Category archive: Writing

The Politics of Writers Groups

Writers are human beings, so unfortunately when three or more are gathered together they will break into at least two factions.  I know this because I belonged to a writers group for a few years.

It was an exciting time.  Most of the group were younger than me and eager, and all of them were good writers.  We shared successes and failures, brutally honest critiques, and we even encouraged one another to compete in the same short story contests.  We became friends, attended weddings, and went on road trips to parties and conferences.

Then one day the fun ended.  I was pulled aside by one member and gently informed that a clique had decided that another member should be evicted from the group.  He wasn’t writing enough.  Someone didn’t like his critiques.  His worst crime seemed to be that he nodded off to sleep a couple of times during an excessively long critique (not of his story.)

This left me in a quandary.  I had nearly fallen asleep a couple of times myself during that critique, but apparently I had been better at hiding it.  Would I be the next writer forced to walk the plank?

I suggested a better solution would be to limit the length of critiques to five minutes.  Only a few weeks before, one member had a valid complaint about one technical point in my story, but she went on about it for twenty minutes.  I had it solved in my head in two minutes, but the rules of our group were that I had to keep my mouth shut until she was done.  Surely a time limit would solve everything.

Nope.  Unlimited critique lengths were required.

Now I could have polled the other members of the group and put it to a vote.  I could have approached one or another member, using backroom politics to get my way, sort of what I saw going on already.  Instead I resigned from the group.  If I want politics I’ll pick up a paper.

It’s been years, but I miss my writers group.  We bonded over a common cause, shared the same dreams, and they understood me better than many of my university friends.  Most of us are still friends, of course, but its not the same as meeting once a month, bracing yourself for the round of criticism that will be unleashed on you in the politest manner.  I even miss the dreaded “but”  as in, “This was a great story, but…”

So I have to ask myself: would I join another writers group?  I think there is always more to learn, but I’ve never been much of a group person.  Even traveling I developed a preference early in my adulthood of venturing to very strange places by myself.  I’m not a loner, but I’m not a team player.  I like running, but not runners groups.  I like writing, and for a time I liked my writers group.

Perhaps that’s it.  Start a writers group with an expiration date, say one year.  Just enough time to get to know one another but not enough time for factions to develop.

After all, we’re only human.

Publish or Perish: A New Deadline

Deadlines are hell.  Anyone knows that, but self-imposed deadlines are the worst because there’s no one standing over you with a whip.  You can wiggle out of them, pretend you never imposed the deadline or forgive yourself if you fail to complete your self-assigned task by your self-assigned deadline.

Unless you inform everyone you know of your deadline.  Then they’re all watching.  They’ll all know if you fail.  So here goes: Wednesday December 22nd.  By that time I vow to have the anthology of my Sioux Rock Falls stories e-published, complete with ISBN, the government of Canada willing.

I know that doesn’t seem like a big deal since six of the stories were already published in Storyteller magazine,  but I’ve promised many people that there will be two all new stories in the anthology, stories that have never seen the light of day let alone a publisher.

So here I go.  Work, kids, home renovations and just about anything else will stand in the way, but I’m determined that by Christmas anyone who cares to can download my anthology.

The thing is, I hate deadlines.  But damn if they don’t motivate.

Failed Communication Leads to Correct Decision

Life is full of surprises, like discovering that someone you were communicating with was having a totally different conversation.

When Fogel stated in her crit of In a Country Burning that there were, “Too many shoulders in this novel,” I took the comment as metaphorical.  I thought she meant that there were too many characters.  This lead to a decision to cut four characters, which also cuts the length of the novel quite a bit.

Here’s the big surprise.  It turns out that Fogel literally meant “too many shoulders.”  Too many people were patted on the shoulder, too many people shouldered their back packs, too many shrugged their shoulders.  She was trying to get me to use other body parts occasionally in my descriptions, which is good advice.

Yet now that we’ve cleared that up, I have no intention of putting the love interest and her family back into the novel.  It works without them.  It’s shorter.  It’s better.

So I’m sorry Rachel, Clare, Hugh and the collateral damage, Richard.  You guys will have to find a different novel, maybe in a sequel.

Are Male Readers from Mars and Female Readers from Venus?

My novel, In a Country Burning, is about redemption, about accepting fate and even a little romance, but mostly it’s about war.

It’s about the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and highlights two of the ten years of bloodshed and genocide that took place during that occupation.  Let’s not even get into the disaster the Soviets left behind for the rest of the world to clean up.

So I have to ask myself: will women read this book if I manage to squeeze in a little romance?  I’ve been told women read a lot more than men.  Any expert in the publishing industry will tell you that women are an important audience if you want to sell.

But Fogel says, “there are too many shoulders in this novel.”  She means that I’ve got too many characters, all vying for attention and all fighting to make it into the final scene.  So as I rewrite, it occurs to me that I could ditch the love interest and her family and go straight for the war story.

But will women read a war story?  How many girls snuggled up on the couch with their guys to watch Band of Brothers?  I’m guessing not many.  There will still be one woman in the book and even a heavy bit of amorous action, but for the most part it becomes a novel about men at war.

Which is what it always was about.  I made a desperate and painstaking stab at making it more like The English Patient, but I’m afraid it’s actually closer to The Hunt for Red October, but without all the cool technology.

So sales be damned.  This novel needs to be shorter, sharper and more focused.  Will it sell better?  Well, if I don’t rein it in it won’t even make it to market.

So to all the female readers: I’m sorry.  I don’t think it was going to work for you anyway.  To all the men: put down the remote or the game controller and start reading again for heaven’s sake!  I’m writing for you here.

By the way: if anyone feels slighted because they don’t like being squashed into a stereotype, well then read my book when it comes out.  It’ll be available to both Martians and Venusians.

Looking Outside the Box for the Juicy Gossip

I opened that hideous box last Monday, the one containing my perfect manuscript now covered with Fogel’s scrawls.  There’s a lot of work to do on my novel, no doubt, but the comments that concern me the most are the ones I got by e-mail before I received the box.

One of Fogel’s main complaints is that I don’t have a clear picture in my own head of my characters.

What!  I’ve written and re-written this novel more than ten times.  These characters are like very close friends.  I thought I had a clear picture of them in my head, thank you very much.

But when I calmed down and thought about it, I had each character in a specific box of time and place.

So I started thinking about my real friends in real life.  I know where they went to high school.  I know where their parents dragged them to church each Sunday (and which religion) until adulthood.  I know which ones still go to church.  I can recall career successes and failures, drunken nights on the town or weekends camping.

Life’s big and stuff happens.  I think of my dad today because it’s Remembrance Day, a paratrooper at too young an age, scarred for the rest of his life not just by the war but also because he lost his mom to TB near Christmas of 1945–before he even had a chance for that well-earned moment of peace, to feel safe back home.  What if I didn’t know that about him?  Would I describe him just as a old man, recently deceased?  There’s so much more there.

As for my friends, I know what they had hoped to become and how that turned out for them.  I know whom they slept with and whether it was a good idea.  Sure, I don’t know these intimate details for everyone I’ve met.  I’m just talking about close friends, because I’d better know my characters at least that well.

So I began asking questions and had to spend two days answering them, and it took a lot of research.  I not only had to fill out biographies for them, but their parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters.  Who got along in the family and who hated each others’ guts with the intensity that only sibling rivalry can inspire?  Who was a disappointment to their father/mother/son/daughter?  What caused friction in the family?  Who went to war and who dodged the draft? Who refuses to go to mass at Christmas despite his mother’s pleas? Who got a good job and who had the bad habit?

You get the idea.  I need to know what they smell like after a hot day of work.  I need their biographies from birth to death, even beyond the time frame of my novel.

So damn if Fogel isn’t right again, because as I fill in these details, many of which will never appear in the novel, my characters, their motivations, their likes and dislikes become clearer with each new tidbit of juicy gossip.

Many of you writers already knew this.  I thought I did.

But now I’m trying to think outside that box.

The Fogel Speaks Again

Guest Post by Melanie Fogel

Here’s the thing:

I’m a great believer in writing from the inside out. What that means is that, although good story is more important than good writing, writing is the only means you have of conveying the story.

So at some point, you stop writing story and take a hard look at the way you’ve used the words. You aim for the lightning rather than the lightning bug (I assume you know Twain’s quote on the subject). But if you haven’t got the story firmly anchored in your head–the character, the setting, the meaning of the climax–then you can’t come up with the lightning words.

In one of the great climactic scenes in Caryl Férey’s Zulu, he uses the word “totem” to talk about the stillness of the protagonist. He could have used “statue,” or “carved figure,” or “rock,” but believe me, “totem” is killer lightning. It took everything that happened in the novel prior to this point to make “totem” so striking (pun intended).  And you gasp, not only at the brilliant writing, but at the significance of the sentence to the story.

Honestly, I could teach an entire writing course based on that novel.

Mike’s Note: This article will find a permanent home under “The Fogel Speaks.”

Monday I Will Open The Box

There’s a box with a manuscript in it sitting on my desk.  It’s the manuscript where each neatly printed page has been marred by The Fogel’s harsh scrawls.  In a sense, I have already opened it, because The Fogel sent me her notes on Chapter one by e-mail, and her comments strike like a hammer, over and over again.

My day job has been busy over the last few weeks, which is good because I needed time to decide what to do about the novel, one that has taken up so much of my life.

Go to my website, www.michaelmcpherson.ca and you’ll see my smiling face and the photos I took of the men I traveled with in Afghanistan.  Back then Reagan was president and the mujahideen were still described in the press as “freedom fighters.”

How things have changed.  I watched on TV as the twin towers went down, and as word came out that the terrorists were trained in Afghanistan and called themselves mujahideen, I knew the media would never again refer to them as freedom fighters.

Yet that is how I still feel about the men I traveled with, and I wonder how many of them are alive today.  They were generous to me.  I trusted them with my life.  They had hopes and fears, children and wives and grooming advice.  The commander said I should shave my wispy beard because I couldn’t grow a proper beard.  He was clean shaven himself.  We’re not talking Taliban fanatics here, at least not back then.

I can’t let them go.  I want the world to see them as human beings.  I want the world to understand what the Soviets did to that country.  It was the one thing I promised myself I could do for them, although the commander’s son would have preferred that I’d bought him new boots.  I missed the opportunity to do that, and it haunts me.

So Monday I have some time off from my day job, and I will open that box.  I will endure all of The Fogel’s comments.  I will rethink plot and story, characters and events.  I will struggle and rewrite.  Somehow, I will finish what I started.

It’s the least I can do.

Am I a Productive Member of Society?

The first thing I learned working on the TV show Nikita is that machine guns are loud.  Even when they’re firing blanks, they’re really, really loud.  I know that sounds obvious, but it’s amazing when an actor standing only a corpse-length away points an AK-47 just over your head and empties a 30-round clip.  Your clothes vibrate against your body with the shock-waves from the concussions.  Your heart feels like it’s skipping beats.

Oddly, while working on that show I felt like a productive member of society, making my strange contribution.  After all I got up with the alarm, worked like crazy for 14 or 15 hours, way to much of it running to set and back with mags of film or carrying diddy bags that weighted about a hundred pounds.

Yet, when I took time off between seasons to write, I often wondered if I was a productive member of society.  Perhaps it was because no one gave me a pay at the end of the week to prove that my presence was valued.

But one day after work on Nikita I met some friends for a Friday night drink.  I regaled them with tales of how stressful our work on the show had been that day–three cameras in a gravel pit with not enough crew.  Explosions and machine guns.  I had to involuntarily upgrade to focus puller for one of the cameras and got caught on film when the operator abruptly panned the camera left to follow a departing truck.  The A.D.s had failed to warn me the truck would pull away.

The expression on my face in the rushes ended up being the source great amusement on the camera truck over the next week.

When I finished my tale a friend put down her wine glass and mentioned off hand that her day had been a bit hectic too.  I knew she worked at a shelter for battered women, so I asked what had happened.

Her manner was understated, but her words told a different story–a story of a woman repeatedly beaten and raped, of escorting her to court to testify, of a screaming ex-husband threatening his ex and my friend with brutal murder.  Tears and fright and a police escort out of the courtroom.  My friend picked up her wine glass for a sip after this shocking story and I put down my beer.

The shelter was run by the Salvation Army.  My friend was paid minimum wage, and I was pulling in a couple of grand a week.  It made no sense.  She was a productive member of society, contributing to the overall good.  I was making the filler between car commercials.

The second thing I learned on Nikita is that receiving a pay check at the end of the week didn’t necessarily mean that I was a productive member of society, contributing to the overall good.

My stories won’t save the world, but maybe somewhere someone will use them to fill a few hours and go somewhere better.

Although before I get all snooty about Nikita: when I was at a youth hostel in Romania a few years later (1998), I walked into a room full of Romanians glued to a tiny television set.  They were watching an episode of Nikita where the climax took place in a gravel pit–lots of explosions and machine guns.  For an hour they were transported away from the economic disaster that was post-Soviet Romania.

Who am I to judge?

The Year I Turned Down a Publishing Contract

I was offered a contract for my first novel back in 1993 and refused to sign, effectively killing that sale.  Crazy?  No.

I was following all the rules back then and submitting to one publisher at a time with thoughtful query letters and sample chapters.  It took a year to slog through five New York publishers at that rate, so I checked out my heavy copy of the 1993 Writers Marketplace and discovered Northwest Publishing of Salt Lake City, Utah.

I know, I know.  Utah is not the center of the publishing industry, but as a newbie I decided I had to start somewhere small and earn the acceptance of the big publishers and big agents.

So when I got a message from Northwest to call them because they’d like to offer me a contract, I just about jumped out of my work boots and ran for the nearest phone.

Sure enough, after asking me what I did for a living, the gentleman from Utah said, “Well Mike, we’re impressed with your novel and we’re going to offer you a contract.”

Stratospheric!  I’d done it!  I could forget the construction industry, where I was working while waiting for the film industry to take off.  My friends from university who had complained that I was wasting my degree would have to eat their words.  I had made it.

Then the gentleman from Utah proved he possessed the ethics of a great white shark.  Actually, a shark is more ethical because it never pretends to be anything other than a shark.

“So Mike,” he said, still all chummy and familiar.  “Every year millions of novels are submitted for publication but only a very few make it to print.”

I was falling and I had no parachute.  I know a sales pitch when I hear one.  Even before he got to price I knew I’d been stung by a vanity press.  Price tag to get published: $9000.  This, according to the shark from Utah, was only one quarter of the publishing cost.  They were graciously going to cover the other three quarters.  Yeah, right!

I turned them down, even as I prepared for a long stay in the film industry.

I actually don’t have a problem with self-publishing, or indie-publishing as one writer I know calls it, as long as the publisher/printer makes it clear that they’re not a traditional publisher, not even close.  If a writer wants to make a go of it on their own in the indie scene–or just wants a nicely package book that they can hand out to their friends and family–then a self-publisher can be a great service.

But unfortunately most of them are sharks, using euphoria to make you vulnerable and compliant.

Northwest Publishing was even worse.  I assumed that if I’d said yes I’d at least get those vanity copies, those boxes of books that I’d have to sell door to door.  Thanks to SFWA, I later found out just how lucky I was that I’d said no to the contract.  Near the end Northwest was still taking authors’ money but stopped even printing the books.  They had gone from unethical business practices to just plain thievery.

The good news out of this sordid little tale is that the owner got a long prison sentence.  The bad news is that there are smarter sharks out there, ones that know they can get away with unethical behavior as long as they’re careful with the wording of their contracts so that they’re not actually criminal.

Perhaps I should start a list.  Here’s one I’ve been warned about by several authors.

I Challenge Alice Munro

People don’t tend to read short stories anymore, perhaps because literary short stories are so mind-numbly dull.  Yeah, I said it:  mind-numbly dull!  They wander with little plot and they’re excruciatingly introspective.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether they’ve ended or the printers have misplaced a page.

While science fiction and mystery shorts are tightly plotted and dynamic, their magazine and anthology sales have also slumped in the last decade.  My theory is that young adults are not venturing into short stories, not just because of video games, but because they remember all the yawn-inducing shorts they were forced to read in high school.  The whole short story format has been tainted by literature.

Now I don’t deny that Alice Munro’s Floating Bridge is a master work, clearly deeper in thought and displaying greater literary skill than anything I’ve ever written.

But here’s a challenge: after a long day of work put two readers on opposite ends of a couch.  Give one of the them Floating Bridge to read and give the other my short coming-of-age story Railroaded.  Now let’s sit back and see who squirms in their seat, fighting to keep awake and read to the end to prove they’re literate.  Who reads with interest?  Now I’m not talking about two people who’ve worked a cushy eight hours and had a nice dinner.  I’m talking about film industry hours–people who’ve just worked 16 grueling hours in harsh weather.  That’s the real test.

In fact, maybe I’ll carry out this experiment.  I’ve got a lot of friends still in the film industry.  Hey Alice!  You up for it?