30 May 2015

In Honor of the Scripps National Spelling Bee!

Nik Baron from Grammarly reached out to me with a fun, free little opportunity to help promote the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which began on the 24th and wraps today (full schedule here; better late than never). And since this is the internet and the internet loves quizzes, I'm happy to share with you Grammarly's special quiz via grammarly.com/grammar-check-- What Kind of Speller Are You? (I'm a Writing Realist, if you're curious). And once you're done learning about your spelling style, show off your spelling skills with the Scripps National Spelling Bee's own quiz, Are You a Word Whiz?


Grammarly Spelling Personality Quiz Feature Image

~*~
Disclosures: I'm not being financially compensated for the shout-outs to Scripps or Grammarly, but if I email Grammarly a link to this post I get a free one-month subscription for their software. I've used Grammarly before, actually, and recommend it to my students who struggle with spell-check in Word and need some extra oomph with their grammar. Word isn't very intuitive (alas, machines and context) and Grammarly does catch more mistakes (it even recognizes passive voice). 

25 May 2015

Witness to "The Great Work"

Screenshot of  Jennifer Loring's
Those of My Kind,
straight from my Kindle
for iPhone app! 
This is a post about the joy of seeing someone else's work come to fruition. Take it as a signal boost, a shameless exhibition of pride, and a call for writers to actively participate in creative projects outside of your own. Either way, it's a story of my experience working with author Jennifer Loring, and I want to share it with you.

They say writing is a solitary pursuit--there's a reason why the image of the crazed author typing alone is so pervasive--but it shouldn't be this way. You are denying yourself an incredible opportunity for growth if you don't trade your work with another writer to allow for an exchange of ideas and feedback; you're missing out on sharing in the joy and hardships that come from the act of bringing a work of art to life. 

There is a special kind of magic in watching something grow. When it comes to the writing process, I can't call it anything else but alchemy: the creation of the Great Work. The magnum opus only comes about through a series of repetitive actions that encompasses the breaking down, separation, fusion, and transformation of a piece; in the alchemical sense, it is the transmutation of base materials into the ultimate form (gold). 

The metaphor was a bit heavy-handed, but I had to use it! It's the best way to describe what it feels like to start a story, draft several versions of it, cut out large parts of it, reforge the leftover pieces into a new story, then parse it down again, repeating the process of cutting, combining, stripping, and cleaning, until the story reaches its final conclusion: publication. 

I'm lucky and proud and delighted I was able to witness Those of My Kind in its crucible stages. I witnessed a lot of power in Jenn's writing--how horrific images can be tempered with beautiful language, for example--but I also learned from Jenn that sometimes you have to embrace destruction and transformation, because it's necessary for the final work to reach its full potential. 

Screenshot of ebook on
Kindle for iPhone!
Jenn and I were critique partners at Seton Hill University for the Writing Popular Fiction program. I started at SHU a full semester before Jenn, and we were randomly assigned to work together because my two previous critique partners graduated. I remember meeting Jenn in the dining hall and after we gushed about fairy tales and darkness (arguably my reasons for writing fantasy), I felt like I won the lottery in terms of critique partners. We shared a lot of the same interests and had similar goals when it came to what we actually wanted to write, but at the same time, we had (and have) very different writing styles--which meant we could still learn quite a bit from each other.

I was new to prose after writing for the stage for such a long time, so I made a lot of amateur mistakes. Jenn was very graceful about letting me know what's what, and I learned so many new things (like, third-person subjective POV actually being a thing, and that crepuscular is an amazing word). We stuck together as critique partners during our entire time at SHU, and got to see each other's theses from their starting to penultimate forms. It was right towards the end of our Term Writing Projects (where we submitted writing to each other and our mentors for critiques) that Jenn came up with a brilliant new character (Blessing Adeyayo) that completely transformed what she had before. At such a late stage in the game, Jenn scrapped much of what she had to accommodate this new invention. There it is in action--creation, destruction, creation (alchemy in process!). 

I was so burnt out on school at the time, that if I ran into the same thing--a new, brilliant character working its way in--I would've just tried to shoot the new idea down and turn in whatever crap I had just to get by. Jenn by no means wrote crap. She could've kept whatever she had and it would've been great. But Jenn opted to serve the story.

The arrival of Blessing meant a lot of rewriting, and I was able to catch a glimpse of this new work-in-progress, but so much of the additional changes remained a mystery to me because we graduated; and while we were done with school, we weren't done writing, so Those of My Kind continued to grow and evolve on its own.

Not gonna lie--this had me tearing up!
Screenshot from Kindle for iPhone.
It's the best feeling in the world to see it reach its ultimate form: it is a published work, available as a trade paperback and ebook, from an awesome press making waves of its own. I pre-ordered the ebook and downloaded it as soon as it was available; I'm also getting the paperback because I plan on forcing Jenn to autograph it. 

I'm in the midst of reading it now, and it's a feeling of nostalgia and discovery mixed together--I recognize shades of the work in progress, now fully polished, but there is still so much that I'm seeing for the first time. 

I was really lucky to work with Jenn. Her own writing, and the feedback she gave me on mine, has helped me grow immeasurably. 

She was gracious enough to include me in her Acknowledgements, which was the sweetest thing ever. If you're reading this, Jenn, your time is coming! You will have your name on my pages, too. 

~*~

You should buy Those of My Kind. Not because Jenn and I are friends and helped each other out in grad school; not because her Proust interview was pretty freaking awesome; not because I wrote this gushy love-love post. You should buy it because it's a really good book from a really good author.

17 May 2015

Guest Author Post: Jennifer Della'Zanna

"Guitar" cc by Anna Longova
Source: Wikimedia Commons  

Blown Away


There has been much speculation about the effect of social media on fiction writing—in particular Twitter. Everywhere you go, authors and readers bemoan the possibility that our attention spans are shrinking to 140 characters. 

While I don't have any firm opinion on whether or not the novel will go the way of the dinosaurs (and, hey, even they've had a revival or two via Jurassic Park and Jurassic World), I think novelists can learn something about brevity from other formats

I'm a country music fan, which gets me a lot of teasing from just about everybody I know, but I've come to the conclusion that it’s the storytelling inherent in this form of music that attracts me. Keith Urban doesn't hurt any, either, but that’s beside the point. 

What has fascinated me lately about this storytelling, however, is the emotional punch it can pack in very few words. And, whether you're writing a 150,000-word fantasy novel, a novelette, flash fiction, or a tweet, putting as much energy as possible into each and every word is crucial to keeping your audience reading until the end. 

One of my favorite songs that demonstrates this technique is “Blown Away,” written by Chris Tompkins and Josh Kear, and performed by Carrie Underwood. The song goes like this: 
[Verse 1]
Dry lightning cracks across the skies
Those storm clouds gather in her eyes
Daddy was mean old mister
Mama was an angel in the ground
The weather man called for a twister
She prayed blow it down
There's not enough rain in Oklahoma
To wash the sins out of that house
There's not enough wind in Oklahoma
To rip the nails out of the past
[Chorus] 
Shatter every window till it's all blown away,
Every brick, every board, every slamming door blown away
Till there's nothing left standing,
Nothing left to yesterday
Every tear-soaked whiskey memory blown away, 
[Verse 2] 
She heard those sirens screaming out
Her daddy laid there passed out on the couch
She locked herself in the cellar
Listened to the screaming of the wind
Some people called it taking shelter
She called it sweet revenge
There’s backstory, setting, inner monologue, emotion, suspense, and action. On top of that, the imagery is vibrant and intense. All of that in a grand total of 139 words. How often do you get that much information into fewer than 200 words of your prose? 

One of the great songwriting techniques is the use of adjectives to add to the imagery of a noun. “Every tear-soaked whiskey memory” evokes a long history of lives made miserable by her father’s alcoholism. Another song that piles on adjectives to good use is “Dirt,” also written by Chris Tompkins, but in collaboration with Rodney Clawson, and performed by Florida-Georgia Line. The chorus goes like this: 
It’s that elm shade
Red roads clay you grew up on
That plowed up ground
That your dad
Damned his luck on
That post game party field
You circled up on
And when it rains
You get stuck on
Drift a cloud back
Behind county roads
That you run up
The mud on her jeans that she peeled off
And hung up
Her blue eyed
Summer time smile
Looks so good that it hurts
Makes you wanna build
A 10 percent down
White picket fence house on this dirt
To be honest, it’s the last sentence that caught me first: “Makes you wanna build a 10 percent down white picket fence house on this dirt.” How’s that for a full evocation of small-town Southern life, all in 15 words? But then all the others hit me: “Elm shade, red roads clay,” and “post-game party field” and “Blue-eyed summer-time smile.” All that imagery in as few words as possible fascinates me. 

It’s these details that bring the story alive for every reader—or listener, in this case. What comes through is the authenticity of the story. And authenticity doesn't mean that the writer has experienced this exact scenario personally. It’s just that we've all come close to these experiences, and specifics will evoke your own memories to make you connect with it in your own way. 

I once listened to a new singer/songwriter who wrote gut-wrenching, amazing songs I absolutely loved. In between sets, he would tell the stories behind the stories, as singer/songwriter types are wont to do. I usually love those moments when you get to peer even deeper into the heart of the song. But this artist said more than once that people would ask him if certain songs were true stories, and he said that he heard a story like it on the news, or read it in a newspaper, and then thought of his own twist on it or another natural outcome. 

I wanted to go up on stage and take the mic away from him and tell him to knock it off. The answer to, “Is that a true story?” when you're a storyteller is, “Yes.” Because it is. It’s a story about human experience. And, believe me, if you can think of it in your own head, it’s happened in real life (and you've probably made it more believable than how it happened in real life). We know authenticity when we hear it because it’s part of us. It’s happened to somebody, and storytellers are the ones privileged to make those stories known. 

Joan Baez once said, “It seems to me that those songs that have been any good, I have nothing much to do with the writing of them. The words have just crawled down my sleeve and come out on the page.”

Whether or not the average reader’s attention span is shrinking, we owe it to our audiences to make an impact in as few words as needed, and to make those words speak the truth. So, if you want people to be blown away by your writing, try paring your sentences down to what’s absolutely necessary and then layering vivid but sparingly constructed details to make your world pop up from the page. 

~*~

Image (c) Jennifer Della'Zanna
Jennifer Della’Zanna is currently revising her first novel, Chaos Rules, which was part of her MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University.  She is a member of the Historical Novel Society and specializes in historical fantasy

She also freelances and serves as a public speaker and educator, and works for Ed2Go as an online instructor of courses on medical coding and medical transcription, among others. 

Keep up with Jennifer's creative projects by following her on Twitter!

04 May 2015

Proust Your Protagonist with Jennifer Loring

Meet Blessing, one of the lead characters from
Jennifer Loring's Those of My Kind, now
available from Omnium Gatherum.
  

Introducing

Blessing


My name is Blessing Adeyayo. I am eighteen years old, and I am a Hunter.

I should not be speaking to you.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Misery is a fact of existence. To dwell on it is foolish.

Where would you like to live?
I must be content with having no permanent home. It is part of my duty.

What is your idea of earthly happiness?
There is no such thing. I should know.

The quality you most admire in a man?
I have yet to encounter a man worthy of my admiration.

The quality you most admire in a woman?
The ability to survive in this world.

Your favorite virtue?
Bravery. The ability to confront fear. The courage to sacrifice what is necessary, even if it is one’s own life.

Your favorite occupation?
I do not know other occupations except my own, though it is not a job but a Calling. One cannot simply decide to become what I am. You are born a Hunter or you are not.

Your most marked characteristic?
I have a very large burn scar on my face. Do not pretend you didn’t notice.

What do you most value in your friends?
I do not have friends. Friends lead to attachments, and attachments to the human world make one careless.

What is your principle defect?
Perhaps that I am sometimes prone to envy.

What to your mind would be the greatest of misfortunes?
Nietzsche said, “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” This is always a danger for a Hunter. Our power, used to destroy rather than protect, would be disastrous for humanity.

What would you like to be?
This question is meaningless. I have no choice except to be what I am. 

Who are your heroes in real life?
I have no heroes. 

Who are your favorite heroines?
My companion, Tristan, is an excellent fighter, although lately she has been…distracted. I would not consider her a “heroine”, however. We are simply doing what is required of us. 

What is it you most dislike?
Humans. Yes, I am aware of the irony.

What natural gift would you most like to possess?
I am a demon hunter and a natural witch. I have physical strength and speed that far surpasses that of any human. I do not need any other “gifts”.

How would you like to die?
In battle, as all Hunters before me have.

What is your present state of mind?
I am focused on one goal: ridding the world of those who do not deserve to live in it. That does not extend only to demons.

What is your motto? 
I am not afraid... I was born to do this.

~*~

About the book: Two young women find themselves entangled in a deadly game with an ancient creature determined to wipe out all human life. Tristan and Blessing are demon-hunting drifters destined to protect mankind from evil, but to do so they must exist on the fringes of society. Feeding their own bloodlust by murdering local criminals, they begin a dangerous hunt for a resurrected demon named Anasztaizia. But when Tristan meets a beautiful dancer named Mira, she is willing to abandon her calling for her one chance at a normal life. 

Believing Tristan has betrayed her, Blessing finds solace in her natural talent for witchcraft. Anasztaizia, able to corrupt Blessing by exploiting her jealousies and personal tragedies as well as her power, next turns her attention to Mira. Mira has been keeping a secret from Tristan, and she is willing to do anything to escape her agonizing fate. Even if it means abandoning her humanity. Even if it means Tristan must choose between Mira’s life and her own. 

Those of My Kind is published by Omnium Gatherum and is now available for purchase here.

Photo (c) Jennifer Loring
About the author: Jennifer Loring’s short fiction has been published in numerous magazines, webzines, and anthologies. 

She received her MFA from Seton Hill University’s program in Writing Popular Fiction, with a concentration in horror fiction. She holds a B.A. in Studio Art from Mercyhurst University.

In 2004, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror awarded her with an honorable mention for her short story “The Bombay Trash Service.” In 2013, Jennifer won first place in Crystal Lake Publishing’s Tales from the Lake horror writing competition. 

She has published a dieselpunk novelette, Beautiful Things, with Fox & Raven Publishing, and a psychological horror/ghost story novella, Conduits, with DarkFuse. Jennifer lives in Philadelphia, PA with her husband, Zach, and their turtle, Ninja. 

Those of My Kind is her first novel.

03 May 2015

Pour mes lecteurs en France!

Image (c) Graphic Stock

J'ai étudiait mes statistiques pour ce blog quand j'ai vu la majorité des lecteurs viennent de France! 

Je veux prendre un moment à remercier tout le monde en français, mais s'il vous plaît pardonnez-moi parce que je dernière étudié le français au lycée (en 2001!), et je n'ai pas parlé la langue depuis 2004, quand je me suis rendu à Paris pour un week-end quand je vivais au Pays de Galles. J'ai tout oublié après onze ans.

Mon écriture et la grammaire sont probablement mal, mais je veux essayer et d'écrire, "merci beaucoup!"  S'il vous plaît continuer à lire ce blog et j'éspere vous plaira . Je vous apprécie!


~*~

Here's the translation of what I think (what I hope) I wrote:

I was studying my statistics for this blog when I saw the majority of readers come from France!
I want to take a moment to thank everyone in French, but please pardon me because I last studied French in high school (in 2001!), and I haven't spoken French since 2004, when I visited Paris for a weekend when I lived in Wales. I've forgotten everything in eleven years. 
My writing and grammar are probably wrong, but I want to try to write, "thank you very much!" Please continue to read this blog and I hope you like it. I appreciate you!