not only have they been shamed, but Harry has seen them as they are— as no longer the standard or authority for telling him who he is.  He cannot be shamed.  Hagrid has revealed a higher truth.  Harry is allowed to break free of their mental tyranny–because Hogwarts, a place designed for people just like him, is waiting for him.  They value him.

Now, at Hogwarts, everyone treats Harry as someone they love.  Yes, a few treat him like a superstar, but I’m amazed at how loving and caring all the characters are towards Harry–especially the adults.  They become his new family.  Dumbledore and McGonagall serve as surrogate parents, and Hagrid as a protective big brother.

We see the Dursleys as comedic backdrop, but I think, in some ways, they are as dangerous to Harry as Voldemort is.  While Voldemort wants to take Harry’s life, the Dursleys also want to take Harry’s life–his soul, his self-worth, his personhood.  Whoever would rob you of who you are, or try to shame you for being who you are–that is a dangerous person.  If the Dursleys had been successful in keeping the truth from Harry, it would have robbed him of a joyful, adventurous life.  Those who want to keep their children from realizing who they are–and the joys of being that person, the contributions that other people like ourselves have made to history–are extremely dangerous people.  There is nothing wrong with being gay.  And great people in history have been gay.  It is extremely important for every person to have role models.  We spend an inordinate amount of time in Christianity talking about our role models, and in American History about role models, and in sports about role models.  Gays have been hidden from history for a long time.

Oddly enough, we were handed a great role model when Dumbledore was outed by JK Rowling.  Such a huge moment–that a beloved character could be gay and still be the wisest, most caring, fatherly, most powerful character in an already beloved series.  We were handed a beautiful role model, who doesn’t have to just be “gay”–he’s allowed to do other things with his character.   And it completes my attachment to this scene.  Harry is saved by Hagrid, a man of the woods, an earthy gamekeeper, in service to the Head Wizard himself, who is gay, and finally taken from the suppression that had marked his whole life.  Harry is given a new start as a Wizard, in a place that values him, and this makes me cheer.

I’m not implying at all that Harry is gay, only that this scene–where the truth is revealed, and assumption that Harry is worthless is wrong–resonates with me as a 41 year old man.  And that there is a whole hidden history, a whole place where people value who you are–who’d have thought?

It never would have occurred to me at 10 or 12 even… but there is something powerful in these books even for us 41 year olds.

Young Yukon Writers Think About the Evolution of Vampires

Wouldn’t you know that 11-18 year olds have plenty of reasonable, thoughtful ideas about the evolution of vampires?  Because of the anthology I’m a part of that comes out next week (Evolve: Vampire Stories of the New Undead) I threw out the question —where do you think Vampires are going–or should go?— to my writing students.  They are all voluntary writers who stay after school to work on their own writing (which usually has a horror-tinge to it) and they were freakin’ brilliant.  I LOVE these guys.

Imagine them sitting around a grouping of four tables shoved together, in the French library of FH Collins.[Just gonna use their first names–they’re cooler that way]  I didn’t do any editing to this dialogue.  I have some pretty smart high school kids.

Here are their thoughts:

Santana:  I’m looking for more variety in vampires.  I think vampires have to move away from being either completely evil or sparkly good.  

Franz:  They used to be the icon of horror.  I think people forget that vampires used to turn into bats.  

Erin: They’re vampires.  They have to eat.  They’re not going to drag the carcass of a deer into the forest so they can revive it.  They aren’t going to be helpful.

Zeb:  They need to go back to the basics.  They’ve moved from Dracula to whiny good guys, and I think they need to swing back to Dracula.  I’ve seen quite a few vampires in between good and evil:  Dresden Files has multiple “courts” of vampires.  Some of them bad and some of them really bad.  

Franz:  Yes, I’m tired of angsty vampires.  I read about this one vampire who was all angsty and then he was bloodthirsty and killed people, but he was a lot more interesting when he got older and more complex.  He wasn’t as angsty and he wasn’t as bloodthirsty.  He was light hearted and pretty hilarious.

Santana:  Authors shouldn’t be afraid to expand the genre–to have vampires that are neither good nor evil, but neutral.  I want them as complex as real people.  I want them in modern day settings dealing with our own vampire crazy culture.  

Zeb:  Terry Pratchett had some really cheerful vampires called Magpires who wore bright clothing but they were really evil people!  

We all started citing some places that vampires still haven’t gone yet….

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And then …. they started to come up with ideas about what THEY would write about these vampires.  And they were such fantastic ideas, I can’t write them here… I have to let these kids tell them.   But they are brilliant.

I’m hoping that they read Evolve: Vampire Stories of the New Undead and give us a review of the book–to see if authors were able to “expand the genre” as Santana mentioned.  I’d like to see how this meets their expectations of where Vampires should be going…

Bondsmen, my story, up at Metazen: James Bond meets himselves

secret-agent2My story, “Bondsmen”, is up at Metazen.  The story–meant to be a comedy– is a bit surreal, having the latest James Bond (an actor beyond Daniel Craig) really stifled by all the things he has to do as James Bond—he just wants to be himself, dang-it, but he finds himself trapped in the character roles that have been played in the past by other actors….  This is a story of a man who wants to be an individual, not controlled by things he can and cannot do.  James Bond ends up quarreling with all the other actors who’ve ever played Bond–or rather, all the other versions of Bond.  It is meant to be parody, but also a way to think about living life suppressed, even when you’re a dangerous secret agent.  Does James Bond really get a choice to be anything else?

Metazen, ” is an online fiction zine that publishes short fiction and poetry by various authors. Metazen is a fly trap for metafiction, existentialism and  absurdism. It harbors all kinds of filth such as neurotic characters, obscure philosophies, love for inanimate objects and quests toward enlightenment. Metazen occasionally follows the real life, meta-fictional exploits of Frank.  Metazen is edited by Frank Hinton, Jessica Alchesse and Dylan Cohen.”

Enjoy the story!

Fantasy Magazine Interviews Me: Writing the Other

DSC_0360_255Fantasy Magazine, which published my short story,  “The Moon Over Tokyo Through Leaves in the Fall,” did a companion interview, which I thought was incredibly thoughtful.  When you write a story, you always hope for questions like this–that someone will ask what you meant when a character said this or that, or ask how you go about writing the story.  

And secretly too, you hope you don’t sound like a dork.  

I appreciate the interviewer, TJ McIntyre, and the work he put into the questions.  Thank you.  

 

 

An excerpt

There have been many controversies over the years relating to writing the “Other” or writing with a voice outside of one’s own natural experience. “The Moon Over Tokyo Through Leaves in the Fall” is written from the point of view of a modern Asian-American female. Did this create a challenge for you? What steps, if any, did you take to verify the authenticity of your voice in this piece? What tips do you have for other writers out there working on pieces where they are writing from the perspective of the “Other?”

Hmmm . . . This is a hard question for me because I think every character you write about is an “Other.” I do understand the argument, that writing something completely different from you is more challenging. But unless you are writing memoir, the characters have completely different childhoods, desires, relationships — all the characters, not just the POV one. So they all take a lot of work to understand and “get right,” so to speak.

But if someone wants to write a character which is “other” I wouldn’t stop them. Instead, I would encourage them to stretch themselves. I certainly don’t immediately identify with, or always find accurate to my experiences, the white, rural, college-educated, religious gay male characters I find. And I don’t always want to write that character. I would hate to stop someone else from writing them though.

So I think that’s my first tip: Feel free to be whoever you need to be for the story, without holding yourself hostage to criteria. Criteria can turn into stereotype. I remember once writing a poem about Theodore Roosevelt surviving the Amazon River. A fellow writer said that I had no albino catfish in the poem and that it was a weakness. If I didn’t mention them, I would be called on the authenticity of place. Even worse may be the authenticity of race or gender or sexual orientation — since we are multi-faceted people. I go back to my first statement: Everyone in your story that isn’t yourself is an “Other” . . . and you are required to be careful with all of them.

Saying that, though, I think writing a nasty, mean, selfish gay character might be an accurate representation of one particular person, and might make a funny character, but I would trust that character more in the hands of a gay man who knows the consequences of pushing a bad stereotype in a culture that seems to want to believe the stereotype, than in someone else’s hands. I tried hard to be sympathetic to both Matsui and Yumi equally — showing their flaws, their desires, and hopefully helping a reader side with both at different times.

So, not that you have to always treat your Other characters with kid gloves, but that you make everyone understandable and as authentic as a human being as you possibly can through research, and through infusing them with your own flaws/desires. I infused Yumi with some of my own doubts about my relevancy/impact on the world, my own relationship experiences, the sometimes clash of cultures I find with people older than me. The story doesn’t have my exact experiences, but the shades of feelings are right, the tone is right, the need to be loved and validated is right, I think.

Run the draft through a close set of writerly friends to check for bias. I did run this through Clarion 2007 in San Diego, past a rigorous group of fellow writers, half of them women, who had some questions about the way I wrote Yumi, and I followed their advice. Not that a character can’t make bad decisions, or have perceptible flaws, only that they should be unique, individually motivated and free from OBVIOUS bias.

Be open to learning what it’s like to be someone other than you. It’s really difficult to shed Jerome in order to take on Yumi or Matsui, but I try. Like an actor taking a role.

I think if we only wrote within our experience we’d really limit our stories, and ourselves. I remember once writing from the perspective of my brother, and I learned a lot about what it felt like to have to make some of his decisions. The story moved radically away from my brother’s actual deeds, but the writing process allowed me to feel empathy and understanding for him in a way I had never felt before writing about him.

The process allows a writer to “put themselves in someone else’s shoes” and that’s good, both for the writer — who learns something outside him/herself — and the reader — who doesn’t have to put up with a bunch of main characters who are sci-fi movie buffs. Viva l’Other!

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Read the whole interview on the Fantasy Magazine Website here.

Yukon Writers Festival: Reading, 7pm, Beringia Centre

Everyone, come hear the six Yukon Writers Festival writers read on Wednesday night at 7pm at the Beringia Centre for FREE. Part of Live Words: Yukon Writers Festival and the Young Authors Conference, these six writers will be teaching young adults to write at FH Collins–and this presentation is free and open to the public.

I’ve been asked to be the MC for the evening. As I have nothing funny to say, and you can’t be a good MC without funny material–I need six words from readers of my blog–one per person please–the first six– that I have to fit into my opening short speech. And if I get all six, I should win some sort of prize. Nothing that I couldn’t say in public please–so I won’t accept vulgar expressions.

It’s fun. And if you come, you get to see if I can fit them all in.

2009 Yukon Writers Conference, April 3-5

scribo book cover by Kater CheekNorthern Writes is pleased to announce the 2009 Yukon Writers Conference, taking place at the Westmark Whitehorse, on April 3 through 5, 2009. The 2009 Yukon Writers Conference is an opportunity for Yukon writers to meet with and learn from six North American editors and one publisher representing a variety of genres.

The conference will include workshops, a panel discussion, individual pitch appointments and an open critique session.

The conference fee of $90 also covers an opening reception, lunches on Saturday and Sunday, and coffee breaks.

The following publisher and editors will present at the event:

Claire Eddy, Senior Editor, Tor/Forge Books, New York

Paula Eykelhof, Editor, Mira Books, Toronto

Lily Gontard, Editor, Yukon, North of Ordinary, Whitehorse

Shawna McCarthy, Editor, Realms of Fantasy and Agent, New Jersey

Lynne Missen, Executive Editor, Children’s Books, HarperCollins, Toronto

Kathleen Scheibling, Editor, Harlequin Books, Toronto

Howard White, Publisher, Harbour Publishing, Madeira Park, BC

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Registration deadlines as follows: February 28 if submitting a writing sample/proposal March 15 if not submitting Registration forms and information sheets will be available at the Whitehorse Public Library starting on February 9, or by contacting Marcelle Dubé at (867) 633-4565, mdube@northwestel.net. Please feel free to share this information.

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This conference is not to be missed if you live anywhere near the Yukon. You can’t see these people up close and personal in other venues in the States or in Canada. But here, in Whitehorse, you have a chance to talk with them personally, submit writing, receive critique, and get to know them.

I’ve said before that it was in the Yukon that I met and really got to know some amazing authors/editors from Outside. These meetings were all through conferences like this one that Barb Dunlop and Marcelle Dubé engineered.

If you believe in that Latin phrase on the book above–“I write”–then you’ll want to prepare for this conference. Have ready a manuscript by the end of February to submit to these editors. Come and join us for a chance to develop your writing and all Yukon writers.

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Photo above is from my good friend, Kater Cheek, whose amazing art can be found here at www.catherinecheek.com

Writing Advice from J.K. Rowling

I came across this nugget of writing advice from JK Rowling in an article from the Toronto Star. It’s simple, but important.

Of the “universal appeal” of her books, Rowling said, “I’ve been asked that question a lot. I’ve always found it very difficult to answer. I feel there’s an expectation that I should know what the magical formula was, but in truth I wrote what I liked reading.

“I wrote about characters I was deeply interested in.”

And that is probably the most profound writing advice you’ll get–the part we forget sometimes. Have you ever been writing along on some short story for a contest, a journal, even working on a novel, but you don’t really care about the characters? In fact, you would find them boring if you met them in real life? Or tiresome, or annoying, or bland, or one-sided, or pitiful.

It matters to your readers if you care about your characters. Sometimes, like scribbling gods, we are interested in our Plots–how we can mess up the quiet lives of our characters, or how interesting we can make their situations—but the characters may not matter as much because they are being propelled by the plot. They are riding shotgun to the plot that’s really driving. They can react, white-knuckle the door, scream, maybe even fling the door wide, but they don’t get to drive, and partly because they just aren’t as interesting as the cool plot we’ve given the keys to.

I read that article and interview with Rowling and I left thinking about my own stories, and how many of those characters–on the stories I was working on–were those I wasn’t “deeply interested” in? You could say that for short stories you only have to be mildly attracted to them–it’s a 10 page affair after all. But a novel, you might say–or even a Potter series–you’d have to be interested in the character. Yet, I think we all want memorable characters to follow as we read. As we write. In short stories and in long ones, and in series. Because if we’re interested, then readers will be too.

Time to revamp some of my characters–the ones I’m not currently deeply interested in–and find out how I make them more interesting on the page–so that even in a small story, the characters linger in a big way.