Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Writing Forums: What I've Given, What I've Gained, and Saying Goodbye

 The end of this month also marks the end of my experiment in belonging to writing forums. It was quite the experience, and one episode in my life I can't just let fade away without some kind of tribute. So here goes.

At first, I was content to just join a writing forum. I knew I needed to connect with other writers, I needed advice on how to scale the mountain that is publishing, I needed to become a better writer. I also knew I had a modest amount of experience under my belt. After all, I'd been a rabid reader all my life, I'd been a critique partner before, in person, and I was willing to do the time and research it would take to up my game. I plunged into the writing pool. Some sites were full of participants, others less so. I quickly found the good spots where people had actually shared advice, if you took the time to read it. I made some initial connections, but became frustrated when the moderators for one forum suddenly stopped visiting, stopped giving advice and encouragement, just stopped everything. 

I learned you can be categorized as a forum participant. There are those who are very vocal and eager to throw their experience around (most good and legit, others are full of hot air and like attention). There are those eager to get everyone else to do the research and work for them. There are lurkers who never say anything. There's the sweet novice, just starting the journey, and the jaded veteran dripping with sarcasm and reality-checks. The PAY ATTENTION TO ME NOW!!!! type is only one degree less annoying than the spammer who only posts to try to sell something. The morose mingle with the bubbly, the dewy-eyed with the predatory. It's a strange sort of place, with the same general end goal: to write and publish a book.

I was an amateur, not a novice, and I was willing to do the work and share what I found out in order to help others. I spent hours researching and sharing. Once that first initial forum proved a bust, I moved on and found another. The second one was huge. I mined through the threads for new information to add to what I'd already learned. While people were friendly, the forum was too large for me. It was impossible to make real connections without turning into someone annoying. 

Third time was the charm. This one was suggested by a contact from the first forum. It was still fairly new, yet on the web long enough to have an established reputation for good information. It also had a forum format that allowed users to form their own groups. So I did. I used the forum search algorithms to send invites to anyone who fell under the same genre bracket as me, and the Speculative Fiction Group came into being.

It's a scary thing to find oneself as a moderator or administrator. I didn't claim to be anyone of note in the industry, or to be super in the know about it either. People tend to treat you that way when you're in a leadership role. It weirded me out sometimes. But there was something special about those first few years. Lots of people joined, and most stuck around and participated. We got group chat nights going, started up yearly critiquing marathons, shared industry news, and talked about all sorts of things. I met some amazing people and some really good writers. The best part, is most of the time, I didn't feel like I was sitting on some moderator pedestal; I was just one of the group.

I devoted more hours to critiquing. And I learned a ton. My insights as a reader bore fruit; and I was humbled a lot by my own deficiencies. I cheered when others met with success and mourned with those who didn't. I made new critique partners, some who are still with me today. Other people reached success and moved on. It was sad to see them go, but I understood. They'd outgrown a writing forum. 

After a number of years, the host forum ended. My group moved to their own forum hosting site. We tried to be the same, but we weren't. And I had found my own writing path by then, diminishing my need to research and share things that were pertinent to the main body of remaining writers. I'd outgrown a writing forum. The biggest difference was that the writers in my forum weren't a bunch of novices looking for someone to guide them. They had at least amateur status or higher, knew where to find their resources, and really only wanted a safe place to share and critique each other's work. I didn't want to let anyone down, so I kept the forum up.

But my time there diminished; I'd become like the moderators from my first writing forum, absent a good deal. No one else wanted to sink in and do what I'd done to keep things robust and alive, at least not at the same level. They didn't have to; and I didn't really expect anyone to. So as hosting a forum became just another thing on my plate, and life became more demanding, I was advised to let it go. And I have. It's a bit of a relief, letting go of that responsibility, of the expectations I can no longer fulfill. Yet, I don't regret being part of a forum all those years. It served it's purpose.

Thank you to everyone who touched my life in any of those forums. Thank you for the lessons, for the experience, and for the collaboration. To anyone in search of a good writing forum, let me give this one parting piece of advice: a forum is only as good as you're willing to make it. Don't expect others to create the experience for you. It's a team effort, and you play a part in its success or failure.


Stock Photo by Pixabay

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Why I Write

Pixabay stock photo
 I've been reflecting on the reasons I write, sort of a self-analysis, if you will. Sometimes one needs to step back and look at the broader picture to understand the smaller parts. After all, there are many types of writers out there. I've tried fitting my hexagonal peg into round and square holes in an attempt to find my place. All in vain, naturally. So then one wonders if writing is worth continued pursuit, hence the self-analysis. Conclusion? Yes, I'm a writer. Not a traditionally-published-bestseller-career sort of writer. And I'm okay with that. I think my love of writing would shrivel up and die if I was trying to be that.

 So what are my reasons for writing? For continuing to do it if it's not going to make money or win me fame? (Which, by the way, I think are shallow reasons for doing anything.)

1. Love of language. Not necessarily my primary reason, but I have always loved studying my language and other languages - to play with usage and form. From an early age I loved random study in the dictionary in order to learn new words and their meanings. I tend to enjoy older literature because of the rich language usage. It's like composing poetry in prose form, if that makes sense.

2. Love of stories. Can't get enough of them. Books, movies, anecdotes shared verbally with someone, memories and memoirs - oh, the study of humanity and what makes us tick. Our reactions and actions, our triumphs and sorrows - real or imaginary. It's another rich and fertile ground with so many possibilities. Stories that make me feel something aid in my personal learning journey.

3. I have ideas to share. There are so many of us on this planet, and only a few are heard or have the power to get their messages out. Everyone has something to say. Writing helps me speak out. Whether ideas on improvement, or concerns for something, or perhaps wanting to share the inner joy or sadness I feel over a situation or person. This is the experience mode that bleeds out onto the pages of what I write. I can't walk into City Hall and effect change, or influence anyone in a powerful position, but in an imaginary world, I can express and show my ideas, while playing with the possible results both good and bad. 

4. To keep my sanity. Yes, you read that right. Writing is a vent for me, a means to let out my pent up anxieties, anger, or whatever else I'm feeling. Often, this is writing in a journal or a letter to a friend, but it comes out in my fictional writing too. An hour or two of this kind of expression makes me a calmer, more clear-headed person. It's akin to sitting down at the piano and just playing out what I'm feeling. 

5. To keep me humble. Writing is hard work as much as a pleasure. It's a drive, but it isn't something I can just scribble off and be done with. I make lots of mistakes and errors. I've learned much, but always I'm reminded I have further I can go. Since writing is an act of communication, I have to make sure whether I'm jotting a note for someone or writing a novel, I'm being clear and understandable. Knowing there isn't an arrival point is sobering.

So whether I've had the opportunity of exchanging correspondence in some form or other with you, or you've read some of my blog posts, or my novel, or unfinished novels, you're getting a glimpse of a person who is learning and growing, who makes mistakes, who feels deeply, and one who couldn't give up writing even though she's wanted to in recent years. It's too embedded in who I am. I suppose that is the sum total of my self-analysis. 

 Of late, I've looked at people who aren't writers who seem to have more time, happier outlooks because their inner drive isn't constantly hammering at them to write, and I've envied them. Momentarily. Because when I plug myself into that kind of scenario (note, this is being a storyteller again), the richness of the meaning of my life is missing. Other key components are there, and I'd be lost without them, but the drive and one of the prominent fulfillments in my life is absent. I'm stuck. I'm a writer. So now the goal is to take this acceptance and continue down the path I'm on.

Pixabay stock photo

If anything, I'll probably have a very entertaining autobiography for my posterity to read.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Ten Other Ways to Write When Sitting at the Keyboard Doesn't Work


Photo by Ivan Samkov from Pexels
 Whether it's writer's block, outside circumstances demanding your time, lack of sleep/energy, depression or anxiety crushing your creativity, or you just don't feel like writing, you can still write. Like with anything, doing something is better than doing nothing. And it piles up to gains in the long run.

1. You can brainstorm anywhere. Whether cleaning house, running errands, taking a break at work or school, even while staring up at a darkened ceiling at night when you can't get to sleep - you can be putting together the pieces of a story puzzle in your head. Perhaps just diving in deeper to a theme you want to explore, or a character's motivations or backstory. Maybe its envisioning a setting, or a play-by-play of an action sequence. Brainstorming's a vital step to writing, and you have to take time to do it anyway, so why not utilize those moments and hours when you can't sit in front of a keyboard to get this vital process done?

2. Another task is evaluation. Stepping back from a manuscript - especially if it's already written and you're in the revising phases - to see how tight or accurate or well-paced the story is. How is it doing as far as size? Too bloated? Too slim? Too pedantic? Too rushed? Are you hitting the right beats where they're supposed to be? Do you get an overall satisfied vibe from the draft? Make a list of what is going well and what needs work.

3. Along with #2's suggestion, would be outline tweaking, and synopsis, query, and blurb writing. Again, stepping back from the story, can you summarize it in a nutshell? Is it following your initial vision? Usually not, so how has it evolved? Is this good or bad? Stepping back can help you avoid wasted hours of writing by making a course correction.

4. Visuals. Whether you're an artist or not, doodling can help your creative juices. Draw a map (or mark a map if the setting's a real place), draw a character, or a setting. Design a vehicle. Make a schematic for a machine, or whip up a treasure map. Make a stick-figure storyboard and play with key dialogue and action. Decorate your writing space with objects that will help keep you in the zone for what/where your story is about.

5. One of my favorites is to create a first and last lines list for chapters. Do they hook the reader? Do they leave the reader with enough of a cliffhanger so they'll keep reading? It also helps you analyze where your chapter or section breaks are, and how you might play around with those breaks for a better impact.

6. Many books don't use chapter titles, so for fun write up a list of what each chapter would be called if they did. Then use it when you do face that keyboard to keep on track - and make sure you fit the spirit of the title.

7. Get hands on. If a character is supposed to be a baker, hone your own baking skills. If a firefighter, talk to actual firefighters and visit your local firehouse. Through experience we are able to write better, giving a validity to what we write. If possible, visit a place you put in your story and take notes and/or pictures of everything you experience. Act out a scene, especially an action sequence (I'm not advocating jumping off high buildings or trying to fly, mind you! Don't do anything stupid.), to make sure what you've written or are going to write is believable. 

8. Read a scene, chapter, or your entire story out loud. You'd be surprised at how many things stick out from this. It might be poor dialogue or sentence phrasing, to noticeable gaps, or lengthy descriptive passages you don't need. Even made-up names spoken out loud can be either hilarious, suggestive of something you don't intend, or too close to a well-known person's name to work well with what you want to do. 

9. Good old research is another side-writing staple. Similar to #7, this type of research is more sedentary: reading books or online articles,or sitting down to interview someone. If you're writing about interstellar travel, find out what others have done or discovered about it. Want to knock off a victim in a murder mystery? -  maybe you need to learn more about poisons. Even small details like what people wore in the 1940's, to when toothpaste was invented might make a difference in how authentic your story sounds.

10. Compose or work on your "Writing Bible." Get your notes organized and compiled. Do you have your ducks in a row regarding where your characters are from scene to scene and what they are doing? Do you know their backstories, and what parts of these will need to be revealed and when? Do you have lists of information, like foreign phrases (real or made up) you need to keep handy? Or a list of character names, descriptions, and occupations? 

You don't have to do all of these, but chances are you will need to do at least one in your writing journey. Don't beat yourself up if a lack of time, energy, or drive is keeping that novel from completion. Work around it by doing side-writing. You'll still be moving forward, keeping your story alive. Just watch that side-writing isn't all that you ever do. Many a tale has failed to be born because it never developed past the side-writing stage.

Question for you: Do you have another suggestion for side-writing? Or a further suggestion on one of the ten I've listed? Please share it in the comments.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021


Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels

 I survived. 

Came out from the ruin and ashes of what I once was.

Examined what was left and wondered how to begin again.

Bits and pieces of what I loved float around me--elusive ashes.

I grasp and reach, unable to spark the old flame inside.

Desire remains, ability impaired

I'm not the same.

A new crater waits for me to climb out.

The horizon's changed, few people remained.

Once fallen a failure, now rising back defiant.

And in my hidden places inside, some are weaker, more are stronger.

I'm raw and unfinished, yet bridled and wiser.

Will I come off triumphant? Will I make it through more?

Will my voice become silent? Unmissed and unsought?

What's my contribution?

Swept out to sea. Alone on an island where a world used to be.

Yet I linger, intelligence intact, spirit much stronger, the wind at my back.

Crying out again,

Dare to dream.


Joyce R. Alton, Sep. 28, 2021

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Can a First Chapter Make a Great Short Story Submission?

This is one topic I've been mulling over for some time. I like to read short stories; I'm not so good at writing them, and I've learned that many speculative fiction writers aren't either. I think our problem caters back to the necessity of world-building, the common practice of using a large cast of characters, and lots of plot and/or character development. Let's face it, most speculative novels are door-stoppers in size and scope.

So when a speculative writer wants to submit a short story for a contest, magazine, or anthology, all to often the train of thought seems to be: "I'll submit the first chapter of my novel and that will entice readers to want to read the rest of my novel!" Meh. Points for trying to be original about short-cutting your marketing strategy, the problem is, nearly everyone's trying to do the same thing - and I don't know of any first chapters being accepted as a true short story.

Because they're not.

The other form of logic may run: "I don't have time or energy to write out a short story because I'm working on my novel, but I really really want to be part of (insert whatever your submitting to), so I'll just submit the first chapter." You may want the writing credits or a prize to help boost your chances of landing something bigger with your entire novel down the road. Let's be honest, this is lazy. And it still falls back on the fact that a first chapter is NOT a short story.

Nope. There are no arguments to the contrary.

And there are a couple of good reasons why.

To start with, what is a first chapter? It is the beginning of a story, meant to draw in a reader and introduce them to your characters, your world, and the problem they are facing. First chapters don't resolve the main problem, they present it. First chapters don't reveal (or shouldn't anyway) your main character's entire backstory. They don't show off all the nuances of your novel's theme. You're just putting your story into gear and moving forward.

Now, maybe if you took your first chapter and completely rewrote it to the barest of barest bones, tacking on your ending chapter's resolution you could call it a short story. You'd have to pare your character list way down, skip nearly all of your world-building, chop out all your subplots, keep your action down to a minimum, cram your book's theme into one to two scenes, and still make it enthralling enough to read. But then, we've just destroyed your novel. And this grossly stunted version won't entice readers to want to go pick up and read the expanded form of the same story.

See what I mean?

So what is a short story? Let's turn to some resources for the answer:
From Merriam-Webster:
"...an invented prose narrative shorter than a novel usually dealing with a few characters and aiming at unity of effect and often concentrating on the creation of mood rather than plot."

From Wikipedia: (not my favorite go-to place as a resource, but I like this definition)
"A short story is a piece of prose fiction that typically can be read in one sitting and focuses on a self-contained incident or series of linked incidents, with the intent of evoking a single effect or mood, however there are many exceptions to this."

From universalclass.com:
"Because of the length of short stories, most short stories just have an exposition, climax, and an abrupt ending. Short stories are known for having a "moral of the story" or a practical lesson, although this is not expected or required."

From liminalpages.com: (I recommend reading this entire blogpost, even though it's going in the opposite direction from short story writing to novel writing.)
"...let's think about the main difference between a novel and a short story:
  • A novel is a journey - not only for the characters, but for the writer and the reader.
  • A short story is an intense experience - something to linger over and savor (sic).
To capture these differences, you're going to have to write in a different way."

For a step-by-step guideline, you could take a look at this wikihow.com demonstration. It's pretty easy to understand and gives concrete examples.

From jerz.setonhill.edu:
"A short story is tight - there is no room for long exposition, there are no subplots to explore, and by the end of the story there should be no loose ends to tie up."

Just about every reference I've found or that you may find will also recommend reading short stories to get a handle on them. If you want to write fantasy short stories, find some legit ones to read, the same goes for any genre.

One strategy I thought of that might be helpful is to look at your novel and ask yourself if you have any side stories you could use as a short story, or any "episodic" parts with a beginning and a conclusion. There are lots of side stories that end up on the editing room floor as you revise. Why not pick one of them up and see if shows promise? If you have an "episodic" or short subplot in your novel, you could strip out the references to the rest of the novel at large and focus on that "episode" as a short story. Side stories are especially useful to garnering a readership for your story world.

To recap:
  • A short story has a limited number of characters and settings - really limited.
  • A short story has a conclusion. You don't leave the reader hanging, wondering where the rest of the story is. You don't entice readers with the idea of a full-fledged novel.
  • A short story is smaller in scope, but should pack a punch as far as reader experience.
  • A short story most often has one central conflict that is introduced and resolved. No tangents or subplots.
  • A short story is concise. You don't have room for elaborate world-building, tons of action scenes, lengthy character development, etc. No lengthy build-up either. You get right into the heart of the problem at the get-go.
  • Writing a short story is a different process from writing a novel and it will show if you're trying to get away with a first chapter. They are two different animals.
And there we have it.

You'll actually save time and effort on your part - and on the part of whatever contest, magazine, or press you're wanting to get into, by writing an actual short story. Sending in a first chapter usually means a polite rejection answer.

I hope this doesn't discourage anyone from wanting to write short stories. They're good practice at showing instead of telling, getting to the point, and being concise. All of which are great skills to have as a novelist too.

And I'm sure there are some anthologies, magazines, and contests out there that specifically want first chapters for the purpose of enticing readers. But don't they usually have a stipulation that the novel the chapter goes to be finished and/or published first? It makes practical sense.

If you know of any other good resources or references to the art of the short story, please share in the comments. Likewise if you've ever been on the receiving end of submissions for short stories and you'd like to share some friendly advice.