Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Writing Genre Fiction: Finding Time


Time for one more question, and here it is:

How do you find the time to write?

That's a good one. Fortunately, finding time isn't really the issue. There's plenty of time. It's all around us, flying by every second. The trick is setting some of it aside for writing, something that can be pretty daunting for a new writer, especially if he or she is a graduate student with a job, family, or anything resembling a social life. Sometimes my students talk about taking leaves of absences from school or work. Other times they might consider locking themselves away from family and friends for a few weeks, long enough to get a good start on a project or meet a deadline. But I've never been a fan of those approaches. Walking away from or shutting out the stuff of life for weeks at a time isn't the answer. Working smart and prioritizing is.

Suppose you can set aside two hours a day for writing. That two hours needs to be productive, and it's during that block that you shut out the world's other demands. If your writing space has a door, close it. If it doesn't, put on some earphones and hit play. I favor electronica, jazz, and classical -- stuff without words. While I'm writing, the only words I want in my head are my own.

In my experience, it's also vital to tune out the telephone, email, instant messenger, and tweets. That stuff will all still be there when you finish your writing session. Remember, you're not abandoning those things, only asking them to retire back awhile, suffice at what they are, but never forgotten. (Thank you Uncle Walt.)

Then, for two hours, you write. Nothing else. Multitasking is a myth. The world of fiction demands concentration.

I have a colleague who, using this approach, has written a string of novels on his lunch hours at work. For me, I find the evening is best. Find a time that works for you, set it aside, and use it productively.

Naturally, there is a limit to what you can accomplish in two hours, and sometime you will find you have various writing projects competing for your attention. When deadlines loom, you may be faced with the prospect of setting one project aside in favor of another.

At the moment, I'm facing a number of looming project -- each growing ever closer as I sit typing these words. One is the final rewrite on my next novel. The other is a string of spoken word performances that begin in early February in anticipation of my forthcoming collection This Way to Egress (due out in March). And then there are two new short stories that I have promised to deliver before leaving for World Horror. That's a lot. Clearly, if I'm going to get those things done, something has got to go.

Can you guess what that is?

I hope you don't mind, but I'm going to shut the door for awhile, take another break from Teaching Visions, and hope to be back just as soon as I've got a handle on those other projects.

In the meantime, if you have any comments, please post one or drop me an email.

I'll be back as soon as I can. Until then, keep prioritizing . . . and share the vision.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Writing Genre Fiction: Taglines - Part 2


Here are a couple of good taglines I've seen recently, ones strong enough to make me pick up the book:

The city is alive tonight . . . and it's her job to keep it that way.
The Better Part of Darkness by Kelly Gay

In the fight to save humanity, she's the weapon of choice.
Bitter Night by Diana Pharoah Francis

As for ones I've seen that didn't work, how about these:

Can the hidden colony of Marseguro survive rediscovery?
Marseguro by Edward Willett

Beneath Boston's historic streets, and ancient power stirs...
Spiral Hunt by Margaret Ronald

The two that work both end with clever twists, something that the tag for Spiral Hunt tries to do as well. But "an ancient power stirs" seems tepid, needlessly vague, not particularly ... well ... stirring.

To be fair, the tags that didn't work for me are hardly the worst I've seen. For some truly dreadful ones, let's go to the movies:

When all else fails, they don't.
G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra

The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film are the first 92.

He was dead, but he got better.
Crank: High Voltage

Of course, in all fairness, I'm sure that the Crank tag is supposed to be goofy.

Coming up with one of these little verbal trailers is far from easy, something I found out when I decided to try my hand at coming up with one for Veins. I started by looking at models, hanging out in Barnes & Nobel, pulling books off the shelf, making lists of tags that grabbed me. Then, using those as models, I set about making lists of my own tags.

Since Veins is set in an abandoned surface mine, I tried coming up with phrases that dealt with scars, wounds, blood (always a good word to use when tagging a horror novel), and coal. The worst one on my list? I suppose that would have to be this one:

In coal blood.

The list was long. Two pages. More than fifty tries, but gradually something started to emerge. Near the end of the list, I came up with these:

If you abandon a wound, it will never heal.
Abandoned wounds never heal.
Some wounds never heal.

That last one made it to the cover, and I'm pleased with it. Those four words represent the essence of the book: setting, theme, and conflict. After writing them, I knew that the book would hold together. Better yet, I knew that it was marketable.

For me, that kind of confirmation is why I think coming up with your own tags is worth the effort. Doing so enables you to better understand the book by capturing the essence of your project in a kind of verbal snapshot.

I don't have a formula for writing tags. Only a process: study models, make lists.

And since the first part of the process involves looking at book covers, please let me know what you find -- the best as well as the worst.

We'll round out the week tomorrow with one more question. Until then, remember this: the only thing better than tomorrow's question are the ones I've already answered.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Writing Genre Fiction: Taglines


That's Adrian Rawlings and Lee Blakemore in a scene from Charly Cantor's Blood (1999), a film that Fantasia Magazine called "one of the most intriguing films ever made on the subject of addiction." It was Cantor's second film, and would have marked the beginning of an impressive career had he not fallen ill shortly after its completion. He died a few years later, leaving the world with two films, a few unproduced screenplays, and a sense of what might have been.

One of those as yet unproduced films is This Way to Egress. He finished the screenplay shortly before his death. Last week I filled you in on the origin of the title. Today I'd like to talk about taglines.

You know what a tagline is, right? It's that little phrase or clause that sometimes appears on a book cover or movie poster, an aphorism designed to attract attention, induce interest. Want some examples? Check these out:

When you can live forever, what do you live for.

Jaws 2
Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.

In space, no one can hear you scream.

Long a staple in film marketing, taglines have become increasingly visible on book covers. But I never gave them much thought until Charly and I had that conversation about the title of Egress. (See last week's blogs for more details.) That was the night that he also shared the tagline for the screenplay. It was simple, concise, and dead-on perfect for the story:

Reality is a contract we make with ourselves.

I thought it was an intriguing way of conceptualizing the story. More than the title. Not quite a summary.

Although tagline development has traditionally been the job of publishers and ad departments, it doesn't hurt to try coming up with a good one on your own. If nothing else, it might verify the marketability of your work in progress. It might also serve you well in a pitch session. Moreover, in this age of short-staffed publishers, the tag you come up with might well appear on your book.

And so we arrive at this week's question.

Do you have any advice on how to come up with tags for your book? How do you identify the most important ideas to represent and condense them down to a phrase?

We'll consider that tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Writing Genre Fiction: Titles - Part 3


Back in the early 90s, I sold a story to Borderlands 3, the non-theme anthology of imaginative fiction edited by Thomas F. Monteleone. I titled the story "Traumatic Descent," which at the time seemed like a darn fine title.

The story centers on a character coping with the psychological trauma of a failed marriage -- trauma that has plunged her into a world where dark shapes move about in lumbering indifference. As the story progresses, the protagonist realizes that the trauma has caused her to descend into a lower sphere of existence, one from which there is only one way out, an exit so unthinkable that even the promise of release cannot compel her to take it.

There is a pivotal scene late in the story, one in which the protagonist sees a dim sign beside a dark doorway. The sign reads: "This Way to Egress." She doesn't take the door. Instead, she opens another that plunges her into her biggest nightmare of all.

The hardback edition of Borderlands 3 was released in 1993. It had a powerful cover by Rick Lieder. That's it in the upper left.

The following year, White Wolf released the paperback edition with a cover by Dave McKean. That's it on the right. Startling, isn't it? If your taste leans toward the surreal and you see that book in the store, you are definitely going to pick it up, and that's exactly what happened when a young filmmaker entered a London bookstore in the late 90s. That filmmaker was Charly Cantor, best known for the cult horror film Blood. He finished Blood in 1999. The following year he contacted me about securing the rights to "Traumatic Descent." If we could come to an agreement, he wanted to adapt my story as his next project.

A few months later, after I'd signed the option agreement and cashed the check, Charly asked me if I'd mind going with another title for the screenplay.

"You don't like 'Traumatic Descent'?" I asked.

"It's not that I don't like it," he said. "It's just that the producers think it sounds a bit like it an airplane story."

I'd never considered that, but once he said it I knew he was right.

"We were wondering," he said, "if you'd mind very much if we went with 'This Way to Egress'?"

Did I mind? Not at all. Indeed, it struck me as perfect for the story -- so perfect that I wondered why it hadn't occurred to me before. And to think that it had been sitting there in the story the whole time, waiting for me to pull it out and use it for the title.

Therein lies my final bit of advice: sometimes the search for a perfect title need go no farther than the story itself. In fact, I am now so sold on that title that I have decided to use it for my next book -- a collection of horror stories from the multiple-award winning publisher Ash-Tree Press. The book, featuring an incredible cover by Jason Zerrillo, will be released this March. Interestingly, the film has yet to enter production.

Now there's one more piece to the story about my title-changing conversation with Charly Cantor. It involves something called a tagline. Come back on Monday, and I'll tell it to you.

But right now, if you'll follow me . . .

I think it's this way to egress.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Writing Genre Fiction: Titles - Part 2

I heard a story once about how Orson Welles was excited about the look of the title Citizen Kane because it had both a Z and a K in it. I don't know if the story is apocryphal, but there's no denying that Citizen Kane is a great title, appealing to both the sense of sight and sound. Now I don't suggest that writers get bogged down worrying about such things. And yet, it's prudent to remember that the title you give your manuscript will (if the publisher doesn't change it) eventually appear on your book's cover. How big do you want that title to be? Do you want it to display well and still leave room for some cool cover art? If so, then you'll want to keep that title short. And if you can come up with a word or phrase that includes a few distinctive consonants, so much the better.

And don't forget the sound. I recall a reviewer once complaining about The Book of Baraboo by Barry B. Longyear. It wasn't that it was a bad book. (Indeed, as I recall it was, it was quite enjoyable.) It was just that the reviewer thought that "The Book of Baraboo by Barry B. Longyear" sounded funky. Then again, it's memorable.

The titles of my books for Fantasist Enterprises (Veins, Visions, and the forthcoming Vipers) were all selected to be short, resonant, and visually interesting. I thought that each might look good on a cover, and I'm pleased how the artists have begun using that initial V to create a uniform design, lending a bit of brand recognition to the books.

Your mileage may vary, but these are some of the things that I think of when brainstorming titles. There are no absolutes, no formulas for what makes one title better than the next, and you may have some very good reasons for going with a title that follows none of my suggestions. Sometimes a title just feels right to the author, as is the case with the title of my next book -- a title that at first might seem to disregard most everything I've covered these past two days. And yet, I think the title works.

Tomorrow, well talk about This Way to Egress.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Writing Genre Fiction: Titles - Part 1


As mentioned in the previous installment, I'd like to devote some time to responding to questions submitted by the MFA candidates who attended my most recent talks at Seton Hill University.

So here's the first question:

How have you come up with compelling titles?

Great question. Not only does it deal with an often overlooked element of writing, but it implies that the titles I have come up with are good ones. Indeed, I'd like to think that most of them are.

In 2008 Fantasist Enterprises launched my series of supernatural thrillers set in the coalfields of western Pennsylvania. The first book is titled Veins. The second, due out this summer, is Vipers. Considering that my recently released collection of fantasy and science fiction stories is titled Visions, one might assume that I favor one word titles, and sometime I do. But there's more to it than that.

Let's consider what I was going for.

First of all, the name that you give to a book has got to do more than simply get a reader interested. It needs to inform as well.

Veins is a visceral novel. Characters are maimed along the way. Blood is shed. The reader who expects such things will not be disappointed, but the veins of the title are not human veins, not blood veins. They are, instead, the veins of the earth -- the coal veins that line the strata of exposed hillsides in western Pennsylvania. Such veins are a major part of the novel's landscape and symbolism, and as a result, the novel's title resonates in a kind of three-part harmony with the book by conveying aspects of the narrative's setting, themes, and violent conflict.

Visions functions in much the same way, not only because many of the stories deal with hallucinations, but because the book itself is presented as a visionary experience. If you've read the book, you know what I mean. If you haven't, go read it.

The title Vipers also carries multiple meanings, though I will say even less about that one here. All will be revealed when the book debuts at GenCon this summer.

So the first thing you want your title to do is accurately represent important aspects of the book's contents. Ideally, the reader should go in expecting one thing, but along the way he or she should begin to realize a deeper significance -- a sense of irony or nuance that gradually becomes evident during the reading.

You will also notice that the titles are plural nouns presented without articles (Veins, Visions, and Vipers as opposed to The Veins, The Visions, and The Vipers). Nouns are generally a good choice, and articles, since the role they serve in sentences is usually not necessary in single words or phrases, can generally be omitted.
And what about all those Vs? What's up with them? We'll discuss that aspect tomorrow.
Until then, share the vision!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Return of TV


I've just returned from Seton Hill University and my winter residency in the Writing Popular Fiction Program. It was a great time, a chance to get together with colleagues and some talented up-and-coming novelists. I always leave there wishing that the next residency weren't so far off. So now here I am, back home and eager for it to be June.

My lectures this time were "Exposition Through Dramatization" and "Structure and Synopsis Writing." Each ran three hours, which always seems too short.

I like to begin these lectures (or modules, as we call them in the program) by giving the students index cards to use in submitting question that occur during the presentation. The cards are not intended to replace verbal questions, which may be asked at any time. Instead, they're for tangential queries -- things that might be off-topic but worth addressing. I usually try to respond to some of them when I collect the cards , but this time -- given the volume of material that I had to cover -- I responded to fewer than usual.

And the questions are darn good.

So now that I'm back home, I'm thinking it's time to once again fire up the old TV. (That's TV as in Teaching Visions, or course.)

With the exception of a couple of book events in February, I'll probably be free enough to keep blogging until my next book comes out in March.
(That book, by the way, is This Way to Egress from Ash-Tree Press. The cover is by Jason Zerillo, design by Jason Van Hollander. I'll be telling you lots more about it before it debuts this spring at World Horror in Brighton.)

So be sure to check back here every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday -- starting March 18, for some poignant Q&A on exposition, dramatization, synopsis writing, and whatever else seems relevant at the time.

In the meantime, let your friends know that TV is coming back. Spread the word. Share the vision!