The Practice of Creativity

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My writing community and life became infinitely richer when in 2015, on the suggestion of a writer friend, I attended illogicon, a local sci-fi convention. Michael G. Williams was one of the featured panelists that year (and many years since). Michael was just being himself on those panels and he probably didn’t know he was inspiring a lot of us in the audience with his candor, humor and deep knowledge of the genre. I was also inspired by the fact that he writes across several genres. He’s kind and encouraging of new writers. He’s also a vocal and visible advocate of diversity in gaming, geekdom, and speculative fiction and media. Fast forward many years later, I feel lucky to have appeared on several panels with him.

His recent book A Fall in Autumn is one of my favorite books that I have read this year. It’s sci-fi noir and unlike anything I have read before. The world-building is amazingly complex and I really loved the voice of Valerius Bakhoum, the main character. You can read a sample chapter here.

Michael G. Williams writes wry horror, urban fantasy, and science fiction: stories of monsters, macabre humor, and subverted expectations. He is the author of three series for Falstaff Books: The Withrow Chronicles, including Perishables (2012 Laine Cunningham Award), Tooth & NailDeal with the DevilAttempted Immortality, and Nobody Gets Out Alive; a new series in The Shadow Council Archives featuring one of San Francisco’s most beloved figures, SERVANT/SOVEREIGN; and the science fiction noir A Fall in Autumn. Michael also writes short stories and contributes to tabletop RPG development. Michael strives to present the humor and humanity at the heart of horror and mystery with stories of outcasts and loners finding their people.

I wanted to hear more about the influences that helped shape his writing. I’m so delighted to welcome Michael G. Williams to The Practice of Creativity.

-Tell us about your new book, A Fall in Autumn? What’s in store for readers?

A Fall in Autumn is a far-future science fiction detective story about Valerius Bakhoum, a washed-up private eye taking what he expects will be his last case. It’s got the voice of a hard-boiled detective story but the setting and characters of the more fanciful end of science fiction: human-animal hybrids, genetically modified people, and golems (which we would call androids).

It’s set far enough in the future – 12,000 years from now – that from Valerius’ perspective you and I are living in Atlantis. They know that people were alive in our time, and they know there are stories of a highly advanced society, and they know there are stories of that phase of human civilization completely wrecking the planet and destroying itself in its hubris, but Valerius and his contemporaries aren’t totally sure any of that is actually true.

At the time of the story, humanity’s technological forte is genetic manipulation and genetic engineering. In theory, the Vrashabh Empire – the dominant political entity, and the nation of which Valerius is a citizen – is a completely egalitarian society, in which all citizens are equal. In practice, the 25% of the population who are what Valerius calls “floor models,” designed from scratch or upgraded or otherwise genetically enhanced, are the ruling elite. The rest of humanity is overwhelmingly human-animal hybrids purpose-built for various roles in the economy, from manual labor to specific “white collar” jobs. There’s a very thin slice, maybe one percent of one percent, socially situated in the middle. These are Artisanal Humans, people who were made the old-fashioned way by people who are likewise unmodified. They’re considered a sort of “backup copy” of the human genome, and are supposed to live in genetic preserves where they have fewer exposures to environmental mutagens. Valerius is one of the Artisanal Humans, and so finds himself simultaneously fetishized as admirably pure and reviled as a grotesque throwback.

-What did you like to read growing up and/or as a young adult and are there any of those influences in your work?

I read boatloads of mysteries, horror, and science fiction, and those are definitely influences on what I write now!

My household had a ton of the yellow-bound Nancy Drew novels, and I really envied her lifestyle. She had her own car, an absentee parent, and a couple of friends to get into trouble with her. Who needs more than that? Dracula was one of my favorite books of childhood for the same reason: this deeply personal tale of a group of friends and lovers overcoming evil by trusting in one another and fighting bravely for one another despite the world’s refusal to believe what they’re experiencing? That seemed like exactly what I needed as a gay kid in the middle of nowhere.

I read classic sci-fi, tie-in novels for Star Trek by the wheelbarrow-load, Stephen King, and anything else I could find. But I also read a lot of classic literature, and Wuthering Heights remains one of my favorite books of all time. Given where and when I grew up, and how I grew up – specifically, being raised by evangelicals in isolation from a lot of pop culture – I wanted every book I could beg, borrow, or steal, and I read constantly.

-Much of your published work employs vivid first person narration. What draws you to use that point of view?

I love to get inside a character’s head and really unpack what makes them tick. For me, as a writer, nothing is more interesting and more motivating than the chance to sit with a character’s take on the world and learn their strengths, their weaknesses, the scars they bear from past wounds, and the secret wells of principle within them. Good characters constantly surprise us, and I want to give the perspective character the maximum opportunity to effect that surprise. With Valerius, the more of him I wrote the more complexity I find in his perspectives and attitudes. The story would not have been the same from a third-person perspective. It would have been significantly weaker.

Compelling stories are driven by characters making choices we can fully understand. That’s what drives both the horrifying inevitability of tragedy and the cathartic triumph of a hero overcoming her foes to claim victory. Learning a character inside and out is a great way to build our skills for empathy, too, and I think increasing empathy may be the only way we have to prevent the social, economic, and political downfall that destroyed our world in the fictitious history of Valerius’ future.

-While reading A Fall in Autumn one can’t help but ruminate on questions of memory, identity and personhood. Have you tackled these or similar concepts in your other work, or is this fresh territory for you?

Every single one of us struggles with the tension between how others see us and how we see ourselves. Ultimately, that’s at the root of every conflict between two people: a parent and their rebellious teen, two co-workers who both think they should be in charge, two spouses who disagree with how one or the other spent their money or their time, and so on. I think the only truly universal experience is of finding out someone else does not see us the way we see ourselves. And that’s certainly been at the heart of the greatest struggles of my personal life. I grew up gay in a remote mountain town, surrounded by people whose sets of acceptable outcomes for my life turned out to have almost no overlap with who I actually was. Who I am today is partly who I actually am and partly a reaction to others’ prejudiced demands and incorrect assumptions about me – and that’s true for everyone. I call A Fall in Autumn “queer sci fi” in part because Valerius is an explicitly queer character and in part because it’s a story about the power of identity to drive who we are, and how others see us, and the way a conscious examination of our own identity may close off certain paths for our life but it opens up other ones, new futures in which we get to be much more honest, much more authentic. That, more than anything, is the modern queer experience: that of people discovering who we are and choosing to lead lives that honor our self-revelation rather than obscure it.

My now-completed vampire series The Withrow Chronicles (which starts with Perishables) absolutely centered around those, as Withrow found himself over and over again confronting the difference between who he thought himself to be, who others thought him to be, and who he needed to become to survive that story. Throughout those books Withrow repeatedly assures us – in the course of trying to assure himself – that he’s a monster now, not a person, and that “person rules” don’t apply. Even in my urban fantasy series SERVANT/SOVEREIGN (which starts with Through the Doors of Oblivion), the heroes’ biggest personal questions are around how they are perceived by others versus how they perceive themselves, and what that says about how much they value the people and places they’re trying to save.

The same is very true of Valerius, who is constantly running into other people’s conflicting ideas of who he should be, how he should behave, and what’s “acceptable” for him. He occupies a place in society that some consider privileged and others consider reprehensible, and I really wanted to play with what it does to a person to get it from both sides like that. I think in many ways that’s very typical of the current queer experience, in which straight people watch RuPaul’s Drag Race in sports bars and right-wing politicians write dehumanizing laws intended to keep us marginalized and afraid.

-What is one area of craft that you knew you were weak in (or just OK), when you started writing that you rock now? How did you get there?

Different characters having different voices, probably. No, wait: real emotional depth in the characters’ perspectives and experiences.

No, scratch that, planning and editing.

No, wait, can I just list myself as being weak in everything? I’m not yet convinced I rock any of them. 🙂

(But seriously, I think I used to really stink at giving different characters their own voices and now I’m at least OK at it.)

– What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

Don’t worry about genre. Don’t think about where the book would be shelved in a bookstore or what categories it would have on Amazon. Those are important, sure, sort of, but they’re not as important as writing a story that makes you excited to tell it. It doesn’t matter what your book is about as long as you’re enthusiastic when you try to pitch it to others. If you have an idea that you love, and you think it might blend things together too much or be too “all over the place,” guess what: readers love that. Readers want to see an explosion of big ideas. Readers want you to lean in close and give them the elevator pitch of their lives: gay werewolves in space! Gothic romance but no one realizes everyone else is a secret vampire, too! Friday Night Lights but also they’re hedge wizards! I have had people walk away from my books because they were cross-genre, yes, but I’ve had many more drawn to my books because mixing things up and blending things together leads to the exceptionally pleasant experience of novelty.

Michael G. Williams is a prolific and award-winner writer. He writes novels across multiple genres and likes to subvert and mashup genres from time to time.

Michael is also an avid podcaster, activist, reader, runner, and gaymer, and is a brother in St. Anthony Hall and Mu Beta Psi. He lives in Durham, NC, with his husband, two cats, two dogs, and more and better friends than he probably deserves.

Find out more about him here.

 

As I frequently note on this blog, I am lucky to live in a community (a state even!) known for its writers. Anne Anthony is a writer friend that I know from classes, community shindigs and readings. We often like the same authors and comment on each other’s Facebook posts about writing advice.

I was touched when I read the inspiration for her recent co-edited book: The Collection: Flash Fiction for Flash Memory. It’s an anthology of flash fiction stories for adults who struggle with memory loss.  The inspiration for the book came after her mother passed away last February. As Anne has said, “[her mother] loved to read, but as her memory declined she switched from reading novels to reading short stories. She could have extended her reading life had she known about flash fiction (stories between 500 & 750 words).”

The Collection is not about memory loss (or aging), but it is a fine volume of 60 evocative flash stories that anyone can enjoy.

Anne Anthony is a full-time writer living in North Carolina. She holds a Masters in Social Work from the University of Maryland and a Masters in Professional Writing from Carnegie Mellon University. She’s been published in the North Carolina Literary Review, Dead Mule School for Southern Literature, Poetry South, Tell Us a Story, The Mused Literary Review, and elsewhere.

I figured after editing this major project, Anne would have some insights to share about the wonders and challenges of being a newbie editor. And, indeed she does!

I’m delighted to welcome Anne Anthony to The Practice of Creativity.

On Being a First-Time Editor
By Anne Anthony

I remember watching Mickey Rooney in the film, Babes in Arm, and his excitement when he decided to ‘put on a show’ to prove to his parents and those of his friends that these ‘kids’ could make it to Broadway.

I had a similar exhilaration at the start of the anthology project not because I was trying to prove something, but because I wanted to create a book that my mother would have enjoyed reading. Toward the end of her life, my mother lost the ability to hold on to longer plots of short stories and though she could read, she couldn’t follow a narrative from beginning to end.

Taking a good idea and turning it into an actual book was a journey of discovery for a writer who had never edited an anthology before. From writing the call for submissions, to their screening and review, sending out acceptances and rejections, to editing the stories, I learned five lessons for new editors.

  1. Hold to the Submission Guidelines

I’ve read hundreds of submission guidelines since I first began submitting my work. I try my best to follow those guidelines, but sometimes, I slip up. Once I submitted a flash fiction story to a journal which only publishes creative non-fiction. The editor informed me, kindly and politely, of my misstep and suggested a journal I might try.

So it surprised me when several submissions didn’t follow those guidelines. Many submissions were over or under the 500 – 750-word count limitation, or was a poem, or was clearly a memoir piece. I started yelling at my laptop, “Doesn’t anyone follow directions anymore?” which sometimes scared my old dog sitting at my feet. I gained a better appreciation for editors and their frustrations with submissions.

One writer submitted a strong story about a man encountering a beautiful, but quirky woman on the beach. Their conversation was witty and engaging and the only stumbling block to acceptance was the story’s 1000-word count. I loved the story so much that I took a shot at editing the piece down to 750-words. His response was respectful, Good try but I think the story loses too much at 750; 1000 words is more realistic,” but disappointing. I wished him well and sent him a list of the the top 20 flash fiction journals where he could submit his story. I truly wanted others to read what he’d written.

My advice to writers: pay attention to every detail in the guidelines or your submission will likely not be considered.

  1. Define Acceptance Criteria

The stories accepted met the acceptance criteria established prior to the screening phase of the book project. 1) a well-defined plot 2) strong writing 3) engages the reader from beginning to end.

The 81 stories that didn’t make the cut were rejected for several reasons, the least of which was weak writing. I recall wanting to read more of several stories — like the next 15 chapters. The writing was stellar and sharp, but writing 500 well-written words doesn’t mean you’ve written flash fiction. Some pieces were likely the start of a short story, a scene in a longer novel or novella, but it didn’t have the beginning, middle and end to make it flash fiction.

So, what is flash fiction?

Becky Tuch, the editor of Review Review, explained in one of her posts how ‘deceptively complex’ flash fiction can be.

“Part poetry, part narrative, flash fiction–also known as sudden fiction, micro fiction, short short stories, and quick fiction—is a genre that is deceptively complex. At the same time, writing these short shorts can be incredibly rewarding. Distilling experience into a few pages or, in some cases a few paragraphs, forces writers to pay close attention to every loaded conversation, every cruel action, every tender gesture, and every last syllable in every single word.”

As the editor, I gauged every word, every action written into these short pieces checking for relevance, tightness, connectedness from beginning to end. I asked myself: Is the metaphor used here necessary? Does it tie to the overall theme of the story? Is the writer inserting a metaphor that the character wouldn’t know to include? For example, would a five-year-old child describe a hot sunny day as ‘like lying inside a sun tanning booth?’

If you’d like to read more from Becky’s article, click here: http://www.thereviewreview.net/publishing-tips/flash-fiction-whats-it-all-about

  1. Check the Value of Every Word

The third lesson learned ties closely to lesson two.

Every word matters in flash fiction because of its short length.

While editing the anthology, I searched for places where writers used adverbs instead of strong verbs. Or questioned dialogue tags other than ‘said,’ (think: implored, sniffled shouted, screamed, yelled, well, you get my drift.) I’m a strong believer in the ‘invisibility’ of the dialogue tag — don’t call attention to it and consider eliminating it altogether if it’s clear which character is speaking. A reader should focus on the exchange between two characters and gather the tension or suspense (or whatever emotion is) by showing action.

For example, look at the difference in the two variations of the same dialogue.

Dialogue #1

“You never told me you were a man,” Helen shouted loudly.

“I’d thought you knew,” Billy whispered softly.

Dialogue #2

Helen stared at Billy standing naked in the shower. “You never told me you were a man.”

Billy reached for his bathrobe, “I thought you knew.”

In the first version, the writer uses unnecessary adverbs with dialogue tags which weaken the story. The second version gives the reader context with dialogue and no tags, creating a richer scene.

Colorado author, Eleanore D. Trupkiewicz, offers sound advice in her guest post, Keep it Simple: Keys to Realistic Dialogue (Part II) on Writers Digest.

“Beats of action reveal character emotions and set the stage far more effectively than an overdose of adverbs ever will.”

If you’d like to read more from more of Ms. Trupkiewicz’ guest post, click here:

http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/keep-it-simple-keys-to-realistic-dialogue-part-ii

  1. Trust Writers to (Mostly) Know Their Stories

Several strong submissions required editing to tighten the writing in certain places. One writer had a terrific story that lead the reader down an unexpected path but in the last paragraph, the story lost its momentum. Our communication about possible changes turned into a delightful exchange when Caren consulted with her fictional protagonist regarding her story which had ended with him saying, “Hmm.”

Here’s what she wrote:

“…I stepped back from the scene for a while and came back and asked, “So Umberto, was that it?”  And he said, to me, “Yes. That was it…Until I heard Genevieve commenting on what had just happened.” I’m not kidding, you, Anne! That’s what Umberto “said” to me! I hadn’t “seen” anyone else in the parking lot until I “asked” Umberto about the ending of his story and Lo and Behold! Another character had shown up! I was surprised but I’m really glad that you inspired me to check back in with Umberto… and Umberto’s glad that I let the story continue a bit further.”

The change Caren made to the ending was brilliant and I truly believe came straight from her fictional character’s mouth.

And though writers know their stories, sometimes they don’t include everything they had in mind. One writer submitted a story about an older jazz musician who returned to the stage for one night. He described the jazz club, the musician, and the indifference of the crowd in such perfect detail that the scene could easily be imagined. But he missed a detail. He never mentioned anyone on stage with the protagonist and then suddenly in the middle of his story, a band appears. His response was telling and underscores the value of a critical eye.

“The entire time I was writing the story, I pictured a full band behind him [the protagonist]. I had several people read the story, including a fellow writer that usually finds my mistakes, and nobody noticed that.”

As an editor, it’s essential to not only look at what’s there, but also to check for what’s missing from the story.

  1. Rejection Really Can Be Subjective

As a writer, I’ve received rejection emails from journals using phrases like, “Unfortunately, this piece isn’t the right fit for us. Please consider us for future submissions.”

I’d learned six months into submitting stories for publication about a rejection wiki that offers examples of rejection letters from hundreds of journals. I discovered that rejection emails are organized in tiers: Standard and Higher Tier.

If interested in reading more, check out the link: http://www.rejectionwiki.com/index.php?title=Literary_Journals_and_Rejections

Until I edited this anthology, I didn’t believe the ‘boilerplate’ language used in rejection emails. What I learned, however, is that well-written flash fiction can be rejected because of the fit. An editor may look across the accepted stories as a whole, once she’s accepted several pieces, and notice the emerging heart of the book. A particular piece really might not fit.

The second sentence in the example rejection above also took on new meaning. Several strong writers whose stories I’d passed on might make it into the next anthology, if I decide to do one.

And perhaps that’s the final lesson I take away from this whole experience — editors really do want to publish good stories. It’s what delights our hearts

Anne at the book launch held on Reading Across America Day, March 2.

Linda Johnson, a member of the writing group I’m in, reading from The Collection.

A full house for book launch of The Collection.

Anne Anthony is a full-time writer living in North Carolina. She holds a Masters in Social Work from the University of Maryland and a Masters in Professional Writing from Carnegie Mellon University. She’s been published in the North Carolina Literary Review, Dead Mule School for Southern Literature, Poetry South, Tell Us a Story, The Mused Literary Review, and elsewhere.

In 2017, she was a cast member in the farewell performance of the Raleigh-Durham show Listen to Your Mother, in which she read her essay “In My Bones.” Her flash fiction, “Bathroom Break,” placed third in a Brilliant Flash Fiction themed contest. She is the co-editor of an anthology of flash fiction intended for readers with memory impairments, The Collection: Flash Fiction for Flash Memory (March, 2018). She is the owner of Anchala Studios, a micro press based in Chapel Hill, NC which selects projects appealing to broad audiences and which enrich the community.

Check out her book on Amazon:

https://www.amazon.com/Collection-Flash-Fiction-Memory/dp/0692991034/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1519046448&sr=8-1&keywords=the+collection+flash+fiction+for+flash+memory

 

 

 

 


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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