A brief recap of last week’s event

First of all, I’m not great at blogging in a timely fashion. I get to these things when I get to them, so apologies for the fact that I should have posted this a week ago.

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So yeah, The Basement Series last Friday night. It was pretty great actually. I hadn’t performed at a reading in two years, almost to the day (that one was to support the publication of City by City, in which one of my essays appears, and which was held at the fantastic Green Apple Books on the Park), and outside of the fact that Muni took so long getting me to the Sports basement that I almost missed the cutoff for check-in, it went quite smoothly. I was the fourth reader of the evening, right before the intermission.

Of course, I was a little worried about how my piece would be received, especially after hearing the three writers who led off the evening. The theme of the night was “strange travel suggestions,” and the first three readers – and everyone other than me, as it turned out – all went with straight-up travelogues. I … hadn’t prepared anything like that. For years I’d had the idea in the back of my head that I would eventually write a story about a boy who could only communicate via maps. I thought the theme of strange travel would be a decent approximate fit, so I decided to finally write that story. Because the deadline was approaching rapidly, I had to do it on vacation, but I managed to find several hours spread over two or three days in Lucca to get something down.

Thing was, I wasn’t sure if I actually had anything when I was done. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find a terse, perfunctory rejection email in my inbox at the end of the week. And I still wasn’t sure about it when I stepped up to the mic to read last Friday night.

I guess I shouldn’t have worried. The story – which I called “Fantastic Atlas” – seems to have resonated with a good chunk of the audience, so I will be working on adding some meat to its spartan, 500-word frame and seeing what else I can do with it.

Overall the evening’s program was thoroughly enjoyable – I particularly enjoyed work from Karolina Connolly and Naomi Marcus – and if you are in the SF Bay Area, you should really try to get yourself to a Basement Series reading one of these months.

Tomorrow’s event: The Basement Series

Tomorrow night, I will be reading a (very short) piece of brand new fiction at The Basement Series‘ monthly reading at the Sports Basement in San Francisco. The theme for the night is “strange travel suggestions.”

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There will be nine other readers, and we each only get three minutes to impress you. I’ve been trying to get work accepted by the Basement Series for a while now, and I’ve apparently been close once or twice before, so I’m really excited about this. So come out tomorrow night and be literary and cultured and whatnot. I guarantee* you’ll love it.

* Not a guarantee

New fiction: “The System Never Fails”


My latest story was published on Monday by Akashic Books, in their Mondays are Murder series. (I would have written this post on Monday instead of today, but I was traveling without a computer, and I’m not incredibly comfortable with the WordPress mobile app for some reason, so I just waited until I got home.)

I’m a big fan of Akashic’s line of city- or region-based noir fiction anthologies (of the dozen or so that I’ve read, my favorite so far is Lone Star Noir), so placing a story here was something I’d been wanting to do for a while. There are only three requirements: first, it has to be noir, or at least has to meet the editors’ admittedly subjective definition of that term; second, it has to be tied to a specific place, and should be a story that could only happen in that specific place; and third, it cannot exceed 750 words.

I set this story in early 1990s Tampa, back when jai alai was still a going concern on south Dale Mabry. I spent most of my important growing-up years in that city, and I’ve long felt it’s an under-explored setting for noir, crime and other generally darker fiction.

So yeah, I’m pretty pleased about this one, and I hope you enjoy reading it. Find it here.

Cover art makes it real

It’s amazing how, after three years of writing, editing and attempted publishing, it still takes cover art to make this novel seem, well, real.

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One of the good things about being old is that I have a pretty extensive network of creative people who are capable of professional-quality work, and who are (for reasons that escape me) still willing to actually work with me. This design is courtesy of Luke Murphy, who was the first art director I ever worked with when I got into the freewheeling world of software marketing back in the day. I’m really excited about it, and it’s helped spark the enthusiasm I’ll need for launching this book myself (which is a ton of work – you should see my marketing plan, for example).

What do you think? Love it? Hate it? Got a better idea?

Would your character really do something like that? Or, when not to listen to people in your writing circle.

 

Ever since I’ve started writing fiction and creative nonfiction, I’ve sought out feedback and critiques from readers and other writers alike. At the beginning, I used to take every comment to heart – almost no matter what it was – and at least try to incorporate the feedback into the next draft.

I don’t do that anymore, for obvious reasons. A lot of feedback is little more than noise. Some of it can be downright harmful. Experience is the only way to hone your instincts for separating good criticism from useless.

In the critique groups I’ve participated in, a common note relates to the implausibility (to the critic, anyway) of a character’s actions at a key point in the story.

“It doesn’t make sense to me,” a well-meaning critic might say about something your protagonist did. “Why would he do that?”

Be careful here. This can be valuable feedback. But it can also weaken your character and undercut your work. Which way it goes depends on what the speaker is actually trying to say.

If she means that your character’s actions seem inconsistent with what you’ve established as the character’s personality, motivations, abilities and obstacles, then pay attention. That means you’re allowing the needs of the plot to dictate what your characters do, instead of having your characters’ actions drive the plot. You’re making them reactive instead of proactive, and in the process, forcing them to behave less like humans and more like puppets. Or robots. Whichever you think is worse.

If, on the other hand, what she really means is something like “well, I would never do that (or would have made a different choice) myself, so I can’t believe that your character would either,” you can probably safely ignore her.

Your characters don’t have to be rational. They don’t have to be prudent. They don’t even have to be smart. They do have to be interesting, and they do have to be consistent. If your character’s behavior is consistent with the personality you’ve established for them, and with the conflict that is at the center of your story, then you’re good.

This is the first in what may or may not be an irregular series on the writing craft and what little I know of it. I hope you find at least some of it useful.