The Under Ground Writing Project

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Intellectual Lineage: Rocking Out vs. Writing Books

Posted by Oliver on June 24, 2015 at 12:20 PM Comments comments (2)

I spent the last few days reading the lists Rolling Stone magazine compiled enumerating their take on the hundreds best--the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Aside from making me feel cultured (I had heard of almost every artist and I had heard most of the five hundred greatest songs), anyway, aside from that, this stuff from Rolling Stone felt kind of annoyingly bland. It felt bland for the particular reason that it didn't illuminate any great mysteries into the heritage of my favorite bands. All I got from reading this stuff from Rolling Stone was that rock-and-rollers have a respect for their history and, when they're good at what they do, they recognize the direct line they can trace in their craft from themselves backwards, almost without variation, to Robert Johnson, and through him to Irish immigrants in the Appalachians. Any attempt to trace rock and roll further back than that takes it into the slipstreams of ultimate history and Music of the Spheres type navel gazing. The great thing about American rock and roll is it is possible to put boundaries on its history and study it as a semi-nuclear phenomenon. In that way it's a really neat sort of petri dish of history. In a semi-enclosed system, your aspiring historian can look at rock-and-roll as a study of the way culture develops. Wars, strife, victories, losses, ethnic diversity, technology, monuments, myths--it's all there.


Writing hasn't got that kind of history. I mean to say, writing has got history. It's got among the grandest histories in the world, if you think about it. Before humanity even made an attempt to figure out actual cause-and-effect explanations for things, we made up highly improbable and fantastical stories to explain things. Reading into the oldest history of mythology is interesting because it's a little like reading into the history of rock-and-roll legends: you can see trends. For instance, the head honcho in the Mesopotamian pantheon was the god of storms. I've always had this hypothesis--and it's slowly becoming a theory--that the first myth got invented because some little kid was scared during a storm and his grandmum, feeling a maternal drive to comfort the kid, invented a story about the man in the sky driving the storms. If this is the case then it's also the seed of all religion, all literature, and, really, all civilization. It's a pretty thought.


Mythology is the first and greatest example of stories getting bigger and more important than storytellers, and that has been a trend in writing ever since. Writers don't have the same defined, nuclear history as rock-and-rollers. When a rock-and-roller sits down and looks into the history of his craft, he finds his roots--he finds a rich and intricate history filled with people, many of them still alive, who he can go and personally study. The rock-and-roller finds paved roads, often covered in graffiti and marked with confusing signs sure, but he finds a recognizable heritage that he can step into, if he's clever enough.


As a writer, I feel differently than that. When I study my intellectual history, I usually feel like I'm staring into an infinite depth with no way in and, should I be so unwise as to take some steps into its myriad floods, no survivable way out. When I look at the lineage I'm attempting to inherit I feel like I'm looking at a cave of light populated by everything produced by everyone before me ever. You can get lost in there.

Review of Stephen King's The Colorado Kid

Posted by Oliver on March 13, 2015 at 12:05 PM Comments comments (0)

The Colorado Kid succeeds at something I’m always trying to do. Now I know why people get annoyed with me when I’m trying to be “clever.”


Stephen King wrote this book allegedly because he was a fan of indie publisher, Hard Case Crime. They were about to go under, apparently, and he offered to write them up a book so they could say that they published a big author and use that to market their brand. It seemed to work for them.


My dad says this thing about George Lucas sometimes: Lucas could totally release a tape of his home movies and call it “Star Wars,” and he’d make hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office, his fan base is that established. It’s a good point, and King has a similar kind of clout. He could have cobbled together a meaningless mash of cock-up and given it to Hard Case Crime and it would have attracted significant readership. When I was told the impetus behind The Colorado Kid, I figured that’s what I’d see: some pointless mush that King threw together over a weekend. I’m pleased to have misjudged King’s integrity.


The Colorado Kid isn’t a creeping, eerie masterpiece of hard boiled crime. King will not be the next Dashiell Hammett, and we won’t be speaking his name on lists of crime fiction writers with P.D. James. We cannot go that far. For The Colorado Kid, the distance we can go is to say it’s an engaging read and–given a certain kind of taste–as satisfying a novella as you might spend a few hours ruminating on.


King designs a king of “pick your own ending” mystery scenario without seeming to do it in a stereotypical fashion or even necessarily inviting that type of reading. The Colorado Kid also serves, rather unexpectedly, as a vessel for the opportunity to examine the form and function of story structure and what people seem to mean when they say “good” or “satisfying.” In my opinion, this is a really good example of “writer’s fiction.” There’s a phrase in rock and roll history: musician’s musician. Obscure artists who earn the moniker “musician’s musician” earn it by making things easier to appreciate by people in their field than by the general public–people say of them that “hardly anyone bought their album–but I guarantee that everyone who did went off and started a band.”


The Colorado Kid isn’t so abstractly authorish to earn the credential of being something only writers will really get, but it is definitely going on my list of books I’ll suggest to people who are studying character and plot.


Side note, this is what King did in this book that I’m always trying to do: King wrote a “story” that deserves quotation marks around it without veering into realms of surrealism and obscurity.


I think I respect King more than I used to respect him. I didn’t used to respect him very much.

Originallity: If Possible, Should You Even Care?

Posted by Oliver on January 27, 2015 at 2:55 PM Comments comments (1)

A friend of mine reads avidly; good on to her. She reads only nonfiction; in itself, that isn’t bad. She explains why she only reads nonfiction with this question: aren’t you afraid that what you write will end up looking like what you read? She explains that reading all nonfiction avoids this difficulty.


I see her point. If I read too much of one author or too much in one style I notice myself making choices veering in favor of the intellectual drag caused by such things. I go ellipsis crazy if I read too much Harry Potter…. If I read too many comic books, I get glib, impractical, and overdramatic! When I read Cormac McCarthy I killed everyone—just for the violence (I’m not sure I understood what McCarthy was going for). It’s a legitimate thought, in a way. I haven’t yet solidified what I’d call my “voice” in writing, but I’m getting there, and I would hate to see the confounding of the limited progress I’ve made by the invasion of other whisperings.


My friend, though, didn’t mean by her comment only that she worried about copying styles. She worried about advertently or inadvertently copying story structures and plots and premises. I mean, yeah, I can see the problem with that. You don’t want to spend all your time reading Jane Austen then set out to write a gritty crime noir novel only to realize that quirky young do not make for very good hard-boiled private investigators, and that you should have been writing about murders instead of ladies falling in and out of love with stoical rich gentleman. It is a reasonable point.


That said, I’ve never experienced that it was much of a danger. I said above that I very nearly have an idea about my “voice.” I developed it by self-examination, study, and by mimicry. I always get this story wrong, so I won’t tell it, but look up the method Benjamin Franklin used to teach himself to write. He did it by copying other essays, and he copied a lot of essays. If you read his stuff—and I have—then you discover that he’s a damn good writer, and he’s extremely unique. He sounds like himself and not like anyone else. Sure, he didn’t write fiction. It ought to be very close to the same kind of discipline. If what we’re examining here is the idea that reading things like what you write might have the issue of overwhelming your way of writing, then Benjamin Franklin’s a great example. I intentionally muck about with the writing styles of authors I like. I’ll copy things they say word for word, because some things they say strike me so deeply that I want to understand what happened. It’s an incredible learning tool to get into the head of people who know better how to do what you’re doing than you do. You figure stuff out.


As far as structure goes, I don’t see that it’s possible to avoid accidentally copying the types of stories that other people tell. I study story structure a lot. I have been for most of my life. After my study, I get closer and closer to realizing that…well, formula is good. There are two kinds of “stories” people tell. The first kind is the kind that does, in fact, fit somewhat neatly into one of those basic categories we sometimes hear about—i.e. man vs. man, man vs. society, man vs. self, etc.. The second kind is the kind that doesn’t fit into any of those categories. The second kind is what we call experimental fiction. Maybe someone will discover a new plot type. (Man vs. computer? No, that’s man vs. nature if you think about it. Man vs. progress? That’s man vs. society. Man vs. psychotic alternate self? Maybe—maybe—a mix between man vs. self and man vs. man.) Usually what happens with the second type is that it veers into obtuse blah and either people don’t like it very much, or people don’t remember it very well. No, see, “cliché” structure is inevitable. It is not, however, in any way bad. We don’t read stories because of their original structure. We read them because of their original perspective. I mean to say, it could be argued that Dr. Doolittle and Jurassic Park are the same story—man vs. nature—but we remember them totally differently. It’s not inevitable to have an original perspective, but most people do.


Plus, like, back when I was doing a lot of baking, I’d copy the voice of cookbooks. So, yeah, like you run the risk of copying any voice and structure you read, fiction or no.


Last point: It’s infinitely educational to have an idea what’s out there in the genre you’re writing. If you haven’t got an idea about that, you run an equal risk of inadvertently copying someone else. I often experience an excellent idea then watch someone else make a movie about it.


I don’t feel like it’s a good idea to tell people write and wrong things to read. I am curious, though, if I’m unique in my interest to copy other writers in order to learn. How ‘bout it, then?

What I Learned About Writing From . . .

Posted by Debbie Meldrum on April 15, 2014 at 9:35 PM Comments comments (0)

Critique Groups

I have been a member of three different critique groupsover the past 12 or so years. Which, I hear, makes me pretty lucky. Somewriters bounce around a lot more than that. I met all the members of my second,Creek Writers Council, at the first one, Colorado Springs Fiction WritersGroup. Right now I’m working one on one with another person who was a member ofboth of my previous groups. Many lessons were picked up along the way. Here aresome of them.


1. If you have to explain it . . .


I've been on both sides of this one. A reader will say, "I don'tunderstand how George went from standing on a hill in Italy to hanging from a flagpole in Quebec." Once the writer starts explaining that, "Well,you see, he boarded a blimp in Tuscany, then he flew to Madrid where he hopped a train for Calais . . ." Yeah. But if it's not on the page, the reader doesn't know this. And you, as the writer, don't get to sit down with every reader to explain that. At least you hope not.


Jenny calls it "getting it on the page." What I see left off the page most often is setting. Where am I? What's it like there? How's the weather? All things that the writer has in his head when he's writing, but that he needs to show me as the reader.


I'm tried my best to overwrite my submissions. Most of my critique group found it easier to show where to cut than trying to figure out what was left out. I didn't always get there, but it was great exercise


2. Don't assume everyone knows what you do.


Not everyone has the same specialized knowledge. And the terms from that specialized area may not be easy to decode for someone not in the club.


Dancers, musicians, computer programmers, accountants, teachers, doctors, etc.all use terms that people outside of those realms may or may not know. Or it may mean something different to other specialties. A paradiddle in dance sounds like a paradiddle in drumming, but one is executed with the feet and the other with the hands.


This is a hard one, because once you learn something, it can be difficult to remember that you didn't always know it. This is where critique groups from diverse backgrounds are essential.


3. No two people read exactly alike.


Everyone approaches submissions in his own way. Some read straight through the first time, then go back and dissect. Some mark as they go and only read once. And each person has his own focus for critiques.


I've seen puns be a pet peeve for one reader and a delight for another. Some will add a comma to your sentence and others are just as likely to mark one out. I once had a woman tell me that I had a male character describe a room as only a woman would. The scene didn't bother the man in our group at all.


All of this can be really frustrating. But it is good practice for when your work goes out into the wider world. Get used to people misreading your work, your intention.


I'm learning to weed through the feedback so I can determine what to act on and what to leave as is. Notice I didn't say "ignore." I do listen to and read all feedback. I just don't always agree with all of it.


4. It's your work.


That's the biggest lesson from working with critique groups. Your work has to reflect you. Your voice. Your story. Your style.


We shook up how we ran the second critique group, because the original format was no longer working for some of us. It's not that it was wrong, just that we are at a different place in our writing. The strength of the group was tested and held. We discussed the issues and made a change that everyone could work with.

And even though we don't meet as a critique group any more, we're all still friends, which is huge. And we still read each other's work when asked.


I've learned that I need to speak up when something isn't working. Because of Lesson #3. It's my work, and I'm the one who needs to take responsibility for making it the best it can be.

With the help of my friends.



A Most Lethargic Urgency

Posted by Oliver on January 3, 2014 at 10:00 AM Comments comments (1)

Contradictions litter the writing life like lethal animals seem to litter all of Australia: they seem funny till you get close and realize that, if you don't understand them, they could kill you, but once you do understand them you can synthesize their venom into a powerful superpower inducing agent. We write for the masses, but we must do our writing alone. We have to understand our heritage while appeasing the gods of the now and hereafter. We must understand how our craft is art, and at the same time we have to apply technique and finesse to it. When we're doing the writing right, we're thinking and doing at least four or five contradictory things all at the same time.

One contradictory behavior I've been lately pondering has to do with maintaining energy levels while waiting. I've always thought about this non-verbally, but then the following happened, so now I'm writing about it. The following:

Me (on facebook/twitter): Dear people: I just submitted that werewolf story some of you have read to the contest I mentioned. Thanks for your feedback, pretties.

Jamie (the next day in person): Hey, I saw that thing you posted about sending that story to a contest. How'd it go? Did you win?

Me (after a thoughtful pause): Oh...I don't know yet. Thanks for asking. I should hear back from them in, like, four months. I'll tell you what they say.

Jamie: Cool. Well good luck.

The thought I had during that thoughtful pause was this: I take it for granted that I'll be waiting on this contest for several months, but Jamie--not a writer--took it for granted that I'd probably hear back reasonably quickly. It is, therefore, not the usual thing, except for writers, to wait a third of a year to hear back on one contest.

For writers, it really is common to wait that long for EVERYTHING. Writers make a regular practice of beginning something wonderful with all the childish glee due to it, but then resign themselves to (hopefully) cheerful naval-gazing and thumb twiddling for disproportionately long periods of time.

Would it not be charming if, for those periods of time, waiting could be our main engagement? We live in an era of hedonism. Filling idle hours runs the economy of the USA. I am, even now, halfway attentive to Pandora (a band called Enter the Haggis) and to a free online roleplaying game. If I didn't feel like concentrating then I'd probably be watching an episode of the X-Files at the same time. We all know, however, that doing nothing constructive while we wait is near to sacrilege.

I used to work in a cafe, and one of my uncool managers there had a saying: Maintain a simulated sense of urgency at all times. I always thought it was a dumb saying. In spite of disliking the saying and its source in the way most people dislike lukewarm steamed cabbage, I find myself repeating it to myself a remarkable amount of times. It turns out to be precisely the kind of advice the lazy creator in me needs so he can continue working. Years ago I started attempting to simulate a feeling of hurry; whenever I had downtime I got in the habit of reminding myself that my novel needed some attention, or I needed to look up that one grammar rule to make sure I was doing it right, or I needed to organize that stack of feedback so I could look over it soon. I started to do this without thinking about it too much, and now it's gotten to the point that I do it as a subconscious act.

As it would happen, one more thing has recently happened that's given this cycle of thought a fitting geometry. A more experienced and wise friend of mine commented on a different but still contest related facebook/twitter above:

Jan: The rule is... submit it, forget it. If you hear back and it's positive (accepted)... Great. If not, you won't have fretted about it, prior.

In saying that, Jan reminded me that I'd been doing it subconsciously too (partly by practice, partly by being a culivated airhead). It has proved of advantage.

As we all know, if only sometimes say, the process of writing has a significant emotional component. It requires as much exertion as any other discipline, more exertion than many other things. It is possible to become physically exhausted from writing, in general we have observed that writing primarily requires emotional energy. We all build and regain our emotional strength from a variety of places, of course. It would seem that all people receive energy from a sense of success.

To submit a finished work for judgment is a kind of success; we get a rush from that. To receive news of its solution is a kind of success, and we also receive a rush from that. In the interim the necessary challenge is to maintain emotional energy. In between, though, is a long spell of anticipation. If you find anticipation itself energizing all the better. I do, I know, but only when moderated by real life. My observation of real-life people makes it look as if anticipation tends to be too exciting to be a constant state. People lose focus while anticipating.

Our goal as writers is: share the stories. That implies the two step process of a) writing them and b) getting them out there. In turn, that implies a cycle of long droughts of self motivation punctuated by bursts of momentous excitement which hopefully aids in keeping energy over the next set of long droughts. It would seem that the successful author has mastered balancing this contradictory cycle.

On the Futon Pages: WWO #4

Posted by Ali on April 17, 2013 at 6:35 PM Comments comments (0)

This is the spot where I spent a significant portion of the evening last night. I hunkered down with my laptop, a soft blanket, and my dog and spent some quality time reaching my goal for the week. I even passed it, just a little.


Last week's goal: Spend two hours working on the dragon story.

Actually accomplished: 2.5 hours on the dragon story.


It's a modest accomplishment, but I'm super pleased that I hit it. Sometimes it's all about the baby steps. More than the time goal, I'm pleased that I figured out what I want the main conflict to be. I've been fiddling with a string of options and writing, deleting, re-writing, deleting some more... as I've tried them on. Nothing really seemed right, until I tried on one more idea and it stuck. Now my heroine is off to the king's castle to have a frank chat with him about the problem of all these knights who keep trying to kill the dragon. We'll see if the idea is still sticky next week, or if I've changed my mind again and gone off in some other direction.


Goal for this week: Two hours working on the dragon story.


What about you?

Whatcha Workin' On? #3

Posted by Ali on April 10, 2013 at 8:20 PM Comments comments (2)

I've made progress on the dragon story, but it's not finished yet.  I'm working through plot structure and trying to figure out how I want to arrange the scaffolding.  Once I head in one direction, I decide that a different one would work better, or maybe that other one...  So, my progress has been circular rather than linear, but I'm getting there.


In other news, I ended up with a snow day on Tuesday, so I went on a bout of spring cleaning.  So, on the domestic front, I'm feeling pretty productive just now.  Lots of laundry done, even more laundry put away, things tidied, buttons re-sewn, three pairs of sunglasses re-discovered, a bathroom cleaned, and two bags full of old documents shredded.  Also, I did my taxes.  Not too shabby.


I'm taking a different approach this go around and setting my goal in terms of time, since this story is proving more labor intensive than I originally estimated.  This week, I'm going to spend at least two hours working on the dragon story.  If, by chance, it takes me less than two hours to wrap up the story, I'll move on to another project.


How about you?

Whatcha Workin' On? #2

Posted by Ali on April 3, 2013 at 6:10 PM Comments comments (2)

So, my first week of accountability crashed and burned. I haven't made any progress on the dragon story.


Before I commit Seppuku out of shame, though, I did get engaged last week and so my dance card wound up being full of sharing the news and the first stages of wedding planning. Maybe I'll justify my lack of word count by writing a wedding story. Thus, I was really doing research this week.


Now, for take two at accountability. Goal this week: Finish the dragon story.


How about you? How'd your goals turn out? What's on the docket for this week?

Introducing Whatcha Working On? Wednesdays

Posted by Ali on March 27, 2013 at 6:10 PM Comments comments (2)

Why Wednesdays? Because of the alliteration obviously.


I'm trying a new thing where, each Wednesday, I talk a little about what I'm working on and where I want to be on that by next Wednesday, and then I get nosy and ask you what you're working on. Why? Because accountability breeds productivity.


My evil plan is that, by making public goals I'm going to get more done. By asking you about yours, hopefully you will too. Play along and tell us your current project and what your next step is on that project. Also, anything goes. If you're working on a historical novel and your project of the week is going to the Renaissance Fair, that's cool. If you're brainstorming this week, reading, editing, doing something that'll get you inspired, working on writing exercises, or internet stalking your favorite writer... It's ALL GOOD.


I want to make a space to talk about ongoing process, what's working, what's not working, and hopefully we can all learn more about how other people do things (and steal their good ideas about getting words on the page).


Here are my current raw materials:

-I've written a first chapter of a novel (longhand), as well as some notes on plot points. Next comes transcribing/cleaning up the first chapter.

-I've written the first few paragraphs of a story about a dead guy and I'm thinking through some world building details in my head.

-I've written just over two pages about a girl, a dragon, and the fact that not all damsels need (or want) rescuing.


For this week, I'm going to focus on the dragon story. I imagine it as a relatively short one and it'd be nice to have it knocked out by the time next Wednesday rolls around. So, my official goal for the week: Finish the dragon story.


What about you?

Writer's Blah, Part 3

Posted by Ali on February 7, 2013 at 7:00 PM Comments comments (1)

This post is going to wrap up a series on writer's blah, aka, writer's block. This is my sum-uption post and it has some links in case you're sick of hearing what I have to say about all of this and want to see if other people are smarter than me. (They are. Some of them.)

I started out with a block, and ended up with a completed story. It's roughly inspired by the Duchess of Bathory (beware before you Google, it's a grisly story) and the working title is "The Virgin Problem."

Working through my writer's block has helped me realize that the root cause of my wall was, as explained in Writer's Block: The 12-Step Cure, trying too hard to be a genius. I was having a hard time, because I was putting so much pressure on myself to BE BRILLIANT! The key solution, as outlined in the post, was to let go of the pressure. #1 in the list: #1: Don’t be married to results. It's not about writing something that will astonish and amaze your readers, it's just about writing something. If, at the end, it's not something you'd publicly claim, then that's fine. Call it a warm up and move on.

For TVP, I was stuck on plot, so I started mentally listed possible "what happens next?" ideas, along with "what's the worst that can happen? ideas. Then, I picked a combo and went with it. Maybe there was a more clever way to do it, but the main thing was, something happened next.

There are some good tips over at the Grammar Girl website in Overcoming Writer's Block. One of the tips I like a lot, and often use, is #7: If you are blocked in your usual writing place, try a new place. I call this Out of the House Pages. You can get bonus points if you go someplace else and write using media you don't usually use - i.e. write longhand instead of bringing your laptop. For TVP, I ended up writing 80% of it while sitting on someone else's couch.

I also really like Grammar Girl's #9: Get someone to ask you questions about your story. This happens a lot in our critique group, and it's great. One of the questions that comes up from time to time is, "Why today?" It's an infuriating, but important question. Why is today the day the character professes his unrequited love? He's kept it a secret for three years, why is this specific day different from all the others? This question also speaks to the idea of the inciting event. You need one, even in a short story.

Writer's Digest has a great article, 10 Creative Ways to Beat Writer's Block, that has some great ideas. My favorites, at the moment, are #4: Creating an Atmosphere and #5 Enriching Your Descriptions. When I have a solid idea, these are two areas where I'm not as strong. I get caught up in this happens, then this, then this... and I speed through. More than one person has said my style reminds them of TV/movie writing because there are a lot of things that actors and a stage would fill in that I've left incomplete. Filling in these things is something I'm continuously trying to improve on.

Interestingly, I find that when I'm goofing around and I'm working on a writing prompt that starts from atmosphere, or describing something specific, the more I delve into that process, the more readily a story evolves from it. For me, when I start describing a secret high-stakes poker game, I start wondering about things. Who plays a game like this? Why does it have to be secret? How high are the stakes? Money's boring, but if the loser dies... and so it goes. The story behind the setting starts to evolve.

Another tip, not specifically nabbed from a website, is to write an explanation of your story to yourself. When you get stuck, write yourself a letter explaining your goals/vision for the story. This is a way of thinking out what you're doing and the more you explain it, the easier it is to figure out your snags. Let's say you want to have your character experience a loss. By spelling out your intentions, it can lead you where you need to go.

"Dear self, I'm trying to figure out what Susie needs to lose. She has to experience a loss so she'll be in the right state of mind to pick a fight with Bob over something minor. They need to have the fight, because that leads to the climax. If her loss is too major, then Bob's going to be sympathetic instead of combative, so that won't work. So, I can't have Susie's mother die. Or her dog. Okay, no death at all. But, it can't be too minor, either..."

Now, my final link for you is 13 Famous Writers on Overcoming Writer's Block. The collection is very cool and diverse. Also, it has Neil Gaiman in it!

*If you completely disagree with any of this advice, or think I've missed something vital, I'd love to hear it! Seriously, leave a comment. (Alternately, if you think I'm brilliant and have just solved all of your writer's block problems, that's cool too.) If you've ever overcome writer's block, please tell us how.

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