All posts by Susan Pieters

Do, Don’t Think

I have “Do, don’t think,” written on a post-it perched by my computer screen.  My note has two applications.  When I’m trying to get through a first draft, it reminds me that I shouldn’t try and overthink while I compose.  It’s meant to encourage my fingers to keep typing my draft rather than pausing to consider what comes next … a long pause that requires me to fill up my tea cup … where was I?

My post-it applies to my second draft and editing process as well. The crux of most MFA programs is, “Show, don’t tell.” This mantra used to confuse me, because all storytelling is, by definition, telling.  It makes more sense to me to say, “Describe, don’t explain.”   When you describe details, you enter the realm of the physical, and we all know that action speaks louder than interior monologue.  My post-it says, “Do, don’t think,” because that’s how I need my characters to behave.  When my novel’s protagonist offers a drink to an alcoholic king, tension ensues.  To have her explain or think during this exchange would be to ruin the moment, and would insult the reader’s intelligence.  It would also mean I didn’t set up the situation properly in the preceding chapters, through physical descriptions and earlier conflicts.

Is there an exception to this writing rule?  As Bob Mayer says, one should always understand the rules before breaking them.  There are writers who command such a forceful voice that they can carry off a reversal, carrying us through a long passage of thoughtful narrative, reflecting on important backstory or analysis of other characters.  These narrators successfully “Think, don’t do,” because their situation calls out — screams out — for them to act.  In The Remains of the Day, when a butler called Stevens describes Darlington Hall in great detail, he is missing the crucial details which prevent his correct action.  When a justice-seeking Hamlet pauses his sword,  and reckons that a delay in his uncle’s execution will ensure his uncle goes to hell, the audience should be drawing in breath waiting for the inevitable result.  When Nick Carraway observes the parties at Gatsby’s, when the second Mrs de Winter thinks through her decision to wear Rebecca’s gown, when Elizabeth Bennett wrestles with her scruples and then holds her tongue about Mr Wickham … You get the idea.  Only think, only hold back on the action, if it creates tension and builds conflict.

And now, fellow scribblers, it’s time for me to stop thinking so I can go do the writing.

 

Keep Your Eye on the Ball

My brother played Little League baseball, and his position was catcher.  I loved his extra-large glove, a padded catcher’s mitt that had could receive fast-balls without bouncing out or bruising his hands.  As a player, my brother was like most catchers: undervalued.  He was just the place where good pitches ended.  He was merely the guy hanging around to toss the ball back to the pitcher.  The pitcher was the star in the middle of the field, where the action was.

How wrong that concept is.  The catcher is the heart of the team, the guy who keeps the ball in play.  The catcher is the guy who, more than any other player, has his eye on the ball.  Not only on the ball, but on the batter, to figure out how the opposing team is trying hit.  Catchers see it all.  My brother was especially picked for this position because he was constantly on the alert, using his ADHD hyper-focus to stay on top of each pitch, each play, to prevent each runner from reaching home base.

As writers, we often think the glory of a story resides in the action.  We often get excited in the first draft stage, in love with the movement of the plot.  But as writers, we shouldn’t think like pitchers, we should think like catchers.  We need to hold our ground and keep our eyes on the ball, at all times.  We need to be the person who captures the bullet-sped ball and hurls it back where it belongs, instinctively.  We need see the big picture played out as we watch the field from the privileged spot right under the umpire’s eyes.  We are the only player looking out from the point of view of the crowds, who knows what the audience witnesses.  Like the catcher, it is the writer who puts the whole story together, knows where each play can be made, is able to tag out the opposition out before they can slide into home.

Write like a catcher.  Keep your eye on the ball.sue 3

Sue is Pulp Literature’s Acquisition editor.  You can hear her interviewed by Kathrin Lake of the Vancouver School of Writing on Vancouver Co-op Radio, 100.5 FM at 2pm today.

The Value of Feedback

Writers love feedback.  No, let me clarify: Good writers love feedback.  I have just finished sending out critiques for Hummingbird contest entrants who paid an extra $15 to get comments back.  In addition to the magazine earning some spare change in the process, we’ve also earned deep thanks from most of the writers.  To quote one author, “I can’t thank you enough for your kind words and thoughtful, measured critique … your feedback really does help me see how it can be the best version of itself.”

I get rather chuffed about this kind of thanks.  (Translation of ‘chuffed’ for North Americans: very pleased indeed.)  In fact, it’s rather addicting.  When we began sending out rejections two years ago, I took pains to write a personal note to each author, giving a bit of a reason for the rejection, or a tip on how to improve the story.  I often received notes of  thanks.

Those days are over.  Until now, I’ve been able to review every comment from every slushpile reader and moderate every response that gets sent out to our loyal submitters.  I’ve enjoyed making friends along the way.  But the price to the magazine has been high.  It has taken long hours to sift so carefully through every submission — time that could be better spent on workshops, marketing, and editing our accepted content.

For this reason I regret to say we will no longer be giving personal feedback with every submission. This means the editors will have more time to do higher level editing, writing, and promotion for the magazine.  It also means that authors who would like feedback from an editor have a choice of paying the extra fee during our contests, or outright hiring us, with proceeds going to the coffers of our non-profit press.  We also have the fabulous Brewer award level on our Patreon page that lets writers get 20 pages of critique every three months.

sue 3Thanks for making me chuffed!

Susan Pieters is our acquisitions and developmental editor.  She looks forward to the next round of submissions, which is opening soon!

Issue 7 feature author: Robert J Sawyer

Untitled-2Canadian readers will especially recognize the name of our feature author for Issue 7 as a leading name in science fiction: Robert J Sawyer has won the Hugo, Nebula, John W. Campbell, Arthur Ellis, and Aurora awards, and with good reason. His books are intelligent and dynamic, introspective and fast-paced. They are true to the calling of great science fiction, seeing our present sharply through the mirror of the future.

Sawyer’s latest book, Red Planet Blues, is unique for its genre crossing, combining traditional pulp genre elements in the futuristic setting of Mars. The novel begins in classic detective fashion, so much so that I can’t help but see fishnet stockings and film noir shadows crossing the set as a hot babe walks in to the only detective agency on Mars to ask a private eye to locate her missing husband…

Before you rush off to buy the book (which I recommend), don’t forget to purchase your issue of Issue 7, to read another cross-genre Sawyer story, ‘Fallen Angel.’ It’s a fantasy story with gothic tones, as a young girl tries to worm out of a deal with the devil. Issues will be mailed out this week! Or come and purchase a copy at our Issue 7 launch party Monday night at the Wolf and Hound pub — we’re set to enjoy ourselves with a beer and a bit of storytelling. What could be a better way to enjoy summer?

 

 

 

Begin with the End in Mind

I’ve been re-reading Stephen R Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  The second habit, ‘Begin with the end in mind’, has several layers of application for me.  In terms of my work, I need to focus on my end-goals for my career as an author, which means I’ll be saying no to that tempting but distracting job I got offered last week.  In terms of the writing itself, ‘begin with the end in mind’ is about the most profound advice I can give fiction writers.

"This Double" by Mel AnastasiouFor flash fiction especially, it is the end that marks the master from the apprentice, for the end is the bursting truth of a short story.  In any length of fiction, however, even when I think I’m starting a story with an opening, the truth is I’m starting with a vision of the ending.  The inspiration for a story comes from that end-goal, and it pulls me forward.  It is the climax, and the rest of the story must be designed to set up and support the final emotional note. Some writers hate outlining, and I believe it is because they are intuitively hearing that distant ending call them forward and it guides their path.

Covey  also says of his second habit that ‘all things are created twice.’ I know what this means, as well. Revision, revision, revision. To get to the end, I have to go back and start at the beginning, multiple times.

So back to the grindstone now, fellow writers. Let us remember our endings, for as TS Eliot said, ‘In my end is my beginning.’

50 Shades of Fan Fiction

I’ll admit I only made it through a quarter of 50 Shades of Grey.  It needed an editor, but more importantly, it needed to be free.  It needed to be free of the patriarchal misogynistic stereotypes that are so easily embraced and overdone by romance fiction writers, but also, it needed to become its own book.  Writing fan fiction is like writing a Hollywood script and labelling the characters as famous actors, or in this case, as “played by Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson.”  It steals backstory from other films, and leaves a void of storytelling so that new audiences are lost and feel something is missing.

I’ve read the Twilight series and enjoyed it.  As a romance reader, I appreciated the uniquely insurmountable barrier between the two lovers.  It was a well designed difficulty: if you kiss, you die.  Nice problem.   Romance is all about love overcoming obstacles, and romance readers want to see that love conquers all, even vampires.  But 50 Shades of Grey is fan fiction that tries to stand on its own feet and fails.  Granted, it has been a huge commercial success because sex sells; but behind the titillation there’s no substance.

Because 50 Shades lost the vampire problem it has much weaker obstacles than Twilight.  It has a less interesting barrier with a messed-up male protagonist/antagonist (I’m not sure which he really is).  After a few more tinkers down the road, the weakened plot and weakened characters have become so watered down that they are fifty shades lighter than the original.

Writing fan fiction can be a fun chance to play in someone else’s universe.  It can also be excellent practice for honing your craft.  And like any craft, writing takes practice.  After all, most composers learn to play other people’s songs before they create their own masterpieces.  However, make sure your borrowed characters face obstacles that are at least as interesting and challenging as those created by their own author.  Otherwise you’ll just be writing fifty shades of bland.

 

 

Interview with the Muse

musefinalbwWouldn’t you love to pin your Muse down and ask her a few pointed questions?  Susan Pieters managed it with Capture of the Muse in Issue 2 … and then got a few more out of her for this questionnaire.

  1. What is your idea of perfect happiness? A day in the Louvre.
  2. What is the trait you most deplore in others?  Diligence and devotion to the mundane.  Dutiful people who never take time to smile or dream or appreciate beauty, and call their dullness a virtue.
  3. On what occasion do you lie?  Isn’t all art a lie? Otherwise we’d call it reality.  And wouldn’t that be a pity, if we had to stick with reality?
  4. What do you most dislike about your appearance?  The fact it keeps changing upon my mood. This morning I woke up in a diaphanous gown, with waltz music playing in my head.  Now that I’ve had to do this interview, my dress has turned a dismal navy blue.
  5. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?  “Beautiful! Lovely! Gorgeous!”
  6. When and where were you happiest?  When I was a child, before my parents separated.  I dream of helping them re-unite, but that seems unlikely.
  7. What do you consider your greatest achievement?  I’m very fond of Michelangelo’s David, but I really can’t take credit myself.  All my work must come through human hands.
  8. What is your most marked characteristic?   Cat-like unpredictability.
  9. Who are your favourite writers?  I’ve known so many, but I had the most fun back in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  I’d go anywhere with Jules Verne, and he knew it.  Stories started slowing down around the time of James Joyce, but now things are picking up again.
  10. What is your greatest regret?  That I must use others to create something beautiful.  I’ve been invoked, thanked, and blamed.  But never do I get to sign my own name to anything.
  11. What is your motto?  Art for art’s sake.
Susan Pieters
Susan Pieters

Susan is the author of many short stories, several of which have won prizes.  Aside from ‘Capture of the Muse‘, you can find ‘Glass Curtain‘, ‘Invisible‘ and ‘Below the Knee‘ in past issues of Pulp Literature.  Look for ‘A Discussion of Keats’s Negative Capability‘ in issue 5.

All of the above issues are available on our Kickstarter page.  Subscribe so you don’t miss any.  And if all this talk of Muses has yours nagging you, why not treat her to our Year of the Muse Retreat in January, where you can meet Sue … and her Muse … in person!

Critique Rewards! Don’t Miss ‘em!

Having just attended the Surrey International Writers’ Conference and watched the “aha!” looks on faces after receiving blue pencil appointments, I can bear witness to the power of a good critique to enlighten a writer and transform a story.  We all have blind spots, and a gentle finger pointing out problems is a gift.

Don’t rely on your friends and family to be brutally honest with you — hire us!  On our Kickstarter page we have specials on critique packages ranging from $50 to $500.  These are half off our regular prices and include subcriptions!

If you are impressed with the quality of writing and editing in our magazine, sign up on our Kickstarter and use our skills to your advantage.  We offer editing for every level of writer for a variety of needs, from developmental or concept editing, to line by line copy editing or proofreading.

Our reward packages are

  • Mini-critique: a detailed, written critique of up to 1000 words of your work-in-progress, short story or poem.  Includes a 1 year digital subscription to Pulp Literature.  This is a $120 value.  Backer reward level $50.
  • Critique: a detailed, written critique of up to 5000 words of your short story or  work-in-progress, followed by a 20 minute Skype or phone session with one of our editors to discuss the work.  Includes a 1 year digital subscription and is a $220 value.  Backer reward level $100.
  • Hour Stories Session: got writer’s block?  Choose a private Hour Stories Session in person or by Skype where you will write approximately 1000 words.  This reward includes the mini-critique above plus a 1 year print and digital subscription.  A $270 value.  Backer reward level $130.
  • The Writer’s Package: an Hour Stories Session, a Critique of up to 5000 words of your short story or work-in-progress, print and digital subcriptions, plus a 1/4 page ad for your book or company OR a portrait of you drawn and inked by the talented Mel Anastasiou.  All this is a $500 value.  Backer reward level $250.
  • Novel Critique: one of our editors will read and critique your novel of up to 100,000 words and follow up with a Skype or phone session to discuss elements such as plot, pacing, character, structure, theme and dialogue.  Includes print and digital subscriptions.  A $1260 value.  Backer reward level $500.alexandra
  • Writing Retreat:  if you’d rather work on your edits in the peace and luxury of the Lodge at the Old Dorm on Bowen Island, join us from January 9th to 11th.  The retreat includes at least three Hour Stories Sessions, as well as critique and workshopping plus sumptuous rooms, gourmet food and good company.  This all-inclusive package, including transportation to and from Vancouver is worth approximately $1500.  Backer reward level $850.

Don’t be embarrassed when you send your novel to your agent or post it on Amazon; have us give it a once over so you can hold your head high!

Susan Pieters
Susan Pieters

Susan Pieters is a co-founder and developmental editor at Pulp Literature Press.  With a Masters in English and years of teaching, writing and editing under her belt, her keen eye polishes the stories in Pulp Lit till they sparkle.

Readers Adore a Vacuum

Nature abhors a vacuum.  Truly empty space is an aberration, something not to be tolerated.  Nature compensates by thrusting matter towards the vacuum.  That is how empty space, instead of being a powerless void, becomes a powerful force that attracts and draws in matter.  Vacuums suck.  Literally.

The application for writers?  Leave some blank spaces in your writing and storytelling. Remember that law of physics for writers, “Show don’t tell.”  Writers who explain too much fill up a scene with details, facts, or interior narration that clutters up the story.  It prevents readers from using their imagination because everything is spelled out for them, every possibility explored and catalogued.  It leaves readers bored and repulsed.  Let the readers have fun creating their own interpretation.  There’s no fun in playing in somebody else’s sandbox when all the toys have been grabbed and labelled (usually with adverbs).

A beautiful example of the power of the unwritten word is Conor Powers-Smith’s ‘Love for Sale’ in Pulp Literature Issue 3.    Read it again, and notice how the author piques your curiosity, leaving most of the technical explanation and the intentions of the main character unsaid.  Even the ending is defined by what’s not there, rather than what is.

The best writers use blank space to draw in the reader, and the best readers can’t resist filling in the gaps of a story.  Don’t put off readers with too much information.  Welcome readers to your door, open it wide, and stand back.  Let them enter the room and explore your world for themselves.  Let their curiosity pull them inside because … (wait for it)…
a good story sucks.

Flash Fiction Endings

It’s all about the ending. Novels get quoted by their first lines; in flash fiction, it’s the last line that goes down in history. It carries the punch, like a bee sting.

With a flash fiction story, you don’t begin in medias res–you begin at the final scene. You leave just enough time for the reader to latch on to your opening, and then you are off. You don’t explain (you haven’t time) but you leave clues, and every detail is smoking-gun important.

The tone can be intense with foreboding or calm with post-catastrophic hindsight. Like an instant replay done in slow motion, the narrator rewinds us through the crucial scene, the climactic event, carefully re-examined because it decides the game.

The goal of flash fiction is to spin the reader around in a complete circle of transformation leaving us dizzy, or upside down. We look again at the title and it reads differently, its hummingbird5secret exposed. We are left to gasp into our coffee mugs, unsettled, and changed.

Last chance to enter our Hummingbird Flash Fiction Contest is Friday August 15th!