Tips for Writing a Term Paper

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By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

These are general guidelines for writing a paper. The specific requirements of your field and your instructor’s directions of course trump anything said here.

Background Image: Heather|lectio/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

1. Topic

Start thinking about your topic early on. Do not leave this decision until the night before (or week after) the paper is due. If your instructor gives you a list of topics to choose from, try to find out which topics are most popular and avoid them.

Don’t underestimate the importance of topic choice. Not only does an original topic show your instructor that you’re interested and engaged in the material, but after marking twenty papers on [insert overdone topic here], your instructor will find your paper on [something different] very refreshing.

Pick a topic that you can be passionate about, not the one that seems easiest. Chances are, if you think a particular topic is easy, so will a whole bunch of other people. Remember: if you write your paper on the same topic as 30 (or 40 or 50) other people, your paper will be compared to theirs. Imagine your paper as the last one to be graded and choose accordingly.

2. Research

Do your research early. There is no excuse not to when you can do your research at home while wearing your pajamas!

Most library catalogs are online. Use your university’s library to find the books you need. Many libraries will allow you to put items on hold—meaning not only is the book saved for you (for a period of time), but when you go to pick it up, it’s already at the counter waiting for you—no need to search the stacks for it. If you need a book that your library doesn’t have, find out which libraries do have it at WorldCat and order it through interlibrary loan.

Most universities and colleges also give their students online access to academic journals. Use the appropriate databases (i.e. ones targeted to your field) to find articles. Another great resource is the Directory of Open Access Journals, a listing of free, online scientific and scholarly journals.

Be aware that databases will often turn up articles in fields that are related to—but that may differ in important respects from—your own. If you decide to use an article from a journal in another field, be sure to note any discrepancies that may come up between that field and your own.

Databases will also turn up non-academic articles (e.g. newspaper and magazine articles). While you should never rely on non-academic sources as your main source of information, they can be useful. For example, in many cases, it is appropriate to use non-academic sources to provide examples to illustrate your points. As well, reliable non-academic sources, such as general interest books or articles written by academics and well-researched articles in reputable magazines or newspapers, can be used to supplement information from your academic sources.

Avoid citing non-academic sources that have an obvious bias or lack meaningful research, e.g. pop culture books, opinion pieces in magazines or newspapers, industry publications, self-published work.

Unless your instructor specifically says it’s okay, don’t cite Wikipedia (or any other encyclopedia) in an academic paper. That doesn’t mean you can’t make use of it, however. Here are four good ways to use Wikipedia.

Finally, remember that referencing the course textbook or readings is an easy way to show that your paper is both relevant to the course material and an original piece of work.

3. Organization

Remember the five-paragraph format you learned in high school? Forget it. As long as your argument is clear, you can organize your essay any way you like, using as many paragraphs as you need.

Instead of filling your introduction with over-general background information, clearly state your thesis and give some indication of what you plan to do in the essay. Not only is this helpful for the reader, but it shows that you know what you’re writing about. (You might be surprised how many people don’t!)

A well-written essay synthesizes information from a number of sources in a way that supports the writer’s thesis and ideas. Do not simply summarize the ideas from one source, then summarize the ideas from another source, then summarize the ideas from a third source, etc.

4. Content

It’s fine to use first person to say things like “In this paper, I argue that…” or “Next, I will discuss…” (But please don’t say “We will…” There is only one of you.)

On the other hand, it’s not okay to make a bunch of unsubstantiated opinion statements. In an essay, you must support your arguments with evidence (facts and examples).

Examples can’t be mere lists of things. You must briefly describe each example and explain why it supports your argument—even if it seems obvious to you. The reader shouldn’t have to guess at why you think it’s important.

When you mention the name of an expert in your field, be sure to include enough context to show that you know who the person is. In the same vein, don’t forget to define important terms. Remember, you are showing the reader what you know. A good strategy is to write as if your reader is an intelligent person who is unfamiliar with your field.

Just because you know something doesn’t mean that it’s common knowledge. Common knowledge is something that most people know. When in doubt, cite a source for your information.

Also, often people believe something to be true when it is in fact not. Be sure to verify your information.

5. Mechanics

A term paper is not an IM conversation, a text message, or your Facebook wall. Part of writing a paper is demonstrating that you are able to write in a context-appropriate style. Avoid abbreviations, slang, and clichés.

Your instructor doesn’t ask you to use proper grammar and spelling, format your document in a certain way, or cite your sources to torture you. These details are what give your paper—and you, by extension—credibility. (Would you take seriously a paper that was riddled with typos, had obvious cut-and-pastes in several different fonts and colors, and lacked citations?) If that doesn’t convince you, keep in mind that a properly formatted paper is much easier to read that one that is rife with errors—and you want to keep your instructor’s reading experience as pleasant as possible.

Essays that will be printed are generally double-spaced, with new paragraphs indented. If you tend to write the drafts of your essays online-style (single-spaced, with a space between paragraphs) and double-space after the fact, don’t forget to remove the extra spaces between paragraphs before printing.

Keep within the word or page range your instructor gives you. Extra-wide margins, triple spacing, and large fonts don’t fool anyone.

Unless you are told otherwise, title pages are not numbered and the first page of writing is page 1 (not 2). If you don’t know how to make your word processor skip the page numbering on the first page of your document and/or start the page numbering at 1 on the second page of your document, take five minutes and figure it out.

If your paper has headings, move headings that end up at the bottom of a page to the top of the next page.

Cite your sources, both in text (in parenthetical citations) and in a References (a.k.a. Works Cited, Bibliography) section at the end of your paper. Provide sources for paraphrases as well as direct quotations. Direct quotations need a page number (use a paragraph number and/or section heading if page numbers aren’t available, as with online documents).

If in doubt, cite! Your instructor knows how to use Google, too. Getting caught plagiarizing is no fun.

Format citations in the style specified by your instructor. Yes, this can be a bit of a pain, especially if you’re in a department that uses one style and taking a class that uses a different style. However, remember you want to be kind to your instructor. It is much easier to check the completeness of citations if they are all in the same format. Style guides for many popular citation formats can be found online. For example, the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) has excellent MLA (humanities) and APA (social sciences) style guides.

Do capitalize proper names of people and places, brand names and trademarks. Do not randomly capitalize words in the middle of sentences just because you want to emphasize them.

Don’t use unnecessary quotation marks or abuse apostrophes. (If you don’t get why these sites are funny, it’s time to brush up on your grammar.)


Final Poll Results

Nobody’s Perfect: Shortcuts for Creating Imperfect Characters

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the narrator presents Holly Golightly as an almost perfect person. He acknowledges at times that she may have some flaws but he also seems to remember an idealized version of the character and he’s reluctant to pass judgment on her faults or even to acknowledge them as such. Author Truman Capote knows better and it is because of his grasp of Holly’s character (and of the narrator, whom we only know as “Fred,” the name Holly gives him) that we’re able to see Holly for everything she is: a truly imperfect person. Yet we think of her as a person, not as a character, because those very flaws combine with the romanticized remembrance of her by “Fred” to create a truly three-dimensional person. Holly might be the person who lives across the hall or the woman we spot window-shopping on Fifth Avenue.

Faults and all, we tend to like Holly and we enjoy “Fred’s” fond portrait of her. So why is it that when we write characters, we’re reluctant to make them flawed? We might drop in a little something imperfect, more so if we’re writing a “bad guy,” but in general, we seem to try to keep them closer to perfect than to imperfect. Is it because we created them and we want the best for them? Is it because we’re reluctant to add characteristics that interfere with our plans for the story?

Imperfect characters hold the greatest potential for making mistakes. It’s their poor choices, their shady backgrounds, and their inherent flaws that create the potential for disaster. This threat of their worlds crashing in around them because of who they are not only makes their stories fun to write but endears them to readers. Flaws allow readers to identify and bond with your characters.

Nobody's Perfect: Shortcuts for Creating Imperfect Characters

Good Guys

“The protagonist… cannot be a perfect person. If he were, he could not improve and he must come out at the end… a more admirable human being than when he went in.” –Maxwell Anderson

Ask an actor and he’s likely to tell you that playing the bad guy is more fun than playing the hero. That might be because so many traditional heroes are so milquetoast. Sure there are fascinating antiheroes (like Batman, Sam Spade, Holden Caulfield, Scarlett O’Hara and Severus Snape) but the most interesting characters—protagonists, antagonists, secondary characters and even minor characters—are the ones who are imperfect and are not usually at the center of the story.

Here are a few easy ways you can rattle your protagonist’s closet skeletons:

  • Make a small change in the character’s background, even if it has no immediate effect on the story. Think of the nature of your character. If one thing had gone differently in her life, how would it change her nature? For example, let’s say she’s a nurturing woman who acts as a mother figure to everyone around her. Now imagine this: her mother passed away when she was a small child. Would she still be nurturing, perhaps trying to fulfill a void in her own life? Would she become self-sufficient and unable to comprehend those who can’t do the same for themselves? Making one different decision or having one alternate outcome to a situation can make a world of difference in your character’s personality.
  • Make a change in the surroundings. Maybe the character fits too well with the world around him. Does your hero work in an office building? What’s it like? Is it bright and airy with lots of open space or is it a fluorescent-lit cubicle farm? Change the setting and watch the effect it has on your character. Maybe he didn’t realize how much he valued freedom over stability until you took away his office window.
  • Bring in a character who sees everyone as the opposite of what they’re trying to project. For example, a therapist, bartender, or childhood friend might see that the hero is always looking for something to do not because he is creative but because he fears boredom. If confronted with this fact, how might the hero react?

Bad Guys

“When writing a novel, a writer should create living people; people, not ‘characters.’ A ‘character’ is a caricature.” –Ernest Hemingway

Antagonists are more often given the juicy backgrounds, the flaws and the faults but just as often they may be a little too perfect in their roles. It’s easier to make the bad guy the opposite of everything ours hero stands for. It’s no fun to have a bad guy without a chink in the armor for our hero to exploit.

Everyone is the hero of his own story. Our antagonists are no different. They believe they’re doing what is best for someone or some purpose, even if it’s only for themselves. Here are a few questions that might help round out your bad guys:

  • What are his weaknesses? Does he share any with the protagonist?
  • What are the antagonist’s redeeming qualities? Again, does he share any of these with the protagonist?
  • What tempts him and how susceptible is he to temptation? Can one temptation cause him to weaken or let down his guard? For example, if the hero is a beautiful woman, could the villain become distracted by that fact? And for that matter, would your hero exploit that weakness?
  • How does the antagonist change over the course of the story? The antagonist takes a journey, same as the protagonist. At what points do their courses intersect and how do they compare in their responses to similar situations?

Showing the Reader

“Front-rank characters should have some defect, some conflicting inner polarity, some real or imagined inadequacy.” –Barnaby Conrad

It can be tough to convey these flaws without infringing on the story, especially in the case of a first person narrator, but it is possible. Your protagonist might not be as smart as you are, for one thing, and while he shows us what’s going on around him, we might pick up things he’s not seeing but that you are making a point to show us. Maybe your character uses alcohol or drugs and doesn’t relay things accurately. Readers will be able to determine this (and it can add some surprises later in the story). An unreliable narrator is a good example of a flawed character.

Characters will also view each other differently. What you might see as a good trait in your character—generosity, for example—another character (or a reader) might see as a flaw—he gives so much away that he has nothing for himself. Use other characters to help put shades of gray onto your protagonist or antagonist. For example, your hero might be having a conversation with her best friend when she mentions the villain. The best friend could relay some information or an opinion that adds depth to the villain. There are more points of view in your story than the one you’re using for storytelling.

It’s fine for characters to idealize each other, so long as the author and the reader know that what lies beneath isn’t always perfection, like the earlier example of the narrator in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Allow your characters to be neither all-good nor all-bad. Allow them to make the worst possible choice (for example, it would be “good” for the married character not to have an affair but is it good for the story?). Allow yourself to have fun creating the most well-rounded characters you can and to use them to tell the “perfect” story.

Note: The exercise accompanying this article is a mini-bio sheet designed as a companion to our Character Development Worksheet. The CDW already has lots of opportunities to make your characters less than perfect (scars, childhood traumas, manners, etc.). The mini-bio will help you tweak existing characters or go further in-depth as you create new ones.

Final Poll Results

Surviving NaNoWriMo

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By Erin Nappe (Billiard)

By now, most writers are at least familiar with Chris Baty’s brainchild; write a 50,000-word novel in one month, with the focus on getting the darn thing finished rather than worrying about how good it is. Back in 2004, I was a first-time participant in NaNoWriMo. I decided to dive right in, and I was not fully prepared for the task that lay before me. I started off with the best of intentions, but my intentions didn’t quite carry me far enough.

It took me three tries, but I finally earned the title of NaNoWriMo winner last year. I thought I’d share some of my own wisdom for completing the challenge.

Background Image: Ted Rheingold/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

It’s possible to be busy and still be a winner.

At this time last year, I was teaching four college classes and working as a substitute teacher. When the grading started to pile up, it was tempting to just give up, walk away, throw up my hands and say, “I can’t do it. I’m too busy.” But I didn’t. I made myself a schedule. I told myself I’d devote a certain number of hours each day, no matter what. I blogged and emailed less. I spent less time poking around the Internet. I did very little reading. And I survived! I even spent one weekend visiting a friend, and spent Thanksgiving with my family.

The laptop is your friend.

I don’t know that I would have gotten through it without my trusty iBook. I’m not saying it’s impossible to be a winner without one, but it sure made my life a lot easier. Since my life tends to be mobile, being able to take my novel with me wherever I went helped me reach my goal. Don’t have a laptop? Get yourself a flash drive, pronto!

Another possibility for portable writing is the AlphaSmart. It’s a portable word processor for about $219!

Announce your participation publicly.

If you want to succeed, it’s important to let people know what you’re doing. I posted my progress meter on my blog, and I found that facing the possibility of public shame was sometimes what I needed to keep myself going!

If you don’t have any place else to announce it (or even if you do), make sure you visit our NaNoWriMo forum and let everyone know you’re participating!

Get a writing buddy.

Or two. Or ten. The NaNoWriMo forums can be a great source of support. (Warning… the official forums are very slow right now!) If you find yourself overwhelmed there, you can always post on our forum. You’ll find that the encouragement of other people in the same situation will be invaluable.

Learn to love writing prompts.

There were countless times when I found myself stuck. I’d go online and search the calendar at TC, or look for prompts at other writing sites, and find something that would give me the spark I needed to get going again.

Roll with the changes.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a plan or an outline—many people can’t work without them! I’m just saying that you shouldn’t be so committed to anything that you refuse to change it. Because when you’re writing a novel in a month, well… things happen.

For example, I changed point-of-view characters well into my novel. The voice I started out with just wasn’t working for me, so I shifted to a different character and finished the novel in his head. I fretted about it for a while before convincing myself that it didn’t matter—I could go back and change things later. Don’t ever forget that—you can go back and change things later. I typed notes to myself within the text to change this, or fix that, or flesh this out. It’s not going anywhere, and no one ever has to see that first draft but you!

Don’t give up.

Try to keep up with your daily word count goals, but don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t make it one day. Things happen. You can make it up. It might seem impossible, but I promise you, it’s not. I frequently found myself getting behind, but it’s amazing how much you can make up in a short time when you get on a roll.

Don’t forget food and water.

It sounds silly, but make sure that you’ve stocked up on food and drinks that you like, things you can enjoy while sitting in front of the computer. You’re not going to want to cook much, so try to find things that are easy to prepare. A loving spouse or partner who cooks is always a big help. 😉 I made sure to keep myself stocked up on tea and Dr. Pepper, because that’s what I like. Baker is partial to Vitamin Water. But whatever it is, keep it close!

Do follow the rules.

Particularly if you’re a first time participant, you should follow the guidelines set forth by NaNoWriMo. Start a fresh story instead of trying to rework, re-imagine, or reinvent something you’ve already started. You’ll have more enthusiasm for the project, and therefore more momentum.

Don’t panic.

Your muse smells fear. She doesn’t respond well to it. Keep your cool, and keep going.

Above all, keep reminding yourself that you can do it!

Here’s a quick guide to sites and other resources to help you get through November:


Sign-ups are underway now! Look for local groups, forums by genre, and more!


In particular, the writer’s tools are quite helpful. I used the word meter and posted it on my blog!

Writing Prompts

There are lots of writing prompts sites, but these are some of the ones I used: Creative Writing Prompts, Writer’s Digest prompts, Toasted Cheese calendar, Story Spinner online.

The Snowflake Method

Several of our editors swear by this method for designing their novel. Check it out!

No Plot? No Problem!

NaNoWriMo creator Chris Baty shares his secrets for a successful novel writing experience. I bought this book last year, and found the advice in it incredibly valuable

WriteBoard and Google Docs

More options for document portability. Both WriteBoard and Google Docs are free, secure sites where you can update your documents from any computer that has web access. Even better, you can share your documents with anyone you want!

Final Poll Results

Interview with Trenton Lee Stewart, Author of The Mysterious Benedict Society

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By Mollie Savage (Bonnets)

There are many joys working in a bookstore, among them when an author walks in and asks if we’d like him to sign the books of his that we have on the shelves. That was how I met Trenton Lee Stewart, author of Flood Summer and The Mysterious Benedict Society. Trent is a local fellow. In his own words: “I grew up in Hot Springs, Arkansas, went to a small liberal arts school called Hendrix College, and finally attended the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I continued to live in Iowa City for several years while my wife finished work on her Ph.D., after which we moved to Cincinnati, where I worked at the public library and also did some teaching. Both of my published novels, Flood Summer and The Mysterious Benedict Society (a children’s novel) were completed while I lived in Cincinnati. Last year we moved back to Arkansas, where I now write full-time—most recently on a follow-up to The Mysterious Benedict Society due out in 2008.”

The Mysterious Benedict Society is hugely successful. Here’s an interview with him.

Interview with Trenton Lee Stewart

TOASTED CHEESE: How did you get your start as a writer?

TRENTON LEE STEWART: I wrote occasional stories and poems beginning in elementary school and continued until college, where I began to write fiction in earnest. Afterward I was accepted into the graduate creative writing program at the University of Iowa, spent a couple of years discovering how little I knew about craft, and then spent several years more working various odd jobs as I tried to figure things out. During that time I published several stories, but I also wrote a lot of fiction that would never be published. I suppose it all amounted, in the end, to a start.

TC: What’s the first thing you published?

TLS: The first thing I ever published was a story I wrote in college about a man who falls overboard, unnoticed, in the middle of the ocean. He is certain to die (probably by drowning, though he also fears shark attack), and the story deals with his final hours. I sold it for five dollars to a tiny amateur literary journal now long since extinct. The most interesting thing about this story, though, is that some years later, flipping through an anthology of horror stories a co-worker had pressed on me, I came across a story that was almost identical to the one I’d written. Though I was stunned by how similar the two stories were, there could be no question of plagiarism, because the anthologized story had been written almost a century before, and by none other than a young Winston Churchill. My wife said this just proved I have a great deal in common with famous world leaders.

TC: That’s a great story. Do you drink brandy every day like Churchill? 😉

TLS: I’m pretty sure that story was the only thing Churchill and I have in common. I like brandy, actually, but rarely drink it. My beverage of choice would have to be strong coffee with a little milk. That’s something I do drink every day, with the occasional latte thrown in for good measure.

TC: I’d like to add that you are most diplomatic, another thing you have in common. Moving on, tell us about your path to being published.

TLS: It was a fairly straight path, but with lots of steep hills. My early interest in reading, and in words in general, helped me to excel in my English classes. I received lots of encouragement about my writing from teachers along the way, which led me to focus on it as a possible vocation. I studied literature and took a couple of writing courses in college. After that it was a matter of applying myself relentlessly to writing, to sending out my work again and again, and to accepting innumerable rejections as part of the path.

TC: About your path to getting published—tell us more about the entire process.

TLS: I’ve sold all my short stories myself, but years ago a friend of mine referred me to a good agent, who liked my work and with whom I developed a rapport. He wasn’t enthusiastic about selling Flood Summer, though—this happens a lot, actually; an agent may like your work yet not be excited enough to commit to trying to sell it—so I ended up selling that myself (to SMU Press). But I got in touch with the agent again when I finished The Mysterious Benedict Society, and he loved it and sent it out right away to several different editors. It was a bit dream-like. Within a couple of weeks I was talking to editors—more than one wanted the book—and deciding which publisher I wanted to go with. A rare situation and certainly nothing like my previous experience trying to sell my work. And by sheer coincidence, both Flood Summer and The Mysterious Benedict Society were sold at virtually the same time (six weeks apart).

Both book editors wanted some revisions, so I was suddenly extremely busy. I finished Flood Summer first, after a few months of work, and it came out a year later. SMU is a university press without deep pockets, of course, so although they produce handsome, high-quality books, and are able to place some ads and send out review copies, much of the marketing ultimately depends on the author’s own motivation. I have writer friends who have arranged countless readings and signings at bookstores and universities and really get the word out there, but when Flood Summer came out I had two small children, a working spouse, and another pressing deadline, and I didn’t feel capable of more than a few readings and an interview or two. Still, I expected, or at least hoped, that it would receive some additional attention as a result of the publicity for The Mysterious Benedict Society (and it has).

The Mysterious Benedict Society was different. I spent a year, off and on, revising and editing it. The editors would suggest changes, and I would make changes, but the draft still wouldn’t feel quite right to everyone involved, and we’d go back to work. To be honest it was a very difficult process even though I liked my editors. Eventually it was finished, though, and Little, Brown put an enormous amount of energy and a lot of money into marketing it. Promotional mailings, websites, etc, and they sent me to do signings and meet prominent booksellers and librarians both before and after the book came out. I also was sent on a tour doing bookstore signings and talking about the book to students in schools.

TC: In Mysterious Benedict Society you use some delightful names that reflect the characters’ and places’ personae: Constance Contraire, Ledroptha Curtain, Nomansan Island, to name a few. Talk about your process of naming.

TLS: It began with wanting to make the names distinctive and memorable, then developed into an enjoyable exercise in making most of the names hint at or reflect something deeper, such as a personality trait or a thematic joke. I set out in writing this book to have fun, to give myself freedom to fool around and be playful, and the naming process ended up being part of that. A lot of minor characters would have mundane, place-holder names at first, but eventually most, though not all, of them earned a more interesting moniker.

TC: There are so many elements in creating an engaging story: plot, setting, character, theme, point of view, conflict. Where do you begin?

TLS: Most of the time I begin with a scene, or part of a scene, that has occurred to me and engages my interest—often it’s an unusual visual image or an unusual interaction between characters. I suppose conflict is at the heart of it, but it might be anything, really. If this scene or partial scene holds my interest, I’ll eventually start wondering what led to it, and what would follow it, and what kind of people would be involved in it. In other words, plot and character usually develop, more or less simultaneously, from some other element that drew my interest.

TC: Do you see writing Young Adult fiction as your future? Is Mysterious Benedict Society an ongoing series?

TLS: I see it as part of my future but not all of it. I’ve almost completed a second Mysterious Benedict Society book and intend to write a third (and final) one, and I would like to write still more children’s books, which afford their own particular pleasures. At the same time, I have always written fiction for adults and love doing that, too, so I imagine (and hope) I will continue to write both.

TC: Do you have a particular, or peculiar, writing schedule?

TLS: It’s shifted frequently over the years to fit my circumstances. I’ve stayed up late, gotten up early, whatever made sense at the time. More recently I write every weekday, usually starting in mid-morning and finishing in the mid-afternoon, with some breaks throughout.

TC: What do you most/least enjoy about your job?

TLS: I love writing the first draft of any project—from arranging ideas and scenes into a rough plot to the actual crafting of sentences—no matter how difficult. The second or third draft, whichever one requires the most destruction in service of producing a better work, tends to be my least favorite stage of the process. But on an everyday level, what I enjoy least about writing is having to stop.

TC: Have you ever experienced writer’s block? If so, how do you break through?

TLS: It seems to me that writer’s block is not so much a lack of ideas as it is a flare-up of perfectionism: the writer doesn’t want to put something bad on the page, and everything he or she can think of seems bad. When this happens to me (as it occasionally does) I remind myself that the act of writing is different from thinking about what to write, that if I will just start laying down prose I will probably discover something to help me move forward. I may need to discard what I’ve written, or it may reveal to me that I need to be writing something different, but one way or another the act of writing tends to eliminate the act of fretting before a blank page.

TC: Why do you write?

TLS: It’s a natural outgrowth of something I’ve always done. Even before I could write—in fact even before I could read—I created elaborate stories in my head. I called it “thinking,” and I would shush my family if they were being too loud while I did it. I loved making up stories, then, and this led to writing them down, which (once I gained some competence) I also loved—and still do. If I didn’t love it I’m sure I wouldn’t still be doing it, because it’s a hard thing to do, with too many inconveniences, frustrations, and risks. So while it may seem too simple an explanation, I suppose the answer really is that I write because I love it.

TC: What is your advice for writers who want/hope to be published?

TLS: I can offer specific advice only to fiction writers, but more broadly I can say that nothing is more important than the writing itself, so you need to feel confident that what you’re sending out is as good as you can possibly make it. Beyond that, the key ingredient is perseverance, by which I mean insane stubbornness. You have to accept—even embrace—rejection as part of the process. If you can stomach that, and you work and work, your chances of eventually being published are helped immeasurably.

More specific advice for fiction writers: If you’re trying to sell short stories, don’t try to talk editors into liking your work. They’ll either like it or they won’t. Your cover letters should be professional and brief. If you don’t have any publications to your credit, fine: just say thanks for considering the enclosed story and be done with it. No gimmicks. The writing must speak for itself.

For book-length fiction, finding an agent usually helps, but you still have to send your very best writing, and you still have to be ready for rejection.

The Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market, Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, and Guide to Literary Agents are all updated yearly and are a really good starting place for publishing information.

Final Poll Results

A Surreal Life:
Interview with Stephen W. Simpson

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By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

“This is a huge honor. It’s also kind of surreal—I started posting my stuff on TC with my tail between my legs, feeling a bit unworthy.” This is how Steve Simpson prefaces his answers to the questions I posed to him in an email interview last month.

A few years ago when Steve a.k.a. Macfisto started posting at the Toasted Cheese forums, he was an unpublished writer working on his first novel—with all the typical insecurities that entails. He soon endeared himself to us with his consistently helpful posts at the forums and by writing a great article about finishing said novel. Eventually, we invited him to join the editorial board. For the past few years, Steve has judged the fall Three Cheers and a Tiger writing contest along with Boots and Ana.

These days it’s hard to imagine Steve feeling “unworthy.” In addition to his day job as a clinical psychologist, he writes two regular advice columns and recently had his first non-fiction book published. Two more are in the works. As if that’s not enough, he and his wife Shelley are also the parents of four toddlers.

Steve’s come a long way since his first tentative posts at Toasted Cheese and we at TC are immensely proud of his accomplishments. So when he said he was looking for a way to give back to the community, we couldn’t think of a better way than for him to share his journey and success with TC’s readers.

Toasted Cheese: I know you’re one of those Mac people. But come on, admit it, PC is funnier.

Stephen W. Simpson: The PC guy is funnier, but I bet it’s not so funny when you have to live with one of those skittish Windows boxes. At our last conference, Rick’s Dell wouldn’t play a DVD he needed to show. I handed him my Power Book and said, “When are you gonna learn?”

TC's Amazon Store TC: What’s not funny about tech snafus during presentations? That’s comedy gold!

Kidding aside, your first (published) book, co-authored with Ryan Howes and Richard Rupp, is What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew about Sex: A Guide for Christian Men. Tell us about the process of co-writing a book. Who came up with the idea? Did you actually write together or did you each write different parts of the book? I think our readers would also like to know how you found your publisher and how long the whole process—from idea to print—took.

SWS: All three of us came up with the idea, because sexuality is a focus in our clinical work. I already had an agent shopping around another book, and he agreed to represent us for this. Then he went MIA for over three months. He didn’t return calls or emails and then his answering machine was disconnected. I thought we’d been duped. Then, lo and behold, he pops up again and gets us a contract two months later.

We each wrote different chapters, then all three of us worked on making sure everything hung together. At first, I thought working with two other authors would make the process easier. We got the first draft together pretty fast, but after that a lot of, um, “discussion” took place about what we wanted the book to be. We even argued over the cover and title options the publisher gave us. In the end, however, I think the book is better for it. None of us could have written it alone.

The whole process, from the idea to having the book in our hands, took about two years.

TC: What Wives Wish… came out in April of this year. You and your wife Shelley became parents to quadruplets in May 2005. So that means the writing of the book coincided with the first two years of your children’s lives. Tell us how you managed to write a book while parenting four kids under two and maintaining a private practice (and you were teaching Clinical Psychology for a while there, too, I believe).

SWS: By sleeping only four hours a night and mainlining caffeine. We proposed the book before Shelley was pregnant. Though I was ecstatic when we got the contract, it really couldn’t have come at a worse time. I usually started work after our night nanny came on duty around 11 p.m. I read a warning on a can of Red Bull that said you shouldn’t drink more than four a day, but I discovered that it’s no problem if you don’t mind the heart palpitations. At work, sometimes I’d shut the door to my office and pass out on the couch.

Steve_Family.jpgShelley and Steve with the kids earlier this year. By the way, Shelley’s also a psychologist—the kids aren’t going to have a chance with teenage angst!

TC: I guess that experience must have taught you a lot about time management. You currently write two columns—”Ask the Man Shrink” and “God on the Ground”—for Divine Caroline. Tell us about the columns and explain how you find the time.

SWS: “Ask the Man Shrink” is what Dear Abby would write if she were a man and a wise-ass. Divine Caroline is a women’s web site, so the idea is to offer the male perspective along with advice from a psychologist. “God on the Ground” is about finding God in places that you wouldn’t expect. It’s my favorite of the two, but the harder to write. It forces me to pay attention to my spiritual life, because, if I don’t, the next column will suck.

I don’t “find” time to write—I make time. I block off at least two hours every Thursday afternoon. It helps that they’re paying me.

TC: So that’s the secret. Speaking of payment, you’ve already got contracts for two more books. Your second book is about dating for Christian men. Tell us about it.

SWS: A few years ago, there was an “anti-dating” movement in evangelical Christianity that said a couple should remain friends until they’re certain they want to get married. My book is a bit of a reaction to that. It’s also a bit of a con in that the book’s not totally about dating—it’s about identity and self-esteem. A lot of men (and women) believe that love will fix everything. The first part of the book talks about getting a life before you try to get a love life. The last part of the book helps Christian guys—and I can’t think of a better way to say this—have more “game.”

TC: You recently got your third book contract after an editor read an article you’d written about the first year with your quadruplets and asked for a book proposal (very cool!). This one is going to be a memoir. What can you tell us about it? Have you started writing it?

SWS: The working title (which I’m sure the publisher will change) is Quadruplets and Accomplices: Tales of a Cynic Assaulted by Joy. It describes the spiritual journey of someone (me) who starts off passionate about his faith, becomes cynical and disillusioned, and then discovers God again. Unlike a lot of Christian memoirs, this book talks about how difficult it is to be a Christian because it means having a relationship with a God who’s mysterious and sometimes aggravating. Shelley’s pregnancy and the first year with the quads was the pinnacle of my confusion and frustration with God, but then he used the experience to help me rediscover joy. A lot of people who were once excited about their faith become cynical after having hurtful experiences with religion. This book is for them.

I just finished the first draft. It’s due to the publisher the day after Labor Day, so I’ll be rewriting the rest of the summer.

TC: Which of your writing projects (whether complete, published, or in-progress) is your favorite and why?

SWS: So far, this memoir. I’ve had more fun writing it than anything else. I also think it’s a paradigm-changing work of genius, but that’s only because I just finished the first draft. I’ll probably hate it next week. Other than that, my Three Cheers and a Tiger story has a special place in my heart. I remember writing it—it was one of those times when the adrenaline keeps pumping, filling your brain with ideas. It was also my first fiction publication, something I’d been chasing for years. When I got the email saying that I’d won the contest, I grabbed Shelley and started dancing around the house.

TC: The memoir sounds like it shares a lot of themes with your first novel, Playing in the Thorns, which you wrote an Absolute Blank article about finishing in November 2003. Playing in the Thorns was very much a classic first novel, in that it was based on your own teenage experiences. How important was it for you to write that story? What’s happening with that project now? And do you have any new fiction in the works?

SWS: It was very important for me to write that novel, but for different reasons than I thought at the time. It was a bit therapeutic, of course, but it also taught me a ton about writing and publishing. Since I received well over a hundred rejection letters, I learned to keep my expectations low after sending off a query letter. Just ask my co-authors—whenever a publisher would look at our proposal, I’d tell them, “Don’t get your hopes up. It’s probably not going to happen.”

I’m afraid that first novel is quite dead. It has its moments, but it kinda sucks overall. If I ever want to tell that story, I’ll have to start over from scratch.

As far as fiction goes, I don’t have much going on. Over the last few years I’ve had to accept the fact that I’m a better nonfiction writer. That’s my focus right now. But I have notes for a short story I hope to start after I’m finished with the memoir. I love the writing I’m doing now, but publishing a novel is still the big dream. However, I’m not going to try to come up with an idea for one anymore. If I write another novel, it will be because an idea whacks me on the head that’s too good to ignore.

TC: In “The First Novel Marathon” you said that both marathon running and novel writing require “set[ting] a schedule and stick[ing] to it.” You must be good at setting schedules: you ran five marathons and finished a novel while working full-time, and finished What Wives Wish… while parenting four toddlers. Tell us about your writing habits. And have you run any marathons since the quadruplets arrived?

SWS: I’ve heard a lot of people say that you need to write every day, but I can’t do that. I need a reason to sit down at the computer, even if it’s just a fleeting inspiration for a short story or an article. Once I set my mind to a project, however. I set aside specific times to work. When I’m doing a first draft, I need chunks of at least two hours. Of course, getting a contract helps. When I’m getting paid something—even if it’s peanuts—it’s easier to give up time that I could be using to see clients. I used to write at night, but that’s a lot harder nowadays. I’m too wiped out at the end of the day to do much more than veg in front of the TV.

Marathons? Bah! Running 26 miles is cake compared to parenting four toddlers. Only recently did I start running regularly again. And it hurts more now! So no more marathons for the foreseeable future, though I’d like to do a half sometime in the next year.

TC: In your Divine Caroline bio, you say your favorite mistake was “parking my car in the wrong place at a U2 concert and then running into Bono and the Edge when I went to move it.” So we have to know: did they say anything to you? (Or you to them?) I know U2 is your favorite group, but what other music do you like? Do you listen to music while you write? What would your “Writing Mix” playlist have on it?

SWS: They signed autographs but didn’t say anything. I was too dumbfounded to talk, so I can’t blame them. As they were walking away, however, I lost control and shouted, “God bless you!” The Edge shook my hand, though. Haven’t washed it since.

Right now, I’m listening to Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible over and over. It’s the best record I’ve heard in years. In general, I’m an out of control music fan. I have 7,000 songs on my iPod. When I’m writing, I listen to either baroque music or hard rock like AC/DC. If I’m working on a long section and I know exactly where it’s going, the hard stuff helps me pound it out faster. If I’m finding my way, I don’t want anything too distracting.

TC: Baroque or AC/DC. That is a truly awesome juxtaposition.

In your TC bio, you say you were inspired to write by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Have any other writers inspired you since then? What current writers do you enjoy?

SWS: My favorite writers actually discourage me. For example, I love Robert Penn Warren and Orson Scott Card, but they leave me thinking, “I couldn’t write like that if there someone held a gun to my head.” Lately, because of the stuff I’m writing, I’ve been reading a lot of Anne Lamott. There’s also a guy named Rob Bell who writes about faith from a perspective similar to mine, except that he has about a hundred times more depth and wisdom. Every sitting with either Lamott or Bell includes moments of delight alternating with pangs of envy.

TC: In “The First Novel Marathon,” you mention Stephen King’s On Writing. What other resources (books or otherwise) have helped you with your writing?

SWS: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is a good resource. Stunk and White’s Elements of Style is good to have on your shelf. Other than that, it’s all Toasted Cheese, baby.

TC: I can’t argue with any of those.

When you wrote your first (vampire!) story in seventh grade your teacher said, “Keep this up and you’ll write a novel someday.” You’ve said that her words “haunted” you, so you wrote a novel. How important was your teacher’s encouragement in terms of your writing? Has anyone else acted as a writing mentor for you?

SWS: If Mrs. Travis hadn’t said that to me, I don’t think I’d be answering your questions right now. It was the first time anyone ever said anything good about my writing. My handwriting was (um, is) atrocious, and that doesn’t go over well in grade school.

I’ve had several writing mentors—Miss Keen, my high school journalism teacher, had a huge impact. Some other friends and professors have been important. But Theryn Fleming [I did not pay him to say this. –TF] and the folks at Toasted Cheese have done more than all of them combined. I’m not even saying this to butter you up or plug TC—you guys changed the way I think about writing.

TC: Aw, thanks. It means a lot to hear that. Now, since I’m a little verklempt, let me turn it back to you.

You have an interesting and varied background: you started college with an interest in journalism, but ended up with an M.A. in Theology and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. Somehow you’ve managed to combine all three. There’s lots of advice out there for people writing “on the side,” that is, writing while working at an unrelated day job. What advice can you give people who are trying to combine writing with another career?

SWS: Four things: Structure, patience, passion and being open to feedback.

You need to make writing a structure in your life, even if it’s just a couple hours every week. Anne Lamott says that if you write just one paragraph a week, you’ll have a book in two years. You just have to be consistent. I’ve met so many people who say they want to write a book—and have the talent for it—but it never happens because they don’t make the time. If you have a career, family, school, etc., time to write a book isn’t going to suddenly materialize. You have to be intentional about it.

You also need patience. Expect rejection notices, especially at first. You also have to be willing to write for free. When you do get paid, it won’t be very much. Along these lines, you have to be passionate about writing. It almost needs to feel like you don’t have a choice. A lot of the publishing game is about perseverance.

Finally, you have to listen to what other people say about your writing. It’s great to hear compliments and praise, but constructive criticism is what makes you a better writer. Stephen King says that if ten people read your work and they all have different feedback, you can ignore all of them. But if five of them are complaining about the same thing, you need to fix it.

TC: Great advice. Well, that about wraps things up. Well, except for one final question…

(Steve and his co-author Ryan Howes host a weekly podcast at their website Fun Christian Sex. The week I tuned in, they were bemoaning the lack of hymns about sex. So, of course I had to ask…)

TC: Will you write us a hymn about sex? There don’t seem to be any.

SWS: Actually, Ryan is working on one. At our seminars, he plays a blues song about the traditional Christian view of sex. It’s titled, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no.”

TC: Thanks, Steve.

Final Poll Results

Writing: Career or Hobby?

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

When someone asks what you do, do you tell them about your day job, or do you say, “I’m a writer?” At what point can you consider yourself enough of a writer to say that? Ask yourself a few key questions. You may be surprised by your answers.

Background Image: Dauvit Alexander/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

  1. How often do you write?
    1. Every day, of course!
    2. Once a week. I’m busy, but I set aside time.
    3. Once a month. My family and job come first.
    4. I can’t even remember the last time I wrote something.

Writers will tell you they write. Every day, without fail. It’s literally their job and they spend their time working on it. As a beginning writer you may have a job and a family, but if you are serious, you continue to carve out time every day to work on your writing.

  1. How do you spend your writing time?
    1. Writing. I’m focused and nobody can bother me.
    2. I’m interrupted a lot, but I still manage.
    3. I can’t focus, forget it.
    4. Wait… is that American Idol?

Writers spend their writing time writing and they let nothing and nobody get in the way of their ultimate goal. If they have families, they explain that now is “writing time” and they try to minimize the interruptions by enlisting the help of the significant other or the older child. If they have jobs, they sacrifice TV time for writing time. They make time work for them.

  1. Do you continue your writing education?
    1. Yes, I take classes all the time.
    2. Occasionally I’ll enroll in an online course.
    3. I read up on writing on the internet.
    4. I already know everything I need to know.

Taking classes either online or off can be crucial to your style and polish. As with any skill, it’s important to keep up on the latest developments and to continue educating yourself. If a class isn’t your style, try a subscription to a writing magazine or blog.

  1. Do you network?
    1. I attend conferences and am part of a local writing group.
    2. I go to book signings and readings.
    3. I have a friend who has a friend in the industry.
    4. I have a business card around here somewhere.

Knowing others in the business can help you get in there with them. There are all kinds of writing groups you can join both online and off. Try the local library or community college for some face-to-face time with your local stars. Writing communities online can offer a variety of interviews and chats with authors and agents imparting their wisdom. Conferences are the best way to meet those in the industry both behind the scenes and behind the words.

  1. Do you have the tools you need to succeed?
    1. I’m working on the next step.
    2. I’ve researched and know what I need.
    3. I have an idea what to do, but I’m not ready.
    4. I have to do more than write?

If you don’t research what you need, you could end up looking unprofessional. Know the next step in your drive to reach your goal and make sure you have what you’ll need to reach that level. If you’re querying an agent, have a great query ready to go and a synopsis ready in case they ask for it. If you’re submitting to a contest be sure to read all the guidelines and have a small biography of yourself ready to go in case you win.

  1. What kind of writer are you?
    1. It’s a job—I work on it every day.
    2. It’s a part-time job—I work on it, but only when I have the time.
    3. It’s a long-term goal—I want it, but I’m not doing all I can to achieve it.
    4. It’s a hobby—I have fun with it, but I’m not as serious as I could be.

So, what are you telling people you do?

Final Poll Results

Home Team or Away? The Low-Residency vs. Traditional M.F.A.

Absolute Blank

By Jim Walke (jaywalke)

Thinking about an M.F.A.? For the uninitiated, that is a Master of Fine Arts, which is one of the terminal (although hopefully not fatal) graduate degrees available in creative writing. There are a lot of things to consider: faculty, funding, football team, etc. Before you buy a new black turtleneck and a hundred reams of printer paper, you have a decision to make about location. Will you be moving away to submerge yourself in academia at a traditional university or staying put while enrolling in a low-residency program? Both require a book-length creative thesis and bestow the same degree, but that is where the similarity ends.

Background Image: CC-by-sa Joe Lewis/Flickr

Background Image: CC-by-sa Joe Lewis/Flickr

The Traditional M.F.A.

The first traditional M.F.A. program was started at the University of Iowa in 1936, and it remains one of the most prestigious. However, the entire concept of graduate studies in creative writing grew slowly for many years before a recent flowering. In 1975 the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, a national, nonprofit literary organization for teachers and writers, listed 15 programs that conferred the M.F.A. degree. As of 2004, there were 109 and the boom shows no signs of slowing.

The programs vary in length from 24–48 credit hours (8–16 classes/workshops) spread out over two to three years. The traditional program is built around the writing workshop—one per semester. Most require an equal amount of literature classes, with the balance of the structured classwork in the “nuts and bolts” of writing craft and pedagogical practices. Nearly all traditional programs require applicants to take the Graduate Record Examination, or GRE (the grad school equivalent of the SAT), and a small percentage also require proficiency in a foreign language.

Traditional programs are what most people envision if you mention graduate school: small classes, literary criticism papers with fun terms like “deconstructionist,” college bars, sports, cheap apartments and cheaper beer. Although there are under-funded exceptions, most universities accept only enough students for whom they can provide a tuition waiver and some form of living stipend. Graduate students at traditional programs earn their keep and gain valuable experience while working on literary journals, acting as teaching assistants for large classes or solo teaching a section or two of Freshman Composition. These jobs are expected to take 20 hours per week, but may require more or less than that. It also might be in your best interests to note that it is called a “living” stipend, because that is all it allows. Stipends for liberal arts students are much lower than those in the hard sciences and are very often scraping the poverty line, although most do include some type of health insurance.

The attraction of the traditional program is uninterrupted time. The student gains a minimum of two years of complete immersion in a community dedicated to writing and literature, without the distractions of the real world outside the ivory tower. For those who have tried to balance a nine-to-five job with writing, grad school offers a welcome retreat. The teaching experience gained can also prove invaluable for those who plan to become professors. The workshop format gives experience in giving and receiving criticism, and also helps a writer identify and create a community of like-minded individuals who will provide useful feedback and support outside of class, and often long past graduation.

There are drawbacks. The workshop system, while tried and tested, ensures that a given student’s work will be critiqued only a few times per semester, thus more time is spent giving feedback than receiving. The aforementioned stipends are a sticking point, but for many it is the investment of time that is more difficult than a loss of salary. Mortgages, school-age children, aging parents, and spousal careers make it difficult to simply pull up roots and move to a college town for two years. For those people, the proper route may be a…

Low-Residency M.F.A.

The first low-residency program was created at Goddard College, a progressive liberal arts school in rural Vermont, in the 1970s. Today there are more than thirty programs, and new ones seem to open with each passing year. They are based at traditional, smaller colleges and universities, but the students spend the vast majority of the time at their home addresses.

Low-residency programs consist of four semesters, each of which is six months long. The semesters begin with a 7–10 day residency at the college, with a packed schedule of lectures, readings and workshops, and meeting face-to-face with a single faculty mentor. The faculty in low-residency programs may also teach in a traditional program elsewhere, as the low-residency model gives them as much freedom as the students. After the residency everyone returns home, and the real work begins. Rather than classes, low-residency students follow an individualized course of study with their faculty mentor for the remainder of the six months, corresponding by post, email and perhaps phone. The student and mentor agree on a reading list and short critical assignments, but the largest part of the work is very simple: large packets of writing due to the mentor at set intervals throughout the semester. A typical expectation might be five packets of 35–45 pages each, delivered at four week intervals. The mentor responds to each with direct feedback, and subsequent packets will contain a mixture of new and revised work.

The typical low-residency program suggests that 25 hours per week will be required to complete the semester. The attraction, obviously, is the ability to remain at home and perhaps continue working at least part-time in another career. For many, this model more closely parallels the life of a working writer than does the seclusion of a traditional program. The direct feedback and individualized attention of a single mentor are also powerful selling points.

The drawbacks to low-residency programs are mostly related to cost and experience. The tuition averages $6,000–$7,000 per semester with additional costs for residency travel and lodging, and there is virtually no grant or scholarship money available. Since most low-res students are a part of the workforce, however, the effects are comparable to traditional programs. In other words, if a real salary minus the cost of a low-residency program is greater than a small stipend at a traditional program, the student may still come out ahead. Low-residency programs also have no way of offering teaching experience, so those who wish to teach college in the future will be at a disadvantage. Finally, although there are intense periods working with other students at the residencies, without a workshop system and months of shared classes the formation of a supportive writing community may not be as strong or immediate as in a traditional program.

Home team or away?

So, what’s it going to be? Are you joining the bohemian neighborhood or staying home? Will you spend a few years in the ivory tower, or a few hours a night locked in your own basement? No matter which you choose it will be a strenuous trip, from which you will emerge with a new sheepskin and a book of your own. Whether you choose to play for the home team or climb onto the bus for the away game, two years to focus on your writing is a fine game to play.


Final Poll Results

Interview with Brian Koscienski and Chris Pisano, The Drunken Comic Book Monkeys

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

There’s a scene in This Is Spinal Tap when Nigel Tufnel shows director Marty DiBergi his guitar collection. The exchange is:

Nigel: Look— still has the old tag on, never even played it.
Marty: You’ve never played…?
Nigel: Don’t touch it!
Marty: Well I wasn’t going to touch it. I was just pointing at it.
Nigel: Well, don’t point! It can’t be played.
Marty: Don’t point, okay. Can I look at it?
Nigel: No. No. That’s it. You’ve seen enough of that one.

The first time I encountered a true comic geek was in my dorm room in college. Brian Koscienski was dating my roommate and he brought over a prized comic. I can’t remember why. He insisted it be handled in a certain way. We should set it on some kind of clean, natural cloth. We use tweezers or tongs to turn the pages, if we must turn the pages. That we not breathe on it too much or speak when looking at it for fear that we might get a drop of spit on a page. We shouldn’t even look at it too much or expose it to light. As I sat with the comic on a pillow and turned the pages with a Kleenex, I realized he was the Nigel Tufnel of comics.

His obsession paid off. Today he and his writing partner Chris Pisano are successful independent comic book writers and publishers. They also churn out a print literary journal that has gotten some very good reviews. Fifteen years after he accompanied me to my first comic book store, Brian and Chris were kind enough (or intoxicated enough) to grant a joint interview to Toasted Cheese about comic writing, collaboration, editing, publishing and drinking. Mostly drinking.

The Drunken Comic Book Monkeys

TC: What do you write individually?

BRIAN: Not much, any more.

CHRIS: He won’t let me.

B: Actually, it’s more like we just don’t have time.

C: Yeah, that’s it. He makes me write haiku against my will.

TC: How did you decide to collaborate on the comics?

B: Well, that’s an interesting story.

C: Actually, it really isn’t.

B: Yeah, you’re right. I’ll try to make it as painless as possible. About five years ago, we decided to collaborate on a novel. Until that point, we’ve known each other for about ten years, but didn’t know either of us were writers.

C: We’re men. We share feelings as often as Britney Spears wears underwear.

B: Exactly! Well, I started reading comics when I was six, but stopped during the nineties. But three years ago, I happened to pick one up for the heck of it (Alias #1) and saw how far they had come along since the last time I read one. I then went to Marvel’s website to find out more about the series and stumbled upon one of their imprints called Epic, which put out a call for writers. So, I discussed it with Chris…

C: He threatened to put limes in my beer

B: …and we decided to write some scripts for them. Epic folded, but we decided to start writing scripts with our own stories and characters.

C: I thought you said you were going to make it painless?

B: Fine, smart guy! You get the next question.

TC: Tell us a little about how your collaborative process works. Like do you write separately and combine or do you write together from word one?

B: This isn’t going to go well.

C: Well, it depends on the project. If it’s a short story, we discuss some loose ideas, then one person writes it while the other fills in the holes. If it’s a comic book script, one person usually handles it, but with a ton of input from the person. If it’s a novel, he’ll bang out 1500 words, put the characters in an impossible situation, hand it to me and say, “Your turn.”

B: Oh, I’ve only done that once!

C: Yeah, once per chapter!

TC: How does the other guy respond to criticism?

B: Very well. That’s one good thing about knowing each other for so long; we know what to say to each other and how to say it.

C: Translation—I make him cry. A lot. But, all in all, we both want to put the best story out there, so we know that we each need to make concessions for that to happen.

TC: Are your styles different or similar? How do you think that affects the process and the final product?

C: Our styles are very different, but very complimentary. I’m a student of gothic literature while Brian has a more straightforward business approach.

B: Chris is by far the better writer, but I’m the better storyteller. We just focus on our strengths and everyone’s happy. Okay, next question before I start singing Partridge Family tunes.

C: He’s the Dean Koontz to my Henry James…

B: If only we were that good.

C: True.

TC: Tell us a little about your comics (the stories, the backstories of the ideas, where they go next).

C: We have about 14 or so in various stages of completion, so I guess we should just stick with a couple we have in Fortress Presents #1?

B: Yeah, unless you want to be the one to type the 100,000 word epic saga.

C: I think I’ll pass. Probably the most popular of the book is “Gladiatrix.” As one would guess by the title, it’s about female gladiators. However, instead of taking a sleazy T&A approach…

B: Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

C: …we decided to do a lot of research and make it historically accurate. One of the things that caught our interest was the fact that when women stepped into the arena, they did so of their own free will. We wanted to really explore that type of personality. Our main protagonist, Leona, participates in the games hoping to some day win the freedom of her brother, who is also a gladiator.

One of the other stories in FP #1, one that we broke out into its own publication, is “Thought & Control.” We’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback from this story, especially by “non-comic book” people. Basically, it’s a story about siblings, Jason and Jessica. Jason is telekinetic and Jessica is telepathic. Instead of putting them in spandex and having them fight crime, we put them in the real world. They aren’t hyper-righteous, determined to rid the world of evil. Nor are they evil themselves. They’re simply using their abilities to better their own lives.

B: Of course, once word leaks out about them, there are quite a few people interested in exploiting them. Lots of action and guns. Of course, the best way to learn about the stories from Fortress Presents #1 is to pick up a copy at

TC: How do you find artists for your books?


B: We pretty much have to make ritual sacrifices and regular deals with Satan. Actually, finding artists is no problem; the Internet makes that very easy. However, finding ones willing to work for the pay we can offer is quite a challenge. That’s one huge downside to being small press—we have no money and can’t afford anything.

C: So, if there are any artists reading this and would like to submit something to us, you can at iliveforcomics at As stated, we can’t offer a lot of money, but we’re fun to work with and we do work hard.

TC: When you write a comic, do you write what you want the art to be for a certain panel or do you give the artist complete freedom?

B: We write in full script format. We give the number of panels per page and detail the action in each panel.

C: However, we trust the artist’s vision. If he/she sees something different, then they have a lot of freedom to implement those ideas.

TC: When it comes to writing comics, did you learn by doing or did you have a teacher of some kind (for example, a course in comic book writing or books on comic writing)?

C: We’ve both taken writing classes in school. General stuff, mostly short stories and whatnot.

B: And I go to a monthly writing group, which helps for receiving feedback.

C: And I’m just blessed with natural talent.

B: Is that what it’s called? I thought it was bad enchiladas. Anyway, comic books are just like any other medium—you need to learn story telling, plot, characters, etc… first before you can really start.

C: And, it doesn’t hurt to have been reading comics for 30+ years either, old man. Or an addiction so bad that you buy at least ten titles each week.

B: True. As for script style, I happened to find a sample script online and just adopted that style of formatting.

TC: Could you give us an idea of the process of creating a comic?

B & C: Alcohol!

B: It’s like anything else; you do what you’re comfortable with. If you like to go freeform, then just come up with a general idea and start typing. For me, I like to outline the whole issue first. For comics, it’s pretty easy to do that, since each issue is typically twenty-two pages long.

C: Nope. For me it’s alcohol. And trips to Hooters.

TC: Tell us about your upcoming anthology project.

C: What project?

B: It’s still in the embryonic stages. We’ve recently had the pleasure of working with a group of editors who have done a similar anthology and approached them about doing one for Fortress.

C: We did?

B: Right now the working title is Cry Havoc and it will be a collection of short stories.

C: When did this happen?

B: The basic premise is man vs. machine vs. monster. We will definitely keep everyone posted on its progress.

C: Except, apparently, me!

TC: Tell us about Blue Line Star, your book, including how to pronounce “blue line” ;).

B: Well, this is really my fault.

C: So is the deteriorating ozone layer, thanks to your penchant for Taco Bell and Corona.

B: We stumbled upon a short story contest, the typical “write a story about this picture” kind. Well, the picture was a girl sitting on a robot. As a side note—my muse is a total insufferable witch, with a capital “B”! The type that wakes me up in the middle of the night demanding me to write, or making me start another project as I’m waist deep in others. So, Blue Line (pronounced Bluh-leen) is a sci-fi story about my muse. I have no idea how I came up with the name or title. Like I said, it’s all about my muse. However, I have noticed that now I’ve written a story about her, she lets me get some sleep.

C: However, his muse now keeps me awake at night, wondering what insane plan she’s coming up with next!

TC: You guys write a lot of weekly columns, for Silver Bullet Comics, Comic Avalanche, Absolute Write. Where else?

C: There have been a few others like and Pandora’s Gate. Even more, but unfortunately the websites have folded.

TC: Do you also keep a blog?

B: My muse won’t allow us.

TC: How did you get involved with writing all these columns?

C: It started with just chronicling our experiences of starting our own publishing company. We were rather surprised that there were no good, all-inclusive resources. There are a few books about self-publishing, but nothing truly personal from people who have done it. We just wanted to fill that gap.

B: It just snowballed from there.

TC: On to your journal, Trail of Indiscretion. How did you get the name? Why did you decide to start a journal?

B & C: Alcohol!

C: Sadly, that’s not an inaccurate statement.

B: And I still can’t spell “indiscretion” without spell-check.

C: Well, we were at our Happy Place, the one place where the pure esthetics brings out our most creative nature—that place being Hooters—and we just brain-stormed over a pitcher or two or five of beer and came up with Trail of Indiscretion.

B: That seems a bit anticlimactic, I know.

TC: What do you publish?

B: Well— if it’s a story about a 13-year-old girl named Mary coping with the change to womanhood while poignantly reflecting on the recent passing of her favorite aunt Gertrude, we don’t want it! Now, if Mary is the 13-year-old daughter of a vampire cowboy who stumbles upon a government conspiracy involving aliens and unicorns while investigating, hard-boiled style, the grisly murder of her favorite aunt Gertrude, then we’ll take a look at it.

TC: What are your plans for the journal?

B: We recently upgraded the printing, so it’s a square-bound book now.

C: Within a year, we hope to push it into an 8.5 x 11 format, as well.

B: And we are applying for an ISSN number. Hopefully, we can incorporate a barcode, too.

C: Then we can begin to infiltrate the world!

TC: Why did you decide to create Fortress Publishing, Inc. and how did it get its name?

B: I did a great deal of research on the various types of businesses out there and a corporation seemed most suitable to us.

C: He was worried about being sued!

B: Who isn’t?

C: As for the name—Marvel Comics is commonly referred to as “The House of Ideas.” Well, after getting another story idea rejected by them, Brian in a drunken fit blurted out, “If they’re the House of Ideas, then we’re the Fortress of Ideas!” And the name “Fortress” just stuck with us.

B: I drink. A lot.

TC: Tell us about your logo and who created the art.

C: I’ve done work before with the standard coat of arms and thought that would look cool. Unfortunately for the world at large, I was encouraged.

B: I’ve always been fascinated with heraldry and was sort of thinking along the same lines anyway.One of our artist friends agreed that they work really well.

C: And Dirk said he’d do it.

B: There is that. One of the artists we work with regularly, Dirk Shearer, who drew our comic book covers and did the interior art for “Gladiatrix,” among other pieces, worked up the logo for us. We loved it! He sketched it on a napkin for us. He was talking about making changes when I gave Chris the signal.

C: Which is when I snatched up the napkin and ran for the door. Dirk’s fast for an artist, but when he caught me I chastised him for not finishing his beer, so after distracting him, I made a clean get away. We’ve used the original piece ever since.

TC: What’s next for Fortress Publishing?

C: World domination, of course!

B: Well, once we get the anthology ready and revamp our magazine again, then hopefully we can get a distributor and start getting merchandise on the bookshelves of America.

C: I’m thinking our future will probably hold more beer and hot wings.

TC: Who are your favorite comic and graphic novel writers and artists? How do you discover new or new-to-you comics?

B: My favorite writers are Brian Michael Bendis and Brian K. Vaughan. And I like them for more reasons than just having a great first name!

C: I’m not entirely sure I have a favorite, but I do enjoy some of Vaughan’s work. As far as discovering new comics, I just let Brian do that.

B: Yeah, if there’s something new on the shelves, I’m addicted enough to pick it up and try it out.

TC: As comics and graphic novels have become more mainstream, have you noticed a change (for better or worse) in the quality of the work?

B: Absolutely. I think once the cover price moved away from what kids with $10 a week allowances could afford, comic publishers realized only adults could afford them, so the story telling is geared more for adults. Spider-Man is not for children anymore.

C: Not only that, but technology as given more creators access to each other as well as the means to produce some very nice works. I mean, if schlubs like us can do it, anyone can!

TC: I hear that you’re minor deities in the comic world, or so it seemed at the Pittsburgh Comicon last month (there was a line at the table). Are you always that popular at cons?


C: I didn’t know having one customer raised our status to “deity” level.

B: We have a good time at cons. We go to meet people and have fun. We’re excited about our work and I think people see that, which gets them interested in what we have to offer.

C: Plus, we have haiku for a nickel. Seriously, who can resist that?

TC: How many cons a year do you attend and how far from home do you travel for a con? What is the con experience like on your side of the table?

C: For 2007, we have five lined up. Not only the Pittsburgh Comicon, [which was] in April, but we’ll be at the Baltimore Science Fiction Convention in May, another one in Pittsburgh called Confluence in July and then back to Baltimore in September and October for The Baltimore Comic book Convention and The Small Press Expo. We’re hoping to attend more in 2008, maybe hit ones in Ohio and Jersey.

B: We did go out to the San Diego Comicon last year. Had a blast and discovered our new favorite city—Tijuana.

TC: What is your most cherished comic? You know, the one you store in a museum sleeve and handle with white cotton gloves and special tongs.

C: Well, Fortress Presents #1, of course, because I’m one of the writers of it. I have no shame. I should, but I don’t.

B: From a collector’s stand point, I’d say Tales to Astonish #44—the first appearance of the Wasp. From a reader’s view, I’d say the 1985 miniseries Squadron Supreme, which really laid the groundwork for some of today’s storytelling, by putting real word sensibilities in with the super heroes. And Avengers #158 for nostalgia purposes—my first.

TC: Can you be bribed by aspiring writers and/or fans? If so, with what?

C: Pffft! Oh, hell yeah!

B: Well, not when it comes to magazine submissions. We accept stories based solely on the quality of the story. However, the turnaround time and level of detail in the response we give can be swayed.

TC: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to start a journal, comic or small press publishing company?

B: You need three Ps—planning, perseverance and patience. Even if you describe yourself as a person who crashes through life with reckless abandon, you need to plan. Plan what to do, plan contingencies, then plan for everything else. And make sure you have a plan for when all those plans blow up in your face. It’s tough and that’s why you need perseverance. Things will go wrong. You need to buckle down and fight your way through the tough times. And success doesn’t come overnight. The lottery does but the Fates are the ones who determine which blessed few win. Odds are, it ain’t you. Stick with it, and be patient. Come up with plans for this, year, the next year and the year after. Just because you don’t need a college degree to be a writer doesn’t mean you shouldn’t treat it as a job. And, of course, have fun with it.

Final Poll Results

More than Just the Facts, Ma’am

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

When I was in junior high, I tried to read a book about druids. I really wanted to understand the culture. I was motivated to read. And after the end of the first few pages, I sat back and tried to figure out what I’d learned. I was upset to realize I couldn’t really remember anything at all about what I’d just read. I read the first few pages again, and still came up blank. I tried to read more, but I couldn’t seem to retain any information about the druids, or anything else. I ultimately shoved the book under my bed, and decided that even though I was highly literate when reading fiction, I was completely illiterate when it came to reading non-fiction. I’d had same problems with most of my textbooks. And with other non-fiction I’d tried to read. It was like trying to read in a foreign language I didn’t know.

Things didn’t improve much as I got older. It was a struggle to get through the technical articles I needed to read to get my degree. I avoided non-fiction books like the plague. What was it that made reading non-fiction so hard for me? I wasn’t stupid, I understood the words, and I even understood the facts most of the time, but I just couldn’t seem to understand how things fit together.

Eventually I realized the problem was not so much about my inability to read. I found some non-fiction books I had no trouble with at all. I discovered that the problems I had all stemmed from the presentation.

Background Image: delete08/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

There are two ways to write non-fiction. One way is to list a bunch of facts you want people to know about the topic. This was the way I most encountered. The other way is to turn the facts into an interconnected story. Guess which way led me to understand the material, and which way didn’t.

Non-fiction writers can often benefit from some of the same techniques fiction writers use. Both ultimately have the same goal: to tell a story. Non-fiction writers are just telling a story that has facts for its characters and themes of understanding for its plot lines. The best non-fiction writers craft and build a story as intricate as any classic novel. A science writer can turn the discoveries leading up to the development of a theory into a fascinating mystery story. A historian can make the people and events of an era as exciting as an action-adventure novel. Or they both can write a “Just the facts, Ma’am” book that ends up, at best, as a decent reference guide, and at worst, collecting dust under the bed with the druids.

When is a list of facts more than a list of facts? Consider the following two examples:

From Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life by Thomas J. Schlereth

In many rural, one-room elementary schools, a single teacher taught children from ages six through fourteen. Such schools usually had a rough tripartite division into beginning, intermediate, and advanced work, with reading, writing, spelling, and arithmetic stressed in the first phase; geography and nature study in the second phase; and history and grammar included in the advanced phase. During a school day that lasted from 8 A.M. to 4 P.M. in the winter months, the students learned the four Rs, reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic, and recitation. McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers were commonly the texts to be memorized and recited. Between 1836 and 1922, approximately 122 million copies of these readers were sold, with the strongest sales being from 1870 to 1890.


What memories surround this little Southern Maryland school house. For over a hundred years it has stood in its shady grove on the grounds of Christ Church in Port Republic, Maryland. Here came the youth of Calvert County to sit at wooden desks, to open red and tan McGuffy Readers, to write on slates and to eat mid-day meals from tin lunch pails. Here during recess games of “Annie Over” and “Bug in the Gully,” they raced shouting over the sun-dappled play ground. Here a single, dedicated teacher taught reading, writing and arithmetic to seven grades of boys and girls in a classroom at times so crowded that the young students had to sit along the edge of the teacher’s platform or cram them selves into the aisles between the desks, their warm bodies supplementing the heat that in winter radiated from the iron chunk stove in the center of the room.

The first example is from an historical overview of the American Victorian era. The second is from the Calvert County website about one of its tourist attractions. Both examples convey what a day in a one-room school house was like. While the first gives you some extra facts, the second gives you both facts and a sense of what those facts meant to people. Notice how the second example uses some fiction techniques—it turns the facts into a story and helps you to see them in a larger context rather than as isolated tidbits of information. The information is shown, not merely told. Admittedly the second example is intended to sell the one-room schoolhouse as a tourist attraction, but you can use the same sort of techniques to sell your ideas to a larger audience.

I bought the Schlereth book cited in the first example as background for a historical story I was thinking about writing. I found the lack of explicit connections between the facts made it impossible to get any feel for American Victorian society, however. I could get no grip on the thought patterns that were behind the statistics and facts he presented. Although the “thinking of the time” was part of the fact list, it was never woven into a story that made sense. Although they may have been accurate, the facts never felt real. (I pulled it out from under the bed when I was looking for examples for this article.)

How can you keep your brilliant research from collecting dust?

Here are a few suggestions on how to make your non-fiction more story-like and compelling:

  • Think of it as being a story.

Tell the story of the topic. Look over the flow of the content in the same way that you would analyze a fiction plot. Have you established the basic ideas before you get into the intricacies of all the details and exceptions to the rule? Are you too bogged down in trivial details? Where you can, show, don’t tell.

  • Identify the main themes.

Think about the major themes behind the facts. What ideas tie things together? If you are writing a text about physics, for example, you might keep bringing up the ideas of matter and energy and how they interact. If you are writing about a war, identify what political and social themes have had a large influence on the fighting.

  • Tie the facts into the themes.

Isolated facts are easily forgotten. If you use your main themes as the thread that weaves throughout your facts, you give people the structure and context they need to understand and remember the facts.

  • Connect, connect, connect.

People who are not experts in a subject aren’t able to make the same immediate connections that the experts make. In fact, there have been studies that show the ability to make many connections is what distinguishes the experts from the novices in subjects like physics. Explicitly help your audience make connections between themes and topics that you take for granted. Help make them experts by helping them to see connections they would otherwise miss.

Final Poll Results

Books for the Writer’s Toolbox: A Guide to Grammar and Style Manuals

Absolute Blank

By Erin Nappe (Billiard)

As a teacher of freshman composition, I am intimately acquainted with the rules of grammar, style and usage, but sometimes even I find them difficult to explain to others. They’ve always been sort of second nature to me: I know when something is wrong, but I can’t always give the technical explanation as to why it’s wrong. And so I’ve become intimately acquainted with many guides to style and usage, because sometimes knowing where to look for the right answer is as useful as knowing the right answer.

Recently, my mom asked me if I knew of any good grammar books. She was looking for something to help her brush up on her skills and use as a reference guide. While browsing on Amazon, she decided to buy a copy of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, but quickly realized that it wasn’t what she was looking for.

That was when I decided to put together this guide to the grammar and style book. There’s something here for everyone, from the neophyte to the expert writer. It proves that no matter who we are, we can all benefit from adding a little style and polish to our writing from time to time.

Background Image: Library Girl/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Guides for the Beginner

The Elements of StyleThe Elements of Style, Strunk & White

This little book is a must-have for any writer, wannabe writer, or person who wants to improve his writing. It’s compact and concise, and it covers everything from basic grammar rules (place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause) to commonly misused words and expressions.

A Pocket Style ManualA Pocket Style Manual, Diana Hacker

Diana Hacker is the queen of college writing and style manuals. I use her Rules for Writers in my writing classes to great success. The Pocket Style Manual includes basic guides to clarity, grammar and punctuation, a section on research, and MLA, APA and Chicago style guides. It’s small and portable, and a great all-purpose guide.

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and StyleThe Complete Idiot’s Guide to Grammar and Style, Laurie Rozakis

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Grammar and Style, like others in the “idiot’s guide” series is a highly readable, step-by-step, comprehensive guide to writing. I expect that it would be a great guide for beginners, and anyone who needs to brush up on their basic skills.

The Everything Grammar and Style BookThe Everything Grammar and Style Book, Susan Thurman

The material covered is very similar to the Idiot’s Guide, but it also includes a look at various types of writing, writing outlines and first drafts, revising and rewriting, and the five-paragraph essay. This makes it slightly better suited for the student writer.

For the More Advanced Writer

On Writing WellOn Writing Well, William Zinsser

On Writing Well is considered a must-have for any professional writer. Zinsser covers the writing traps that even seasoned writers fall into; complicated, cluttered, ineffective writing. The book is specifically geared toward nonfiction writing, covering types of writing like the interview, business and sports writing, but the book’s basic principles are helpful for any type of writing.

Sin and SyntaxSin and Syntax, Constance Hale

Hale’s book covers the basics—parts of speech, phrases and clauses—but she delves further into more advanced ideas like voice and rhythm. Sin and Syntax is a great book for the writer who wants to punch up her prose with more lively, engaging writing.

Grammar and Style for Fun (No, Really!)

The Comma SutraThe Comma Sutra, Laurie Rozakis

Rozakis’s book is a fun and lighthearted approach to punctuation that can be enjoyed by the beginner and experienced writer alike. It includes brief exercises with answers, making it a great “brush-up” guide.

Eats, Shoots and LeavesEats, Shoots and Leaves, Lynne Truss

This widely popular book is a humorous look at common punctuation errors. In the author’s own words, it’s a book that “gives you permission to love punctuation. For those with kids, or those who are just kids at heart, I recommend checking out the illustrated children’s version.

Grammar Snobs are Great Big MeaniesGrammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies (A Guide to Language for Fun and Spite), June Casagrande

The author professes to help the reader take English back from the “grammar snobs” by making grammar rules more accessible and easier to understand for the average person. She covers complex gray areas like the hyphen and split infinitives in an entertaining way, making it a great reference for beginners and seasoned writers alike.

Spunk and BiteSpunk and Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language and Style, Arthur Plotnik

Just like the title describes it, this book is a guide to livening up your writing, making it readable, and above all, publishable. Plotnik goes beyond the basics with section titles like Freshness, Texture, and Clarity. This is a great guidebook for the more experienced writer looking to make his writing more exciting.

Want more?

Buy the books featured in this article at TC’s Amazon Store.

Final Poll Results