Jean McKinney

Strange Stories for Strange Times

Tag: creativity

It’s NaNoWriMo Time: Are You Writing?

Yessiree kiddies, it’s that time of the year again.

Yesterday was November 1, which kicked off the annual National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, as it’s known. (There really ought to be a better acronym – that sounds like an ugly creature from a bad fantasy novel.)

Just about every writing-type site and magazine is talking about the event – how to do it, why to do it, and even why not to do it. There are classes and groups and advice galore on how to take on the challenge of writing 50,000 words in a month.

So here’s my tuppence worth on the topic.

If you’re embarking on NaNoWriMo, then I salute you. It’s a tough thing to step up for writing fiction every day, bad or good, and just keep going till you hit the finish line, especially if you haven’t done that kind of writing before.

If you aren’t, you have your reasons, and I salute them too. There’s something to be said for quality over quantity, honoring your own creative timeline and all that. Or maybe you have a demanding job and two small kids and a new puppy or other things to do. Don’t feel guilty or worry about missing out on something grand.

The thing is, there’s just no one way to produce these mysterious, wondrous things called stories. While you can’t wait for the muse to strike, you also can’t force yourself into someone else’s framework for doing creative stuff. Maybe your month to write a novel is May. Or it’s six months, not one.

Creative types tend to worry a lot about that thing called The Work. And there’s no shortage of well-meaning writing advice that fuels those worries while claiming to help alleviate them. And when “everybody’s doing it” (writing a novel this November) it’s easy to feel that you’re failing in your creative calling if you aren’t.

Please don’t. If you’re working toward that story, even if it’s just a few scribbled notes or a notion in your head, then you aren’t failing. If you’re the only one of your writer friends not doing NNWM (see, that’s easier!) but you know you’ll write that novel one day, you aren’t failing.

Am I doing NNWM? Don’t think so. I’m not comfy with artificial constraints like that – and I have a lot of freelance work right now, writing about things like cerebral bypass surgery and the Internet of Things and what’s happening in the Oort Cloud.

But I am working on the backstory of A Patch of Cool, a Moon Road adventure about Luka the Bone Angel, saboteur and assassin extraordinaire, whose exile in Soledad City makes him the one person who can save the City from the Shadow War.

Coming soon – character sketches for everybody in this novel and its prequel short story, The Bone Angel.

Write a novel in a month, write a story in a day, or a year – but see, there are only three things to do that really matter.

Write it.
Clean it up.
Send it into the world.

Those things are non-negotiable. Especially that last one.

How you get there is up to you.

Making Sense of This Whole Writing Thing

OK, I’m gonna do it.

I said I wouldn’t. There’s so much advice and information out there for writers of every kind.  Everyone’s got a course, a blog,  or a resource list that’s going to help you overcome your fears, deal with procrastination, find clients,  publish your work!

Does the writing world really need one more?

I never thought that it did.  But maybe I was wrong.  As a  working denizen of this online writing world and a longtime observer and participant of the writing biz, I see a lot of advice about “making it” as a writer (in all the many ways that “making it” can be) that means well but can end up discouraging and disempowering the very people it purports to help.

And I also realize that every one of us who is fortunate enough to move in this wild and woolly world of digital creativity has a duty to talk about that experience and share what we know.

This is  a time when personal stories rule.  In order to be “real,” they say, your origin story needs to be a part of your public persona.  But I suspect that the old saying, “familiarity breeds contempt” can also apply to the obsession with sharing the often boring details of everybody’s life.

So I focus this site on creating cool worlds I hope readers will enjoy visiting, rather than writing about my dogs or my love of webcomics or the rattlesnake on my carport the other night.

However . . .  a running commentary on the good, the bad and the really ugly of the writing advice that’s out there just might be the thing someone, somewhere needs to hear in order to take that next step toward creating something awesome.

And that’s where I’ll put my stories. About my years of teaching people to find their writing voice and the strength to share it.  About really stupid mistakes that tarnish a writer’s credibility.  About my often rocky journey toward becoming a full time writer and publisher.

Maybe it’ll be more useful for writers than the story about the snake.

There’s a new category on this site now, called “On Writing” that gathers these articles together and keeps them separate from the fiction.  It’s going to tackle some popular stances and bust a few myths and make a lot of people mad.

But hey, isn’t that part of the job?

Stay tuned.


Science Fantasy, Speculative Fiction or What?

Ah, the genres.  I’m  preparing a batch of new stories and the long planned Moon Road novel, “A Patch of Cool” for e-publication, and that brings up the issue of keywords, search terms, niches, genres and the like – all designed to help readers find what they’re looking for.

Figuring out just where your book fits in the catalog can be a bit of a challenge when it crosses genres, or mashes them up in a new way.  And as I expand the backstory of that odd living highway that connects worlds and dimensions, I’m coming to realise that the Moon Road’s original niche of urban fantasy no longer really applies.   So I’m looking for another way to describe these books, so that readers can find them.

Speculative Fiction: The Big Umbrella

If you’re writing about anything that runs counter to absolute physical reality of the kind we live every day, your work would broadly be called “speculative fiction” – a term coined, some say, by science fiction author Robert Heinlein to describe fiction that has some element that’s counter to reality as we know it.  That might be a bit of magic, or a spacecraft, or even a technology that doesn’t exist now – but could.  Alternate histories fit here, and so do historical fictions that feature magic or supernatural elements.

Many “mainstream” fiction authors play with reality enough that at least some of their works could fit in this umbrella category.  It overlaps – sort of – with another genre, “magical realism,” made popular by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other Latin American writers, as well as others as diverse as  Salman Rushdie and Alice  Hoffman.

Huddling under the Spec-Fic umbrella are a host of other subgenres, including not just the usual fantasy, science fiction and horror, but also niches sliced as thinly as “western werewolf gay romance” and “fat chicks space opera.”  The list of variations is long, and it’s getting longer all the time. Each has its own mythos and themes, and readers expect to see them every time they pick up a book.

Science Fantasy: Mix and Match

Science Fantasy is a hybrid of fantasy and science fiction.  There can be elements of hard science, space travel and the usual icons of “hard” science fiction alongside  themes and elements from horror, fantasy of various kinds, steampunk and historical fiction too.  This kind of fiction sidesteps the rigors of true science fiction, which is often but not always an extrapolation of existing science in some way.  But it also avoids the tropes of true fantasy,  with its emphasis on creatures and themes from myth and legend, whatever time period they might inhabit.  Like crows gathering collections of random pretty things, science fantasy authors  steal shamelessly from whatever genre has the stuff they need to tell the story.

As more and more works with elements of both science fiction and fantasy hit bookshelves both virtual and “real,” the label Science Fantasy seems to be gaining traction.   It’s a place where you can have vampires and space travel, magic and machines in the Civil War (the Office of Extraordinary Phenomena is grateful) and – a space faring road that makes pit stops at  places of power on earth and other worlds.

Making of the Moon Road

So since the Moon Road universe is evolving determinedly in the direction of the ages old Shadow War and the  Runners who are trying to stop the Shadows from seizing the Road and all the worlds it touches, I’ve been reworking the flash fictions and the longer works to accommodate a few  more sci fi aspects of the Moon Road world.

That side of the Moon Road universe showed up most clearly in “Claudia’s Law,” which introduced you to the Runners, the War and Claudia’s cohorts led by the mysterious Major Flesher.  But on our Earth, Soledad City where the Moon Road runs is still the place where Mama Silva, Nettie Chubai and their kind keep the power humming along.   But the Shadows are no strangers to this old Earth, and upcoming books and stories will do more to explore the way those characters and agendas cross and collide.

As I build the larger mythos that drives the Moon Road stories, I’ll be mixing up all these elements even more. New stories are popping up and old characters are getting ready to take a turn in the spotlight too.  And who knows, there’s probably a western werewolf gay romance in there too.  Yeah, I know there is.**

Stay tuned.  And I’d love to hear any story ideas from you, dear readers!


**  “Bridie’s Song” and its forthcoming sequel “Longman’s Ride”


In Defense of the Passive

The passive voice has gotten a bad rap.  This slightly complicated construction is the bogeyman, the standard bearer of bad writing, the ugly troll blighting good active sentences and scaring readers away.

My spelling and grammar checker tells me so every time I construct a sentence that could even remotely be considered passive – and writing guides solemnly warn that it should be avoided at all costs. (Gulp! I just committed a passive in public!)

The notion of “passive -bad,” “active-good” has even been extended to include a variety of constructions that aren’t really passive at all. I found this out in a recent brief from a client that warned that people with only high school diplomas are confused by passives. The brief referred to a peculiar page that lumped true passives in with a lot of other grammatical constructions such as subordinate clauses and sentences with gerund subjects like, “Adding a few spoonfuls of matcha tea makes your smoothie healthier.”

So let’s take a look at what the passive really is, and why it has very legitimate uses.

The “passive voice’ in English is a handy dandy little structure that lets you focus on the receiver of an action, rather than the agent performing the action.  When I was a college writing instructor we’d illustrate this with the written version of stick figures in simple sentences like:

Adrian read the book. (That’s active,with a subject, an active verb and an object -Sentence Structure 101.) vs The book was read by Adrian. (a true passive, with the object now the subject, a passive verb construction of BE + participle and the agent expressed by, well,  “by”.)

Now obviously you wouldn’t want to clutter up your writing with clunky bits like this.  The passive does add more words and it isn’t really necessary much of the time.  But fear of the passive also goes hand in hand with another fear: of the existential and linking verb BE. More about that one another time.

But to return to Adrian and his reading habit, if the book is really what you’re talking about, and if you want to add more information about Adrian, a passive construction could work quite nicely in ways that an active sentence might not.

The book on carnivorous elves was read by Adrian, who dressed in a bloodstained green tunic for the occasion.

The passive also comes in quite handy when you don’t know, or don’t care, who’s performing the action. Or if you want to keep that a tightly guarded secret.  That’s why one of the most famous examples of a passive construction is a quote from disgraced President Richard M Nixon, he of Watergate fame: “Mistakes were made.”

But the passive simply shifts  a different sentence element into the spotlight.  “The monument was erected in 1969” works just fine. We don’t need to establish who erected it, unless that’s highly germane.  If so you’re then faced with a choice between active and passive in how to express that.   Your choice will partly depend on the surrounding sentence framework, though.

The passive voice, like the active voice, and all the other voices and modes and tenses, is just one of many tools in the writer’s toolbox, to be chosen deliberately for its contribution to the overall tone and message of a piece of writing.  It’s not to be avoided at all costs as the mark of an unskilled writer – or as a nasty bug that could frighten readers.

How many times did I use passive constructions in this post?  Did you notice them at all while reading?


Don’t Let Your Ideas Down

“Your ideas are counting on you.” – Jon Morrow

That line comes from a recent guest post on Problogger by blogging guru Jon Morrow.

Jon is the wildly successful, insanely likable genius behind Copyblogger, Be A Better Blogger and many other resources having to do with blogging and entrepreneurship. He’s parlayed his experiences with blogging into just about the best advice anywhere on how to make a difference with your words. And among the many useful and inspiring things in that post was the quote that began this piece.

Writers are bombarded with advice about the writing process. Being the highly oppositional cynic that I am, I’ve come to believe that much of that advice actually enables writers (and other artists) to remain insecure and afraid so that they’ll keep on seeking out more advice. I’ll be challenging the conventional wisdom about writing in the coming weeks, but right now, let’s consider Jon’s point.

Ideas are our stock in trade. Ideas, and the emotions that go along with them. When we express them in writing, they gain form and substance – and go out into the world to make their way into the minds and hearts of audiences everywhere. They may change many lives, or only one. But they will create change.

They can’t do that if we keep them bottled up inside ourselves, or hidden away because we don’t trust them, or believe in them, or think they’re good enough to live.

And if we think of our creative brainchildren as living things, we might become kinder to them, more willing to stand for them, nurture them, and open a door for them to fly free and fully realized.

How about this for a daily goal: do at least one thing to stand for your creative vision and your ideas. They’re counting on you.

Want to talk about it? Drop a comment here or connect up on Twitter!

It’s All About the Magic

There’s a tradition among writers and artists these days to post a Manifesto – a concise statement of who they are and what they believe to be true about their art.  Manifestos come in all shapes and sizes, some angry, some reflective, some humorous.  But in all their forms, these statements help clarify what’s important and what’s not – and how that artist wants to live in the world.

This post is a manifesto of sorts, I suppose.  It’s actually an explanation of why there won’t be a blog in the traditional sense of the word here.

One of the key reasons writers are urged to blog by marketing specialists and publishing gurus and writing experts is to share their work with eager readers, to offer a glimpse behind the curtain, so to speak – to open the doors to the creation of their worlds and characters in order to engage fans.  It’s a good goal – and its true that many readers and viewers do want to know how all the nuts and bolts fit together to make a world, a universe, a bit of magic.

But you know what?  Too much information kills the magic.  It’s like seeing the strings in the puppet show, the man behind the mask.  Rather than telling you how the Moon Road came to be, I’d rather be writing a new story or crafting a video that takes you there. So what you;ll see in these pages are links to new pieces I’ve made for you, images and snippets and teasers and quotes. About the work, not me.  About the stories, not another rehash of the same old advice on writing.  My longer articles on creativity and writing will be showing up on BestThinking and other places on the web.

One of the best books I’ve read about writing and blogging lately is Kill Your Blog, by Matt Scott, aka Buck Flogging (say it out loud).  It’s funny and in your face and right to the point.  The key question he asks:  would you rather be known for 50 blog posts or 50 books for your readers?   500 words in a post or 500 words toward the next chapter of a novel?

I know what my choice would be – and so, I suspect, do you, dear reader.

So the manifesto you’ll find here is simple:  to craft magical worlds for you to visit and enjoy.  It’s a wonder and a privilege to be able to do so, and I’ll be putting all my efforts into making those worlds places of beauty, terror and mystery, an escape from whatever’s less than magical in our day to day lives.

Wish me luck.

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