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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.

Dumb Books

Posted by Ali on February 27, 2013 at 6:45 PM Comments comments (2)

I live by the principle that life is too short to waste time with books I don't like. I'm quick to abandon books after readying a chapter or two because the tone doesn't work for me, I'm not invested in the characters, it's just too easy to put down, or, as in the case of a recent book, it's getting on my nerves.

Recently, I stumbled on a book while I was searching for another and read the synopsis out of curiosity. I'm not going to name the book or author, because that would be mean, but here's the overview: Historical fiction. A woman who's heartbroken after a broken engagement becomes a mail-order-bride and goes off to marry a widower and look after his kids. The marriage is supposed to be symbolic rather than romantic, but then they grow to care for each other. But, what about the bad secret in the woman's past? Will it threaten their burgeoning affection?

Based on the synopsis, I thought, "Sure, it could be interesting." After a few pages, my impression quickly changed to, "What? That's obnoxious. This book is dumb." I read two whole chapters, then tossed it aside with a feeling like I'd accidentally put my hand in something wet and sticky. I mean, seriously, ick. So, here's what went wrong.

1. Flashbacks.

Chapter one starts with two paragraphs in the "present" then leaps backwards in time. Two paragraphs is too little time to actually get anchored in the first scene before getting tossed around. The trend continues throughout the chapter, a few paragraphs here, a few paragraphs here, and by the time I read three pages, I had whiplash. Done right, flashbacks can be wonderful, but in this book, they were melodramatic, irrelevant, and distracting. I jump from the heroine on a train to her fighting with her parents, to back on the train, to back home again, to back on the train, to... Flashbacks are not an adequate substitute for good writing. In this case, I was annoyed, not intrigued.



2. Incoherent/nonsensical motivation.

Our heroine had her heart broken by some cad, so she answers a wife advertisement and immediately heads off to marry a stranger. During the flashback argument with mom and dad, it is revealed that our heroine comes from a moneyed family and is dropping out of university to become a mail-order-bride because of the security the marriage offers. Um, what? Since when do rich girls marry poor farmers for "security"?  Puh-lease.

She also tells her parents that, even though she has never met this man's children, she already loves them and must go be their hero-mommy! Ugh, gag me with a spoon. So, at this point, instead of thinking the heroine to be a noble gal who's following through with a hard decision because she's honorable, I just think she's an over-emotional idiot. I mean, clearly, she did not think this through. Maybe, if she was marrying the guy because she had fallen in love with hiim through his letters, I'd buy it. But, the author explicitly points out that love is NOT the point of this union. The point is that he needs help and she wants to get away from her heartbreak. Okay, but why does that require marriage? Have these people never heard of people hiring other people to help on the farm? Why does she have to go off and be his wife when she could just be his housekeeper? The more the author/character tries to justify the action, the more alienated I became.

3. Artificial conflict.

Our heroine gets off the train to meet her betrothed. She has purposely never asked him for a photo (didn't want to be superficial and find out if she actually thought the man she swore to marry was good looking), and he has never asked her for one. So, now they have to find each other without knowing who they're looking for. I was unimpressed by this contrivance, and grew less amused as the author tries to milk it for drama. Could that be him? No! He's not coming over to her. That guy sure is cute, though. But, who cares, her betrothed clearly isn't here. He's abandoned her. She must buy a ticket back. Oh no! The ticket guy was mildly rude to her. Ack! The world is ending! Oh dear, the cute guy is coming over here. Uh oh, awkward moment. Oh, wait, this hottie is really her intended! What a revelation!

Come on all of this nonsense when all she had to do was keep an eye out for a single guy, and say, "Hey, are you Bob?" People do this on blind dates all the time. It's not a crisis, really. Or, you know, the characters could have had half a brain between them and one of them figure out that it's easier to meet someone at the train if you have an inkling of what they actually look like. Yeesh. The characters are dumb and the conflict is prolonged to the point of eye rolling.

4. The Mary Sue effect.

Our rich, noble, and smart (well, she's supposed to be, even if her actions convince me of the opposite) heroine thinks to herself how she's never thought herself pretty, despite the way men are interested in her. Because, surely, having men flirt with her can't possibly mean she's pretty, because she has to be humble, right? Of course, as soon as we get a second in the POV of her betrothed, all he can think of is how gorgeous she is. Another gag me moment. So, our heroine is clearly Miss Perfect in every way. She's a victim of unfortunate consequences that are not her fault at all. Now, here she is, having made a poorly thought-out decision, but she's landed a total hottie who's also very sweet.

Put it all together and you end up with a book I had to write a whole blog post about because I honestly think it is just that awful. I'll skip the part where I wonder how this book even got published, because I think this saccharine stuff definitely has a niche, and go straight to the point where I tell you that it's okay to abandon books. Some published books are bad. Some books that sell a ton of copies are bad. Some books, my friend, just aren't worth your time. So, please remember: Life is too short for bad books.

Now, please tell me - have you abandoned any books lately? What writing crimes have made you abandon books in the past?

Actually Finishing Novels

Posted by Ali on November 14, 2012 at 6:30 PM Comments comments (1)

In honor of NaNoWriMo, I'm passing along an article I found. It's not about how to write a novel, but rather about how to finish it. The finishing part is essential, and I say this as someone who has written the same novel twice, only to get stalled out about 3/4 of the way through.


The name of the article is Strategies to Make Sure You Actually Finish That Novel, and it's got a list of twelve things you can try to power through to the end.


My favorite tips that I plan to use to help with the twice-written, never-finished project are:

1. Write the ending first. (Or, in my case, jump from where I am now to the end and skip all the in between bits until later.)

2. Write a terrible ending. (So, I get to jump to the end and just slap something down to help clarify where I think I'm going and where I really ought to be going.)


There are ten other exercises you can try out, and I'm sure there's bound to be at least one on the list that clicks for you. At the end of the article, author Charlie Jane Anders wraps up with great works of wisdom for first drafts, and especially NaNo:


"And most of all, don't forget to have fun with this! The first draft is just you playing a wacky game with yourself. It's the fifth or tenth draft that actually has to be all grown-up and dressed to go over to strangers' houses."

Seven Steps to Surviving a Novel Critique

Posted by Ali on November 8, 2012 at 6:35 PM Comments comments (0)

So, you're about to get your novel critiqued by a big group of people. Take a deep breath and chill out, it's going to be fine. No, really, I promise. The first thing to keep in mind is that a novel is long and you have a lot of people offering feedback. Add the two up and that means you're going to get a LOT of criticism. Don't be scared. Embrace this. Because the only reason you're getting the criticism is because your writing group actually cares about making your novel better. With that in mind, here's my practical how-to for navigating a big critique.


1. Take notes. Your lovely critiquers have written lots of comments on your draft that you can review later. When someone's talking, sometimes they can explain something better with a hand gesture than they can in text. Then, you write it down in a way that makes sense in your own brain for when you go back later.


Also, writing notes is a way to process feedback without having to deal with it right that second. You're recording, so you can go back later and sort out what you think of that feedback. (Since I'm a visual person, this also helped me "see" the themes in comments, which helped me with the #2 on this list.)


2. Look for areas of consensus. You're going to get lots of diversity in the feedback you receive. One of the important things is to focus on the biggies. In my critique, some people thought the main character was too abrasive. Others thought she needed to be tougher. On the surface, this seems contradictory. However, the bigger theme was that I needed to flesh out her motivations. If I do this well, then people in both feedback camps will be more satisfied because she'll be a stronger character, which is the root of the problem.


3. Keep it big picture. Look, you're working on a novel. You need to get the macro issues fixed first. Your writing group is going to do their best to be super helpful. So, you're going to get feedback on everything from plot, to character, to line edits. Whew! That can be overwhelming. The thing is, once you dig into revision, you have to skip the line edits for now and start with the foundation.


When you revise to strengthen plot and character, you're going to make a lot of large scale changes. A new chapter gets added, another chapter gets deleted, this character now does X instead of Y, and, by the way, the climactic fight scene is now set on a yacht instead of a museum.


As all of these things get changed, they're going to change the smaller scale things like word choice, descriptions, and typos. Right now, the feedback that addresses the macro issues is more important than the comments about smaller scale problems.


4. Prioritize feedback. In any writing group, there are some critiquers who think more in line with what you're trying to convey. It's okay to give those critiques a little more weight. When someone's saying, "Here's what I suggest to fix your structure," and you're thinking, "Yes! I need to fix my structure and that solution totally makes sense to me!" go ahead and underline & highlight that comment.


5. Find time to clarify. At the end of the group critique, you should have a chance to ask your group a few questions. This is not the time to argue with feedback. However, by now might have a couple of questions that the feedback brought up. Maybe you're already toying with some of the changes you might make.


It's okay say something like this to your group, "I was trying to show the character's deep seated fear of monkeys, but it seems that wasn't clear. Do you have suggstions on how I can bring that out?" Or, you can say something like, "Based on what you've said, I thought I might make the character a detective instead of a librarian. Do you think that would work?" Use the gang as a sounding board and you'll get a pretty quick feel for if your planned changes would be a good fix.


Just remember, this is not the time to say, "You're all a bunch of idiots because you obviously missed that the main character is actually a computer with artificial intelligence."


6. Give yourself some decompression time. If your experience is anything like mine, you'll walk out of the room with your head spinning. You've just gotten oodles of information thrown at you. You may want to jump right into revision to fix everything right now. Don't do this.


Your brain needs some time to filter. You want to let a few weeks go by and see what sticks in the front of your mind. Chances are, the suggestions that stay fresh are the suggestions you should start with. It will also give you some time to align the feedback with what you really want to do with the novel. Yeah, the idea of rewriting the novel to make it into a space opera may sound cool, but if the story you really want to tell is a comedic murder mystery, the two aren't really going to mesh.


The other reason to let it sit is that it allows you to get over the initial emotional rush of the critique. A little bit of time means you can tackle revision in a more objective head space. You're no longer in panic mode, and you can be more thoughtful about how you're going to dig in.


7. (Optional, but highly recommended) Treat yourself to something nice. Go ahead and be extra nice to yourself. You have just opened yourself up and made yourself super vulnerable. Also, you've finished the rough draft of a whole novel. Celebrate that. It's not a perfect novel yet, but now you're armed with a lot of ways to make it better. So, go ahead and take yourself out to dinner some place you like. You've earned it.

The Whole Shebang

Posted by Ali on October 26, 2012 at 2:15 AM Comments comments (1)

This Sunday is going to be a very interesting day. Back in August, I gave the group copies of a full novel draft and Sunday is the day they're going to critique it.


So, how do you do a full novel critique with a group of about a dozen critiquers? The answer: you chunk it. The plan is that each person has organized their feedback into a few key overall categories, like plot and characters. That way, hopefully, it'll be easier to spot the trends in feedback, i.e. character X is unlikeable and needs to be tweaked.


It also lets me as the writer get specific feedback. With this draft, one of the things I want to make sure works is the world building, so that's one of the areas I asked everyone to focus on.


On Sunday, we're going to do a round-robin and everyone is going to give me their key comments, one at a time. Then, we'll follow that with a more informal session where it'll be more conversational. I'll have a chance to ask everyone questions and they'll be able to talk back and forth with me and each other.


Oh yeah, and there will be a bathroom break somewhere in there. Also, I'm bringing cookies to bribe everyone into saying only nice things. Or, I mean, to show my appreciation for all of the time everyone has put into doing the critique.


Part of me is a bit nervous about Sunday, but more of me is excited. With a group this size, and such a diverse group, to boot, I know I'm going to get a lot of helpful feedback. It's also always interesting to see how, in such a diverse groups, consensus arises. It's always cool to me to see so many people pick out the same thing(s) that are or aren't working. It's like crowd-sourcing and it always churns up good stuff.


Going into this critique, there are a couple of things I anticipate coming up in the feedback. Some bits need help and I wasn't able to figure them out on my own. The part I can't anticipate is what will come up that I didn't expect. Sometimes, those are the must fun comments to get. As the writer, you're too close sometimes to see the things that are glaringly obvious to a reader. Then, as soon as a critiquer points it out, you want to do a forehead smack and say, "Duh!" Those moments are the moments where you're incredibly glad you have a critique group.


Well, I'd better get to work on more cookies tonight. They're not going to bake themselves.

It has begun.

Posted by John Ridge on September 28, 2012 at 9:00 AM Comments comments (0)

I was going to start writing the second draft for my book in November. NaNoWriMo month, with something to write about, why not? By that time all of the research and planning will be done. What could possibly go wrong?

Remember when I talked about research? Well, I reached my saturation level. I started to see connections and associations that exist in the past and present of our world that would make anyone go a little nuts (I'm not kidding). 

So instead of wandering any further into the weeds, I decided to bring my focus back to the reason I was doing all of the bloody research in the first place. I started writing the first page Wednesday night. Then I rewrote it. I rewrote it on Thursday. I'll probably re-write it later once more pages have been written. When I wrote the first draft, I placed an artificial deadline upon myself, and the writing suffered. This time, I'm taking extra time, extra care with. Every. Word.

When Margaret Atwood spoke in town a while back, she mentioned that every bit of her books, while some of it was a little out there, was grounded in some basis of our reality. She has file folders and file folders of articles that back up much of what she has written. While I don't have file folders, I have notes taken from everything I've digested and processed in the name of learning more. The work that has come out so far feels far more grounded than a short story I played around with for five hours (as it should).

I am encouraged to find the research and extra thinking I have done is paying off. Every iteration is yielding more detail, more worldbuilding touches that create a reality far more complete than the one I had in the first draft. All of it is coming from a more informed imagination, which makes me feel more confident and more like I'm headed in the right direction.

We'll see, it's just the first page after all.

So all of this is great, for now, but at the rate I'm going it could be over a year before the second draft is completed. The next step is to be able to do all that while under deadline and not let any of the writing suffer.

Now, quit reading this and go write something.

Books on Writing: Do You Read Them?

Posted by Jenny Maloney on August 27, 2012 at 8:55 AM Comments comments (1)

     I have a bookshelf full of books on writing. And I have a sneaking suspicion I’m not alone, because writers, by their nature, are readers. Reading about writing seems a logical step.



Truthfully though, I only use two of those books on writing with any kind of regularity. If I’m in a fast-draft piece of work then I refer to Stephen King’s On Writing – for inspiration and just to remind myself to get stuff down. There’s also the “Shitty First Draft” chapter in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Both King’s book and Lamott’s chapter give permission to fuck up, which is very freeing for me. When it’s going slower and I’m revising/rewriting then I go to Susan Bell’s The Art of Self Editing because she tells me how to get distance and reminds me what I need to look for.



So I think that books on writing can definitely be helpful. Writing can sometimes be difficult. You hit snags. And there are times you think you’re the only one who has had these problems. Writing books tell you otherwise.




They’re also good for learning the basics: grammar, dialogue, character and world building, etc.




I think where I start to worry about writing books is when I start to see graphs, worksheets, a plan to get the book done in twenty-four hours. Any kind of prescription-for-writing I’m just not down with. Good writing has its rules, but following strict guidelines, with no flexibility, is like trying to follow a diet to a T right off the bat. Generally it doesn’t happen and you’re left with fat-free, wordless pages and frustration.




And I’ve also fallen into the trap that reading writing books = writing. This just ain’t so.




Writing books should only be used, in my opinion, in conjunction with writing. Always, always, always be working on a piece when you read these books. It’s what they’re designed to do, and it’s the only way they’ll actually help.




What writing books have you read that you found useful? Have you come across any you thought were counterproductive?


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