Reading Your Own Work for Entertainment

>> Monday, September 10, 2012

Lots of things inspire and encourage me and, I'm sure, most of the rest of you who are interested in writing. Praise is good, of course. So is being paid/published.

Even so, being open to that sort of thing has a down side. NOT getting paid or published (no matter how little work you've actually devoted to marketing) is NOT encouraging. And even the most devoted friend/fan can't stoke your ego constantly. For one thing, writing is time consuming so they either have to gush constantly over the same small tract of writing (which hardly makes it sound sincere) or their compliments are likely interspersed with long patches of not much.

If you want to write and need something to keep you from getting to disheartened to write, reading both good and bad literature can help. The good because being swept away reminds you why you wanted to write in the first place. The bad to remind yourself that it can't be hopeless for your own work or this book would never have made the light of day.

And both good and bad literature are great learning tools. The bad can be a smorgasbord of what you don't want to do yourself; the good a feast of what you do want to do. In my case, my reaction when I read a book tells me instantly if it's a good book, great book or garbage. Garbage I don't want to read and won't read past the point when I feel I've either never stood at risk of writing that poorly or that I've already picked up all their bad habits and can move on. Good stuff I still pick apart but find myself driven to read more because (probably) there's a character in there I just want to know what happens to. Or it has a thought-provoking premise or it grew on me, even while I was picking it to pieces.

The great stuff, the stuff I put in my bedroom books shelves (I have five, floor to ceiling) are the books I completely forgot to pick apart because I was too caught up in the story and people and stuff. Stuff I love to read over and over and over again. So far, at least to date, I eventually get to the point where I can pick it apart and figure out why it worked so well for me. But these books, even after I've "figured 'em out," are still a joy to read over and over again and, with no effort, I can lose myself again.

Frequently, it's books like that that get me writing again.

So, anyway, I haven't been writing. I tried to edit one of my (I thought) better novels and had to stop because I decided it was all garbage. Can't edit that way because, a) if it's true, there's no sense writing anyway and b) if it's not, you don't have the perspective to make it better if you're thinking that way.

Well, this past weekend, instead, I read a novel I really enjoyed writing and I read it for fun, just read it without editing, except for a few word choices or typos, and let myself get immersed, let myself laugh and get emotionally torn up and all the things I want my book to do to someone else. You know what? I loved it! Man, I rock!

So, now I'm ready to edit the book that came before it, not because it has no flaws but because now I know those flaws can be handled and that it's worth it. Because the world I'm building is worth it.


It's All About the Story

>> Wednesday, August 22, 2012

I've talked before about the importance of story, of everything bowing down to the importance of the story. Admittedly, I've given far more time and effort to characterization than storytelling, but that's because it's my favorite aspect, not that it's more important. For me, it's a crucial element to telling a story, because a story, without someone at the center, someone having events happen to them and reacting to them isn't a story. I say this because I was reminded yesterday, of what makes a great story.

I have read lots of things over the years, and learned from almost all of it, every genre, forms of prose and poetry. Movies, shows, drivel, classics, I devoured them all, leaching out experience, what I wanted to emulate, what I wanted to avoid and, once in a while, becoming inspired.

I can remember when I first really became interested in writing short stories, earnestly and fantasy in particular, reading a singular compelling story called "Spoils of War" by Jennifer Roberson in Sword and Sorceress V (edited by Marion Zimmer Bradley). The prose read almost like poetry with cadence and power, each word exactly right, almost like a musical composition, building to a crescendo and a surprise denouement. Great stuff.

And it doesn't matter the genre, a great story is a great story. It doesn't have to have action or magic or even humor. It's story is a recitation of some experience that changes one or more lives (real or fictional), which can include reactions from the characters or just how they change and grow as a result. And, growth, boys and girls, means the character(s) learn something.

But sometimes I get so caught up in doing something clever or complex or imaginative, make it entertaining but meaningful and original that I forget that there are lots of things that make a story great. And sometimes, what it is is simplicity, with no more words than required to tell the reader everything they need to get the maximum impact from the story.

It's no secret that, at least recently, I've really found myself fascinated, even obsessed, with manga and anime. It's not just "foreign" comics; it's storytelling and I think part of me is fascinated because so much of the story is pictured not said. And some of its very powerful.

Yesterday, I stumbled across this story, one of four from Garden Dreams by Yoshinaga Fumi and the only one of the chapters I found on-line. (Note, not yaoi or with any gay overtones, no overt sex or violence). Yet, it was perfectly complete standing on its own. Again, I was caught up in the cadence, the pacing, revealing and hiding things in perfect time like an excellent musical composition. For me, it was a masterpiece in storytelling, not only in the tiny pittance of words used and the expressive and powerful artwork, but in the wealth of concepts, emotions and power that were never expressed and yet clearly communicated.


I'd forgotten how very powerful simplicity could be.

No bells whistles. No action. No fighting. No clever schemes. No sex. No world to save. No thigh-slapping humor. Just a man shaped by and shaping his fate. Set in a time theoretically like the Crusades, but easily identifiable here and now. At least for me.

And having found it, I'm pointing it out to others who might appreciate it (note that I bought the book quite inexpensively on 'cause that's how I roll.).

Note: For those of you who feel like complaining because I mentioned a manga here and I have a blog just for that. I do have a blog for that and I intend to write at considerable length about the mangaka, Yoshinaga Fumi there. But this was about storytelling and very appropriate, in my opinion, right here.

And it's my blog so I get to decide.

Update: I did write about Yoshinaga Fumi on my otaku blog here  and here.


I Don't Get the Big Deal About "The Hunger Games"

>> Saturday, August 18, 2012

I don't do reviews, as a general rule (manga/anime is an exception but that's on a different blog). Several reasons for this, not the least of which is that my tastes are eclectic (VERY eclectic) and I'm generally focused on one aspect of the story to the exclusion (and forgiveness) of all others. And, let's not forget, I'm weird.

But, I do bring things up if they make me pause, especially if they have the potential to entice me to write again. There are two things that do that - a story/character I adore that makes me want to do something better with my writing or inspires me on a hitherto unforeseen writing path...and a story that is quite successful commercially that makes me roll my eyes and wonder what the heck is going on. 

My daughter is a fan of The Hunger Games, and she's one of many many others. People love the book (disclaimer, I haven't read it) and gush about the movie, too. My daughter loved them both when she was quite critical of the movie Twilight despite her delight in the books (which she no longer has). I liked the Twilight books myself (and the movies, I might add) though not in the everyone-should-love-this sort of way but more in the this-is-an-intriguing-character sort of way. And, for those of you who know me, one character I really enjoy is all I need to forgive plenty of other things (including some "science" that still makes me cringe if I think about it).

She's got a decent batting average, actually, on introducing me to stuff I really like and hit a homerun with the anime Bleach I've spent the summer addicted to. Loved a number of characters, the premise, etc. But other stuff she wants me to try, well, it's hit or miss.

Now, if you love the books and haven't seen the movie or haven't delved into either but want to and don't want spoilers STOP READING NOW. 'Cause I can't tell you what bothered me without telling you about the story, so there are spoilers galore out there. And I'm not saying you can't like it for whatever reason you liked it. I, however, did not.

First off, it's depressing. I know that's in with YA literature right now, but I don't like being depressed unless there's a good reason for it, so you get a pass from me with an oppressive air talking about the holocaust (which was depressing and gruesome but a good lesson to remember) and not one on a notional fictional future that, as far as I could see, made no damn sense at all. Not that there isn't plenty of SF that doesn't make sense, but often the characters made sense or there was a point, or, at least, it was funny (think Demolition Man).

We start off with our oppressed people, tormented for 74 years due to uprising against what was, apparently, Big Brother, direct from 1984 (I guess he showed up late). The punishment for this effrontery was to take people at random from the areas that rebelled and make 'em fight it out to the death, Gladiator meets Survivor style and the winner gets glory and riches and stuff. Now, first off, that's a stupid punishment. What government's gonna care, even a local one? The whole dingy shanty-town area (replete with coal miners in the enlightened future) is surrounded by lush landscape which no one is farming or making of use of in any way, while the shanty-town inhabitants stave off starvation by working for Big Brother and killing small game.

Old concept, which, as a die-hard historian and SF reader, I've read versions of at least a dozen times. A handful of cliches, obvious (and, truth told, effective) emotional manipulations (like kill the twelve year old friend so, when we take out the "bad guys" at the end because we had no choice (kill or be killed), the reader/viewer will nod their head and say, "Serves 'em right." Same tactic has been used in at least half the James Bond movies). In the end, they "outsmart" Big Brother and she doesn't have to kill everyone, but even that doesn't make sense. (It's all about giving hope while reminded the people who's in charge WHILE still getting great ratings. Letting the two commit suicide fits way better (and is far more eye-catching) than letting potentially dangerous renegades get off scott free.)

But I'd likely forgive all this if I just liked somebody. I like strong female protagonists, so you'd think I'd like this one, but she's not particularly savvy, she's willing to use people and, in fact, has only the fact she's willing to go in her sister's place to recommend her. Nice gesture but not enough to make her a likeable character.

Or, if there was a point. I know, lessons are not supposed to be in stuff today, but I gotta say, when I spend a couple hours watching something, I either want to be entertained or intrigued. I need a point or an interesting character to be intrigued, or at least something original. I seriously didn't see the point. I'm glad it was just a couple of hours wasted rather than taking the time to read it.

Or maybe I just missed it. In any case, whatever makes this the delight of thousands if not millions, I don't get it.

Note - I might be oversensitive. I have a survival type story, in fact, two novels. No cameras but survival is still the name of the game with some internal hostility. Ah, but in mine, people have to work together. Maybe that's what I'm doing wrong. 



>> Thursday, May 3, 2012

I thought I'd put a link in a previous comment but apparently I messed that up.

As I'd mentioned earlier, I was to be published on May 1 in the redesigned and now mostly on-line SQ Magazine. Well, I wasn't lied to nor was I lying. It was in the second edition of the reenvisioned magazine: Masks.

I'm hoping all those links work, or at least one of them. Any one working will get you the rest of the way.

More writing news as it happens.

So it might take a while :).


A Little Request

>> Monday, April 30, 2012

I was entered in the Liz Norris Pay It Forward contest (as touted by Janet Reid). Didn't win, but that's cool. I heard I was up against some good stuff so I'm not surprised.

However, as a follow up, I got this message from Janet Reid:

First and foremost, thanks for being part of the Liz Norris Pay It Forward Debut Novel contest.

My intention was to write to thank you for being part of our first contest and solicit suggestions for doing it better next time (next time!!)

Events have conspired to make that the second email you'll get.

Right now, we're in a bit of a pickle. Barnes and Noble has shelved UNRAVELING in the kids section. It belongs in YA. They caught the error and corrected the computers. It's moving the actual books that's more difficult.

That's where we're hoping you come in. IF you're in a BN in the coming days and you see UNRAVELING in the kids section, we'd count it a great favor to us if you'd take all the copies to the info counter or the cashier for reshelving.

These kind of glitches happen and trying to figure out how to fix them is a real challenge.  If you've got any ideas for what else we can do,  I'd love to hear them!  We don't want to wag any public fingers at BN--in this day and age this kind of thing happens a lot.

When I realized there was a whole group of people spread across the country that I could ask for help, it was a HUGE relief. There are some real disadvantages to be so NYC-centric you've never been to a BN in Jersey!

Thank you for any help you can give us. And thanks for entering the contest...but more on that to come!

Yours truly,

Now, why would you bother? I mean you may or may not have entered the contest.

Well, see, this fits in under the category of "something nice you can do without it costing anything" - like a smile to a stranger or a little dose of politeness. I always like to do a little something nice when I can, myself.

However, even if you have no interest in doing the writer any good, or B&N any good, or agents any good, it's still worthwhile because the real person you're helping is the potential reader who can now find a book looking where they should (and not confusing someone who found the book in the inappropriate section).

And let's face it, if it was OUR book, I think we'd all appreciate a little painless good deed by strangers.

Just sayin'.


It Can't Always Be Good News

>> Tuesday, April 10, 2012

First, for those of you sharp-eyed patrons who might have noticed, my header has changed and this is no longer "novelists at large" but just one, me, Stephanie Barr. Although I did write three novels with Lee, with our divorce fresh and still raw and both of us scrambling to find our new equilibrium, there's no telling if there will ever be another one we write together. And it won't be the same.

Still, one must give credit that writing three novels with one's spouse, without any blood drawn, is no small achievement. I'm grateful for the perspective and recipient ear he provided, the insight, and the character traits I loved (all captured quite cunningly in various character put on virtual paper). I enjoyed writing with Lee, except for a handful of short bursts where I hated it, and it was certainly a learning experience.

I will still be writing and talking about writing here, but this was a big change and deserved mention.

Secondly, as predicted, my slow introductive start for Saving Tessa did not impress the ABNA judges and I failed to pass the second round (though my sister, Shakespeare did so feel free to give her your support).

Predicted or not, I was more devastated by this than I had expected. Perhaps, this was bad timing (Motto: Don't try to market books while you're already reeling from personal tragedy) and amplified by unrelated stress. Perhaps, as I haven't really tried marketing anything for a while (and I have a soft spot for Saving Tessa), I was still too close to it. I spent a day questioning why I keep trying to write and wondering if I'm as good as I think I am, or even good at all.

Then, as cursing the darkness only gets one so far, I went looking for a match. The strengths of my stories (or so I believe) are characters and dialog and humor. Humor, I might add, is far too uncommon in novels as a whole, or rather, good humor is. But the humor, which is a big part of this and every book (without making them comedies) was in scarce supply in my beginning. I don't want to jump into my plot in my beginning; didn't then and still think it's wrong for the story.

But, I could change how I introduced my characters and spice things up nicely with far more overt humor, which would not only make the story more interesting in the beginning, where it needs to be to interest agents, publishers and readers, but also offers considerably more opportunities for revealing why I love my characters and revealing the dynamics of their relationship without just describing it.

I haven't put my thoughts and speculations to the test yet, though I've been toying with some possibilities on how to do it, but, I'm excited by the notion, already thinking of ways I can use this new scene to streamline "narration" from others or other aspects that were bogging down the first few chapters.

And, if this brief disappointment I had ends up making this a better book, well, then it's just the tonic I needed.


More Writing Updates

>> Wednesday, February 29, 2012


My short story that made honorable mention will be "published" in the second edition of SQ Magazine's tranformed eZine on May 1, or so I've been informed. The story's called "Masks."

Secondly, for those that are interested, I followed my sister, Shakespeare's, advice and entered Amazon's Breakthrough Novel Award contest. Note that she's also the one who advised me to enter SQ Magazine's contest and a poetry contest where I was also one of the finalists.

I was a little leery. Most of my books were co-written with my soon-to-be ex-husband and ABNA only allows solo author entries. Secondly, the first round, where they do their big purge from 5000 entries to 1000 entries each in general fiction and young adult respectively depends entirely on the blurb written.

Well, I've made no bones about it. Querying and marketing are definitely my weaknesses. That's scary, knowing the first culling will be aiming for my weakness. On the other hand,  however weak I am at them, they are absolutely essentially. If I cannot master selling myself without forcing someone to read the entire manuscript, I might as well lock it into a virtual drawer and raise cats today. No matter how good I think my books might be, if I cannot convince anyone to read it, no one will ever know.

Additionally, I had two completed novels that my then husband had actively campaigned against so I wrote them myself, because I loved the characters, because I loved the time I spent with them. (See here, here and here.) Right or wrong, this was an opportunity to find out if the love I had for them is something anyone else might share or just my own personal affair.

So, I decided to enter, along with thousands (literally, close to ten thousand) others, including my sister, Shakespeare. Both Shakespeare and I entered in YA, presumably with blurbs we worked hard on. I know I did, gutting my first entry and following the advice of my own teenager on making it more exciting. After all, I'm aiming for teenagers.

Well, boys and girls, both Shakespeare and I made it successfully through the first round in YA. (First round "winners" in general, in case you're interested) Whew! I'll tell you, I consider that an accomplishment, even if I don't make it any further because it was--and is--something I really struggle with. So, kudos to me (and the other 1999 people who made it through).

Given the next step involves reading the first 3-5K of the novel, it's another challenge, again, not because I don't think the novel is good, but because I tend to work my way into my novels through my characters. Now, I know what you're thinking. No, no, no! You need the hook, the plot snag in the first five pages or you'll never be successful.

I know what you're saying. I know that's the current thinking. It might even be true that no one will ever read the novels I write because of the way I begin them, but beginning them differently won't work. It will come across contrived and forced because it WILL be contrived and forced.

You know what else? Most of my favorite books start out the same way. Published, even classic novels, written not only by authors I adore, but frequently by authors many people adored then and adore now. It's no coincidence that my favorite novels are character driven or that I write my own novels the same way. I'm fully prepared for the prospect that some of those reviewing my excerpt right now may not be able to get past that notion that I have to--positively must--jump into the action immediately. That I might get no further in this contest because of that.

But that's fine. I got through the first round so I did something right. If I make it any further, that will just be icing. If I don't make it further, at least I feel better that I might be able to entice someone else to give the book I've written a chance, to read it for themselves.


A Little Foreign Recognition

>> Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The down side to going on strike is that one is almost honor bound to cough up a new post after the strike is over or the strike doesn't mean anything. Fortunately, something interesting and writing related happened to me last week.

Nearly two decades ago, I had three stories published in PLOT magazine, in each in the first three issues: Code of the Jenri, Cauchemar and Windrider. Not long after that, the magazine went defunct (I think they had two or maybe three more issues after the last one I was in). Back when I was trying to find different writing communities, I tried I didn't like it because you couldn't remove your work on there once you put it on and, although you got feedback (as in rankings) there were other issues with how things worked. You really lost control over what you put there. Unfortunately, I didn't figure this out until I'd reposted Windrider there and a poem, The Siren. Ironically, they've done fairly well in the rankings since I abandoned them.

Anyway, imagine my surprise when I receive this in my email inbox (names removed to protect both innocent and guilty):


My name is XXXXXX. Im studying at a high school in Denmark. We are working with your short story "Windrider". Can you maybe tell me, which role does Venetia and Rene play in this story? And what is your main point with this short story?

Thank you!

Now, note what's cool about this. Not only did someone see my story and track me down across the ocean, but it's apparently being taught in a high school in Denmark. How freaking cool is that? Of course, I'm flattered that they thought contacting me on-line would be easier than reading the story and figuring it out for themselves (though, of course, one must remember, this would be English as a second language). It was a real thrill.

But I know what you really want to ask. Did I give him the answer he wanted?

Hello, XXXXXX,

I am sufficiently impressed that you tracked me down given that my name has changed since this story was published more than a decade ago. Kudos to you.

I have to admit to curiousity how my story became part of the curriculum overseas, but I can't help but be gratified. I'd be interested in corresponding with your teacher to find out more. I'm not upset; quite the contrary. Anything I can do to help.

As for your specific questions, I'm not the sort of person who would tell you the answers to questions you were undoubtedly asked to provide yourself by reading the story; however, if you'd like to discuss aspects of the story with me, what you think and why and get my take on it, I'd be happy to give you my own opinions in answer to yours. It's a story I'm quite fond of.


Stephanie Barr

Sorry, XXXXXX. Too many teachers in my family for me to give the answers away.


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