Devito and Stone

So I’ve been reading a really horrifying collection of short stories called Knockemstiff, by Donald Ray Pollock. If you feel like being depressed beyond measure by the lengths people in small, desolate towns will go just to get from one day to the next, by all means, pick it up.

In truth, I’ve been reading this collection for a little while now. I’ll tackle a few stories in succession before I’ll become exhausted emotionally and mentally. Then I’ll have to take a break for a bit.

Most of them are about drugs in one way or another, but Pollock doesn’t discriminate: he touches on every flavor of depravity that I know of (and honestly, quite a few I didn’t know of – the kinds of things that now he’s made me aware exist are difficult to get out of my mind).

Here are some sample first sentences in the Knockenstiff collection, just to give you an idea of what I’ve been going through. I tried to select stories without profanity in the very first sentence, which was difficult.

  • “My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old.” (from Real Life)
  • “When people in town said inbred, what they really meant was lonely.” (from Hair’s Fate)
  • “I’d been staying out around Massieville with my crippled uncle because I was broke and unwanted everywhere else, and I spent most of my days changing his slop bucket and sticking fresh cigarettes in his smoke hole.” (from Bactine)
  • “Half the time now the only thing crawling around in Howard Bowman’s worn-out head is that four-letter word, the one swear his wife no longer allows in the house.” (from Honolulu)

You get the idea. Apparently there’s even a name for this genre. Wait for it … it’s called ”Hick Lit.”

These stories are raw. They’re about real life, or at least a version of life I get the sense Pollock’s spent considerable time around. I understand many of them were written as assignments for the MFA he earned from Ohio State University in 2009, after spending 32 years working in a paper mill in Ohio, not far from Knockemstiff. (Yep, you read that right, Knockemstiff is an actual place in Southern Ohio).

Meanwhile, a few other things are going on that make me feel the short story is in the air.

Though I’m supposed to be finishing up the latest revision of my novel (I’m working on it, promise), I’ve been writing a short story of my own on and off. See, what happens to me is when I get hit with an idea that I know is the size and shape of a short story, I can’t seem to get it out of my head until I actually write the darn thing. Short stories are like flashbulbs of inspiration – as if a bright light went off in front of me and now the residual image is burned onto my brain. The only way to rid myself of it is to write it down.

Meanwhile, Ann Kingman, co-host of one my favorite podcasts, Books on the Nightstand, has declared this “The Year of the Short Story.” She’s trying to read one story per day and is tracking her progress through entries on a page titled “Project Short Story.”

And the other day I heard this really great podcast from Selected Shorts with Neil Gaiman, Stephen Colbert and Leonard Nimoy. Gaiman served as host, introducing Colbert reading a story by Ray Bradbury (The Veldt) and Nimoy reading one from James Thurber (The Catbird Seat). Both were excellently written and performed. In his introduction, Mr. Gaiman had this to say about the short story:

Short fiction is like close-up magic. You look, you try and figure out how it’s done. All the pieces are laid out in front of you. And then suddenly it wraps up in a way you weren’t expecting or in a perfectly satisfying way.

On the same day, the most recent issue of Esquire winged its way through the electrons to my kindle and within I found an article titled “In Celebration of the Short Story” by Benjamin Percy. Mr. Percy describes the short story this way:

A short story is a red-faced sprint. A short story is a one-night stand you’ll remember years later in the shower or on a two-lane country highway. A short story is a precisely cut diamond. A short story is a glimpse – like the flash and buzz of a hummingbird – that stills your breath with its beauty. A short story, because it is short, can forgivably push boundaries, take risks. A short story attends to language in a gymnastic way that would exhaust any reader past twenty pages. A short story is impressionistic. A short story is a shot of whiskey, a snort of cocaine, a hand on a hot stove. A short story demands strenuous attention, supplying only the most essential components of character and narrative, asking the reader to infer the rest. 

A short story can be perfect…

So there you have it. Short stories seem to be everywhere. And, apparently, they can be perfect.

I’d better get back to work on mine. If only to get it out of my head.

Don’t be afraid to slap your readers in the face with your theme

Slap I finished critiquing a fellow writer’s work in progress recently and one thing that struck me was that she needed to emphasize her theme more.

In short, she needed to slap her readers in the face with it. I knew what her theme was – we had discussed the core of what she was writing about many times – and it definitely came across in her ending, but did it come across strongly or clearly enough? I didn’t think so.

Part of my recommendation was that she introduce more conflict, but another big part (I felt) was she needed to bring her theme home more directly. The stretch run needed more strength, more oomph.

I spoke with her on this subject out of personal experience. The first book I completed had a theme that was clear in my own mind, but I now realize I probably tried to be too subtle in my ending and in how I ultimately communicated that theme to my readers.

I was trying to avoid cliches and heavy-handedness. And I’m still NOT advocating these things. But in that attempt at subtlety, I think I ended up skirting around my theme in such a way that I now wonder how well it came across at all.

I’m watching Season Two of Six Feet Under, and there have been a few episodes where I have felt much the same way. The show is very well written, but sometimes I have the feeling the writers are being a little too subtle with what they are trying to say. Of course, the undertone is there, but there have been several points where I wanted more, wanted the loop to be closed more tautly.

I wanted them to slap me in the face with what they were trying to say.

If your reader is going to go on a three or four hundred page journey with you, or if your viewer is going to spend hours watching, they should leave with a clear idea of what you were trying to say. Make sure you find a way to impart it.

Unless you do this with a real heavy-hand, it probably won’t come across as obvious as you’re afraid it might. I know that when I get to the ending of my current work in progress, I’m going to be keeping this thought in mind, and hopefully I’ll end it with a strong idea for the readers of just exactly what it was I was trying to say.

(Of course, I don’t recommend slapping your readers too often or too many times…)

# # #

This week’s podcasts updates:

First, we had a new podcast from The Velvet Podcast. These guys don’t post new podcasts very often, which is why they haven’t made my podcast list to the left, but when they do, they’re usually very entertaining and offer great content. This week’s entry was no exception, a great listen on editing:

Hopefully the guys start to post more and if they do, I will include them in my regular updates. I particularly like their roundtable approach. It’s great to get multiple opinions all at once, points and counterpoints.

Writing Excuses

I Should Be Writing

Books on the Nightstand

Reading and Writing Podcast

Adventures in SciFi Publishing

The Writing Show

Write for Your Life

Writing Podcast Update for Friday, August 5


Image: Suat Eman /

Sigh…it really is summer isn’t it? The sun is shining (boy, is the sun shining…everywhere), everyone is on vacation, just coming back from vacation, or just about to go.

Including many of the blogs I follow.

And including, unfortunately, this blog. It’s been a couple of weeks again, hasn’t it?

Okay, so at the risk of apologizing too much, I’m not going to. Instead, without further adieu, here are the podcast links since my last update:

Writing Excuses

I Should Be Writing

Books on the Nightstand

Reading and Writing Podcast

Adventures in SciFi Publishing

Write for Your Life

Writing Podcast Update for Tuesday, July 19

First and foremost, last week I neglected to include Books on the Nightstand’s updates during my off period. They had some wonderfully entertaining and informational posts over the last few weeks.

Books on the Nightstand

And now, this week’s updates!

Writing Excuses

I Should Be Writing

  • 213: Feedback – interesting information if you are planning on attending one of those crazy conventions coming up, like Dragon Con, right here in Atlanta! (I never go, because I always attend the Decatur Book Festival on Labor Day weekend)

The Writing Show

Adventures in SciFi Publishing

The Catch up Post

Catching Up

I haven’t posted a podcast update in several weeks, so this post is me catching up on all of the links I missed. Since this one will be heavy with links, I will not be providing reviews of each podcast, though I have listened to all of them by now.

Hopefully this helps anyone who’s been coming here for the easy links to many podcasts at once.

When I start the regular weekly updates again, they will include brief reviews of the podcasts as before.

Writing Excuses

I Should Be Writing

The Writing Show

Reading and Writing Podcast

If You’re Just Joining Us

Write For Your Life

Adventures in SciFi Publishing

Chat Broome
Most of Iain’s posts on this podcast lately concern technology, but there was one writing specific one.

Writing Podcast Update for Monday, June 13

Overwhelmed Copyright by Foxtongue
Photo credit: Foxtongue

Wow…with all of the new podcasts I’m following now, it’s already grown difficult to keep up. Which is absolutely fantastic news and one of the very things I was hoping for when I started this blog focusing on writing podcasts in the first place. It seems like so much has happened since the beginning, only two short months ago.

First off, several of the podcasters I was already following before I started these updates have graciously communicated back and sent me even more podcasts to follow. It’s a great commentary on the community out there. I listen to each and every one of them on a weekly basis and keep notes so that I can give a short review of the content along with my links here in these summaries.

But allowing a full week to pass before posting each summary is causing a couple of problems, I think. One, it’s too long since I’ve listened to some of them to give a front of mind review, and I have only my notes to rely on. Two, I do consider these links a service to the writing community (those of you who have found me by now, anyway). When I started down this writing path, these podcasts (along with the blogs I follow) quickly became my online and daily classroom for news and training on writing, publishing and agents.

Therefore it seems to me like I should provide the links more often if I can, if any of you are using my summaries for quick access to the wealth of information out there yourselves.

So…I am strongly considering changing this update to be bi-weekly or perhaps even more frequent. Instead of a Monday update only, perhaps a Tuesday and Thursday update, or maybe three times a week. I haven’t decided for sure yet, but just a heads up for anyone that comes here each Monday looking for the update. The schedule may be changing a bit.

Okay, enough of my ramblings – on to the links:

(NOTE: due to volume, I am also changing the format this week as an experiment. Rather than the bullet list I typically provide, I am going to give each podcast a header and then add the links to their episodes underneath, since several had more than one update this week – thanks podcasters!)

Writing Excuses
Perhaps the podcast in my list that focuses most on the craft of writing. Each episode seems to deal with some aspect of craft. There aren’t as many interviews as some of the others in my list.

6.2 Internal Motivations – discusses character motivations. What makes your characters tick? How do you show it to the reader?

I Should Be Writing
Mur’s podcast always feels very personal. She usually starts with an update on her own work, how her week is going, things like that. Then she typically does an interesting interview. I also enjoy her feedback shows and the Good Cop / Bad Cop routine she does with Matt Wallace, though that part of her site has moved under a pay area, and I’ve decided to keep these reviews focused only on free podcasts, at least for now.

ISBW #206 – DIWhine/John Picacio Interview – Mur starts with some news about the perils of Do-It-Yourself publishing, then has an interesting interview with science fiction cover artist / designer John Picacio. They talk about what goes into designing a cover and the issue of “white-washing” covers, which I’d never heard of and assumed was some sort of art approach, rather than what it turned out to be – a form of racism that sometimes crops up in book covers in certain genres. Very interesting.

The Writing Show
This show is now all “Slush Pile Workshops”, which consist of Paula Berinstein reading and critiquing works submitted to her, as an agent perhaps would off their “slush pile”.

Slush Pile Workshop #15 – Three interesting short stories are read. They all sounded well-written, for the most part. Also, in the very beginning, Paula discusses some Rhetorical Devices and points out a few I found particularly interesting and use myself in my writing, thought I didn’t know the official names of them until she mentioned them: Epizeuxis and Scesis Onomaton.

Writers on Writing
This podcast is a recording of a radio show run by two women at UC Irvine. The interviews are always very professionally done and interesting.

Catherine Friend and Caitlin Kelly – these authors are interviewed separately, each with compelling topics for their non-fiction works, Catherine Friend on Farming, Sheep and Wool and Caitlin Kelly on working retail in the mall.

If You’re Just Joining Us
Jon Armstrong gives us lots of interesting author interviews.

M.D. Lachlan – the author discusses his new novel Wolfsangel, a re-invention of the werewolf myth with ties to Norse mythology. He also discusses moving from comedy writing to fantasy writing, and the differences between them.

Adventures in SciFi Publishing
This podcast interviews authors, holds contests and generally has news focusing on the SciFi and Fantasy genres.

AISFP 122 – Michele Lang – an interview with Michele Lang, author of Lady Lazarus. I particularly enjoyed her recommendations of her agent, Lucienne Diver of The Knight Agency, an agency that just happens to be located here in Atlanta (thought I’m not sure Lucienne herself is here). She sounds like just the type of agent I’d like to work with. Couple that with the fact the agency is physically in Atlanta and hmmm…. perhaps Ms. Diver should be expecting a query from me soon ;-)

AISFP 123 – Gastreich, Chambers and Wood – Interviews with several authors who have published with Small Presses. Discussions of their work and the difference between small press publishing and self publishing.

Authors featured:
M.C. Chambers
Karen Gastreich
Jonathan Wood

Books on the Nightstand
All writers should be reading. A lot. This is a great podcast for readers, which makes it a great podcast for writers. Also, readers are your customers, aren’t they? You should understand them as much as possible.

BOTNS Podcast #132: Books for Gay Pride Month – Ann Kingman reviews The Book Expo of America, and both Ann and Michael Kindness review a list of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) fiction.

Chat Broome
This is a neat little podcast if you’re looking for short updates. It’s not always strictly writing related, but the podcaster Iain Broome, is himself a writer and he does discuss writing on most of the posts.

June 7: iBehaviour – Iain discusses Apple’s recent announcements and talks about how behaviors are led by those are the forefront of change.

June 9: Ready to Launch – Just start. Do good work, of course, but don’t spend ages and ages getting it right before releasing something into the world. Sometimes you have to let your work fly off on its own, like releasing a dove into the air.

June 10: The Thinking of Paul Davis – Valuing different types of minds and different types of thinking.

NOTE: The main page for each podcast I follow is linked in the Podcasts section of links to the left, underneath the Blogroll.

Writing Podcast Update for Monday, June 6

Reminder to Writing podcasters…if your podcast is missing from the menu on the left, then I’m not checking your site for updates. Please leave a comment if you wish to be included!

For Monday, June 6:

  • Writing Excuses – Their June 6 update, 6.1 Can Creativity Be Taught welcomes Mary Robinette-Kowal, a frequent guest podcaster in the past, as the fourth official member of Writing Excuses. They dredge up an old topic that they felt wasn’t handled well in their very first podcast attempt: Can Creativity be Taught?
  • I Should Be Writing #203 – Mur again had two updates this week. Her first, Episode #203 – Feedback Show is one of her feedback shows, in which she answers, among others, questions about posting your novel online but still submitting it to editors and agents, the going rate on cover design for e-books, and the ever popular debate on prologues, including suggesting some alternatives such as dialog, flashbacks and interludes (I used this last one myself in the work I’m currently shopping).
  • I Should Be Writing #204 – Mur’s second update this week, Episode #204 – Myopia, James Melzer and Jennifer Hudock Interview features an interview with authors James Melzer and Jennifer Hudock, who talk quite a bit about e-books and e-publishing.
  • Reading and Writing PodcastEpisode 041 – this week’s interview by Jeff is with Jon Armstrong, the host of another of the podcasts I now follow, If You’re Just Joining Us.
  • Books on the NightstandBOTNS Book Podcast #131 features two engaging author talks from their retreat – Steve Hummer and Susan Gregg Gilmore
  • Adventures in Sci Fi Publishing – features an interview with Indiana Jim, who talks about his novellas, writing for a world originating from a trading card game, how the movie Labyrinth freaked him out, and even the San Francisco 49ers. Sorry, guys, not a fan of the Harbaugh hire. ;-)