Saturday, August 31, 2013

My Aha Moment in Writing - Michael Collings - Biggest Aha Moments in Writing

My “ah-ha” moment actually came a long time before I seriously considered writing—either fiction or non-fiction—as a profession. I was a teacher, and any writing I did, I had long before decided, would be peripheral to my teaching. I had just received my doctorate in English Renaissance literature and, while waiting for a full-time position, was teaching one-class a semester each at three local (and not so local) community colleges, usually composition with an occasional foray into creative writing or survey of English lit.
On this occasion, I was teaching beginning composition at San Bernardino Community College. It was an unusual class. Of the thirty students, twenty-nine were thirty-five- to fifty-year-old master sergeants from a nearby military base, all men, all older than I was, all up for review or promotion, all needing this particular college credit to ensure success in their next step in their career. And one woman, a freshman at SBCC, eighteen, and if not actually frightened by the men at least tremulous and shy in her responses during the first session. She dropped before the next session.

So there I was, a brand-new Doc, ink on my diploma still wet, facing twenty-nine men who each had more life-experience than I, who wanted—no, demanded—every scrap of information I had to give them, and, even more, who wanted my lectures on English grammar and composition to make sense.

We were discussing semi-colons, always a trouble spot. With any normal class, I would have simply spouted the rule and run rather rough-shod over any questions or objections. Not with this class. When I gave them a rule, they asked “Why?” When I responded, they asked “Why?” Courteously but inevitably, they forced me to examine all of my pat answers and assumptions about not only semi-colons but grammar and mechanics in general and restate them in understandable, usable terms.

Intellectually, I knew that the fundamentals of writing were more important that just for providing subject matter for me to teach. My “History and Grammar of the English Language” course had been remarkable for opening my eyes and my imagination to why the language is so complex and how it came to be that way.

That class of master-sergeants, however, made me see that what I had learned was not dead material to be forgotten after the exam but living guidelines to creating meaning, to controlling meaning in written communication. As I grew, matured, and began my own career as a writer, I found myself stopping in the middle of a paragraph and asking how I would explain a particular point to the master-sergeants, then applying it to my prose.

I can’t remember any of their names, but they became one of the key influences in my teaching career. Thanks, guys.

My online review/response site is: 

I also have an older site at: This contains older, frequently longer articles.

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Devil's in the Details - Tim Waggoner - Biggest Ah-ha! Moments in Writing

I wrote my first novel – a fantasy adventure titled A Wizard’s World – when I was nineteen. (Yes, it was awful, and no, I’ll never let anyone see it.) I had a lot of fun as I wrote it, but I kept having the nagging feeling that something was wrong. My story seemed flat, lifeless, and empty. One day as I was re-reading a scene I’d just written, it hit me: my scenes felt empty because they lacked the necessary detail to bring them alive for readers. I wasn’t sure what I needed to do to fix the problem, but I decided to work on being more descriptive overall, and kept on writing.

A Wizard’s World was never published, but writing it led to one of the most important realizations I’ve ever had about writing fiction. Authors don’t tell readers a story. They give readers tools so that they can tell a story to themselves. We’re like composers who write music and then hand it to a musician to play. The reader is the musician and the instrument he or she plays is their imagination. Writers need to know what “notes” will provide just the right stimulation to create a vivid, living world within readers’ minds. Here are some tips on how to do just that.

1. Write with a close identification with a character’s viewpoint, letting us know not only what the character is doing, but what the character is thinking and feeling (both emotionally and physically) as the story progresses. It doesn’t matter if you write in first, third or – more rarely – second person, the principle is the same. The great advantage written fiction has over other media such as movies, TV, games, etc., is that it can allow the audience to enter into a character’s internal world, thereby immersing us in the story. And that makes for powerful fiction. My mentor, fantasy novelist Dennis McKiernan, thought of this principle as if a viewpoint character has a shoulder-mounted camera that picks up everything the character sees and hears. This camera also has a cable running into the back of the character’s skull, recording the characters thoughts, feelings, and internal reactions. It’s the writer’s job to select the best bits of data to make a given scene as vivid and impactful as possible.

2. Visual media rely on stimulating two senses: sight and sound. But fiction can also stimulate readers’ other senses: smell, taste, and touch. Those latter senses are weaker in humans, and we need to be in physical contact with something (or close to it) in order to use them. Because of this, they’re more intimate senses and stimulating them can have a stronger impact on readers. So don’t forget to take advantage of them in your writing.

3. We experience life as a constant swirl of incoming data, but when writing, we’re forced to create using only one word at a time. To approximate the richness of human experience, provide a variety of alternating details in scenes (and even within individual sentences) – a bit of dialogue, a physical action, a thought, an internal physical reaction, a sound, a memory connection, etc. It’s a simple but powerful technique, one which is easy to learn and teach, and which can strengthen your fiction immeasurably.

Breathe life into your stories, and readers’ imaginations will soar.

Tim Waggoner’s novels include Supernatural: Carved in Flesh and the Nekropolis series of urban fantasies. In total, he’s published close to thirty novels and three short story collections, and his articles on writing have appeared in Writer’s Digest and Writers’ Journal, among other publications. He teaches creative writing at Sinclair Community College and in Seton Hill University’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction program.

Twitter: @timwaggoner

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Big Bangs – Beginnings and Endings By Michael McCarty - Biggest Aha Moments in Writing

    The best way to grab the reader’s interest immediately is to plant the hook and drag them into the story. This is also the best way to rise to the top of any slush pile. Start with a bang of a beginning, something compelling, disturbing or even outrageous.

     Likewise, the conclusion should leave a lasting impression on the reader. Endings must pack as much punch as their beginnings.

     Look at H.P. Lovecraft's stories. The prose was pretty over-the-top, but he sure knew how to start and end his breathless tales: with wild cautions at the beginning and horrific, surprising finales.

     A few examples from my own work: Return of the Scream Queen written by Michael McCarty, Linnea Quigley and Stan Swanson starts off with a creature’s clawing popping up from a swimming pool, which inspired the cover of the book as well. And Bloodlust by Jody R. LaGreca and Michael McCarty which begins with movie star Marilyn Monroe.

     As for the endings, you’ll just have to read the books yourself.

Michael McCarty has been a professional writer since 1983 and the author of over thirty of fiction and nonfiction including I Kissed A Ghoul, Modern Mythmakers, Masters of Imagination, Revenge of the Two-Headed Poetry Monster (co-written with Mark McLaughlin) and many others. He is a five-time Bram Stoker Finalist and in 2008 David R. Collins’ Literary Achievement Award from the Midwest Writing Center. He lives in Rock Island, Illinois with his wife Cindy and pet rabbit Latte. Michael McCarty is on Twitter as michaelmccarty6. Facebook! Like him on his official page here.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Research and the Author - Mark Stone - Biggest Aha Moments in Writing

            It is absolutely true that if you are writing fiction, you can create your masterpiece  whole cloth without a stitch of research and, most likely, get away with it. I am not saying go ahead and put forth your best effort sans the appropriate effort, far from it. It has always been one of my rules to exhaustively study upon the subject I decide to write about. Okay, more of guideline than a rule, but let’s not be picky.

            A couple of years ago I was writing a book called Living Legend set in ancient Greece. I could have taken the well-traveled road, winging it until the end and I probably would’ve gotten away with it. Probably.

            The problem was my own stubborn pride and my sense of what’s right. If I wrote something about ancient Greece that didn’t jibe and got caught, or worse yet, caught myself, I would have been both mortified and enraged (at my inherent laziness, of course). It was my ‘Ah-ha’ moment in writing, when I realized that research was important for the creation my world, my art. I also came to the conclusion that it would be insulting to the reader to half-ass the endeavor. The worst thing I could do (besides committing a gross act of violence) was to treat the reader like a simpleton.

            Despite what MSNBC, CNN, and FOX news would have you believe, most people are as smart or smarter than the average bear and are pretty quick to spot a slacker. Research is the key to world building, to avoiding logic traps and to adding depth to a story, bringing it to rich life with not only the addition of detail, but the correct detail. The art of storytelling requires, no demands, that we as authors summon the energy for competent research.

            Look, I’m old enough (no comments from the peanut gallery, please) to remember when we didn’t have the Internet with Wikipedia at our fingertips, not to mention the thousands of other websites perfectly suitable for data mining. Back in my day (yeah, I said it), it was books, books and more books. Encyclopedia Britannica was my best friend an the local public library was my home. Now there is no excuse not to at least head to Google, type in what you’re looking for and hit RETURN. Life in the Digital Age is a lot kinder to us wordsmiths. In fact, as far as research goes, it is virtually ideal, so there is no reason not to perform due diligence for our readers.

            ‘Nuff said.

Mark Everett Stone is the author of The Judas Line and the BSI Series that begins with Things to do in Denver when you’re Un-dead.

A Little History About Me and Mystery - Robert Walker - Biggest Aha Moments in Writing

    We learn so many small and large, great and greater truths about our writing in the doing of it and from great editors. I know I have learned better use of the word HAD for instance, and early on in high school, the Well High newspaper editor sat me down and opened a grammar text on four or five pages of Active Voice vs. Passive Voice -- and that was a huge aha! moment for yours truly.

     But the biggest aha I got was from writing my first novel during my senior year Daniel and the Wrongway Railway. I could not sell it; it was slow, drab, and then while shopping it around, an editor sent a rejection back with a long list of considerations but tantamount was a question: "Where is the mystery here? The Underground Railroad must have been the biggest mystery to stump people in those times, so?  A light bulb blew out.

     A titanic AHA moment hit me. The realization was that a good piece of writing needs an element of mystery, suspense, intrigue and I was overlooking the Underground Railroad as the biggest mystery of its day....right in front of my nose. Until I began thinking of the U.R. as a mystery, the book was flat. On rewrite with mystery element lodge in brain, it sold immediately after I made that connection. Viola!

     Mystery! This is what is meant by editors when they say they want COMMERCIAL fiction. The idea of a story being commercial and it not being a dirty word like sellout. That has kept me in good stead ever since, publishing multiple books each year since 1979.

Award-winning author and graduate of Northwestern University, ROBERT W. WALKER created his highly acclaimed INSTINCT and EDGE SERIES between 1982 and 2005. Rob since then has penned his award-winning historical series featuring Inspector Alastair Ransom with CITY FOR RANSOM (2006), SHADOWS IN THE WHITE CITY (2007), and CITY OF THE ABSENT (2008), and most recently placed Ransom on board the Titanic in a hyrid historical/science fiction epic entitled Titanic 2012 – Curse of RMS Titanic. The original Ransom trilogy straddles the Chicago World’s Fair circa 1893, and has had enthusiastic reviews from Chicago historians and the Chicago Tribune, which likened “the witticism to Mark Twain, the social consciousness to Dickens, and the ghoulish atmosphere to Poe!”  Rob has since published DEAD ON, a PI’s tale of revenge as a reason to live—a noir set in modern day Atlanta,  followed more recently by Bismarck 2013, an historical horror title, The Edge of Instinct, the 12th Instinct Series, and a short story collection entitled Party of Eight – the one that got away.  Rob’s historical suspense CHILDREN of SALEM, while an historical romance and suspense novel exposes the evil in mankind via the politics of witchcraft in grim 1692 New England, which one professional editor reviewed as:  A title that only Robert Walker could make this work—romance amid the infamous witch trials. Robert currently resides in Charleston, West Virginia with his wife, children, pets, all somehow normal. For more on Rob’s published works, you can see his website here or check Harper Collins and AmazonHe maintains a presence on Facebook and Twitter as well.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Artist and Society - Biggest 'Ah-Ha!' Moments in Writing - Allyson Bird

     After settling into my new life on a farm in New Zealand, and although I live in my rural wonderland, I’m daily aware of the issues which face us all, and tackle them in my writing. What with the rise of fascism again in Europe and a world where corporate greed and selfishness seem to prevail with little thought about society I’ll not run short of inspiration. 

     As life gets harder for most of us, struggle will be reflected in literature— in art—as it always has. I could mention George Eliot, William Blake, Balzac, Thomas Hardy, Mark Twain, Henry James, William Morris, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, William Golding, Margaret Atwood, J.G. Ballard and many more who wanted to explore the problems each of us face within society.

     Shelagh Delaney just came to mind. ‘A Taste of Honey.’ Set in industrial Salford and first on stage in London in 1958. The play explores gender, sexual orientation, race and class. Poverty.  A few generations of my family lived in the city—for over a century from 1807 to the 1912. Infant mortality—high. Living conditions terrible amongst the poor. I went to university there in the 1980’s. ‘A Taste of Honey.’ That play is firmly rooted in the theatre of realism. Exploring themes with honesty and compassion…add John Osborne, Lynne Reid Banks, and ‘Cathy Come Home’ By Jeremy Sandford, amongst others. As ‘austerity’ cuts make their mark we are taking that awful backward step and class is once more thrust before us. That word seems outdated. How about simply the divide between the rich and the poor which is getting larger each year, now. Where once I saw hope I feel sadness. Hunger, in the so-called first world countries, should now be a thing of the past. Monsanto. Monopoly. Madness. Since when did you hear the word monopoly and ever think that a good thing. In a game perhaps and yes perhaps we could call this a war game of sorts where the only winners are the large corporations. Nothing for the poor. In 2013. 

     I’m reading Ballard’s ‘High Rise’ again, too. ‘Lord of the Flies’ comes back to me time and time again. Ray Bradbury and ‘Fahrenheit 451’. Perhaps in reading these I’m hoping that it will never get that bad. 

     After all this what is my point? My advice to new writers. Write what you want. Write about what you believe in. Be brave. Write for yourself. Be honest.  Don’t hold back. Words have power. Perhaps they can change the world. Say what you feel you need to say.

Allyson Bird now lives and farms in the Wairarapa Valley, New Zealand. Occasionally she is drawn to strange places and people and they are occasionally drawn to her. Her favourite playground, as a child and adult, has been the village graveyard. Once she wondered what would happen if she took one of the green stones from a grave. She has been looking over her shoulder ever since but has never given it back.

Accomplishments : Winner of the HWA Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a first novel 2011 for 'Isis Unbound.' Winner of the British Fantasy Society Award for Best Collection 2009 for 'Bull Running for Girls.'