Saturday, June 29, 2013

Novelist Barbara Chepaitis talks nonfiction for fiction writers

We're delighted to host friend and colleague Barbara Chepaitis as our guest blogger this month. Barbara writes mostly SF, including her wonderful supernatural/SF FEAR series about empath Jaguar Addams.

But one of her more recent projects was real and personal -- helping save and return a war-wounded eagle from the deserts of Afghanistan -- and the book chronicling that experience is Saving Eagle Mitch.

Here's a bit more on Barbara:
She has ten published books, eight in fiction and two in nonfiction, including Saving Eagle Mitch (SUNY 2013), The Green Memory of Fear (Wildside Press 2011), Feathers of Hope (SUNY, 2010), A Lunatic Fear (Wildside Press 2004), Something Unpredictable (Simon & Schuster 2003), These Dreams (Simon & Schuster, 2002), Learning Fear (Ace 2000), Feeding Christine (Bantam 2000), Fear of God (Ave 1999), and Fear Principle (Ace 1998). She was a finalist in the 2003 Sundance screenwriters contest and has written four other screenplays. She has numerous shorter works collected in a variety of anthologies, and she also has experience in radio drama, voice-over work, and editing.

But let's hear what Barbara has to say about ...

REALITY TRIPPING:  How to Write Nonfiction for Fiction Writers

    I’ll admit it.  I have a vexed relationship with reality.  In my experience, it refuses to obey an inherently logical narrative arc, while it tosses its participants into a constant wrangle between structure and imagination. 
     Okay, I’m not just talking about dealing with reality as a person, which is tough enough.  I’m talking about dealing with it as a writer. I started my career in fiction, and have had a lifelong love affair with that craft.  Then, a few years ago, I was asked to write a nonfiction book, about a bird sanctuary in my area.  
      Of course, I took the gig.  I’m a writer.  I take on challenges, particularly paying ones.  I stretch and grow, and shop for shoes.  Besides, I love the sanctuary, Berkshire Bird Paradise, and Pete Dubacher, who runs it, is remarkable, so the subject appealed.  Hence, I signed on to write Feathers of Hope.        
      One aspect of writing nonfiction is deceptively simple. You research your topic.  I spent time at the bird sanctuary, followed Pete around, interviewed him and his family, and visitors and experts, gathering all the information I could. But you also need a narrative motion, and a voice to shape your story.      
    Deciding on narrative arc involved a lot of staring off into space and asking myself why I ever thought this was a good idea, until I remembered that nonfiction is a journey of discovery.  So what was I trying to discover?  What central questions did I want to ask and perhaps answer?  For me, it was clear:  Why would someone spend their life caring for a thousand birds?  And how in the name of all that’s strange would they support that dream?  Corollary questions occurred:  As humans, how do we relate to birds?  What do they mean to us, imaginatively and emotionally and physically?  Once I had my questions, the story arc was about finding answers. 
      My fiction skills helped me in that, because questions are also at the heart of fiction.  What will a given character logically do if, for instance, they’re stuck overnight in a grocery store and the apocalypse begins? Both fiction and nonfiction writers are all about What If, and What For, and How and Why, but nonfiction is both less and more personal. It’s less personal in that you gather material from outside yourself rather than from within your archetypal imaginative stew.  It’s more personal because you have to discover your own voice, rather than the voice of the characters.
      In fiction, the feeling tone, the dialogue, the cadence of the prose, all grows from the characters and their world.  In nonfiction, I have to write with my own voice, discover my own feeling tone. I think that’s what makes my narrative nonfiction students feel exposed.  It’s what makes me feel exposed.  I’m writing from my throat, not the throats of my characters. 
      Believe me, as I worked my way into a comfort zone with that, I hit the delete key a lot.  And a lot more.  And then again. Fortunately, I have a background as a storyteller as well, and ultimately that voice was my primary writing friend.  Nonfiction writers have to get comfy with their heard voices, which is why I make my students read out aloud, talk about their story, and howl.  Don’t all writers howl?    
       Writing my first nonfiction book wasn’t an experience I sought, but I’m glad I had it.  In fact, it led to In fact, it led to one of the most startling and unexpected ventures I’ve ever had: saving an Eagle named Mitch who was shot in the war in Afghanistan.  Yes. Really.
    When the book came out, Pete Dubacher got an email from a Navy SEAL and former Army Ranger stationed in Afghanistan, asking if he’d help them bring a war wounded eagle they’d rescued to the US.  Because Pete’s very busy with his thousand birds, I took on the task. After six months of battling the kind of astonishing obstacles and amazing weirdness only reality can throw at you, I had another nonfiction book to write:  Saving Eagle Mitch: One Good Deed in a Wicked World. That book came out this May, and has gotten a four star review from San Francisco City Book Reviews. 
      Writing nonfiction hasn’t improved my relationship with reality much, and I still run back to my fiction with great joy and relief, but I highly recommend the nonfiction experience.  It asks you to dig in, to discover, to give voice, in a way that will only feed you.  Will I write more?  You bet.  And if you haven’t tried it, you should.  As Dr. Seuss said, these things are fun, and fun is good.

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Barbara Chepaitis is faculty director for the popular genre fiction component of Western State Colorado University’s MFA in Creative Writing. 

You can find her nonfiction works on Amazon or at SUNY Press, and her Jaguar Addams series of fiction at wildside books. 

Some LINKS to find out more about Barbara and her writing:  

Thanks, Barbara, for letting us feature your marvelous words and projects this month!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Strange, strange attractors

(A solo posting by Mark)

Strange Attractors began as a 10-hour debate over what really happened in the New Mexico desert in 1947 as Kym and I drove home from four days of events commemorating the 49th anniversary to the (in)famous UFO crash in Roswell. The town was doing a test run before launching the 50th anniversary kick-off to the annual celebration, and we'd scored press passes for everything at their inaugural festival.

We'd listened to panels and seminars, attended meetings with researchers, physicists, and abductees -- and yes, watched parades down Main Street featuring local children dressed up like little green men.

Later, we incorporated a lot of what happened during those four days into the pages of Book One of the Silverville Saga, Little Greed Men.

But I couldn't get out of my head that everything I'd seen and heard about Roswell seemed so ... so implausible. As an amateur astronomer, I'd spent hundreds of hours peering through a telescope, and I'd read dozens of books on astrophysics. I'd finally concluded that it seemed as probable -- perhaps even more plausible -- that the reported ET visitors had come from the future than from a neighboring star.

That was the kernel for Strange Attractors: A Story about Roswell. And to be honest, a more accurate subtitle would have been "A Story that incorporates Roswell as One Thread."

As I got into the story, I became more interested in the implications of time travel than the events at Roswell, particularly certain quantum mechanical experiments that suggest future events can influence past ones.

(Here's a great video at New Scientist that explores a sample thread of some of that research. At the end of Strange Attractors, I suggest further readings about other complex and intriguing experiments suggesting how the future may well influence the past.)

The story that emerged braided together events in three time periods -- all of which interconnect and influence one another. And I decided to embrace the implications of time paradoxes in what could and couldn't occur.

By the time I had the story developed, I'd also incorporated eugenics, nanotech eco-terrorism, fractal geometry, archetypal dream analysis, and even Japanese origami.

The scary thing is that they all seemed to work together to tell my little tale about "Roswell."

For the record, I still believe in ET; I think the astronomical probabilities that we're not alone are too high  to believe we're the only examples of  sentient, intelligent life. But as to whether they've made it to our little neighborhood in the galaxy ... not so much.

Strange Attractors is the middle book of a planned trilogy and, given the complex issues of causality and time, the middle seemed the best place to start. (I think I made the right choice.) And when my head quits spinning, I'll have to decide whether the next book is the prequel or the sequel.

You can find the novel at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, assorted libraries and bookstores, and if you click on the "Strange Attractors" tab at the top of this blog, I've arranged for blogger friends to pick up the trade paperback at a 20 percent discount.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Why Tell All When You Can Just Hint?

All month, we’ve posted Silverville Series “Hint Fiction” on our Write in the Thick FB page – mini-stories of 25 words or less that each suggest some subplot or story within the series.

And it’s fun but challenging to capture these threads in such a tight space. (At least you get to write the title outside the word count, so you can hint a bit more.)

Here’s a sample from our Silverville Saga series:
Buford could make a bundle with the time portal – if he could only figure out how to stop it from killing any more patrons. (Book Three: The Magicke Outhouse)

It’s sort of like syllabic poetry, where you have to figure out how to say something meaningful in lines with a prescribed number of syllables (Haiku is a great example of syllabics with its form of three lines, where the first has  seven syllables,  the second has five, and the third line again has seven syllables.)

Hint Fiction and other similar limited word-count stories are the fictional equivalent of syllabics.

Robert Smartwood invented the form and coined the term. Check out his marvelous collection gathered from a contest he sponsored a couple years back: Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 words or fewer.

But Hint is only one of a number of micro-fiction forms.

Two of our other faves are Dribble and Drabble.

Dribble is a story implied in (gasp) six or fewer words. The most famous example, supposedly by Hemingway, is this one:

“For Sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”

Drabble is a story that tells its tale in exactly 100 words.

The charm of these micro-stories is that the shorter the stories are, the more the writer must relinquish the back story and meaning to the imagination of the reader. In some ways, it’s a good exercise in authorly humility.

Using the same thematic kernel, here are three (non-Silvervillean) micro-stories, first a dribble, then a hint, and finally a drabble:

They found a head – another one.


After the flood, her team worked the field by the cemetery. Then she noticed the half-covered head. She’d come back later, maybe keep this one.


 What a lovely day. Sara waved to the others a hundred yards away as she turned over sandy clumps with her rake.

The rescue team had found seven bodies so far. But according to town records, the flood had uncovered and washed dozens into the fields next to the cemetery.

Her rake uncovered a head, and she stopped. Recently buried and fairly well preserved, based on the exposed features and hair. Too bad the rake’s tine had punctured one eyeball. She smiled and reburied the head.

She’d return that night to reclaim the parts she’d need for her science experiment.

We just love the economy of these micro-story forms. 

We've modified the original intent of Smartwood's Hint Fiction form just a bit for our own purposes, of course, by using various threads and stories within the world we've created for the Silverville Saga series.

Instead, we're previewing these threads for folks who've not yet read this or that book; we're also reminding those who have read the books about the various stories contained within the saga -- a chance to revisit those threads in 25 words or less.

Check out the tab at the top of our blog page for the accumulating hint stories for each book within the Silverville Saga, or drop by our Write in the Thick FB page on Mondays and Thursdays this summer to see the latest installments.

And, of course, we’d love to see some of you post a dribble, hint, or drabble here of your own for us to ooh or ahh over!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Silverville Saga Petting Zoo

Silverville is full of critters.

The stories feature, with some prominence, an assortment of dogs, cats, and horses as well as buffalo, chickens, pigs and -- well all sorts of  folks feathered, furried, or otherwise!

No wonder, since Kym-n-Mark have a long history of close associations with animals -- and even way back before "Kym-n-Mark," when it was just Kym and just Mark.

Kym grew up on a Minnesota horse farm, training weanlings and one-year-olds for the arena and, eventually, competing with the older horses in gymkhana, barrel-racing, and jumping. When she didn't have a horse in hand or under saddle, she usually wandered around with a kitty in her arms. (She's always had a soft spot in her head for cats.)

Mark's not much better. He also grew up with horses, but the soft spot in his head didn't develop until he started collecting dogs -- exponentially. First there was one, then two, then four, then eight, and eventually 30. No, not a puppy mill: Mark had a sled dog kennel.

When Kym-n-Mark got together, the hers-his-theirs menagerie was definitely destined to live in the country.

Those glory days are over, and they now only have a dozen assorted critters (well, maybe a few more now and then).

But with so many animals in their personal lives, KnM were bound to find room for a few animals in the Silverville Saga. And most live double lives -- one at home in Doyleville, Colorado, and the other in Silverville.

Everyone who's read Little Greed Men knows that the speckled cow dog named Portia has an important role. That's her stage name. The real dog is called "Porsche," after the car. (The kids were into cars at the time and wanted to spell it that way. At least they didn't suggest Lamborghini).


Same for Grady's trusty mount, Ol' Moss, who has featured roles in Little Greed Men and All Plucked Up. Yep, based on a very feisty horse named "Belle." And yes, just as described in the book, that ornery horse did strike at an electrified fence the first time she touched it.

The chickens in APU are courtesy of their daughter's coup, laying eggs a plenty, and Chantale's buffalo, Tatanka,in LGM, is courtesy of their experiences with a neighbor's exotic beef operation a little ways down the road. (But that's another story.)

In the third book in the series, The Magicke Outhouse, a different neighbor's "house pig" (named Breakfast) gets a leading role (decided to keep the name this time – just couldn’t top it!)

The list could go on, but you get the idea. So many animals, so few pages to write them all in.

Silverville *is* full of critters, just like Kym-n-Mark's own lives. And if the Silverville Saga has a cast of significant characters, the most significant personally are those that come from their own private petting zoo.

(For information on all the Silverville Saga books, visit our official Website.)