Friday, May 24, 2013

The Art of Thinking Like a Publishing Writer

Russell Davis

Our guest blogger this month is author Russell Davis, past president of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. He’s also a professor for one of the only low-residency (read: mostly online) MFA programs in the country to specialize in popular genre fiction, and the only one that uses successful, publishing authors rather than academics to teach the classes.

Here’s his official bio:
A best-selling author and editor, Russell has written and sold numerous novels and short stories in virtually every genre of fiction, under at least a half-dozen pseudonyms. His writing has encompassed media tie-in work in the Transformers universe to action adventure in The Executioner series to original novels and short fiction in anthology titles like Under Cover of Darkness, Law of the Gun, and In the Shadow of Evil. In addition to his work as a writer, he has worked as an editor and book packager, and created original anthology titles ranging from westerns like Lost Trails to fantasy like Courts of the Fey. He is a regular speaker at conferences and schools, where he teaches on writing, editing and the fundamentals of the publishing industry. Russell now writes and edits full time, as well as teaches for Western's MFA in Creative Writing. His newest work, The End of All Seasons, a collection of short fiction and poetry, came out in April 2013, and he is presently working on several new projects.

Russell has been a good friend and mentor to us both for a dozen years, offering useful and sometimes scary insights into the publishing world. So we decided, hey, why should we horde all the anxiety? Let’s share it with our friends!

Without more ado…

Russell Davis

I’ve been teaching at the graduate level for three years now, and while I’d done quite a bit of teaching before, it had always been as a guest or at a conference. I’d never experienced teaching the same class multiple times, trying to cover the same material over multiple students. It’s eye-opening, and one of the things I’ve learned is that I’m not consistent – at least, not yet. Like writing, teaching is an ongoing, evolutionary process. I’m still figuring stuff out, refining what I say and how I say it, all in an attempt to give more clarity to my students.

One of the things I talk about a lot in our MFA program is “writing consciously,” but I only realized this past semester, as I was reviewing my plans for the summer session, that I haven’t been explaining myself as well as I could. Bear with me and you’ll see what this has to do with my own work as a writer, and more importantly, my most recent collection The End of All Seasons.

When I talk to my students about writing consciously, what I’m really getting at is that as writers we must pick and choose our words, sentences, paragraphs, punctuation, grammar, plots, characters, dialogue, and even our ideas with deliberate care. The temptation to jump on the adrenaline, roller-coaster ride of a new idea is extreme – to say the least – but far too often for the less-experienced writer, it leads to a horrible crash. The words get jumbled, the sentences contain flawed syntax, the plot is filled with holes, the characters are two-dimensional, and the dialogue flat and clichéd. But all of that is going to happen anyway. It will. That’s why it’s called a first draft.

What I really want them to do is practice the art of thinking like a publishing writer, especially when they revise. I want them to make deliberate choices then, because riding that roller-coaster is a hell of a lot of fun and I don’t want to take that away from them. But once the ride is over, far too many of them don’t want to go back and be deliberate with their work – and that’s when I see the crash. There’s no sense of revision, of picking and choosing, of making choices about what works and what doesn’t.

In my own work, I’ve made this mistake far too many times to count. It’s easy to get in a hurry. This perhaps explains why it took two years for me to finish The End of All Seasons, and that was mostly a collection of reprints. I wanted the choices I made to make sense to the reader, and that’s hard to do in a collection that includes a creative non-fiction essay, four poems, and fourteen short stories in genres as different as speculative fiction and western. I believe our language has power and beauty, even in its rawest form, but that even more can be accomplished by making choices.

So, all of this begs the question. Now that the collection is out, did I make the right choices – in terms of what I included and in terms of the individual pieces themselves? There’s the hard part, right? After the fact, when it’s too late to do anything about it, discovering not whether I think I made the right choices, but what readers think. And the only way I can answer that is if people pick it up and write a review or send me a note.

I guess I’ll have to wait, but I’m sure that I’ll find out.

And that’s the really hard part. Picking and choosing seems easy by comparison.


Thanks so much, Russell, for agreeing to share your insights, and to enter into conversations with those stopping by at our blog this week.

Find out more about/from Russell:

Friday, May 17, 2013

Come chat with best-selling author Russell Davis

First, an announcement --

Our guest blogger next week will be best-selling author and editor Russell Davis,  former president of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. He's written and sold novels and short stories in virtually every genre of fiction, and he's agreed to a chat with anyone who drops by. In April, Wildside Press published Russell's latest collection of multi-genre short stories, An End to All Seasons -- even including a few poems. (Russell's undergrad degree was in English/Creative Writing but most of his work was in poetics!)

Silverville Saga Update
Art by Joely Matuszczak
We're also pleased to report that the Gunnison Country Magazine has just published an excerpt from the second book in the series, All Plucked Up. They used a scene where our twentysomething protagonist, Pleasance Pantiwycke, is trying to escape  black marketeers by fleeing on a unicycle down Main Street (what could go wrong, right?). Of course, she ends up colliding with a film crew's set for the novel's in-story movie, Silverville vs. the Flying Saucers (again, what could possibly go wrong with that brilliant escape plan?)

Magazine staff artist Joely Matuszczak provided a marvelous cartoon illustration of the scene for the excerpt (pictured at right), and the publication goes to welcome centers and chambers across the state for distribution to tourists all summer long -- talk about promo shelf life and coverage!

Sign up for a free copy of Plucked
And don't forget to sign up for the end-of May Goodreads Giveaway (link to the right and top) for All Plucked Up

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Telling stories that matter

Any storyteller worth her or his salt knows that a good tale is only partly about what happens.

At an early reading for Little Greed Men, an audience member commented that this Silverville story held multiple surprises that made the book a fun read. Then that person asked us if we’d always intended to make the ending ironic.

It’s a great question, but we didn’t have time to explain that actually, no, that wasn’t what we envisioned at all when we first started writing the project.

It didn’t take us all that long to outline the main ingredients for Book One of the Silverville Saga, and the outer story knitted together around Billy Noble, a drifter who comes to town and tries to cash in on Silverville’s self-generated UFO notoriety.

We twisted the plot to keep readers guessing and, hopefully, chuckling at the series of events and antics that propel the story toward the conclusion. But despite the laughs and unexpected complications we devised, the story didn’t feel that memorable to us.

 What was missing in the first draft was a reason for readers to care about what happens.

That missing part is what’s known in the trade as an inner story arc – not what happens *to* characters but rather how events change characters, making them more (and sometimes less) sympathetic. In other words, the inner story is about giving readers a reason to care about how story events affect and maybe even change characters. The brain follows the outer arc, but the heart responds to the inner one.

Our first draft lacked heart.

We decided Billy needed to be a bit broken when he comes to town. He’s clever but cynical, a charmer but also a con artist. And we gave him a backstory that makes readers want him to succeed – not in the scam so much as in life.

And we raise the stakes when we revised the relationship he develops with Skippy. In the first draft, Skippy had a minor bit part, but we soon realized she had the potential to help Billy discover that Silverville is more than just a grafter’s score; we decided to make her a bit broken herself, which let us develop them both in ways where they could help heal each other.

In the end, Silverville is about redemption – for the characters as well as for the town. But it’s also about learning that we don’t always get what we want. Sometimes we get what we need.

It was still important to us that the book be funny. But we wanted the book to delve into things that matter. Humor became a way to tell the outer arc, but we decided the inner arc should make readers care about the other issues the story raises.

Sure, the story holds its share of surprises, but the biggest one for us was when we realized we hadn’t understood what our own story was really about until we developed why we, too, cared about our characters.

To us, that was the greatest irony of all.

(Little Greed Men, Book One of the Silverville Saga, is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, as well as select independent bookstores. Check out our Website to point you to ways to pick up the book.)

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Silverville Saga as Stand-Alone and Series

When we wrote the first Silverville novel, we intended the book as a stand-alone. We saw it as a one-off with a funny premise, and it never occurred to us to return.

But once the book found a home, the publisher wanted more along the same lines. In fact, he thought the ending begged for a sequel.

We didn’t agree.

We liked the ironic note we ended the (now first) book. And even though we’re currently developing the outline of the fourth in the series, we don’t think we’ll ever go back and clear up the little misunderstanding that closes the story of Little Greed Men. We like how readers find out more than any of the characters. We like how jokes are better when you don’t have to explain them.

Instead, we became intrigued with the place more than the characters (even as we declare and contend that characters are what make a good story – more on that in a moment). And that became the angle propelling us into subsequent visits to Silverville – a place where anything is possible.

Once we realized we’d constructed a setting that allows for unusually stretched-out suspensions of disbelief, we recognized that we needn’t fear writing the dreaded same-song-second-verse scenario so many serials suffer from.

At the same time, we both love good series. If a story hits the sweet spot, of course we want to go back. Everybody does. And it only takes a glance down the roster of latest releases promoted on Goodreads or Amazon – even the marquee outside the local cinema – to discover how popular and effective the series franchise has become at (re)capturing audience and building fan bases.

Our solution for giving our audiences a taste of the sweet spot without the redundancy was to bring new
characters with new stories to a place where anything is possible, where improbable coincidences guarantee chaos. The skinny: We treat Silverville as a kind of character who interacts with whatever cast and whatever storyline we concoct.

For Little Greed Men, a drifter stumbles into a (supposed) UFO scam; for All Plucked Up, out-of-town black marketeers encounter a curse and so much more; and for The Magicke Outhouse, a pushy and (yes) plucky librarian intern becomes side-tracked into a time-portal business. What none of them ever understand is how Silverville nudges them toward a Twilight Zone with a mind of its own.

In some ways, Silverville is like a funhouse, and so long as we find new rides and attractions – along with new, quirky character personalities willing to take the ride – we’ll keep plotting and returning.

We try to write each book as a stand-alone, so new fans don't have to read them in order. But it's a series now nevertheless. We hope readers find sweet spots that make future visits to worth the return.

And as long as Silverville remains impossible, it’s our favorite character.

Check out all the books in the Silverville Saga.