Monday, February 25, 2013

Story as Artifact or Junk?

What gives a book staying power?

I started wondering the other day what makes the difference between a book that has staying power and one that will fade away and not be remembered several decades from now.

Many years ago I came across a young boy selling sculptured clay whistles at the pyramid ruins near Mexico City. They were quite clever and I bought two.

As I looked at them sitting on my desk today, I began to wonder what makes them any different from the primitive sculptures in the museums around the world, other than they were not unearthed at a dig and are not very old. They are made by indigenous people—in this case an inhabitant near the ancient ruins of Teotihuacan, where other artifacts that have been unearthed now sit in the Anthropological Museum in Mexico City and elsewhere around the world.

They are charming and I treasure then, but a hundred years from now, will these clay sculptures be deemed worthy of being called artifacts—apart from the fact that they were not laying in the ground waiting to be dug up—or junk? I see them as being every bit as wonderful as some that are in museums, and in many cases, better.

Merriam-Webster states of artifacts: something created by humans usually for a practical purpose; especially : an object remaining from a particular period <caves containing prehistoric artifacts>

I guess my whistles satisfy the definition of artifacts; whistles of twentieth century Mexico City.

Not meaning to be cute about this, I know a toaster from the twentieth century will one day be an artifact looked upon fondly as a representation of a simpler time in American history.

So, moving on to books, I asked myself what makes a book last and be remembered one hundred years from now?

When I come across old books in a second hand store that no one really wants now, I wonder what made them fail while we remember a book like Huckleberry Finn with its use of the highly inflammable N word and racist attitudes of another time.

I am not going to dissect it (I leave that to the experts) but it left me wondering. Does it transcend those issues because of its tenderness of simple friendship, a simpler time and perhaps its innocence of childhood that its author transmits? 

What was normal and accepted then is not now, but we still find the heart of the book good literature. Its intent was not to be mean, or separatist or hateful. In its simplicity, innocence and humor—it stands out and is remembered by two generations, now. Why?

And will the books you read (or write) today be remembered one hundred years from now, or end up lying forgotten on some dusty shelf in a second hand store? And, if on e-reader only, be erased completely and forgotten?

Maybe the answer is how deeply the writer pulls from her personal experience.

As a writer, do you write a nice, clever, not ruffle any feathers—safe story?
Or do you dig deep to tell the real, gritty story, the one that dips underneath the surface to reveal the artifacts of another, deeper life? The one that makes you bleed to tell it.

Readers really want to immerse themselves in a believable experience that they may or may not want to go through themselves, but do want to feel as if they had experienced it. 

They want to learn what it would be like to successfully (or unsuccessfully) navigate that world you have built, without having to go down that hard (or impossible) road themselves. 

They want to end up understanding themselves better for having gone through the experience—vicariously learning through the hard-fought lessons of your characters.

As a writer do you dig deep enough to provide that type of experience?

As a reader do you read for other reasons?

Is the book you are reading now, providing you with an experience you will remember many years from now?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Write Short - Think Big

Not long ago I was chatting with Liv Rancourt about a short story panel I was on at my local chapter of Sisters-in-Crime. I've read and enjoyed many of her stories and thought you might be interested in what she has to say about her experience on writing and publishing her short stories.  

So, welcome Liv Rancourt, short story writer extraordinaire.  

Writing Short Stories

Congratulations, Cora, on your Sisters In Crime panel experience. I know that was a lot of fun, both for you and your audience! And thanks for the invite to be a guest on your blog. 

You asked about my experience writing short stories, and since I did a lot of that in the last year, I’m happy to share what I learned with your readers.

Between December of 2011 and December of 2012, I had eight short stories published with two different publishers. Four of them are in anthologies from Still Moments Publishing, and the other four were published independently by editor Rayne Hall in her Ten Tales series. Each project was different, and each one taught me something I’m now applying to my longer WIP.

I basically treated last year as graduate school, and thought of every short story as an assignment. I wrote paranormal, historical, horror, and contemporary romance, in both first and close third person points of view. I learned that working from the POV of a 15 year old boy in 1810 New Orleans is a huge challenge. I learned I don’t know diddly-squat about the standard tropes for horror writing. And I learned how important it is to limit the number of characters in even a longish, 10,000 word short story, or you will lose and confuse your readers.

On the plus side, I realized how comfortable I am writing contemporary romance from a snappy first-person POV. I can write from third person if the piece calls for it, but it’s nice to know I have a go-to skill that almost always works.

My story The Santa Drag first appeared in the Christmas Treats: Santa’s Nice List anthology in December 2011, and then was re-released as a stand-alone $0.99 short in December 2012. In between, I got to make another editing pass, which was a cool way of seeing how much I’d learned.  I trimmed several hundred words from a 6000 word short story because I realized they didn’t add much to the plot. Some bits got reconfigured and worked back in, but overall the stand-alone version is leaner and more fun to read.
IMHO  ;)

That experience illustrates one of the keys to writing a short story. You don’t have the luxury of 100,000 words to build your world and develop your characters. Every-Single-Word-Has-To-Count. Choose details that both reinforce your scene and illustrate your character. Trim unnecessary dialogue tags, and don’t tell the reader what they already know. Edit like a demon and don’t waste space.

Another key is to keep your plot tightly focused. Deal with one main conflict, with maybe one or two secondary threads, and limit the number of characters involved.  A cast of thousands – or even ten – won’ fit into five thousand words. If you’re struggling with this part, then the story might be too big for the format, and you may need to think in terms of a novella-length piece or even a novel.

Most compelling plots are built around a model like Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey. You can do that with short stories, too, but you only have space to show some of the steps. Reference the other steps, so that your reader has a sense that your story has a bigger context as you hone in on one section of the model’s arc.

Like everything in writing, “the rules” aren’t cast in stone. These are just some of the tools I picked up that I hope will help you in your work. If there’s a specific technique you want to try – writing from a different POV or using a historical setting, for example – put it in a short story. You’ll have the chance to practice without committing hours of time and energy to a project that might just end up as a learning exercise.

Short stories and novellas are popular e-book sellers, so it’s a format that’s worth exploring for its own sake. If I apply the correct persuasive techniques to my beta readers, I can turn around a 5000 story in under two weeks. (I’m lucky that most of them will work for chocolate, or sometimes cocktails.) Some ideas simply work better in a short format, and I keep a list of possibilities handy, to work on between more extensive projects. Writing short stories takes discipline, but it’s fun and well worth the effort.

Liv Rancourt writes paranormal and romance, often at the same time. She lives with her husband, two teenagers, two cats and one wayward puppy. She likes to create stories that have happy endings, and finds it is a good way to balance her other job in the neonatal intensive care unit. 

Liv can be found on-line at:
Website & blog (

Molly, a forty-something single mom, tangles with the wrong guy and gets a hell of a hickey. That blotch is really a demon’s mark, and she’ll have to face the three things that scare her most to get rid of it. First, Molly loses her job and then she has a near-sex experience with her philandering, not-quite-ex-husband. Worst of all, she has to sit by a hospital bed, wondering if her son is ever going to wake up.

The Powers That Be assign Cass to help her. He’s an angel who’s trying to earn a seat in the celestial choir by helping out a human in need. Vanquishing the demon would be his ticket up, but only if he plays by the rules. He’ll never earn his wings if he loses his heart to the lovely Molly. But she has even bigger things to worry about. She stands to lose her soul.

Forever And Ever, Amen is available from Crimson RomanceAmazonBarnes & Noble, and ARe

Liv Rancourt
Let's have a devil of a good time!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Wild and Crazy Thoughts

Meditation, what is it anyway?
Some say it is emptying the mind of all thought, some say it's a way toward a state of peace and still others say they can’t sit still that long.
Of course meditation can be any/all of those and more. Generally, meditation is used to dismantle thoughts that have compulsively taken over and are causing us stress or illness, leaving us in a more peaceful state.

Spiraling down, through doubts and fears
I was inundated with a bout of depressing thoughts, fears, and can’t dos this past week with all that I had to do to ramp up for publication of my new novel, Dance the Dream Awake. I think you could probably tell I was wigging out if you read my last post, Blogger's Block or Puddle of Muddle. My friend, Sunny, slapped me upside the head and quickly stopped the downward cycle.
I began to wonder why these things happen; these debilitating thoughts that come and drive us crazy and make us feel incapacitated in some way.  


The fog cleared enough for me to recognize a pattern in the workings of the mind--we cycle through our doubts and fears occasionally (or more often for some) and the one thing that helps me gain back my balance is meditation. I had not been doing it lately with all the to-do things pulling at me.

I have also been working on writing a different novel, set in Heian Japan, 980 A.D., and the voice of Master Kana (teacher to my samurai) came and said to me, “Be like the reed that bends in the storm that whips through the land. After the winds have died down, it rights itself, stronger than before.”

Don’t you just love that? The characters you make up come and talk to you? They don’t? Well, maybe you need to meditate more.

After I got further relaxed, another character, Akemi, came and gave me some advice while I watched her combing out the hair of my main female character, Miyoshi, “Untangle the knots that have formed in the winds of confusion.”

So I started deep breathing (it felt like I'd been holding my breath for over a week) to free up my chest area of all the constricted feelings there, after which I was able to empty my mind of fears, and limiting thoughts that had gripped and tightened my body.

Then what? Allow Space around you.
I felt the now cleared, space around me, like an artist staring at his empty, white canvas the moment before he begins to apply the paint, asking himself, “How will I approach this painting, what do I want to accomplish today, what feelings do I want to evoke when I finish and look back at it?”

Too many to-dos and not enough for-mes

Finally, I asked myself, “What one thing will I do today for me?” Not the from the shoulds or to-do lists, but for me—on my own personal canvas, just because.

I started to tell you what I was going to do, but then decided no--I will just do it for me.

Meditation--what does that look like for you, or not, if you don’t. C’mon, fess up. How do you relieve stress?

Do you have something you are going to do just for you today?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Bloggers Block or Puddle of Muddle

I read Kenra Daniels post at WG2E on keeping your blog focused. It was just what I needed to read. Getting back up into blogging mode this New Year has been difficult.  I could say I had writer’s block but that wouldn’t be true; more like blogger’s block, because I have been writing—a lot—on a new novel and editing my first novel coming out this spring—just not posting on my blog.

I needed a blog break. 

In January, I was on a writer’s panel at my local Sisters-in-Crime meeting. It was invigorating and fun. I was asked to share a short story and I chose the one I first had published many years ago, but not before going over it—and editing it, again.

Now, I am going through the process of publishing my first novel with Oak Tree Press and I just finished the final go-through editing stage. OMG how many changes can I find? It was embarrassing when I thought I had caught all the errors before I sent it in. Does the editing process ever end?

Then self doubt set in and I froze into a puddle of muddle.

I realized it is because I am still growing as a writer, still finding new ways to hone my craft, and what was good ten years ago or last year needs more work this year. Writers continuously evolve, or need to, and there is no static point you reach where you have arrived and your work will forever thereafter be perfect.

So, I thought that would be the end of my post today, but noooo—(I have to be honest here –well  I don’t have to be but I am going to be in case it can help some other author at this stage of their writing career)—there’s more.

I began to panic this weekend at the thought of doing the promotion part of being an author. Going out to promote, what me? By myself ? (my Libra talking here)
So, my friend had to talk me down off the ledge this morning when I thought I can’t do the promotion thing. All you introverts will understand.

This morning, I read Kristen Lamb’s blog about putting flaws into your characters to create that push-pull in your writing to make it emotionally powerful. Isn’t that what happens when we doubt our writing—or our ability to promote? We allow powerful emotions to get between us and our progress—the push-pull of, I’ve got it handled versus I can’t do that or I’m not good enough?

Maybe you have self-defeating thoughts that grab you by the throat and try to undermine your progress. I think we all suffer from these moments and all we can do is rest a bit and pick our self up, dust our self off and start all over again. Keep on keeping on. One foot in front of the other, etc. etc.

Do you ever go through deadly self doubt self-examination phases when you think all your work is trash not up to snuff and you can’t write and everything you have ever written isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on, or, what me promote my book? Isn’t that what publishers are supposed to do? What happened to the good old days?

Tell me I am not the only one who gets these moments. Please—so I don’t crawl back up onto that ledge.