Tag Archives: fiction

Colorado Gold 2014: Great Conference But What the Tech?

Earlier this month, I attended RMFW’s Colorado Gold Conference. Wow, what a whirlwind weekend, packed with informative sessions on fiction writing and the writing business and so many great people to meet. Every day felt like two days because they managed to cram in so much great content. Although the sessions and keynotes were excellent, that’s not really the aspect of the conference I’d like to address.

One of my primary goals for the conference was networking, meeting other writers and sharing stories and experiences, and in that regard the weekend was a great success. I’m not usually a hugely outgoing person, so often in large groups such as this I find myself on the outside. However, as I mentioned in my previous post, the RMFW anthology Crossing Colfax, in which I have a short story, debuted at this conference, which certainly helped.

My conference badge included an “Anthology” ribbon so some attendees would see that and ask about my story. I also got to meet and chat with most of the other included authors—generally easy to spot because they also had the “Anthology” ribbon. The anthology has fifteen stories, and all but one of the authors were at the conference. Even before the conference, I’d begun following many of the authors on social media, so the conference was a nice opportunity to meet in person.

Smashwords CEO Mark Coker at RMFW Colorado Gold 2014

Keynote speaker Mark Coker, CEO of Smashwords, speaking during one of his sessions at Colorado Gold 2014.

In case I’ve not made this clear before, I’m a big believer in the power of social media. A conference such as Colorado Gold is a perfect chance to meet people face to face—but social media still can play a part. So, as I said, I planned ahead, following people’s blogs and Twitter handles who I wanted or expected to meet. In the days leading up to the conference, I began watching Twitter for the conference hashtag, #RMFW2014, to find other attendees to follow and engage with. And during the conference sessions, I tweeted out key points and quotes from speakers as they occurred, or retweeted what others had to say about sessions I didn’t attend.

This social media approach to conferences is something I learned when I attended technology conferences as a journalist. At those conferences, the IT pros in attendance frequently had two or three different mobile devices, all needing a connection, because in some cases they might need to be on call for remote assistance back at the office—therefore, a strong, reliable WiFi signal throughout all areas of the conference floor, including session rooms, was a must. At Colorado Gold, having no WiFi in the session rooms was a bit of a shock.

This technological omission caused me to evaluate how others at the conference appeared to use technology overall. So, as I sat in session rooms, taking notes with OneNote on my laptop and ready to tweet on my smartphone, I’d look around and see what others were doing. I was really rather surprised to see that most people, if they took notes, were doing so by hand: pen to paper. How very old school! Although I didn’t do any firm counts, I’d estimate that probably no more than 15 or 20 percent of attendees used a laptop or tablet for note-taking.

Long ago, I abandoned taking notes longhand because, one, I know I won’t go back and re-read them, and two, I probably couldn’t read my own writing if I did. Of course I know plenty of people feel there are benefits of using a physical pen and paper in helping you remember what you’re writing. My counter to that would be that I don’t need to remember—well, no more than a keyword, anyway. If I have some idea what someone talked about or who said it, I can search for a keyword—I don’t have to remember how long ago it was or what physical notebook it was in—and I can pull up the material. As long as I’m using something like OneNote on cloud storage, I can pull up that information not just on my PC/laptop but also on a phone or tablet—anytime, anywhere access.

Twitter also serves as a repository of notes: Whatever I tweet during a session or keynote remains in my tweet stream for later access as well. As mentioned previously, using the conference hashtag also makes tweets available to other conference attendees who might have missed that particular session. Additionally, when you get a lot of people tweeting from the same conference, it creates a sort of buzz around the event for those not in attendance—and quite possibly making them want to attend the next time.

During the conference, I had a conversation with three of the founding members of RMFW, Kay Bergstrom, Carol Caverly, and Jasmine Cresswell, about the early days of the organization. At some point, the discussion turned to writers’ use of technology, and Kay Bergstrom remarked that in the 1980s, writers in her circle were all early adopters of PCs and related technology because they saw how it made the business of writing easier. To my mind, writers today should take advantage of social media, cloud storage, and other current technologies for the same reason.

I always look for the technology solution. Whether it’s attending sessions at a writing conference or sitting alone at my computer to do some writing, I’m pretty sure there’s some trick, some procedure, that can help the day go a little smoother. But I recognize—and glancing around those session rooms at Colorado Gold was a great reminder in this—that not everyone, certainly not every writer, has the same approach to technology or the same abilities.

For the writers out there, I’d be interested to hear what role technology plays in your writing life. Do you struggle with social media and creating an online presence? Or do you navigate the online world with ease? Do you worry about how to handle backups of your digital assets (i.e., writing)? Do you wonder what the best program or application for writing is? Or do you have recommendations about any of these topics to help your fellow writers? Are you committed to writing longhand at least part of the time? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Other posts on RMFW Colorado Gold 2014:

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins


Titles Are Hard—But These Tips Make Them Easier

I’m in the midst of a dilemma as I need to come up with a new title for a story. The story in question is one that’s been accepted for publication and the title change is at the request of the editor, so of course I’ll change it. I wasn’t wild about the title I had when I submitted it, but I did feel it fit, and now it’s grown on me, which makes the change more difficult.

The thing is, titles are hard. Sometimes good titles seem all but impossible. There are times when the “right” title seems obvious; it comes to you during the writing process, it fits the work on multiple levels, and it sounds good to boot. But those cases are probably fairly rare. Yet you know that when you’re trying to sell a story or novel, the title is your first bit of marketing that an agent or editor or reader is likely to see. So, you want to get it right.

On the other hand . . .

How important are titles, really? Continue reading

Writing Characters: Playing the Cruelty Game

Think about your favorite characters in your favorite stories or novels. For me, that would be people such as Cory Mackenson from Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life. Or Frodo from The Lord of the Rings. Or Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. Do your favorite characters travel a straight road, or rather are the beset by obstacles at every turn?

When you fall in love with a character as a reader, you might wish that they had things easier, that they could solve the mystery, defeat the monsters, win their true love, or whatever it is they’re fighting for. But if they actually do all those things easily, if there aren’t obstacles or the obstacles aren’t sufficiently challenging, your reading experience won’t be rewarding.

So, as writers, we need to remember this and make sure we put our characters on a twisting, rocky road: Be cruel to your characters in order to be kind to your readers.

At times, I know I have a tendency to go easy on my characters, to let them off with a warning, let’s say, when I should be cracking them over the head with a ton of bricks. I like my creations and I don’t want them to suffer. But it’s time to get serious and start doing some damage—I’ve got to put away my feelings for my characters and get cruel. I need to remind myself, again, of my favorite characters that others have written. Let’s take a look at Frodo’s journey. Continue reading

Sequels and How to Deal with Them

When I looked at my social media streams Friday morning, I was flooded with news about Steve Ballmer’s announcement that he would be leaving the helm of Microsoft in the next year. That story was interspersed with dismayed proclamations about Ben Affleck being announced to play Batman in the next movie of that franchise. These two events got me thinking a little bit about sequels.

The uproar around these two events highlights an inescapable fact about sequels: People are always excited by the prospect of sequels, but everyone is ultimately disappointed by what they actually get. Steve Ballmer could never live up to the legacy of Bill Gates. No one has seen Affleck’s Batman portrayal yet, but everyone seems certain that he is an inferior choice to whoever went before (which I guess I don’t know because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Batman movie).

Whether it’s a movie or a book (or a business), I have one simple approach to dealing with sequels: Don’t expect anything. You know, don’t get your hopes up, and you’re less likely to be disappointed.

Movies and books that generate sequels do so because the original was successful. People like the characters, the milieu, the action, or whatever. But it’s all but impossible to re-create the success of the original by revisiting that setting. That doesn’t mean the sequel can’t be good in its own right and own way. If you go in expecting it to be the original only better, you’re setting yourself up for heartbreak.

Here’s a perfect example: the recent fourth season of Arrested Development. This might not be considered a sequel in the classic sense, but when you take that much time off and come back to a series, it pretty much has the same effect. As a viewer, and one who had watched the first three season several times, I was excited by the prospect of a new set of episodes—but at the same time knew not to let my expectations rise too high. How could they achieve the same level of excellence, even with the same cast and creative team?

Arrested Development 4th season on NetflixNonetheless, I watched the entire fourth season the weekend it debuted on Netflix, and thoroughly enjoyed it—contrary to the reactions of others from much of the Internet commentary I’ve seen. I recently rewatched it at a somewhat more leisurely pace. It’s good; funny. Yes, it’s different—and it’s also the same. Yes, it repays additional viewings to pick up on some of the repeated jokes and call backs to the original seasons. Not having expectations allowed me to take pleasure in what they did with this season.

What about when it comes to writing a sequel of your own? I have simple advice for that situation as well: Don’t do it.

This advice might seem strange, considering I’ve read largely from the fantasy genre all my life and am inclined to write them as well—and this genre seems built on the notion of sequels. I’ve long felt that the publication of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy created the trilogy as the standard for fantasy writers. However, Tolkien didn’t write a trilogy; he wrote one story that was divided for publication by the publisher.

OK, sure, LotR was technically a sequel to The Hobbit. But really, it was all part of one great story Tolkien was developing, the history of Middle Earth. Those just happened to be the portions he managed to write. And that would be my lesson for writers of this type of sequel: If you’re going to do it, make sure you’ve got a plan for the whole series from the start. Know where you’re going.

And perhaps most importantly, have an end in sight—avoid these epic, never-ending stories that have become standard in the genre, popularized by the likes of Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind. I’m not saying these aren’t good stories. The problem with them is, first, that they take too long to write. For the readers, there’s nothing good about having to wait year after year for the next installment. Second, even if I wait until the whole thing is published before I start, I’m probably going to get bored with it all by a few thousand pages in, no matter how exciting it is.

So, in summary, for other people’s sequel’s, don’t expect too much. For your own, just don’t. If you find you must, have a definite end in sight, hit it, then move on to something new.

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins

Top 5 Musical Choices to Write By

A couple of weeks ago, I posted the following on Twitter: “Why do stormy summer afternoons always seem to go better with David Byrne’s The Forest?” One of my long-time friends soon replied, “Nearly everything goes better with David Byrne’s The Forest. It’s one of my favorite albums to write to.” And I thought, of course! I, too, frequently choose this CD when I’m writing.

But that got me thinking about what other musical go-tos I have. When it comes to choosing what to listen to while I write, the selection can have profound effects on what I turn out, so having the best music playing is a must. What I’m working on can sometimes dictate an appropriate musical choice—something that sets a certain mood or evokes the right setting or emotions. Other times I might just want something to shut out the noises of the rest of the world and help me focus on the page in front of me.

However, several CDs have stood out as recurring choices. Let’s get this out of the way: Yes, I think of musical selections based on the whole CD. I’m that old. Actually, I’m old enough to think in terms of the vinyl album, and sometimes I revert to that terminology, but the CD is so much more convenient in many ways (even when I’m actually playing all my music from digital sources on my computer). My point is that, although I do create playlists or play random from time to time, I’m much more likely to select a specific CD/album to listen to in its entirety.

My top choices are largely, though not entirely, instrumental, as that presents less possibility of distraction (i.e., I’m not going to find myself singing along instead of concentrating on what I’m writing). See what you think of these, and let me know if you have any great favorites of your own that help you get in the zone for writing.

5. Fire in the Kitchen, The Chieftains

CD cover for Fire in the Kitchen, The Chieftains & various artistsThis CD has Irish legends the Chieftains performing back up for various Celtic music artists of Canada. The featured artists include names such as Natalie MacMaster, Ashley MacIsaac, the Barra MacNeils, and it was the first place I ever heard Great Big Sea. The collection is a great taste of Celtic music, at times sublime, at times raucous and reeling. It’s that variety in the music that makes this a good choice for writing for me—a reminder, perhaps, of the constant need for tension, one thing playing off another. About half the tracks on the CD include vocals—but some of those are in Gaelic, and since I have no understanding of the tongue, the singing ends up just sounding like another instrument in the mix.
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4. Divinities: Twelve Dances with God, Ian Anderson

CD cover for Ian Anderson's DivinitiesThis CD is a bit more subtle and consists primarily of flute and keyboards. Ian Anderson is best known for his work as front man for classic rockers Jethro Tull, and if that’s all you know of him, this solo work might come as a surprise. Entirely instrumental, the tracks that make up this one are heavily influenced by and evocative of Asian, particularly Indian, culture. And of course it features a healthy dose of Anderson’s unique flute playing style. I find this particularly good music when I’m working on any writing in the fantasy genre.
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3. Fantasia 2000 (Disney movie soundtrack)

CD cover for Fantasia 2000 Disney movie soundtrackAlmost any classical music can serve as a background to writing, but what I like about the selections from Fantasia 2000 is that it’s the sort of music that tells a story even without the visuals that the Disney animators provided. It’s music that going somewhere: it has a goal, a purpose, momentum. It’s telling a story; I’m writing and trying to tell a story—these things go well together. Over the course of the CD, you’ve got a variety of musical styles, alternating through calm, restrained passages and loud, thundering sections. That diversity helps keep my brain awake and actively creative.
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2. Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd

CD cover for Pink Floyd's Wish You Were HereSometimes writing calls for rock and roll. As I wrote in “Writing Rocks: How Stories Come Together,” writing about a fictional band got me listening constantly to a real band, Voyager, for that particular story. Sometimes, a story can call for a particular band or type of music. But if I’m looking for some rock, maybe a little psychedelia, this Pink Floyd gem works better than anything to help my writing shine on. Although this CD has some good songs for singing in the middle, much of it is instrumental—and I’ll often find that if I get in the writing zone, I won’t even notice when those songs pass by.
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1. The Forest, David Byrne

Now we’re back to The Forest. This truly is my default choice; when nothing else seems appropriate to help me on my way to writing success: The Forest. I’ve been listening to this CD for more than 20 years, and it never fails to inspire. The music is orchestral and instrumental, with occasional vocalizations or chanting; only one short song has a sung lyric. The whole composition is dramatic and theatrical (owing to its roots as part of a theater piece). Yet no description of the music will accurately capture it: You just have to listen.

CD cover for David Byrne's The ForestI will always remember the first time I heard this music. It would have been the summer of 1991, around the time the CD came out. For an evening’s entertainment, three of my friends and I went to the Tower Records in West Covina. Upon entering the front doors, we each went our separate ways to look for our various favorite artists. After half an hour or 45 minutes, we began to regroup. And we all commented on this strange, bizarre, yet somehow wonderful music that had been playing overhead on the store sound system all the while. It was like nothing we’d ever heard, and certainly like nothing any of us were listening to before.

That changed that night, of course. And thankfully so. I was writing and listening to The Forest back in 1991 and am still pleased to do so today. Give it a try and see what it inspires for your writing.
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Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins

?! Is Not a Proper Punctuation

I believe that language is a living system. As we write and speak over time, what is acceptable in grammar, diction, and style needs to change to keep up with the times. The English of Shakespeare, Milton, and Chaucer is certainly beautiful, but clearly it isn’t the language of today. Time marches on, and language changes; it’s inevitable, and I accept it. However, I do not now, nor will I ever, accept the use of a question mark and exclamation point together (?!) as a proper end punctuation in formal prose.

All writers and editors probably have certain rules they’ve learned that they find hard to abandon—or outright refuse to lose. Because of my years writing for the web, I feel like I’m perhaps a little looser, a little more liberal, in my adherence to hardcore grammar rules—yet there are still some things up with which I will not put. Two different end punctuation marks for a sentence is one such.

Don't use a question mark and exclamation mark together to end a sentence.

Don’t use a question mark and exclamation mark together to end a sentence.

This aberration isn’t even a rule I was ever taught, probably because when I was learning grammar in school, no one thought of using such a mutation—at least, not in formal writing. And that’s what’s raised my hackles against the ?! just recently—finding it in use in books published by supposedly respectable publishers and written by well-known authors.

This double punctuation is typically used to represent excitement or disbelief: “She said that?! Are you kidding me?!” I think of this forbidden end stop as the flabbergast—although I hate to give it a name and seem to legitimize it. (Note that an attempt to combine these two marks has been made, called the interrobang, although it hasn’t exactly met with success.) In informal writing—that is, you’re dashing off a quick email or text message or posting something to Facebook—I don’t object to using this thing. In fact, I do it myself.

In formal writing, however, you’ve got to make a choice. Is it a question? Is it an exclamation? Pick one! The use of the double punctuation to convey incredulity or flabbergastedness is simply lazy writing. Particularly in fiction writing, if you can’t make it clear from context how your characters are reacting, then you probably have bigger problems than a weak understanding of grammar.

I can in part forgive the authors who use the flabbergast symbol. Authors might not be expected to know what is acceptable and they have a reasonable expectation that an editor is going to fix any problems before publication in order to avoid embarrassment for both author and publisher.

What to me is inexcusable is that editors and publishers have let this thing appear in print. I recently read Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, which was published in 2009 by Anchor Books, a division of Random House. Dan Brown isn’t exactly a literary giant, although he usually writes a good thriller, and as a bestselling author, his books reach a lot of eyes. This book used the flabbergast symbol early and often—so much so that it diminished my experience of the book. To be sure, the book had plenty of other problems, but I had negative first impressions due to what I considered bad editing from a major publishing house, which then made it that much easier to focus on the novel’s other weak points.

I started this post by saying that language is a living system, which I believe. I understand that our digital technologies, in the hands of so many people who want or need to send messages quickly, are having drastic effects on the way people write. But I also believe that professional editors need to serve as educated gatekeepers to change, which doesn’t seem to be happening.

I could accept changes in spelling—nite for night; thru for through, and so forth—because, frankly, there isn’t much apparent logic in the traditional, etymological derivations that have come down to us. (Although, let me be clear: I’m not advocating such changes.) After all, Shakespeare invented tons of words in his writing that are now in common usage. But I’m unaware of any changes the Bard made to basic punctuation.

A ?! in formal writing is lazy and unnecessary. If you find yourself tempted to use it, well, make sure you’re quoting a Facebook post or text message. Any other use is unacceptable.

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins

Writing Rocks: How Stories Come Together

For many years, I had a story idea sparked by the Falling Rock warning signs you see placed along mountainous roads. Actually, it was an idea without a story, which is at least one of the reasons I didn’t write it for a long time. It required a few additional elements before the story evolved: reading a novel by Robert McCammon, a specific discussion with my writing group, and discovering a new band with a new flavor of music.

Head East road sign album cover

Album cover for Head East’s self-titled 1978 album

The basic idea went something like this: What if a rock band chose the name Falling Rock, and then their fans started stealing all those warning signs from the roadways of America? A what if can be an interesting place to start, but it doesn’t inherently lead to the elements necessary for story: characters, conflict, and so forth. As a side note, the idea owes something to the classic rock band Head East, whose self-titled album from 1978 had an album cover made to look like a road sign with two arrows pointing in opposite directions and the band’s name spray painted over them; although you might not recognize the band name, you almost certainly know their most famous song, “Never Been Any Reason (Save My Life).”

I started thinking more seriously about how to write my story after reading Robert McCammon’s novel The Five, which came out about two years ago. First of all, McCammon has long been one of my favorite authors; I recommend his books unreservedly. (What, you haven’t read Boy’s Life? Then how did you think you knew what a story was or what it takes to be a writer?)

Robert McCammon, The Five

Cover of Robert McCammon’s novel The Five

In The Five, a small touring band embarks on what might be their last tour together before familial and other obligations pull them in other directions. They’ve each got ulterior motives that prompt them on the journey, and of course they encounter tragedy, heartbreak, and terror. Along the way, something really magical and creative happens. I loved this book—beautifully written and engaging throughout.

What The Five gave me in inspiration for my Falling Rock story was a glimpse into what the life of a small touring band might be like: that constant struggle to do the thing you love—play music—but also needing to make it pay. The novel also helped begin to answer the what if I’d started with. The band in the novel gains notoriety through tragedy such that suddenly they’re a hot ticket. What if, I thought, my band becomes popular because of stolen road signs?

That’s still a situation, an idea, not a story. At that point, I brought up the idea with my writing group. I don’t normally talk about my ideas or what I’m working on before I write them, but in this case I didn’t have a story, and I guess I was afraid I would lose the impetus to write it if a story didn’t come about soon. So, I laid out the idea.

The lesson here is really how important it is to have a suitable group of writing companions that you can work with and share ideas and stories, give and receive criticism and encouragement, whether online or in person. After I described what I was thinking about, my group members saw the potential and immediately started asking the right questions—or more importantly, getting me to ask them.

The biggest question was: Whose story is this? It might seem silly that I hadn’t figured that out—and naturally that was a big stopping point in being able to write it. I’d had a vague sense that it was a story about the band itself (although I hadn’t figured out who the band was). But my writing group got me thinking about other possibilities. Was this a fan’s story? Was it a story about someone stealing the signs? Or someone trying to stop the sign stealing?

By the end of that short conversation, I had plenty of ideas that could develop into a true story, characters to build story around. Because each of the possibilities seemed to have life in it, I began thinking of a fragmented, multicharacter story to use all the ideas. As my former MFA workshop mates could attests, I’ve always had trouble telling just one story at a time.

For a variety of reasons (you know them—work, life, procrastination), it was still a couple of months before I started writing anything. Once I did start writing, I needed a name for my rock band. Initially, I thought the band would be called Falling Rock, but I decided instead that should be the name of their latest CD, which would be designed to look like the road sign. Because the band would be at the center of the story, the reason all the other characters and their stories were swirling around, I wanted a band name that somehow represented that movement, that journey. Unfortunately, Journey was already taken.

My first thought was Voyager, as I knew of no band with that name. I checked online through Spotify, however, and found such an artist. In fact, what I found was a recently released CD titled The Meaning of I with a very striking cover:

Voyager, Meaning of I CD

Cover artwork for Voyager’s The Meaning of I

When I see artwork such as this on an album or CD, I have a good feeling that the music might be something I’d be interested in. I’ve always believed in the old adage, Always judge a book by its cover. But only as it applies to books, or in this case CDs or albums. I’ve been hooked on progressive rock since I first discovered Pink Floyd back in high school, and I’m always on the lookout for new artists to add to my collection. These are the sort of artists that typically makes an artistic statement with their album/CD artwork to complement their music.

Voyager, from Australia, was described as progressive metal, so I figured I’d give them a listen. I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Intelligent lyrics combined with a nice vocal style—and a hell of a lot of drums and guitars. Pretty soon, I was listening extensively to all the available Voyager music (they’ve only released four CDs to date, although according to their Facebook fan page they’re working on number five now).

Voyager became a spiritual model for my fictional band, and their music was frequently my inspiration while writing. It’s a rock and roll story, so I wanted to stay in a rock and roll state of mind. And by the way, my band ended up with the name Go Forth Traveller, in case you were wondering.

That’s pretty much it. All the pieces were in place, and I was able to complete this story, “Falling Rock.” Of course, from the beginning I envisioned it as a short story, and that’s what I tried to write. The final result, with four intertwined storylines, came in at about 15,000 words, which is novella range by many definitions, or at any rate a very long short story. And it’s currently out in the world looking for a publication home.

You just never know how a story is going to come together. Sometimes an idea sticks around for ages before it connects with some other piece or pieces and a story develops. Other times, the story forms almost instantaneously. And then there are the stories you think will work that lose momentum altogether and die. It’s all part of the writing life, I suppose. And the writing life is all about searching for the meaning of I.

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins