A Creative Career Path

by Matthew Lowes

I was recently asked to speak to a high school freshman careers class about my work as a writer and independent game designer. This was at the school where I work, so many student were surprised that I had this other life writing fiction and games. I talked a little about my creative work, about The Labyrinth of Souls tarot card game, and about my novel, The End of All Things, which just came out. Then I answered a series of questions they had put together, which I’ll reproduce here. If there are any young people out there interested in pursuing creative work, here’s an inside look at how that’s unfolded for me … and few tidbits of advice.

1. How did you discover your love/passion for this activity or line of work? Is your career different than what you wanted to do when you were in high school?

I played with writing stories at a pretty young age, so that was there from early on. I read a lot of comic books when I was little. I also tried to tackle things way beyond me at the time. Actually my failure to read and comprehend The Iliad at around the age of ten may have turned me off from reading for a while. Nevertheless, at some point, everybody who loves books finds a book that really resonates with them at that moment in their life, and for me that was The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux, which I read in the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school.

My junior and senior year high school English teacher really helped solidify my interest in writing and literature. He was very demanding and a hard grader. He would never accept work even so much as an hour late and had the expectation that we would produce publishable quality writing. This really impressed upon me the importance of editing and always meeting your deadlines, which is incredibly important for a professional writer. But it was his love for literature and writing that helped me realize my own passion for the work I do now.

As far as games, that goes back a long ways too. When I was around nine years old my brother and I started playing Dungeon & Dragons, and I played a lot of roleplaying games right up until around middle school. A few years ago I got interested in games again, and since I spent the last twenty years or so working on writing, it wasn’t long before I was writing my own games. Games combine everything I love about fiction and narratives with math and logic. It’s a wonderful balance between creative and the analytical elements of thought.

2. How long did you consider turning your passion into an income before you went for it?

I wanted to be a writer, and really started writing with that in mind, when I was a freshman in college. I tried submitting a few stories almost right away, but got more serious about it a few years after I graduated from college.

3. What kind of schooling/training/qualifications is required in order to do your job?

There are no official requirements, but the unofficial requirements are vast. One must have passion, determination, and perhaps most importantly, vision. What I mean by vision is you have to have something to say, not in the sense that you have an opinion or a belief or a point of view, but more like you have an image of something you want to create.

I have a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a Master degree in teaching, but school is only a starting place for learning. A formal education and teacher can take you only so far. If you wish to excel, you must take it upon yourself to educate yourself about every aspect of what you’re doing. You must take complete responsibility for your knowledge and skills.

4. How long did it take to go through the training to do your job?

My whole life.

5. Is this career what you expected it to be?

Nothing is ever what you expect it to be. That’s what makes life so interesting. Everything you think you know about life and living now comes from a particular point of view that is shaped by the situations you find yourself in. Those situations and that point of view will change continuously throughout your life. Perhaps one day you will come to a place where you have no point of view whatsoever. But that is another conversation.

6. What do you enjoy most about your career? What is the best part of your job?

I enjoy pursuing my creative impulses. I enjoy taking an idea or vision and turning it into something concrete that others might find enjoyable, interesting, or inspiring.

7. What adventures/memorable moments have you had?

There is a wonderful satisfaction in finishing a large project you have invested a lot of time and energy into. I spent some twelve years writing a trilogy of fantasy novels, with a total of around 300,000 words, or some 1000 pages. When I finally got to the last sentence of the last paragraph of the last chapter of the last book, there was an indescribable feeling of triumph. I hope everybody can experience something like that in their life. Those books are actually not yet published yet, but when they are that will be another memorable moment. Every project I complete, whether a short story, a game, or a novel, is like that to some degree.

8. What is the most challenging part of your career? If you could change one thing about your job what would it be?

One must be prepared to work long hours, months, and years, potentially without any encouragement, validation, praise, or income. That has been a challenge. There was a long period in my life where I would have given anything to have the time and resources to devote myself full time to my creative work. But eventually you see that every aspect of your life is part of your creative work, is fueling it, and so there is no point in changing anything. In any case, things are constantly changing anyway. So one day I may yet have that luxury.

9. Are there any dangers in your job?

The biggest dangers for people doing creative work are psychological. We don’t live in a society that makes pursuing any kind of art particularly easy. So there is a danger of becoming frustrated, jealous, depressed, self-loathing, or bitter. I suppose there is also the danger of simply not being able to pay your bills, but that’s a part of the whole package.

10. How much stress is connected to your career?

Stress is all in the mind. Some situations are typically more stress inducing than others, but it is our response that creates the stress, not the situation itself. Whatever you do in life, you will encounter stress, but if you keep this in mind, it will be a lot easier to deal with.

11. What are your typical weekly hours?

I work four days a week at the school. For my creative projects, often I will work about two hours at night, and twelve to twenty hours or so over the weekend. It varies depending what projects I’m working on and where they’re at.

12. Is family time restricted due to job duties?

Yes. Because I essential work two jobs, a lot of my would-be free time or social time is taken up working on creative projects.

13. What is the expected income for an entry level position? How often do you get paid?

For someone doing independent creative work there is no expected entry-level income. It all depends on what you do and if people buy it.

14. Salary or hourly position? Do you make enough money to be comfortable?

I support myself through my job at the school. As an independent writer/game-designer, my income has increased over the years, but I don’t make enough money to support myself doing only that. That job has no salary and no hourly wage. I make something, and if people buy it I get a percentage royalty after production and distribution costs.

15. What benefits are offered with your job?

My job at the school has good benefits, like health care, holidays, sick leave, and so on. My job as a writer and game designer has no such benefits. If you take a path like this, you have to find a way to sort out life’s logistical details, so you can continue to do your creative work.

16. What is retirement age?

What is retirement? What is age? There’s plenty of time to think about these things later in life. Focus on what’s happening now and you can never go wrong. For someone in a creative field, there is no end to creative possibilities.

17. Is there possibility for promotion/movement within the career?

There are always possibilities. Opportunities are abundant, to take good actions, to better yourself, to learn and expand your sphere of influence. These opportunities appear every day for everyone. You need only notice and embrace them.

18. Are you happy with your career choice?

I am very happy with the course my life and my career has taken. Sometimes things in life choose you, but if you embrace whatever happens, you will find happiness.

19. What advice would you give this class as they start their career search and preparation?

Here’s some strange advice, but it might work well for the right person.

Pick something obscure and learn absolutely everything about it, become the best at it. For example, if you want to play in an orchestra, don’t become a violin player, unless you can’t help it because that’s what you love or you just have extraordinary talent for that. Instead, if you become the best bassoon player in the world and you will always have an interesting job.

A while ago, I was doing some research on mummies for a story I was writing. It turned out there was one guy who was the world’s most renown expert on mummies. He knew everything there was to know about it. He had a mummy-related job and whenever something mummy related came up, he would be consulted. That’s the kind of possibility I’m talking about.

Beyond this interesting idea, I would say take responsibility for your own education. Read widely. Learn everything. Follow your interests, but don’t forget to take care of practical matters.

Finally, stop complaining, and simply take good actions.

20. What would you have done differently in high school?

This is a strange question, since I could not have done anything differently than I did. I was who I was at the time, and I am who I am now. But if you’re asking me what I think you should do while you’re in high school, I would say you should take advantage of the great opportunity to learn and better yourself and your situation. Study hard, learn as much as possible, but don’t worry too much about the future, other than to consider it and make some appropriate plans for what you will do after high school.

If you feel overwhelmed or depressed, ask for help. You’re not alone and people care about your well-being. Finally, don’t do anything foolish, like taking up drugs or drinking alcohol. Your brain and your body are still developing. Don’t risk messing yourself up for life. Maybe some of you are already doing these things and are thinking that it won’t mess you up, but you could be terribly wrong. You don’t even really know what messed up is, because you don’t really know where you’re at or what your true potential is.

Try to find out what your true potential is. It’s way bigger than you can even imagine.

Buying Craft at Conferences, by Eric Witchey

FNTCVR

Buying Craft at Conferences, by Eric Witchey

First, the gratuitous ad. The new book is available. It won’t launch until the World Fantasy Convention, but it is available on Amazon in hard and e-book forms. Please buy, read, and review. Here’s the link:

https://www.amazon.com/Littlest-Death-Labyrinth-Souls-Novel/dp/0999098934/ref=sr_1_cc_1?s=aps&ie=UTF8&qid=1506958090&sr=1-1-catcorr&keywords=Eric+Witchey

 

On to the blogging.

When a writer goes to a conference and pays for a fifteen-minute, private professional critique session with one of the presenters, what are they really trying to buy?

Some are trying to buy recognition.

Some are trying to buy discovery.

Most are trying to buy improvement.

Generally, the conference presenter who has agreed to read and do story analysis has little influence over the misguided motivations of the first two desires. The third can rarely be done in fifteen minutes. Sure, the conference presenter can offer one or two ideas. They may even offer an idea that lets the hopeful writer turn a corner in craft. However, those are rare moments.

As part of my commitment to the Write on the Sound Writers Conference where I’ll be teaching this weekend, I am reading and analyzing 10 manuscripts and providing a sit-down, one-on-one development session to each author. Having read all ten, I’m now working on my write-ups.

I don’t have to do written analysis for my conference clients. It’s not part of the contract. All I have to do is read then sit down with them for fifteen minutes and chat about their writing. So why write up my responses at all?

The first reason is to respect their work. The second reason is to show them their hope is valid. The third reason is that I can and should. It’s the right thing to do, and I have found methods of making it efficient and helpful.

For example, of the ten manuscripts I’ll be addressing this weekend, eight show no indication of understanding standard manuscript format. For some, that may be a result of rather vague instructions given by conference coordinators. For others, maybe not. For the two who obviously do understand manuscript format, there was clearly just no choice but to deliver pages in standard manuscript format.

Now, I’m not going to explain standard manuscript format here. I’m just using it as an example. In fifteen minutes of discussion at the conference, I might be able to get across the fundamentals of manuscript format and why it is important. Maybe. Fifteen minutes isn’t much time for show-and-tell. Certainly, it’s not enough time to help a client develop a couple of MS Word Template files that automatically provide layout and styles definitions that support manuscript format.

However, I can describe the problem, the reasons the problem is a problem, and the solutions to the problem in a short white paper that I can then include as part of the packet response for the eight clients who need it.

Over time, I’ve recognized that certain patterns of success and patterns of failure recur in conference manuscripts. In fact, they appear in slush I have read, in college classes I have taught, and in seminars I have led. I can easily list the most often seen issues in manuscripts written by developing writers.

Mind you, not all the manuscripts I read for this conference had these problems. In fact, one was clearly professional. However, experience reading in many venues has brought me to realize that this list of development issues is pervasive enough that I have developed white papers for each item and quite literally hundreds more. By handing each client a short, written analysis of their text and augmenting that analysis with supporting white papers, I can give the client a lot to think about and material they can come back to later. When they do come back later, they will discover a much more detailed exposition of the issues and methods for solving that issue. After all, aren’t executable solutions what they really paid for?

Here’s a simplified list of the most common weaknesses I see in conference manuscripts:

  • Absence of dramatic conflict or the belief that dramatic conflict means combat.
  • Failure to understand character transformation.
  • Failure to understand the relationship between character transformation and incremental emotional change in scenes.
  • Failure to understand character depth and how to demonstrate character psychology and change in dialog and narrative.
  • Failure to understand the difference between authorial voice, narrative voice, character voice(s), and the reader’s internal voice.
  • Failure to grasp core thematic(s) and how a story demonstrates it/them.
  • Failure to fully develop the psychological and sociological nature of the opposition.

The list could go on, but these are the things I see missing most often. I don’t have time here to develop descriptions of each of these, nor would I since I’m not being paid. However, some of the readers of this blog might be going to conferences in the future. Before you pay for an analysis of your manuscript, check it for the above. Before you pay for a sit-down session, see if you can find out whether you are buying a chat or a solution.

Interview with Alan M. Clark, By Cheryl Owen-Wilson

Cover_ApologiesToTheCatsMeatMan_The Cat’s Meat Man” Copyright © 2017 Alan M. Clark

I’m delighted to be interviewing Alan Clark on ShadowSpinners today. I’ve had the distinct pleasure of knowing this talented author and artist for several years and have even taken a few of his painting classes. His very brief bio below, mentions the house full of bones where he grew up. Well dear reader, I have personally been in Mr. Clark’s current home, and I can attest that bones remain a prominent feature in his life, and in the macabre décor of his studio. Those of you who have followed my blog know of my own penchant for all things dark and twisted, so I naturally took an instant liking to Mr. Clark!

I’ve just finished his latest book and immediately gave it the five stars it deserved on Amazon. The book is Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man: A Novel of Annie Chapman, the Second Victim of Jack the Ripper (Jack the Ripper Victims Series). My interview will focus mainly on the book, while also touching on the series and Mr. Clark’s artwork.

Alan M. Clark grew up in Tennessee in a house full of bones and old medical books. As a writer and illustrator, he is the author of sixteen published books, including 11 novels, a lavishly illustrated novella, four collections of fiction, and a nonfiction full-color book of his artwork. He has illustrated books and stories by authors as diverse as Jack Ketchum, Poppy Z Brite, Stephen King, Joe R Lansdale and Ray Bradbury. Awards for his work include the World Fantasy Award and four Chesley Awards.

 

Alan, what first drew you to write historical fiction?

Thanks for the nice introduction. 

I’ve always liked history. Many years ago, in the early ‘80s, one of my first jobs was as a museum guide at Fort Nashborough, a partial replica of the first non-native-American settlement of Nashville, TN. I was in a position of having to bring to life for the visitors what existence was like for those who first settled the area. Using my imagination, I found I could sort of travel back in time to help the visitors get a glimpse of a time when the area was surrounded by wilderness, as well as hostile Indians who held those lands as sacred hunting and burial grounds.

What inspired you to write about the victims of Jack the Ripper, while so exclusively leaving the man out of the stories as well as any speculation as to who he might have been? 

I read the police reports of the killings, the transcripts from the inquests, and other material that gave a sense of who the victims were, what their lives were like. Knowing something of history in the nitty gritty of life, beyond significant dates, locations, and standout events, I became fascinated with what it took for the women to survived in London’s East End of the period. I found a parallel with the homeless of our time. We have the tech revolution marginalizing the less fortunate among us, and Victorian England had the same thing with the Industrial Revolution, the suffering at its worst in London, the richest and most technologically advanced city in the world at the time. Survival in that time and place was a tale worth telling. The more I learned about the women and their environment, the less interested I became in the endless, and often ridiculous speculation about the murderer. Because we don’t know who JTR was, the killer is mostly defined by his victims and what he did to them, while the women should not be defined by the circumstances of their deaths since we have some information about them and their lives. 

What do you feel are the ethics of writing historical fiction?

There are four novels in the Jack the Ripper Victims Series at present: Of Thimble and Threat, Say Anything but Your Prayers, A Brutal Chill in August, and Apologies to that Cat’s Meat Man. I state in the front of each novel that they are fiction and that is meant to tell people that I’ve made up much the story, the dialogue, and the motivations of the characters. I try to create characters that ring true in the imagination as human beings. They are necessarily flawed. I try to stick to what is known of their lives, their motivations, their feelings, but clearly I have to invent.

Popular notions about the victims would have us believe that they were prostitutes of little value. Unfortunately that is because that’s the way they were seen in their time. Those killed on the street, the first four, were casual prostitutes, meaning that they engaged in solicitation when they had to in order get by. The going rate for a casual prostitute at the time was four pence (pennies). If my calculations are correct, adjusted for inflation, that would be about almost 2 £ British currency today, or about $2.70 cents USD. The rest of the time, they eked out a meager existence doing what work they could find, mostly hard and tedious labor for little pay. Those four women had all lost their husbands and were destitute. There were so many poor, so many partner less women living in the East End of London, and so many of them were alcoholics, often struggling to get from one meal to the next, one drink to the next, that they were considered a nuisance by most people of the higher classes, and of very little worth. Yes, there was a rigid class system in place at the time.

Yet those women had lives, families, friends, emotional gains and losses, the controversies and dramas to be found in any life. My opinion is that giving a sense of life in that time and place to people of our time, and to those of the future, is a worthy endeavor. If people are so fascinated by the idea of an inhuman killer that they are drawn to material about the violence, why not use that to draw attention to something intensely human.

Do you feel you owe anything to the all too real victims in your books? In particular Annie Chapman the second victim of Jack the Ripper upon whom “Apologies to the Cats Meat Man” is based?

I owe her compassion as a fellow human being, and believe I have written something that depicts a character going by her name and having similar circumstances in a way that makes her more than a two-dimensional alcoholic Victorian-era whore. Hopefully, the story inspires others to imagine those times and circumstances and engenders compassion for the least of that time, and, by extension, the least of our time.

In preparation for this interview I delved more deeply into why your book resonated with me, even weeks after I’d read it. I realized it was because of what you touched on in the last sentence of your response above—inspires others to imagine those times and circumstances and engenders compassion for the least of that time, and, by extension, the least of our time. You see I had a daughter who—slept rough—the term used in the 19th century to describe having to sleep on the streets at night. My daughter was also an addict. Through her I learned of the lives of many of those considered—least of our time—those who slept rough, right along side her. When she died those same marginalized people were the ones who shared stories about my daughter’s compassion toward them. So thank you for humanizing those who are all too often invisible.

That is hard. You have my sympathy.

Compassion is in short supply in a world so full of people and dwindling resources. That was true in Victorian London, just as it is true today. In 1888, the Whitechapel district in London’s East End, where most of the Ripper killings occurred, had an average of 800 people living per acre.

There will always be those who stereotype the unfortunate individual as a loser. It’s easy and can be a comfortable way to temporarily pump up a deflated sense of self. But all of us make mistakes and suffer for it, and, at times, suffer through no fault of our own. Writing drama is all about the decisions characters make, the consequences of those decisions, and how they deal with adversity. If done well and the character’s motivations ring true, a story becomes an effective reflection of human life, a mirror we value because it gives us glimpses that help us understand ourselves and others.

What was the hardest, and in turn the easiest part of writing this book? 

What made it hard is that there is little information about Annie Chapman’s life, really just a bare-bones outline. The lives of each of the victims is most clear closest to their deaths because of the inquests. Those are investigations to determine the manner of death, much like a trial, with witnesses testifying as to their relationships, knowledge, and recent interactions with the deceased.

Because there was so little information about Annie Chapman, I had to pick up even the thinnest emotional threads and try work with them. I found a letter written by Chapman’s sister that gave some truly wonderful emotional context concerning love and loss and even violent suicide in the family—that was very helpful. The lack of information made it hard, but also gave me room to invent. The trick is to invent in a way that remains true to the environment, the circumstances of the characters, ones that seem consistent with what we do know from history.

You did an excellent job of making me feel the hardships, squalor and violence in the life of a working class woman in 19th century London. Were there specific reference books used to accomplish this?  

Thank you. Most of my research for the series has been done online. There are great resources for this, maps, documents, fiction, nonfiction, and government studies from the time period. Google books has a seemingly endless selection of material referencing the Victorian era, generated by authors, journalists, and social scientists of the period. The ability to search online for images using key words was also of great benefit.

For those unfamiliar—I was one of those and had to look it up—please explain what a “cats meat man” is.

A cat’s meat man is a street vendor who makes rounds of neighborhoods that have people with pets, selling meat to those who have dogs and cats. It was usually horsemeat not fit for human consumption, dyed green or blue to indicate that and stabbed onto thin wooden skewers. A cat’s meat man would have regular customers and and a beat so as not to compete with others in the same trade. Wearing a big, bright neckerchief, he’d wheel a barrow that held his merchandise in containers of brine. To draw attention, he’d sing a song or shout “Beep, beep,” as he proceeded to. They were often organized through someone who had access to the cast offs of a local slaughterhouse.

TheCatsMeatMan

“The Cat’s Meat Man” Copyright © 2017 Alan M. Clark

What is the one most important thing people think they “know” about the Jack the Ripper victims that’s a fallacy?

Many assume that the killer was a top-hatted gentleman slumming in the East End. I’ve seen depictions of JTR wielding a knife with a jeweled handle. All that is unlikely. The murderer would probably have been someone who could blend in, and that would have been someone of modest to meager means. Even your accent, your manner of speech, and vernacular placed you within that society.

I have shared in this blog how my own painting and writing both assist and hinder one another. Other than the creation of the art for your book covers, does your art inform your writing in any way? 

I have done numerous illustrations for the series. I approach the material as I would with any illustration job—the images are in response to what I’m writing. With the artwork, I try to add to the experience audiences have of the stories, while pinning things down as little as possible. Audiences respond better when they are given room to use imagination. In many of the illustrations, instead of depicting the character’s facial features, I concentrated on their hands, thus allowing the audience to put their own stamp on the characters.

StillInItsHidingPlace

“Still in Its Hiding Place” copyright © 2014 Alan M. Clark

I am anxiously awaiting a book on final victim, Mary Jane Kelly. Is it in my near future? 

Yes, next year—have begun it. Using some of the illustrations, I did an animated film less than 2 minutes in length to help promote it and the rest of the JTR Victims Series. Just finished the film and haven’t released it yet.

Other than the book mentioned above, what do your plans for future projects include?

As I’ve done in the past—not just with the JTR Victims Series, but also with The Door that Faced West, about America’s earliest serial killers, and A Parliamnet of Crows, about 19th century American Murderesses, the Wardlaw sisters—I’ll be looking for something in history that leaves me disturbed and wondering. All my historical fiction starts that way. I call it Historical Terror: Horror that Happened. Something in the past stands out to me because I have to wonder how those involved in the event found what they did reasonable. Writing the tales helps me provide answers. The novels are about crimes, the victims of crimes, or both.

Thanks for interviewing me on ShadowSpinners.

Thank you, and I look forward to many more great reads as you explore my new catch phrase—Historical Terror.

Interview – Author Bonnie Stufflebeam

 

 

Bonnie

In this month’s interview, I’m delighted to introduce you to Bonnie Stufflebeam.  I met Bonnie in a writing group, and have followed her writing and projects since then.  Her work is often moving, poignant, and thought-provoking.

Bonnie’s fiction and poetry have appeared in over 40 magazines such as Clarkesworld, Hobart, and Lightspeed. She has been a finalist for the Nebula Award and Selected Shorts’ Stella Kupferberg Memorial Prize. Her audio fiction-jazz collaborative album Strange Monsters was released from Easy Brew Studio in April 2016, and she is also the founder of Art and Words, a collaboration of art and fiction.  Her most recent online publication is “Secret Keeper” in Nightmare, which is a tribute to Phantom of the Opera set in a high school theater

Bonnie, would you tell us about your writing?

I write fiction of a fabulist/fantastical variety, anything from what Scott Andrews of Beneath Ceaseless Skies calls literary adventure fantasy to dark fantasy to science fiction to stories with a more literary sensibility that still have some sort of fantastical element. I love re-working myths and fairy tales especially. I also love playing with all the elements of fiction.

Like a lot of writers, I’ve been telling stories since I was a kid. I used to write and illustrate books about my cat April’s adventures (she got lost, coughed up a hairball, rescued an alien stuck in a tree, usual cat stuff). Angsty poetry is the only way I survived middle school. I got serious about fiction in college—that’s when I developed a routine and started reading like a writer—and started publishing in 2012, while I was getting my MFA.

I’m very self-driven. I want to be a writer and have always wanted to be a writer, so I work hard to be a writer (and some days are more difficult than others, of course). I also have lofty dreams that are really outside of my control when it comes to reaching them, and those dreams can be motivational but also distracting. I try to keep a good balance of hopefulness and practicality when it comes to motivation.

What kind of stories have special meaning for you?

I’ve always loved stories for that sense of connection with another person I get when reading them. My favorite stories are those that make me realize something about the world or about myself or the ones that remind me that I’m not the only one who feels a certain way or has had a particular experience. I write because stories have been so important to me, and I want people to connect to my stories the way I’ve connected to stories.

I write a lot about family. My family is a huge force in my life, so I tend to gravitate toward stories about the complicated nature of familial relationships. I write a lot of metaphors for alcoholism and addiction and depression. I write a lot about queerness and sexuality in general. I grew up bisexual in a smaller Texas town. Those formative experiences feature in a lot of my writing.

 What is the hardest thing you have ever written? 

One of the first novels I wrote and then revised, which didn’t end up selling. It was difficult, as a short story writer, to not only sustain a narrative over such a large length but then to revise that narrative. Revision has always been one of my weaknesses. I’m still learning from novel-writing, as I’m still trying and am still in the dark about so much of it. But I’m starting to understand certain things about plotting and follow-through in such a large work.

In addition to your fiction, you have done some fascinating projects and collaborations with art and writing.  Can you tell us about your annual Art and Words Show-Art on the Boulevard? 

The Art & Words Show started as a project during my MFA program at Stonecoast. For one of my assignments, I decided to put on a show that would combine literature and art. I researched various collaborations between writers and artists throughout history. For the show itself, I put out an open call for submissions. I accepted 11 visual artists and 11 writers based on the work they sent me and took one work from each of them. Then I had each writer choose a piece of the visual art I’d accepted to use as inspiration for a poem or story. The visual artists then chose a poem or story from the work I’d accepted and used it as inspiration for a work of visual art. This resulted in 22 pairings of art and words, hence the name of the show.

This year, with a reception on October 7 at Art on the Boulevard in Fort Worth, will be Art & Words’ 6th year. I’ve slowly improved upon the show in small, practical ways. For example, at first I had no word limit for the stories. But some of them were so long that no one had time to read them at the show. Now I try to keep them to one page-length. And then there’s a few things I wish we could still do that we did in those first years; I ran a Kickstarter for the first year, so we had some money for set-up and could also pay musicians to play. We don’t have the budget to do that anymore. Otherwise, I’d say that every year I get more and more submissions, which means that I’m able to feature more people who haven’t done the show before, which is great.  You can find more about it HERE

ArtShow

Can you tell us about Strange Monsters, your project involving music and fiction?

Strange Monsters was a collaboration I did with my partner, Peter Brewer. Peter’s a jazz musician, composer, and recording engineer, and we wanted to do something creative together. We hired local actors to read some of my flash fiction, then he wrote jazz compositions for each story. We hired local musicians to record the music, which Peter then mixed with the words. We released the whole thing as an album. All the stories dealt with women making their own way, eschewing other people’s expectations of what they should do or how they should act.

Yes, I particularly enjoyed “Stink of Horses” in this collection. Listening to it was a surprisingly visceral experience. 

Thanks.  The most fun part of this project was getting to work with so many awesome creative people. It’s always surprising to hear someone else’s interpretation of my writing, and I got to hear it translated into music. I’ve always been a huge music lover, so that was really rewarding.

So, music and art are strong influences in your work.

Yes, I’m inspired by other art forms. I’m totally absorbed by music and art, and a lot of my story ideas come from my experiences with both. I would say that my writing has gained depth from my interactions with other art forms. As one person with a limited set of experiences, I can pull from those experiences to write.

 Has your writing changed as a result of the work you have done with other artists?

For the first few years of writing seriously, I wrote autobiographical stories. By opening myself up to the work of other artists, letting their experiences in, I’ve gained a lot of empathy for other people’s experiences, and that empathy has allowed me to better put myself in the shoes of characters who may share some of my qualities but who have lived different lives.

How do you see collaboration between artists contributing to the ongoing conversations about pressing social issues?

When people create together, they’re communicating with another person on a pretty personal level, which can lead to an increase in empathy toward that other person and an increased ability to empathize in general. A lot of artists—not all, of course, but a lot—are open-minded people. I love it when open-minded people get together and share ideas in order to make new things. I think more of that can only be helpful when confronting communication barriers and organizing against the bullshit of our current world.

But of course it takes more than communicating to get things done, so I’m definitely not advocating artistic collaboration as a one-stop strategy to bolster consciousness and conversation about social issues. It’s important to do whatever else each person can do: march against intolerance and injustice, vote with your dollar and on Election Day, write letters, make calls, and offer support. But art can be therapeutic, as well, as can social interaction, and I say if you want to make some collaborative art as a part of your resistance, why the hell wouldn’t you?

So true!  Bonnie, what are you working on now?

I’m working on a novel. Once that’s finished, I’d love to write some more short stories, as I haven’t been able to work on those lately. They’re my first love, and I miss them.

Thank you for your time, Bonnie.  Best of luck to you in your ventures.  

Find Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam: Website or on Twitter

Strange Monsters: a Music & Words Collaboration, out now | Preview the tracks here

Grist for the Mill

By Elizabeth Engstrom

How many times have you been told, when going through a rough patch in life, “Well, it’s grist for the mill.” That phrase never helps me when someone else says it. Only when I say it.

For those who don’t know, grist is grain that has been separated from the chaff (outer husk), leaving the kernels ready to be ground into flour.

Today I use my Vitamix to grind wheat berries into flour, but in the old days, oxen walked around and around a big stone where people threw their wheat, to be ground into flour by another enormous round stone. Later, windmills powered the grinding stones to make flour. Wind powering a mill. Windmill.

windmill

For an author, the real milling happens internally. Authors are quirky people, very interesting to talk to (if you can get them alone and not in a crowd) because they live lives of grand events, they feel passionately, and grind their experiences into a fine powder and then play it out on the page.

Very few people have a book published prior to acquiring a few gray hairs. This is because we have to live life, we have to experience a vast landscape of people, events, relationships, emotions; we need grist that we can ponder, from which we extract the kernel that will become fiction worth reading.

My friend, romance writer Susan Wiggs says the hardest scene ever to write is that of a woman crying. She’s right. Most authors cheat and say something like “tears ran down her cheeks.” Well, that’s just not right. It’s passive, it’s likely from the wrong point of view, it tells the reader NOTHING. It is only those of us who have experienced gut-blasting, heart-exploding grief, where it feels like a heart attack, it feels like asphyxiation, the kind of grief where we’re certain we’re going to die–who can write a scene that a reader will get on the emotional level that we intend. On a human level. Not every woman crying scene deserves all of that, but it deserves a corner of it.

And yet, we can’t write that while it’s raw. We have to grind it. We have to absorb it into our personalities, make it part of our total human experience. We have to portion it out in this scene and in that scene, knowing that the depth of our personal experience is so vast that we can draw on those experiences for the rest of our lifetimes.

Sometimes, of course, we have to write it raw. Sometimes that’s the only way to survive. But that writing is not for publication. That is merely the record of the grist entering the mill. The finished story or novel is the finished, baked bread. As you know, good bread needs leavening. That takes time.

So when you go through something terrifying, horrible, or devastating, and someone else, knowing you’re a writer, tosses it off by saying, “it’s just grist for the mill,” realize that they’re trying to comfort you. They don’t mean to invite a slap across the chops. They know you’re a writer, someone who feels everything intensely, and that someday you will indeed use this unexpected windfall of wild grain in your mill to bake a loaf of something delicious that they will enjoy.

What’s a “MacGuffin” Anyhow? A Little Investigation of my Own

By Lisa Alber

Since the last time I wrote here, my third novel, PATH INTO DARKNESS launched. Woohoo! It’s always a fun thing, the culmination of at least two years of hard work. Along with the launch, come the reviews, which I try not to notice all that much … (yeah, right).

But then, last week, I got a nice surprise: my local alternative paper, the Willamette Week—bastion of Portland, OR, hipness and snark—featured a review of the novel. Color me shocked, to be honest. I’d never seen an actual full book review in the newspaper. Maybe it was a slow news week in the land of hip, I don’t know. I was hesitant to read the review. Snark doesn’t tend to be magnanimous, and, indeed, the reviewer had a nice way of coating what might considered a positive aspect of the novel with the glow of ambiguity.

But, it’s all good. I was thrilled to see the review and picked up about ten copies of the print version. 🙂

One sentence sticks out near the beginning of the review: “…the murder is just the MacGuffin, a hedge mower clearing the underbrush to look at the gross stuff underneath.”

Using the term “MacGuffin” in a book review interests me. That’s a writing craft kind of word, the kind of concept that the average reader won’t understand or care about it.

First thought: Really? Thanks for letting me know.

Second thought: What’s a MacGuffin again?

Third thought: Is that a bad thing?

I get what the reviewer is saying, maybe: The murder of Elder Joe at the beginning of the book is the least of the events and mysteries to sort out. One thing leads to another, and before you know it there’s a whole ‘nother thing going down that could be related to Elder Joe’s death, but maybe it’s not, and maybe there’s some more bad stuff brewing.

What can I say, this is the world of dark crime fiction — shit (or maybe “shite” since the story’s set in Ireland) happens. When you’re writing mystery, that’s pretty much the point!

I’m not sure the reviewer used the term “MacGuffin” correctly, so bear with me as I investigate. Review aside, I am interested in the MacGuffin concept anyhow.

Here’s what I know to start with: MacGuffins are plot devices. Too bad the term “plot device” always seems to come along with a sneer, like it’s a bad thing, like if you’re a writer using a plot device, then you’re basically a hack — so-called “literary” writers don’t use plot devices, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

We could mine that topic until the next eclipse …  To continue, looking around the Internet, I see that “MacGuffin” is typically defined as the object (person, place, thing) around which a plot revolves, and said object may or may not be all that important. The Maltese Falcon statuette, the Holy Grail, a lost manuscript, the lost city of Atlantis, and so on.

If you want to get all technical about it, I guess you could say that a dead body is an object around which a mystery plot revolves, therefore, a MacGuffin. But that seems silly. Might as well say that the love interest the heroine meets at the beginning of a romance novel is a MacGuffin.

On WikiPedia, the definition includes, “Other more abstract types [of MacGuffins] include victory, glory, survival, power, love, or some unexplained driving force.”

Well, huh. Every story, I mean every story ever written, has a MacGuffin then, which renders the term pretty useless. If a story doesn’t revolve around something, then what’s the point of it? So I reject that wider definition. I’ll remain a purist on the topic, which is more the Hitchcockian way of thinking of MacGuffins.

I have a go-to writing book that I dip into now and then for inspiration and reminders: Elizabeth George’s WRITE AWAY. Since she writes crime fiction, I’m curious what she has to say about MacGuffins within our genre. She considers MacGuffins a craft element that you can use to increase suspense. She says, “… it’s the race itself — the race to possess the MacGuffin in advance of the other characters — that creates the suspense.”

OK, yeah, that makes sense — a lot of sense.

My conclusion? I have a more purist definition of “MacGuffin,” so I don’t think a murder at the beginning of a mystery counts as one, even when said murder ends up not being the point of the story. (Like the Maltese Falcon statue itself not really being the point of the story.)

Did the reviewer misuse the term? Meh. Not sure. Kind of. You can argue either way. It’s just not fully apt, in my opinion. In my literary jargon, Elder Joe’s death is the inciting incident — the event that gets the plot rolling so that I can, as the reviewer so descriptively put it, examine deeper and darker territory.

What’s your take on the MacGuffin? Do you define it more in the Hitchcockian way? Or include abstractions in your definition? Do you even care?

Immersed In Voices

by Christina Lay

Today’s post is dedicated to a gentleman I met at a writing conference who proudly told me that he doesn’t read because he doesn’t want his voice to be influenced by other writers.

I’ll let that sink in for a moment.

If you are alive and moving through society, you are influenced by writers, whether you read or not. You’re influenced by the stories you heard as a child, by the television and movies you’ve watched, by songs on the radio, speeches you’ve listened to, graffiti glimpsed through a train window, poetry carved on tombstones and conversations overheard. Voices are everywhere. They creep into our mental milieu and join the babble, for good or ill. You can’t stop it. To try is just silly. Nor should you want to. It’s a little bit like a visual artist deciding to walk around with their eyes closed because they don’t want their vision to be influenced by what they see. While you might be intent on being a total original, shutting out the world, especially the art form in which you seek to express yourself, is a way to grow stifled and dull, not fresh and exciting.

I was thinking about this because I recently found myself strongly influenced by the voice of a writer I was reading. Before you get the wrong idea, no, this was not a case of stunningly artistic and meaningful prose that shook me to my core and made resolve to write nothing but lofty and truthy literature from this point forward. No, the book in question was a snarky fantasy involving a hornless gay unicorn and a sexually aggressive dragon (The Lightning Struck Heart by TJ Klune). It influenced me because it made me laugh and yes, I did suddenly find my characters wanting to be so much more witty and unrestrained. I paused and wondered if I was guilty of copying the writer I’d enjoyed. He certainly influenced the tone of what I was doing, but I think the main effect was more akin to a barrier broken, a buried voice uncovered, a repressed impulse given permission to unfold.

I remember when I first read Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume. I thought I’d been handed the key out of writer hell. At last I discovered that yes, you can be both silly and good. You can let your inner crazy out and people like it. You don’t have to be serious, emulate Hemingway (when you’re trying to conform to the accepted ideal, it’s emulate, not copy, btw), squash playfulness and grimly grind out perfectly diagrammed, perfectly original sentences in order to be a respectable Author with a capital A.

So after reading this writer, characters started gabbing away in my head, saying whatever came to mind, and instead of deciding that it was all too silly and shall we say, risky, I hurried to my desk and wrote down whatever they had to say. I didn’t censor them, much. I found a character who seemed like a long lost friend and two weeks later, I have an 18K novella out of it.

In this case, I believe what I found in another writer was a deeply felt need to play at the keyboard again. Odds are, you don’t know what you need, so filtering out possible influences is simply self-defeating. This doesn’t apply to writing only, but to any place where people are expressing themselves. It might be a song or an essay, or it might be, God help us, a Facebook status update. Because that’s where a lot of people without any other platform are expressing themselves. Don’t hide from it. Even the words and opinions we don’t like are informative, maybe especially so.

Other voices inspire us. They inform us. They show us what we didn’t know was possible, or remind us about what we’ve forgotten. The more “other” the better, in my opinion. The purpose of writing is communication, but communication is a two-way street. How can we hope to reach an audience, any audience, if we’re not willing to listen?