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In praise of Goodreads.com

As a writer and a website designer, I should have included, in addition to the Facebook and Twitter icons above, a similar link to my Goodreads home.

Today, that is remedied.

Unlike a LOT of writers I know, I’ve never been addictedd to reading, outside of a few individual books. I’ve gone through reading and non-reading phases, a couple or three months in any given year in which I tear through three or four books.

Do the math, I’m a slow reader.

I happened not to be in such a reading phase when I created the last redesign of my site, so Goodreads never occurred to me. In fact, I hadn’t visited the site in over a year. But I did so just a couple days ago and was so happy I had. I had forgotten all that I loved about it. Note that like any social media site, the way one uses and, necessarily, the aspects about it one enjoys varies from person to person.

For me, the first thing I fell in love with about Goodreads was being reminded of that I had read tons of books. That went a long way toward combatting my inadequacies compared to other writers who seemed to read a book a day since they were born. Next, Goodreads’ Amazon-like “if you like this you’ll like these” feature helped me narrow down the sort of books I should be reading, titles I’m sure I wouldn’t have found so easily without their help. Being able to punch my preferences, starting with wide-net genre categories but also adding my own niche ones — absurdist, bizarro, experimental — has been a reading godsend.

Last on my list of things I now love about Goodreads is the social networking aspect. Initially, I couldn’t see the benefit of the network of readers and writers. But now, after discovering a legitimate market for my type of writing, I’ve dived into learning about other similar writers, their works and their own reading histories. Doing so has proven not only interesting but hugely educational. Titles that may not have come up, being too far removed from my own reading history, suddenly become available.

During my most recent visit to the site, I chose to invite everyone I follow on Twitter to follow me on Goodreads, some 15k+ people and almost exclusively writers, readers, agents, publishers, etc. In the days since that choice, my personal Inbox has been overflowing with folks “accepting my friendship.”

That seems like such a warm way to put it.

Anyway click the image or the icon and follow me. *ahem* I mean, accept my friendship.

It doesn’t matter a hair, but maybe Absurdist is closer to the mark

After all my talk about Bizarro, after finding Matthew Revert so much to my liking, and frankly so similar in style to my own writing, I’m wondering if I’m not actually an absurdist writer with bizarro leanings. They’re arguably very very similar, but there are differences.

For those differences, look to the left column here. Both wiki definitions are there.

The main thing — after the Revert discovery — is that the list of absurdist writers includes my all-time favorite book, Patrick Süskind’s Das Parfum. That’s the book that, more than any other, is responsible for my interest in writing.

I’m haven’t yet committed to this list, but I’m thinking that after finishing Matthew Revert’s works, I’m going to tackle the titles on this list that I haven’t already read:

  • Franz Kafka – The Trial (1925)
  • Svetoslav Minkov – The Lady With the X-Ray Eyes (1934)
  • Albert Camus – The Stranger (1942), The Plague (1947), The Fall (1956)
  • Eugène Ionesco – The Bald Soprano (1950), Rhinoceros (1959)
  • Samuel Beckett – Waiting for Godot (1952)
  • Harold Pinter – The Birthday Party (1958)
  • Edward Albee – The American Dream (1961)
  • Joseph Heller – Catch-22 (1961)
  • Kurt Vonnegut – Cat’s Cradle (1963)
  • Tom Stoppard – Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1966)
  • Luke Rhinehart – The Dice Man (1971)
  • Tom Robbins – Still Life with Woodpecker (1980)
  • Patrick Süskind – Perfume (1985)
  • Paul Auster – The New York Trilogy (1989)
  • M. John Harrison – Light (2002)
  • Ray Fracalossy – Tales From the Vinegar Wasteland (2006)
  • Rhys Hughes – The Postmodern Mariner (2008)

The good news is that anyone who writes absurdist certainly won’t be kicked out of a bizarro party.

Enjoying the transformation OR Write Thee in the Correct Genre or Suffer Mightily

I only recently learned that the closest thing to what I’ve been writing all these years  has been in a genre called bizarro. I had this clarification dropped on me less than a month ago. Yet I’m already witnessing the effect that knowing my genre has on my writing.

In the last two weeks of 2011 I wrote the half of my nose-fetish story. At the time, I did not know my genre. The story was based on an interesting enough idea and it was written well enough, but something was missing. Or something was unneeded. Or something was mismatched. It was hard to tell.

I believe that first draft was not aimed at a specific target. I had a weird idea and was trying to fit it into a horror slot or a magic realism slot. I’m not sure. Regardless, it was the wrong slot.

Even though during the first rewrite, I still hadn’t been told about my  bizarro leanings, I had found my footing with the story in letting go more than I ever had. There was something very right about the direction I was going. At the time, I thought that I had simply found the real story, but I think I something else happened. Something snapped. The stick in my ass broke. I found my “fuck it.” At least the tip of it. There’s plenty more.

That the story, at its admittedly high level of sickening, actually worked was relieving, gratifying, enlightening.

Since that critique, I’ve been on Cloud 8 (borrowing a term from Gary Larsen). And my writing has been freer. Maybe not quicker. Certainly not easier, but at least I’ve removed a lot of uncertainty from the equation. Now I know what I’m writing. And I know the market I’m writing for.

At least as much as an author can ever know that stuff.

A treasure trove of twisted tales OR A month of bizarro reviewed by a man with an enormous head

Well the title of this post pretty much tells it all. All this month Nathan Filizzi — who, by the way, describes himself as generally lazy and his own head specifically as big — devoted himself to bizarro fiction reviews for the entirety of April 2012.

Nathan’s blog, Yoyogod’s Reviews of Books and Stuff I Like, is possibly the best concise starting point for anyone interested in or entering the bizarro genre. The man didn’t miss a day. In fact, someone sent him a copy of All Monster Action and he couldn’t resist reviewing that one, too. So, technically, he not only gave us something for every day in April, he gave us an EXTRA DAY in April.

Lazy my ass.

I piss in a bowl and wash your feet, Nathan, ’cause I’ve heard that’s how it’s done in the big leagues.

Please stop reading this shite and head over to his blog. But if you’re actually lazy, here are the links to Nathan’s bizarro reviews. All in one pretty little pile, Gomer.

Links to Nathan Filizzi’s bizarro fiction reviews

Meshuggah / Baroness / Decapitated: Amazing yet bizarre show tomorrow

If you heard, “Meshuggah Baroness Decapitated,” you would think it was a news headline — albeit a highly unusual and disturbing one for today’s world. But no, it’s not a headline but the acts in tonight’s marathon show in Austin.

Decapitated is the opening act. I’ve only heard a few of their tracks but what I have I’ve liked. They’re a death metal outfit from Portugal. They lost their long-time drummer recently but they picked up Slaughter’s guy and never missed a step. It’ll be well worth getting to Emo’s early to catch them. They’ll set the table nicely.

Baroness, however, is amazing. Start with Mastodon but pick out the tedious, dull bits — not a big fan. Add a heavy dose of High on Fire. And stir in just a little Catherine Wheel. Dude, that’s all you need to enjoy these guys. They’re highly listenable and provide plenty for the close listener with a musician’s ear. They could easily have been the opening act, the finished cake.

But no.

Now Meshuggah takes the stage. They’re…let’s see…hard and intricate and heavy as hard, intricate and heavy get. There’s simply nothing like them. Or, rather, there’s nothing like them that is close to their equal. Musicians try an fail to unwind their insane timing. The guitars each follow their own patterns, each separate from the bass. The vocals attempt zero melody, no harmonizing. Nothing but pure driving, throaty apocalyptic calls to give up, to succumb, to bow and follow…something. Then the drummer, the engine behind the whole operation. It’s as if he’s been double-labotomized. His left hand complements the lead guitar’s uber-complex riffs while his right hand taps away a damned near danceable metronome. And his feet match a separate complexity that parallels the bass. No overdubbing, no programming, no additional band members off stage. One guy. Amazing.

So with the table set by Decapitated and the bizarro cake fashioned by Baroness, it’s Meshuggah’s job to screw in a giant red horned dildo into the top and pour black blood over the thing.

Can’t. Wait. To dig. In.

But stop the orgy because…wait for it…it’s an all-agers show.

*horned dildo deflates*

*cake collapses the table*

So I guess it’s not the devil fest I thought it was. It’s freakin’ family night.

Ah, well. Rock on anyway.

Writing simultaneous stories OR artistic circuit training

For the last month or so, I’ve been writing on two projects simultaneously. This is the first time I’ve done so — certainly the first time  successfully. I’ve tried before but each time, I met with confusion or frustration. I’d go as far as to say that this time around has been pretty effortless.

Before I get into my guess why this time has been different, let me recap the projects.

The first is a rewrite of my nose-fetish short story, a bizarro tale about a man who impregnates his sinuses. Don’t ask — it’s a sickfest. It’s written in third person in very natural language — for me, at least. Almost casual, even snotty.

The other is a historical series of vignettes, recollections of an old man about his rise and fall though addiction to viewing sleeping women. It’s told in possibly the thickest language I’ve ever crafted as it’s intended to have pieces extracted and performed for an audio project with Joe Frawley, a neo-classical composer slash ambient artist in Connecticut.

Both stories are admittedly weird and deal with different aspects of imprisonment in addiction, so logic would say that there may be enough overlaps as to cause cross-story seepage. But that’s not the case.

The key, I believe, is the two works’ difference in style and tone. One is set in the present and told with natural, even rough language while the other takes place in mid-19th century England and utilizes highly formal language with an apologetic attitude.

And that leads me to the phenomenon I mention in the title of this post: the artistic battery.

I write, design websites, play guitar. I have painted, crafted leather, etc. Why do I mention all that? Because for years, I have noticed that if I’ve been deeply engaged in, say, a heavy block of website design, I can emerge, grab the guitar and nail a piece of playing without thinking about it. I imagine what’s going on is that all the while I’ve been tweaking away at type and pixels, I’ve been storing up creative energy. I don’t know it grows from the frustration of such minute work over hours or if it is the result of resting the part of my brain used for playing the guitar.

And the phenomenon shows up between any two of my work and artistic outlets. For instance, I can end a guitar session feeling energized to write, write for a few hours and find I have the mental energy to work on leather. I should be wiped out but it seems to be an endless spring.

Or I’m artistically circuit training, going the rounds in the creative gym, spending time on different mental muscle groups.

And what I’ve discovered is the same phenomenon holds true for simultaneous writing works. I think the circuit training analogy is apt. Not only CAN I write two stories at the same time, but I find that doing so actually improves the writing in both cases. Each seems more focused, as if I want to switch between modern prose and stodgy quasi-poetry. In fact, I wonder if I were only writing the nose-fetish story, whether my language wouldn’t inadvertently drift toward poetic. It seems to want to be relieved, like having to express both teats even though baby only digs the left one.

John 5 guitarist for, at different stages of his career, Marilyn Manson, KD Lang and White Zombie seems to have found the same to be true. He’s said in interviews that he tends to practice his country style when he’s on tour with the rockers and the heavier stuff when he’s on a country tour.

Makes perfect sense to me now.

Is it a battery that needs to be charged and drained? Full teats? Or is the circuit training analogy best? There’s probably a case for any of them but that’s not what’s important. Know that you CAN write simultaneous stories — so long as they’re different enough from one another.

A new look for my writing site to go with my new genre awareness

In my previous posting, I related how, during my last critique group meeting, I had learned that I’d been writing bizarro stories all the while. I was so elevated by that knew knowledge that I felt a new website look was in order. And, since the website design company I work for — ICG Link — released version 2 of our Build111 cms framework, I figured I’d kill two birds with one stone. I’d create the new look and today to fit it over that new, fuller-featured content management system.

I’m pumped about it. It actually fits my writing mentality better than any of the previous looks thomasmcauley.com has ever seen.

Since I write weird stories, I wanted the site to reflect strangeness in as many design elements as I felt I could get away with without losing the usability of the site. This is pretty much what I’ve learned the bizarro genre is, too — a world populated and driven by what-ifs but the language is straight-forward (if literary language counts as straight-forward).

Bizarro, here we go!

Since I’ve been writing with a serious eye, I’ve been in a constant struggle to categorize the sort of stories that I produce.

Why the need? Shouldn’t you just write the stories you want to write and not worry about it. Wouldn’t that be great if I worked that way mentally? Wouldn’t that be great, too, if that’s the way the publishing indusgry worked?

First, I need to know who to send my stuff. There’s no more certain waste of time than sending material to the wrong publisher or publication.

Second, I can’t possibly be the only one writing the stuff I do and, frankly, I’m not interested in being the trailblazer of a new genre if I am. So, assuming I’m not alone, I’d love to read others’ works and chat with them about how best to proceed professionally.

The problem then is what is my work exactly?

Well, it’s two things — literary and weird.

I’ve got a story about a man whose head lives on a stump in a remote forest; one about a man locked in a giant sphere with thousands of semi-immortal flying demons; another about a fellow who mistakenly orders a bib so large that it stretches across a whole city. There are too many more to admit.

For our last critique, I submitted a rewrite of the first part of my nose-picking fetish story in which the lead impregnates his own nose. It seemed to be well enough received and, afterwards, Joe McKinney mentioned that all but one story that he could remember my having shared fit neatly into a genre I’d only heard of but hadn’t really paid too much attention to for its sounding like a dead-end, dadaist venture. Sanford Allen agreed and both began suggesting that I read Carlton Mellick III and Cameron Pierce, authors of “The Morbidly Obese Ninja” and “Ass Goblins of Auschwitz” respectively, among many others, if you can say respectively after noting such deliciously disturbing titles.

I listened, noted the authors and asked the probably obvious question — what is bizarro?

Instead of trying to remember the discussion from that point, I found this February 2010 thread in the Bizarro Mondo forum that does a terrific job of explaining it and the likely follow up questions that might arise afterwards.

So what is Bizarro anyway? (Didn’t I just ask that?)

Bizarro is a genre of film and literature.

Is Bizarro a new thing?

Bizarro isn’t really a new genre. Just a new term. For decades, people have been going into bookstores and video stores looking for the weird stuff. To them, “weird stuff” is a genre, just like horror or science fiction. But it has never been given an official name before. Until now.

What makes a book or film Bizarro?

Basically, if an audience enjoys a book or film primarily because of its weirdness, then it is Bizarro. Weirdness might not be the work’s only appealing quality, but it is the major one.

Isn’t this stuff just weird for the sake of weird?

The comment “weird for the sake of weird” is just empty rhetoric used to devalue work of this kind. Would you say punk bands are punk for the sake of punk? Or does Stephen King write horror for the sake of horror? Bizarro is a genre of the weird so it is weird. Sure, there might be some authors who puke blobs of nonsensical words onto paper and call it weird. But that’s not Bizarro, that’s just bad writing.

Are there any subgenres of Bizarro?

Bizarro encompasses a limitless number of styles and subgenres. From irreal westerns to romantic absurdism to surreal splatterpunk to post-apocalyptic avant-garde crime noir porn. There’s a wide range of possibilities.

What are some popular examples of Bizarro?

Eraserhead, Alice in Wonderland, Naked Lunch, Visitor Q, Bartholomew and the Oobleck, Tromeo and Juliet, Ichi the Killer, Fando & Lis, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Dellamorte Dellamore, Uzumaki, Conspirators of Pleasure, Lost Highway, or anything described as Lynchian.

Why bother labeling this at all?

It’s all about the audience. A lot of people love this type of work but have difficulty finding it. They don’t even know what to call it. Well, by creating the Bizarro genre this just makes it easier for readers to find Bizarro books and films. It also makes marketing to the Bizarro audience a bit easier.

I left this last Wednesday critique hungry to read more about the genre and to read titles IN the genre. I’ll be damned if they weren’t right on the money. Everything I write is at least quite odd. I thought that too much of it was too odd. I guess there isn’t such an animal. And boy am I happy as a lobster to hear that is the case.

I’ve got Andersen Prunty’s “Jack and Mr. Grin” and may hit Pierce’s “Haunted Vagina” afterwards.

The book, btw, not his actual vagina.

Writing, grace and priorities

Family and other commitments “kept me away” from writing more than a couple hours this weekend. In one respect, it’s a shame, because I woke up Saturday with a strong hunger to hammer out a ton of words. I even had pretty good momentum, having written at least an hour for the previous days.

But my plan for Saturday fell on its face when I learned that I had gotten the timing of my older son’s bicycle event wrong, that I COULD head to Gonzales for his afternoon criterium. So, being the good dad that I am, off I went. The day gave me three hours of genuinely relaxed fun in the car with my younger son on a beautiful day to and from a beautiful town I’d never been to before. Though my older son didn’t fare as well in the heat and against the strong field of riders, the event was well run and we had plenty of shade. By the time we got back to San Antonio, I didn’t have more than an hour’s worth of writing energy left in me.

Sunday started out well enough, allowing me a couple hours of writing at Local Coffee in Stone Oak, but even that got cut short with my having to leave early for my younger son’s soccer game. Afterwards it was dinner and The Hunger Games with the family and the Tour of Flanders until bedtime.

I could mourn the loss of writing time but I can’t. I got three hours in — a small number, I know but it’s better than zero. l certainly would have felt bad about it if I had been sitting on the couch watching TV. But how can you mourn a] getting as much as you CAN get done and b] spending such a great, active weekend with the people you love.

Writing is my most important avocation, undoubtedly, but I figure you can’t write well if you neglect life. I decided not only to give myself a pass but a pat on the back. Going into this week with a positive attitude should serve me well.

Putting craziness in perspective in relation to writing


I once asked a fellow author whether the hardest part of knowing/working with me was “the crazy,” meaning my regular and varied crises of confusion, aimlessness, overediting and self-doubt. The unnamed author answered me with an creative and apt confirmation.

“We’ll say that.”

Since that exchange, I’ve learned a bit more about myself, about writing and about art in general. And crazy seems to be a vital part of good art. In fact, folks who don’t run on and from and with a certain amount of crazy are either mailing it in or they are lying about how easy and enjoyable the process was.

Mailing it in?

Yes. Good art is an honest facing of creativity’s fire and it’s necessarily maddening — at least to a point — if you’re doing it right. Of course, those who have gained success can afford to rely on momentum and brand after they’ve produced their signature genius work. And if they can live with some mailing it in in order to manage their crazy, good for them. I can attest that too much crazy will leave you chasing your tail — it’s no longer inspiring but crippling.

Lying?

Well, yes, but I get it. You can’t say, “This book/story/whatever was sooo difficult. I struggled and wept and peed myself. I had to write the first chapter seven times before I got it to where I could live with it but it’s still not as good as I wanted it to be.” No one would buy the damned thing. So you HAVE to fib a little. For whatever reason, society wants its authors to be not only producers of terrific work, but they should also produce it while yawning. So, for marketing purposes, you have to play that game, I guess.

But since I’m still well away from the million word mark, the point at which some brilliant man or other said one much achieve before he is an actual writer, I can freely admit that my crazy infects every aspect of my work. I have good days where the words flow and where I don’t question whether I should be engaged in this craft, but they are few and infrequent. I used to worry about that being weird — it was only I who suffered so much over his art. But craziness is just like the proverbial heat in the kitchen. It’s part of the scene if you’re going to do the work.

My first writing collaboration

I’m excited about the new project I’ve taken on. For the first time, I’ll be working with another artist on a work. I am not at the point yet where I can talk about the specifics — even with whom I’m working — but it’s a project which will use my written work as background for themed album-length audio work.

The subject is spooky/creepy and historic. For me that’s fun + fun + funner.

The historical — mid 19th century — aspect and the fact that my work will be spoken — at least that’s my initial understanding of how my writing will be used — I can finally afford to utilize the thicker language that no one these days, outside of prose poetry fanatics (both of them) would take the time to read. It works dramatically, though. There may be some sort of printed piece that accompanies the physical versions of the finished work, but there’s no need or guarantee of that.

I am more contributor than equal collaborator — again, if I understand my role correctly.

We’ve only begun but already I’m enjoying seeing this weird work take shape. The new and unique nature of the project is the sort of refreshing aside I’ve needed for a while.

Picture: Amadeo Modigliani – Nude of sleeping women (Le Grand nu)

A great setup for on-the-go writing

I admit that I’ve taken on or said yes to too many activities. But what am I supposed to do, though. It’s the century of mad rushing for little or no benefit, right?

I take my younger boy to and from school, soccer practice and games, club events, and whatever other fun stuff is going on. I attend my older boy’s races, often a long drive away. I still shop with and date my wife. Given my work flexibility, I pretty much do all the shopping for groceries and other necessities. I try to watch as little TV as possible but Manchester, Fulham and Tottenham games (okay, and Price is Right) aren’t going to watch themselves. Then, I’ve got my critique group and my new intern.

Oh…there’s more, I’m sure, but I’m bored with the list, too.

That should leave too little time for writing. But I’ve got the killer set-up — a way to squeeze writing into my life. I didn’t invent the idea, but I’ve field tested it and can say unequivocally that it does work well enough that you can make it part of your busy writing life.

Ideal setup:

Bluetooth keyboard,
Bluetooth compatible smart phone (or tablet)
Plain text app — I find the app, PlainText, to be the best because it’s DropBox compatible and FREE, too
Lap Desk (optional) — IKEA makes great cheap ones
They keyboard is tiny and the phone fits in my pocket. The text is large enough to read while it’s sitting on my steering wheel, too.

Now, instead of being personable, I sit in my car during his practices — 1.5 hours — and write. Same for the run-up to my older son’s races. Until the bikes start rolling, there’s no sense in wasting time sitting, looking at trees or clouds. Anywhere you’d otherwise be looking at the clock, whip out your keyboard and device and go to it.

I mentioned DropBox before. I find that it is what makes this sort of setup possible because whatever I write is immediately accessible on my laptop as soon as I return home. All I have to do is cut and paste the text from the PlainText document there and do some quick formatting. Or I can continue editing/adding to the PlainText document so it’s ready in its latest state for the next time I’m caught in any of life’s waiting room moments.

I’ve taken on a new high school writing intern for the Spring ’12 semester

I’ve taken on a new high school writing intern for the Spring ’12 semester
Toward the end of last month, I again took on a writing intern from International School of the Americas, a magnet school here in San Antonio. She is a frighteningly intelligent senior who enjoys tennis and anime and describes herself as “the clumsiest person you’ll ever know.”

The internship will last only through this spring semester. I’m happy about the abbreviated time. The last internship seemed to last too long — a whole year. We’re only required to reach 60 hours, more than enough time to get her pushed in the right direction. Also, last program required that the intern collect a huge number of “sources,” which could be about anything related to writing. I didn’t see what all of that sourcing had to do with the act of writing, and it definitely subtracted from the learning that should have been taking place.

This program is appropriately loosely structured, which, in my opinion, serves a prospective writer better. Since 90% of writing is…well…writing, having the freedom to say, “I need you to work on your synopis (or elevator pitch or first paragraph or first chapter)” has already proven to be hugely helpful. The silence after the assignment is exactly what she’ll be facing.

Oh…and it’s been terrific fun starting her on caffeine. After all, that lovely chemical is a productive writer’s best friend, isn’t it? We meet weekly (during tennis season) at a local coffee shop here in town, the source of that sin. It’s like working at a gas station.

If I have any reservation about mentoring a young writer, it’s knowing how painfully incomplete I am as a writer myself. But a willing teacher is better by far than a perfect one who’d rather not show up, I figure. But having an intern who relies on my good example can only serve to push me past my current shortcomings.

So here’s to a wonderful semester!

Everything (in your story) happens for a reason

Too often, beginning writers hear is, “Story must have conflict.” The later understanding is that the conflict can come in many shapes and sizes. Conflict can be a direct interpretation of the word, like someone being chased by a knife-wielding crazy person, or an argument or a quest like you have in Lord of the Rings. But it can be, and often is, more subtle — a man with ADD’s struggle to appear normal.

Hrm…too close to home, perhaps.

The point is that every effective story has to have some reason to have been written. A story about a man standing, walking across the room, pouring himself a glass of water and sitting down at a table isn’t a story at all. It’s a description. It might even be written poetically, but to be a story, there needs to be some…conflict. Dammit.

Possible conflicts in this simple scenario:

The man would need to have some difficulty in moving.
He has made a bet that he could go a whole day without drinking water, so he knows that drinking the water would mean losing the bet.
Maybe he’s locked in the room and the crazy person who put him there only gave him water laced with drug that will force him to reveal a secret, thus making the decision to alleviate a trade-off.
Fun. This, really, is the part of writing that I tend to like — the planning and justification of motivation and action.

And THAT’S why I was so shocked that I had totally neglected to do so in a recent story. I had an evil force descend on a situation and do a bunch of cool nasty stuff. The nature nasty stuff was so cool by itself, thought, that I forgot to give a reason why this particular evil person had decided to descent in this particular place and torture this other particular person.

Crap and damn.

Looking back, I realize that not only does the story have to have a conflict, it also has to have a reason for the conflict and a reason for selecting a place, and selecting a victim.

For the same reason that a character’s actions must follow a logical stimulus, every element of the story must also have a logic justification for existing in the place and with the other characters in the story. Otherwise, you may as well be rolling dice.

So, I had a great story concept and a couple of great characters (all imho) but I failed to show why they were there and why they were pitted against one another. No concept or characters can overcome such a vacuum.

Moral: Right up front, give every story character specific, uncontrived justifications for his/her presence and deeds. The same can be said of setting, time, and plot.

Righting my writing: 2012 promises to be the year for effective writing

The break over the holidays can officially be declared a success. For the first time in — well, ever — I was disciplined enough to actually step away from work for the full two weeks and dedicate the same number of hours each day to writing. I can say that not since my days painting in the loft studio overlooking 1st Avenue and the Cumberland River (before the Titans statdium, mind you) have I enjoyed, in essense, full days dedicated to art.

In that time, completed a 3500-word story and a 5000-word edit. If you knew anything about my writing struggle over the last few years, you’d know that one of these would have qualified as a huge accomplishment, but to have pulled off both — unthinkable. Completed a story in less than a month has felt like a turning point. Finishing a satisfying story in fewer than 5000 words also feels like an important event, but I haven’t wrapped my head around it yet. The finished edit to the other story, just proved that I still have the discipline to do the thankless part of this craft.

So, as this is a writing blog, I feel obligated to share what made this time successful. I wouldn’t have thought much about it had I not been asked about my writing by an author recently moved to San Antonio.

In my response to him, I realized that I can be blind and stupid and slow to manage my emotions.

(In the interest of humor, I should stop there but I won’t.)

No…I just related that I had never written a story until ’06 when I first decided to begin writing seriously and professionally. I wrote and wrote, sucking every inch of the way, until in ’08, I wrote my first good story for a contest, Spirit and Speck. It won honorable mention in the contest I entered it into and the rewrite got published in an online mag.

Enter emotions. Foolishly, but not entirely unexpectedly, I felt that I was unstoppable, that anything I wrote would knock people over. I had just begun. I wanted to show the world how great I was and that meant entering contests.

Not too quickly, after a series of better-than-average but not winning results in 24-hour contests, I learned that I’m not at my best when I write quickly, that my strength comes from my passion and ideas, not my speed. I believe that the contest stage also damaged my writing psyche. Now, instead of thinking entirely about the story, I found myself thinking more than I ever had about people’s reactions to my work, as if I had people waiting for my next work. I believe it took finally completing Forever By His Side, the 15k work that took me a year and a half to finish, to bring me back to my right artistic mind. But it wasn’t until the two weeks at the end of 2011 that I was able to use that new, smarter energy to some productive end.

For the first time since before Sprit and Speck, I feel like an artist. And that HAS to continue to be what it’s all about. It just sucks that it took me so long to get back to this point.

A terrific app for calming, focusing and drowning out distraction

I began this his blog back in January of 2008. The very first post was called My Writing Process and Environment. in which I spoke highly of Monroe Product’s wonderful ambient slash meditative product called The “So” Chord. It’s a two-track CD of ambient noise with their trademark Hemi-Sync sound underneath that is designed to “balance and focus the mind.”

Whether or not the tracks balance and focus my mind is up for debate. I can only say that I’ve written pretty much non-stop for now nearly four years and The “So” Chord continues to be in my heavy writing time rotation. It effectively blocks out the surrounding spiking sounds of a busy coffee shop and a home life filled with barking dogs, the idiotic goings-on of two teenage boys and too-frequent reality TV.

But as man can not live on bread alone, or in this case, two ambient tracks, I’ve spend a good deal of my non-writing time finding other sources of ambient and atmospheric noise blocking…noise. I can now rely on a collection of 43.2 hours of audio tracks — yes, I did the math — two Internet radio stations and one usually terrific podcast (Ultima Thule) all of which help me create an ideal writing environment no matter where I choose to BIC (that’s Butt In Chair).

That should seem like enough, right. Well I write most days and I write for hours at a time when I do. So again, relying on our friend, Math, we can easily figure out that since January of 2008, I have written somewhere between three and four thousand hours. That means I might have listened to every one of my ambient tracks somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 times in those years. Suddenly my vast audio collection seems rather…vlow (slow, for the vlow among us).

Well, I found another source. I finally got my iPhone at the end of November — you can’t imagine how much I hated my old phone, but that’s a story for anther time. Since getting it, I have been poring through the immense catalog of available apps.

Recently I found a terrific app that called my name. It’s called Relax Melodies. And I’m talking about the Premium version — $1.99. It is a collection of “white noise ambiance for sleep, meditation & yoga,” according to their own description. Its intended use is to give you something to meditate to or to relax to as you go to sleep, but it’s turned out to be a wonderful tool for my writing.

Here’s what it does. Primarily, you have a group of 82 smoothly looping ambient tracks that — I estimate — run about 5 minutes long, so you never really feel even a minor jolt at the start/end point. You can listen to any one of them by themselves. Fine. But the real power is in being able to not only play as many of the sounds as you like simultaneously, but in being able to mix the level of each sound you add. Then, on top of the 82 sounds, you get those extra spooky Hemi-Sync-esque underneath tracks: Concentration, Relaxation and Pre-Sleep. You can create the perfect bled of sounds from nature, hippie music and laboratory magic then save your audio cocktail into a sound library. Genius.

FYI…Right now I’m listening to a mix I named Concentration with Brown Birds. It’s, perhaps obviously, the Concentration track mixed with very low “Birds” and something called “Brown Noise,” a lower-toned, less staticky version of “White Noise” and a touch of “Light Rain.” Ahhhh.

Ambient? More like Damn-bient.

Buy Relax Melodies Premium in the app store for $1.99 and tell them Thomas McAuley sent you.

Simultaneous submissions hurts my brain OR Not your mama’s writer’s block

That’s right. Simultaneous submissions hurts my brain. Allow me to clarify that odd statement in the form of a performance piece by 70s duo Shields and Yarnell.

Kidding. But do allow me a quick aside.

My wife is enrolled in night college. She’s currently taking a composition class. To meet her, one sees an witty, clear-thinking, articulate woman. A lady with a real confidence and at times a room-stealing presence. One would never imagine that behind closed doors she is an utter loss when it comes to her weekly assignments. She, being at times painfully left-brained, once struggled with a 2-page paper for the better part of a day, nearly breaking down along the way. I can’t relate to the disconnect she experiences between the spoken and the written word, but I’ve seen it and know it to be real. She appears to not know some rule or set of rules that will tell her with certainty what she may or should write. Thus hours of unanswerable doubt.

I would roll my eyes or laugh, but I share a similar debilitation. That of keeping my biz organized.

Okay. I design websites, so one might think I couldn’t possibly have an organizational problem. And you’d be right in a sense. It’s very specific, my handicap. Over years of trying a number of different systems, I’ve been able to keep things straight when it comes to my work-related materials, files and such. But when it comes to new stuff, I tend to stare — like my wife — at spreadsheets and lists and paragraphs of directions for equally absurd, inexplicable amounts of time.

And that’s what I’m facing now in submitting my novella. And I thought I was doing so well.

  • I finished the novella. Check.
  • I edited the thing. Check.
  • I researched publishers. Even an agent or two, just in case. Check and a half.
  • I read all the submission guidelines, paying special attention to quality of the outfit that I felt was of a particular quality, that matched my writing style and that allowed for electronic and simultaneous submissions. Checkaroo. Good boy.
  • Time to make final choices. URT!!!

At this stage, my stupidity and self-bashing kicked in.

  • How many should I submit to? I always seem to show up on time for everything, even early, but I’ve made small clerical oversights often enough that I doubt whether I could be trusted to notify all the other places I’ve submitted to.
  • A couple of the pubs SAY simultaneous submissions are okay, but the way they’ve phrased it, I don’t buy that their heart is in it. Do I take them at their word?
  • And contests vs traditional publications. How to decide. Should one decide between them or submit to both? And how do simultaneous submissions factor into contest. It’s seldom specified. What are the implications of dual publication?
  • Like that would happen. *slaps wrist*
  • Can I trust their websites to reflect the actual quality of their organization? I build websites and have done a few great ones with the sole goal of creating the illusion that the client’s small organizations is much larger or more successful than it actually is. Also, too often, large or serious, respectable organizations have the crappiest of sites, so the whole book/cover judging thing is out the window. How can one be sure.

This is where I faint. Well, this is at least where I pick up the guitar or the remote. *coughs* Or blog. It’s a cry for help, I know.

What to do. I guess that’s the other benefit of having a terrific critique group like Drafthouse and a great writers organization like the San Antonio Writers Guild.

Pic: Still from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown: Best Foreign Film NY Film Critics Circle: Spain, 1988; Director/writer: Pedro Almodóvar; Cast: Carmen Maura, Antonio Banderas. Visit for more details.

General rules for creating a solid query letter

Being specifically interested in creating a query letter for my novella, I did a little research into the subject and found that there are no substantial difference between those touting novels and those touting novellas. The formula is entirely the same, except you add either “novella” or “novel,” as appropriate.

A book query letter should:

  1. Be short. One Page max, but that seems too long as well.
  2. Begin with a solid two-sentence paragraph that succinctly synopsizes the story and establishes the writing voice, mood and style. This will be — or at least should be — your greatest challenge in writing an effective query letter.
    1. The first sentence should:
      1. Inspire the reader to invest emotionally in the lead character
      2. Establish the inciting event.
    2. The second sentence should:
      1. Establish what turn causes the lead character’s world to go to pot.
      2. Allude to a rewarding ending.
  3. End with a second paragraph that lays out the business end of things.
    1. Assist the editor(s) in categorizing your work. Is it dark or funny or both? Is it genre or literary? Is it contemporary or historical? Those sorts of things, but only those that really need to be communicated.
    2. Avoid self-editorializing. No one cares that you or your mom or your friends really like the story — of course they do. This includes comments that are intended modestly. But don’t brag either. Keeping emotion out of the second paragraph while not coming off robotic is probably the best policy.
  4. Include the specs regarding attachments and willingness to be reachable at specific times, etc.
  5. THEN REMEMBER TO:
    1. Attach the attachments
    2. Include contact info — email and phone at a minimum.

Putting all this together last night, I had an interesting thought. How much help would it be to stare at this outline before writing and look it over two or three times during the writing process to insure you’re starting and continuing on track.

I can think of a few stories I’ve written for which a query letter would have been difficult to create. Maybe I didn’t have an easily-synopsized the story or my conflict lacked focus. I’m guessing, because I haven’t had a world of experience at this stage of my career, that if any one of these items presents a challenge outside of polishing the sentences, one of two things might be going on.

Either the author doesn’t know his own story well enough or something key is missing in the story.

But keep in mind that even if you breeze through it, if you know your story and it has all the parts it needs to have, you’re still wise to run the query letter past a couple more sets of eyes. Think of the query letter like any other written piece. When you first write it, you’ve written a first draft.

And you remember the old adage about all first drafts being crap. Don’t send your crap out. Edit it appropriately and have it critiqued. You only get one shot at a publisher with any one story, so be thorough.

Reducing my novella’s word count OR Serious chops

Though my wife would have preferred it to be otherwise, this weekend was dominated by chopping hundreds of words from my novella, Forever By His Side. I had planned to spend the time researching and submitting the story to at least two markets. I only got half of it done, though, as two of the markets I was targeting stated strict word counts of no more than 15k.

On Saturday morning, the story was 15.3k, so my focus changed to finding and killing 300 or more words. Bad ones, I hoped. Doing so required that I use all the gaps in both weekend days and that I sift through the first three chapters/sections.

But I ended up under 14.9k

The silver lining was that I found one or two places that I was happy to reword or excise. These first few pages being the most important from a submission standpoint, so though I didn’t get to the cover letter or submissions, I’m happier and more confident about the story’s beginning. It’s a complex plot (for me) and insuring that all the necessary clues are clearly presented is key.

Finding a publisher for your novella OR Bringing that piggy to a skinny market

With Forever By His Side done, there was but one thing to do — find someone to publish the thing. Thus began what I fully expected would be a couple low probability pitches to the two or three publications that touch novellas. And based on my initial search on Duotrope.com, my suspicion seemed to be justified. I found only two publications, based on the parameters I input and of those, only one paid — token, 1¢ per word.

It’s not about the money, believe me. If writing were most folks’ primary source of income, you’d have a whole lot more extended families living together and/or a whole lot more dead writers. Still, it would be great to actually choose markets instead of have them dictated to me.

It’s a little like marriage. If only two girls went to your high school, you’d be an idiot to think that one of them would be your soul mate. You’d know that you probably hadn’t met enough girls to make that judgment.

So…where to find more publishers?

That’s where a network of fellow authors comes in handy. One writer simply can’t know everything there is to know about the craft. He can’t know about every book of interest that would best interest or benefit him. And he can’t keep abreast of every industry and market development. Thor maybe, but not mortals. There just aren’t enough hours in a day.

My wonderful unnamed writing partner, knowing my 16-month struggle to complete my story and knowing that I was ready to submit it, sent me three very helpful links that changed the game completely. Each of the links lead to sites that contain lists of links to publications that consider — some that even specialize in — novellas. Suddenly my list of pubs to consider grew from a measly two to now ten. And I haven’t gotten to all the links yet. Very exciting.

Here they are. May they help you along your way:

Now the lists are from as early as ’09, so some of the pubs are closed now, sadly. And a couple of the others are closed, but that’s always a risk.

This weekend, I’ll try to get all my home-based chores done early and try to skip soccer so that I can get to all the remaining links and, if time permits, submit to at least two pubs, the best ones on the list, ones that accept simultaneous electronic submissions.

I’m still marveling over my eagerness to dive into this phase of being a professional writer. I’ve finished works before and have experienced exactly no excitement about finding a market. Finished was good enough, it seemed. But with Forever, I feel a real pull to get it out there.

I have a couple theories about why that is the case.

With only a few stories complete and knowing how slowly I write, I was afraid that if someone liked what I wrote and asked for more, I wouldn’t be able to do more than apologize and admit I had nothing more. I’ve also considered that somewhere inside me, I’ve always known to what level I’ve wanted to write and that I simply hadn’t gotten there with enough regularity deserve to have my work published. With Forever, I know I’m maybe not fully there, but I’m close enough to know that I can duplicate the effort.

Here’s to a successful next few weeks of submission / sustained writing. Yeah, one must continue to write new material during the trying submission process.