Friday, March 31, 2006
If you don't have a frame or structure around your writing, you don't have any way to know how you're doing, when you've finished, or what you've achieved. Sometimes you may not even know what you're trying to do.
I encourage my students to write a sentence that states the intention of a story, novel, poem or flash and to keep it at the top of their work as a reminder of their intentions. If the piece starts to move away from those intentions it's time to step back and decide if this is actually a different piece of work, or whether you're going to rein it back into your original idea. Both are equally valid options, and both avoid the awful realisation that the story story that turned into a novella that became a play and then a novel is actually just a horrible mish-mash of unfinished thoughts and good ideas that went nowhere.
Thursday, March 30, 2006
You might think I spend all my time thinking about sex - but it's not so. Really, honestly, truly I don't. It's just that teaching 'Writing about Sex' for six weeks, as well as reading slush for an erotica publisher this month, has focused me on the issue.
Last night was the last 'Writing about Sex' class. To celebrate we had wine and cakes. Some students read aloud, others brought along work they'd had published, and generally we had a wonderful evening. I shall miss those classes now they're over. But it's time to get back to writing my own work and thinking about my own fiction throughout the summer (if it ever arrives).
That indefatigable editor of quality erotica, Mitzi Szereto, is running a week long course in the autumn - if you can afford it and want to improve your erotic writing, details are below.
SMOLDERING WORDS: EROTIC WRITING WITH MITZI SZERETO
A week-long residential creative writing course in Sept 2006 on the Greek island of Skiathos
Erotic literature has changed dramatically in recent years. No longer banished to the top shelves of bookshops, it instead holds court on the front tables. Approaching the subject from a literary perspective, internationally known erotic-fiction author, anthologist, and erotic-writing workshop pioneer Mitzi Szereto will pull back the blanket on the field of erotic writing, offering her own perspective on the craft. The course is designed for those looking to write erotica for professional or personal exploration, or those looking to incorporate the erotic into another body of work. Open to all levels of writers.
Dates: Sept. 9-15, 2006
Cost: (in USD) $795. Includes accommodations for 7 days “Greek Style” room with private veranda and a/c, 22 workshop hours, and transfers by private car to/from hotel from airport/seaport on Skiathos. Single room accommodation is $100.00 extra.
American born Mitzi Szereto has more than a dozen books to her credit, including the critically acclaimed Erotic Fairy Tales: A Romp Through the Classics; The World’s Best Sex Writing 2005 (non-fiction); Dying For It: Tales of Sex & Death; Wicked: Sexy Tales of Legendary Lovers; and the Erotic Travel Tales anthology series. She’s also penned several best-selling erotic novels as M. S. Valentine. Mitzi is the pioneer of the erotic writing workshop in the UK and Europe, teaching them from the prestigious Cheltenham Festival of Literature to the Greek islands.
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Only Richard Allan Cooper was brave enough to guess who said what, so for the rest of you, here are the answers!
Who said this about sex?
A widespread taste for pornography means that nature is alerting us to some threat of extinction.
J G Ballard, "News from the Sun," Myths of the Near Future, 1982
Sex is interesting, but it's not totally important. I mean it's not even as important (physically) as excretion. A man can go seventy years without a piece of ass, but he can die in a week without a bowel movement.
Charles Bukowski, Notes on a Dirty Old Man
The tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul.
William B Yeats
My reaction to porn films is as follows: After the first ten minutes, I want to go home and screw. After the first 20 minutes, I never want to screw again as long as I live.
Erica Jong, Playboy Magazine, September 1975
The good thing about masturbation is that you don't have to get dressed up for it.
"The majority of husbands remind me of an orangutan trying to play the violin."
Honore de Balzac
Sex and beauty are inseparable,
Like life and consciousness.
And the intelligence which goes
With sex and beauty,
D H Lawrence
In itself, homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality: the ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint, or obligation. Simone de Beauvoir
Lesbianism has always seemed to me an extremely inventive response to a shortage of men, but otherwise not worth the trouble.
Nora Ephron, Heartburn, 1983
My instincts are all against a woman being too frank and at her ease with me. It is no compliment to a man. Where the real sex feeling begins, timidity and distrust are its companions, heritage from old wicked days when love and violence went often hand in hand.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Lost World
I've mostly written about sex by means of the space break.
And many congratulations to Richard, who got two answers right - bravo, sir!
Tuesday, March 28, 2006
If you're one of the many who subscribes to the myth that you must write one perfect piece of work, polishing and perfecting it until it could not possibly be better, and then your talent will be recognised - I'm probably going to put a dent in your day.
Let's start with some caveats: about novels I know nothing. Or, actually, I know a lot about how not to get a novel into print, because I'm rather good at it! On the other hand, I know several agents and a couple of publishing editors.
About short stories I know more - eighty something times more (and that's not including the erotica and other stuff I write on what is essentially a commissioned basis). And as an Associate Editor for Night Train and a sometime slush reader for whoever needs one, I am lucky enough to be able to take a wide view of 'what people are sending editors'. And this is how it goes:
- One in seven stories that comes across my desk is about a writer
- One in five is a coming of age story.
Let's unpick that a bit. Suppose I'm reading slush for an anthology (I am, right now, and it's science fiction meaning very few writer stories but many, many coming of age ones) and my job is to separate the stories into two piles: 'possible' and 'impossible'. The first thing I ask my editor is how many writer stories and how many coming of age stories he'll accept. 'One writer story,' he says, 'and we'll take as many coming of age stories as we think are good, but only if there is some real value to the coming of age bit.'
That means that in the possible pile I'm going to put maybe two writer stories. All the others, no matter how good they are, will be rejected. If that was your perfect piece of polished prose, tough titties, my friend.
The coming of age stories? Well, I'll probably put a dozen in the possible pile. That means I'm still rejecting hundreds of good stories - because I've filled my quota.
Now let's imagine I'm reading slush for an online literary 'zine that publishes four times a year - they would probably accept one writer story every other issue, and one coming of age story every issue. That means that for most of the year I will be rejecting one in seven stories with a writer as protagonist, and one in five stories that are coming of age based, simply because they don't fit with the balance of the 'zine.
Writers love writing about writers - readers are not that enthralled to read about them.
Coming of age is something we all do - but literature is capable of so much more than simply pinpointing the moment a protagonist stops being a child.
Now, of course, you're telling me this doesn't apply if your story is that perfect piece of polished prose, but look at the odds you're giving yourself. Not only does your story have to be unutterably wonderful, but it has to get to the editor's desk before any other unutterably wonderful 'writer' or 'coming of age' story, or the editor will already have accepted his or her quota and you'll get one of those rejections that says, 'we really liked this but it's not right for us at this time'.
So if you want to be a published writer; write about chocolatiers or welders; think about death and betrayal and hope and fear as subjects that extend throughout life, not just as emblems of that pivotal moment when your protagonist loses the delicate bloom of childhood.
It won't guarantee success, but it gives you a much better chance of being in the 'possible' pile, and if you really have written perfect, polished prose - then you're on your way to being a writer.
Monday, March 27, 2006
So you want to be a writer?
Really? Are you sure?
Because although I hate to rain on anybody's parade, most of the people I meet who say they want to be writers, don't actually want to be writers at all. What they want is for the blue fairy of happiness (read Pinocchio) to lean down and turn them into real writers without any effort on their part.
Actual 'paying the bills writing' is tough. I make a living from a combination of writing erotica (and though I say it myself, it's bloody good erotica), reading slush piles, teaching, and writing specialist articles for the specialist journals of this world. I do not make any kind of a living from the literary fiction that I also write, that just occasionally gets published and is what makes me a 'writer' in the eyes of the wanabees.
I'm serious about Pinocchio by the way.
The point is, being a live, income-earning writer entails the same eight to ten hours a day grind as any other job. Okay, I happen to love writing articles about peach tree blight. Yes, it's true I may be the only person in the world who feels a warm glow when considering a two thousand word abstract on community fishery policy and transformational loan mechanisms. But those are the kinds of subjects that I write about, and those articles pay my mortgage. I'm lucky enough to enjoy those bits of the job, most of the time. But when I don't, I still have to do my eight to ten hours of reading, editing, writing and rejecting before I can find the time to sit down and work on my own little literary pretensions.
Getting back to Pinocchio, the little wooden puppet - who may or may not wear women's underwear, according to Shrek 2 - and who wanted to be a real boy. The blue fairy didn't lean down from a rainbow and turn him into a child - instead he had to learn to master his worst impulses, work hard and make sacrifices. Along the way he was lynched, drowned and swallowed by a shark. Once he had found a cause he believed in (his father's health) and a daily drudgery to which he committed himself willingly, he discovered he was human.
Becoming a writer is a lot like that.
But if you really want to be a writer, be here tomorrow, when I reveal two sure-fire ways to make sure your short story doesn't get into print!
(Yes, I know it's not Pinocchio, rather a celluloid doll that lived on the landing outside the Beijing flat, but it's the nearest thing to a puppet I could find)
Saturday, March 25, 2006
I'm not going to update at weekends - if I do, people will think I don't have a life. That's an announcement so it doesn't count as an update! One entrant for the sex and literature quiz so far, and Richard Allan Cooper is about to receive his sixteen fascinating transitions. Two of the names on his list are right (but not necessarily placed against the right quotation) - it's a brave effort. I wonder if anybody else will do better?
Friday, March 24, 2006
Writing about Sex Quiz
1. A widespread taste for pornography means that nature is alerting us to some threat of extinction.
2. Sex is interesting, but it's not totally important. I mean it's not even as important (physically) as excretion. A man can go seventy years without a piece of ass, but he can die in a week without a bowel movement.
3. The tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul.
4. My reaction to porn films is as follows: After the first ten minutes, I want to go home and screw. After the first 20 minutes, I never want to screw again as long as I live.
5. The good thing about masturbation is that you don't have to get dressed up for it.
6. The majority of husbands remind me of an orangutan trying to play the violin.
7. Sex and beauty are inseparable,
Like life and consciousness.
And the intelligence which goes
With sex and beauty,
8. In itself, homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality: the ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint, or obligation.
9. Lesbianism has always seemed to me an extremely inventive response to a shortage of men, but otherwise not worth the trouble.
10. My instincts are all against a woman being too frank and at her ease with me. It is no compliment to a man. Where the real sex feeling begins, timidity and distrust are its companions, heritage from old wicked days when love and violence went often hand in hand.
11. I've mostly written about sex by means of the space break.
So, which of you are the sex and literature mavens ...?
Thursday, March 23, 2006
A little bit of trumpet blowing is in order. I've finally got my hands on a copy of the brochure for Green Thought in an Urban Shade, which has been showing at Glasnevin, Dublin. For complex reasons I couldn't get to the Irish show, and so this is the first time I've really seen how our material was handled there. I'm very pleased with this. I think the marrying of Fion Gunn's paintings with my fiction has been beautifully managed.
The show was very successful; Fion had sold ten pieces the last time I spoke to her, which is good, although not more than an artist of her calibre deserves - and nice things had been said about the project generally.
The next Green Thought in an Urban Shade exhibition will be at the Waterloo Gallery in London in May.
No, I haven't forgotten about the sixteen clever transitions mentioned in my previous post. I'm thinking of setting a little quiz about sex and writing where all entrants will receive the sixteen transitions as a reward for entering. Am I nasty? Yeah ...
Wednesday, March 22, 2006
One of the invaluable experiences that emerges from being an editor and slush reader as well as a writer, is the salutory shock of discovering how one's own pet conceits and 'novel' literary tricks are replicated across the writing community in a hundred other writers. Another is the sad discovery that bad habits proliferate and predominate.
Because I've been slushing for money, I've been reading a lot of erotica lately - ranging from the downright pornographic through to high literary erotica. Apart from the appalling inability of many writers to navigate basic anatomy, I have become bored to the back teeth with the transitions used to get characters from horizontal to vertical or vice versa.
Probably 80% of people who write erotica rely on a change in the weather to get their characters to put their clothes on after sex, eg, 'the chill breeze made her reach out for her panties', 'he felt the first raindrops strike his bare flesh and grabbed his shirt' etc. The same 80% allow their characters to drowse and wake in a different mood, eg, 'she woke feeling dirty and sore', 'when his eyes opened the first thing he smelt was her cheap perfume, which fuelled his thumping headache'.
It's an okay way to tackle sex and relationships in writing, but it delivers pedestrian fiction. Last night's group came up with sixteen devices that could be used to create an interesting transition from sex to another narrative theme or from a different strand of a story into sexual activity. If they can produce so many ideas in a fifteen minute brainstorming, oh writer of sexual fiction, you can too. There's no excuse for boring the reader, especially with a subject as highly charged, conflict filled and exciting as sex.
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
Today I've had a story rejected. Now, believe it or not, I cope well with rejection, but sometimes I do wonder how much of a masochist a writer has to be to survive. A science fiction journal in the USA, which shall be nameless, accompanied the rejection with the following commment: 'You write well, but a spell check would help you get published. Things like recognise are just basic mistakes that should have been ironed out before you sent your story.'
Hmmm. So British English no longer exists. Idiosyncratic spelling is a bit of a bummer, I agree, and I wouldn't expect every editor to know that over here we feel recognise, aluminium and colour are correctly spelt. (Don't get me started on nuclear by the way.) But, and it's just a tiny little but, I did say, at the top of my submission - British spelling used throughout. Because, you see, I have had this experience before with science fiction journals and try to anticipate such contingencies.
So I'm miffed. And while I'm miffed, let me add a couple of other rejection irritations:
- Editors who send comments in pencil (you know who you are, and you're a science fiction journal too!) which gives the impression they're not trusted with anything as grown up as a pen
- Editors who send back the story's cover page with no comments
- Editors who address me as Kate. I mean, it's not as if they heard wrong when we were introduced in person or anything; my name is right there at the top of the page, and quite often at the bottom too, depending on submission guidelines.
I anticipate a flood of comments detailing much more annoying rejections - so let loose the dogs of literary war!
Not Morse's sidekick, but Lewes the East Sussex town, where the editorial offices of The Frogmore Papers can be found. This is one of the local short fiction/poetry publications that gives hope for a literary future in the UK. Beautifully presented, full of thought-provoking work and inspiringly straightforward, this journal is well worth a visit.
Of course, I'm blowing my own trumpet a bit here too. I have a short story/monologue about homelessness in issue 67.
Visit their website at www.frogmorepress.co.uk - if you'd like to consider sending them your work. But why not go a step further and ask your nearest and dearest to give you a subscription for Easter? At £7.00 - the cost of a reasonable chocolate egg - you can have two issues of good literature and support an excellent journal that deserves a wider readership.
Monday, March 20, 2006
I love SmokeLong, not just because they publish me, but also because their fiction choices always punch well above their word weight.
Since the beginning, Dave Clapper and his team have been publishing the cream of the flash fiction crop: incisive stories with twists and mordant humour, or ripe vignettes full of sensual detail. They've found excellent and often disturbing artwork to accompany these short short stories and each issue has been packed full of value, although each individual story is less than 1000 words long. Now they're pushing the boundaries again.
"Announcing the Kathy Fish Fellowship
It seems that many awards in people's names are established posthumously. We're ecstatic that we can recognize Kathy Fish while she's still very much alive and kicking. As she steps down as our Fiction Editor, we at SmokeLong want to recognize Kathy's enormous contributions to the magazine and to the writing community as a whole. In particular, Kathy has always been a great champion of new writers and has exhibited an uncanny talent for finding previously unpublished writers whose work just shines. We want to foster that sort of commitment to new writers, and in that vein, we're creating the Kathy Fish Fellowship. All writers previously unpublished in SmokeLong Quarterly are eligible to apply.
Following are the guidelines for application and the terms of the award itself:
1. Applications should be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
2. Applications should include five samples of your flash fiction (stories of a thousand words or less). These samples may be unpublished or previously published in venues other than SmokeLong. We'll be reading these to get impressions of each applicant's writing. The writing samples should, as a whole, best reflect your ability, style(s), etc. Show us who you are as a writer through these samples.
3. Applications should include a few paragraphs (under a thousand words total) about what you hope to accomplish in the next year with your flash writing. Are there specific elements you want to improve? A larger story you want to tell through a series of flashes? Help us learn how we can help you realize your goals should you win this award.
4. There is no application fee.
5. Application deadline is September 15, 2006.
1. The winner of the 2007 Kathy Fish Fellowship will be considered a "writer in residence" at SmokeLong for each of the four issues to be published in 2007. Each issue will include one flash by the Fellowship winner.
2. The winner of the Fellowship will receive $500.00, to be paid as follows: $100.00 on announcement of the winner, and $100.00 upon publication of each of the four issues in 2007.
3. The winner will be announced December 15, 2006. Again, this award is open to any writer not previously published in SmokeLong Quarterly. It is not restricted to writing program students (as we are all, in some way, students of writing), although we will certainly be distributing this announcement to various writing programs. We also encourage teachers of writing to pass this announcement along to their students.We're looking forward to reading your applications, and we want to once again extend our deepest gratitude to Kathy for all she's done for SmokeLong and for writers of flash fiction.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, Kath."
Smokelong Quarterly can be found at http://www.smokelong.com/home.asp
Sunday, March 19, 2006
Good question. I could spend several months positing answers and maybe I will.
Answer number one: because everybody else is.
Not good enough. If everybody else stuck their hand in the mangle, would I? (shades of my grandmother there, and if you don't know what a mangle is, go and look it up).
Answer number two: because people I like and admire do.
Somewhat better. But then, people I like and admire are enduring power cuts and curfews in Nepal, planting trees in Edinburgh, and dicing with death in Gaza. I'm not.
Answer number three: because I think I might be good at it.
Fair enough. Fitness for purpose is a place to start. Of course then there are all the other questions like what am I going to blog about, and who is going to read it when I do ... but let's just suck it and see, shall we?