You Gotta Know Your Audience*

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

A while back at the forums, we got into a debate about what matters more: writing skills or storytelling ability. It all started when UVRAY said, “The critics are having an absolute field day with [Dan Brown’s] terrible writing skills” and Bellman replied, “This is why I say story-telling trumps writing. Every time. The majority of people will forgive a whole lot in the writing skills department if they like the story.”

Bellman wasn’t suggesting that writing skills are irrelevant, only that “[p]eople are more interested in a good story than in good writing. Both together is, of course, the best scenario, but if they have to choose between one or the other, they are far more likely to choose the good story + mediocre writing over the good writing + mediocre story.” While we had people come down on both sides of the skills/story debate, the majority seemed to agree that story trumped skill. KasaiYoukai said, “I can forgive mediocre writing for good story telling … I love Harry Potter, but [J.K. Rowling’s] writing isn’t what I would call superior.” Kenwood added, “The story is far more important than the writing. Don’t get me wrong, the writing can’t be terrible, but it can simply be good or decent and the story still be great. Not everyone will agree with that of course, but it’s a ‘truth’ I think too many people ignore.”

Where Kenwood said ‘people,’ I would say ‘writers.’ Why do writers ignore the importance of story? Because writers tend to evaluate writing from a writer’s perspective. For many writers, what excites them about writing is choosing the perfect word, constructing a melodious sentence, or coming up with a fresh metaphor. But the vast majority of readers are not writers. If the story moves them—if it makes them cry or laugh or smile in recognition, if it surprises them, or makes them sleep with the lights on, or spurs them to make a change in their life or a difference in the world—they are not going to fret over the author’s unsophisticated sentence structure, her pet phrases, or second-rate grammar skills. When readers discuss a book, they say things like “My favorite part was when so-and-so did such-and-such,” not “I really appreciated the craftsmanship in the fifth sentence on page 272.” To understand if a piece of writing works—and why—one needs to evaluate it as a reader, not as a writer.

Background Image: Emily|ebarney/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

On his blog, literary agent Nathan Bransford recently wrote, “In order to have a book published it doesn’t have to be literary literary literary, but the writer has to do something very well. While there is an insanely common sentiment … that so many books published are trash and oh well anyone can do it: that’s really not the case. You may not like it, but quite a few people along the way did in order for it to find its way to the bookshelf. Not every talented writer is a published author, but (nearly) every published author is talented. Even if you think they suck.” Dan Brown does not possess superior writing skills, but he clearly knows a bit about storytelling. No matter that I didn’t like The Da Vinci Code (after all, I’m a picky writer who can’t stop evaluating writing from a writer’s perspective—see above), millions of people did.

For a work to be great, of course the writer must possess writing skills as well as storytelling ability. But just because you have writing skills doesn’t mean your writing is automatically great. You first have to have something to say. That’s storytelling, and it’s the core of your work, the base that gives your writing skills something to embellish.

If story is the cake, writing skills are the frosting. Of course, cake with frosting is best, but cake without frosting is still good. Frosting without cake, on the other hand, is not. With cake, frosting is the finishing touch that makes the cake something special. Alone, it’s just unrelenting sweetness. We’re all familiar with the crash that inevitably follows a sugar high. Superior writing skills are admirable, but on their own they’re just so much sweetness: lovely sentence, lovely sentence, lovely sentence—and then? Oh, you mean that’s it? Crash. Writing skills need a story to support them, to make all those lovely sentences amount to something.

As Nathan Bransford recently said, “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with artistic integrity and thinking deeply about the meaning in your book and writing books that are dense, weighty, and/or wildly experimental. But … the audience for novels where too little attention is paid to narrative and plot and storytelling was already small and seems to be shrinking by the moment.” Bransford added that, contrary to popular belief, modern literary novels “have plots. They are not impenetrable. The narratives are complex and they flow. Yes, the writing is beautiful and meaningful and there’s so much to take away, but [Marilynne] Robinson and [Ian] McEwan and [Junot] Diaz also not only prose artists, they are fantastic storytellers and craftsmen who keep their readers spellbound.”

In our “Dan Brown” discussion, I think we all agreed that writing skills and storytelling ability are not mutually exclusive. At the same time, I was struck by the number of people who seemed to hold the belief that such works are more a matter of personal style than conscious effort, and that it would be sacrificing one’s artistic integrity to deliberately adjust the skill/story balance in one’s own work. The perception is that true artists write from some inner impetus (that is perhaps unknown even to the writer) and only seek out readers once the work is complete. Only ‘sell-outs’ consider externalities like audience while they are writing.

But I contend that you should always consider your audience. Thinking about audience for me is not a marketing strategy; rather, it’s a way of keeping my writing moving in a direction that makes sense for the piece, and not losing sight of why I am writing.

I once wrote a short story with an 8-year-old narrator. In the first draft, the story was set in the present, although many of the details were scooped from my own childhood. After I got some feedback on the story, I realized that it was those details that resonated with readers. I decided to revise the story to set it definitively in the 1970s. That decision was influenced by recognizing that even though the narrator was eight, the audience for the story was not so much present-day 8-year-olds (although they might enjoy it), but reminiscing adults who remembered being eight. The original version might have been what was ‘in my head’ at the time of the initial writing but the conscious changes I made to the final version made it a better story.

Audience is the bridge between writing skills and storytelling. Saying “I write for myself” doesn’t excuse you from this. Even private writing has an audience: you. Your journal writing should be different than your fiction. But while your personal journals might be intended for an audience of one, fiction explicitly targets a larger audience. You might not be interested in Dan Brown’s readership, but if you write fiction, the intended audience is more than just yourself. And with each person added to your audience, your personal importance as a reader decreases. Even in an audience of 100—microscopic by Dan Brown standards—you make up only 1% of your readership. Failing to consider the rest of your audience is not artistic, it’s narcissistic. And ultimately, self-sabotaging.

For writers whose work doesn’t enjoy the same level of popularity as Dan Brown’s or J.K. Rowling’s (which is, let’s face it, most of us), it helps immensely to have what Kevin Kelly calls True Fans: people “who will purchase anything and everything you produce.” But true fans need to be nurtured; you’re not going to build a truefanbase by telling potential readers/fans—as some did during our discussion—that you have no purpose for writing aside from preventing your own crazy, that if your work says anything it’s completely unintentional, and that you don’t care whether readers take anything away from your work. As Sparky99 pointed out, this makes it sound like “the only reason you’re writing is for your own entertainment, your own release, your own therapy”—and, if that’s the case, why should anyone else be interested in reading your work?

Such declarations are generally made in the defense of one’s work as art, the purity of which is not be sullied by outside considerations. But writing that has nothing to say is not art. As Baker said, “I think most art is created as a statement by the artist. The creator of work has something to say and says it through the work. Otherwise, why create?” In an essay titled “Why I Write,” George Orwell argued that there are four motives for writing (aside from the need to earn a living): sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. All writers have these motives but in different proportions. Valuing writing skills to the neglect of story is too much aesthetic enthusiasm. Writing ‘for me’ without any other consideration is excessive egoism.

One of the things I’ve struggled with as a writer is finishing a novel. Inevitably, I’ve bogged down somewhere between the middle and the end. I have terrible trouble with resolution. Should the main character make this choice or that one? I try choice A. I try choice B. Maybe choice C? It all feels so arbitrary. Shouldn’t one feel more right than the others? Why can’t I decide? My frustration was compounded by the feeling I knew the answer (after all, I’ve finished plenty of other things, just not novels); I just couldn’t articulate it.

My “aha!” moment was realizing my novel-writing stalled when—caught up in the details of word, sentence, and paragraph (too much aesthetic enthusiasm!)—I lost track of the story, the big picture. I didn’t experience the same difficulty when writing in other genres because, in those cases, my purpose for writing and the intended audience were always implicitly clear, if not explicitly stated.

Good writing doesn’t just spontaneously happen. Without consciously thinking about why—and for whom—you are writing, your work will wander aimlessly. You’ll be unsatisfied, because the piece will never feel finished regardless of how long it gets. Thinking about who is going to read your work does not equate to sacrificing your artistic integrity; it’s a way of focusing what you have to say—and it transcends genre. Whatever your subject matter, the principle remains the same: how you approach your work depends on who your real or imagined audience is. Poet Sharon Olds has said: “Questions that interest me include: … For whom are you writing (the dead, the unborn, the woman in front of you at the checkout line in Safeway)?”

For whom are you writing?

With grateful thanks to everyone who participated in the “Dan Brown” thread.

*Credit for the title goes to Elaine Lui.

Final Poll Results

Writing Frontiers: Podcast Writing

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

As writing moves into the 21st Century, new media are being explored by intrepid authors looking to showcase their voices. I’ve recently discovered a few of these and wanted to take a closer look at how the writing behind them works.

This month, I will be taking a look at podcasting. Podcasting takes its name from iPod and broadcasting. The name sums it up well—it’s like a radio show for your mp3 player, your computer or your cell phone.

Podcasts can be about anything the broadcaster would like to showcase. There are many different podcasts and settling on just one or two from a specific topic can be daunting. They typically fall into one of three categories: news and information, entertainment, and education. No matter which category you choose, there are going to be hundreds of different topics and hundreds of different podcasts for each topic. If you love something, there’s probably a podcast about it. Finding a podcast you want can be daunting, but there are many search engines to help you, including a large list on iTunes that is fairly easy to use. Other good references are PodCast Alley or PodFeed.

Some podcasts are “pay to play,” but many are free. I listen faithfully to only one of the million podcasts out there—The Signal. This podcast is about news and entertainment that in some way relates back to the television show Firefly and the movie Serenity. Everything about The Signal—the news, the music, the drama, the comedy, the articles, and the host comments—all relate back to the show and movie in some fashion.

Last winter, The Signal put out a call for new blood to add to their staff—specifically for writers and editors. Their quest got me thinking—what were they looking for? Luckily for me, they put together a segment that reviewed what kind of audio editors and writers they were looking for.

Still, I wanted to know more about the writing and the writers. How did they get into podcasting? What do they like about it? What makes it different from scripts or novels?

I asked if anyone minded if I interviewed them and Nick Edwards and Helen Eaton of The Signal volunteered. You can find biographies for both here.

I was then approached by Peter Wilson, a writer for Buffy: Between the Lines, which is a dramatic podcast based on the Buffy: The Vampire Slayer TV show. This podcast is vastly different from The Signal in format; it’s a drama that’s acted out every week instead of a news and information program. Nick Edwards had also been involved with Buffy: Between The Lines as a writer and actor there.

Below are the interview questions and answers from all three writers.

Background Image: Alan Levine (Public Domain)

Toasted Cheese: How did you get into podcasting?

Nick Edwards: Firefly. Pure and simple. My interest in the show was such after being pointed to it by fans on the Larry Niven mailing list, I went looking online for more information and one of the first things I found was The Signal and other Firefly-related podcasts. I’d never listened to a podcast before, didn’t even have an mp3 player, so I listened to a few on my computer and got hooked. I had no idea there was so much going on in the fandom and The Signal quickly became my “Firefly Fix” (I guess I started listening mid-Season 1 before Serenity came out).

Then, at the start of Season 3 in 2007, I went to a Shindig (gathering of Firefly Fans) in London. I already had met Wendy, Toni and Andrew of the UK-based Sending A Wave podcast (which I enjoyed enough to write and record an article for them reviewing Songs From The Black, the downloadable CD of Firefly fan music that The Signal had made at the end of 2006) and knew that Jill Arroway and Kari Hayley of The Signal would be at the Shindig. I had also been emailing Jill about her Dark Places project and had wanted to talk with her about that (I’d already said I wanted to be involved in this original Firefly audio drama project). The Shindig was great, and in talking to Kari and Jill, who essentially ran The Signal, I was offered the chance to join the crew. The conversation went something like:

“Can you write?”

“Yes, I guess.”

“Can you act?”

“Yes, did some drama years back.”

“Can you record yourself?”


“OK, you’re in.”

My response was along the lines of “You have got to be shitting me!”

And that was that. I couldn’t believe it. I was a fan being asked to join what was (and still is for my money) the best (and most original) Firefly-based podcast out there. Doing a few Sending A Wave shows since has also been a hoot and I am still involved with Dark Places. The Signal stuff also led to me being asked to audition for and getting the role of Spike in Buffy: Between the Lines (a whole different scale of podcasting!) and doing a few other podcast-related bits here and there. And I love it.

Helen Eaton: I found The Signal in 2006 when looking for information on Firefly on the internet. I don’t think I knew what a podcast was before then. I thought it would be fun to be part of the team creating The Signal, but I only applied to join at the end of last year because before then I’d not had a good enough internet connection. (I’m British, but I live in Tanzania, East Africa. Internet connections here are not the greatest!)

Peter Wilson: By listening to the podcast and hearing that they needed beta readers for scripts. After doing that they asked if any beta readers wanted to write anything, so I volunteered.

TC: What kind of writing do you do for the podcast?

NE: Well, I do a bit of everything now. Initially I began with feature articles focusing on a particular aspect of Firefly, which I still do as these are a staple of The Signal. This fairly quickly widened to include SciFi Review segments, where we took other shows and reviewed them, usually comparing them to Firefly in the early days. This segment gradually widened its focus and has included comedy and straight drama shows, such that we now call the segment “Broadwaves.” The other thing I took on quite early was the audio drama segment “Badger’s World” which ran for two seasons and twenty-seven episodes. I also do editorials, as well as sometimes doing the scripts for the host banter, Feedback sections and News segments (not all at the same time though!).

HE: I’ve written some articles that discuss different themes in Firefly and Serenity. I’ve also done a review of a different television show and compared it to Firefly. And I’ve written some episodes of a humorous audio drama about two inept terraformers!

PW: Script writing.

TC: How much do you write for the podcast?

NE: A fair bit. I often write an article per episode (every two weeks). When “Badger’s World” ran early on, it was an episode of audio drama every two weeks. I’ll always have some writing input as a rule (we have seven or eight regular writers).

HE: On average, one piece per podcast (which comes out every two weeks). Each piece—an article, a review or a skit—is usually about 800 words.

PW: I’ve written two scripts in the past year. That being said, there are some people that write way more.

TC: Do you write alone or in conjunction with others?

NE: Alone, but the effort is collaborative in that all articles are put up for crew review and any crew member can make edits to the article. In terms of crew editing of articles, simple stuff like typos and minor grammatical corrections are just made without needing to consult the author. We use a wiki so all changes are traceable and recoverable if something is done that fundamentally alters a meaning, say. Crits are made and generally the author goes back to make the changes if they agree with them. Authorship credit stays with the original author. We have not really had any joint pieces due to the rapid turnaround we need to maintain (two weekly schedule), but the input of the other writers and rest of the crew is very important in keeping the quality high.

HE: I write alone, but sometimes an idea for a skit comes from someone else. There is also the editing process later, when others can help by suggesting changes.

PW: I’ve only written alone, which is unusual. As a rule of thumb every script gets two writers.

TC: Do you focus on certain topics? If so, what’s your focus?

NE: Do you focus on topics? If the article calls for it, yes. I started out being given topics and going really in-depth into them, which made for good articles, but is a lot of work for a newbie. Over time though, as you learn the show, what’s been done, what works, the research doesn’t always have to be as onerous. You relax a little and learn you can rely on other people’s experiences and opinions. There’s a huge fund of knowledge within the crew that you can tap into as a primary source, which is great.

What’s your focus? Phew. Difficult question. What I’d like to hear on the show I guess. Having stared out as a listener, I know what I enjoyed on the show and so try to remember that when writing or when assigning someone else to write something. With the audio drama stuff, keeping to a format becomes important to an extent, but having fun with it and making it amusing is the primary goal.

HE: My favorite kind of writing involves looking at the themes of different episodes, comparing storylines or characters, and examining the structure of episodes.

PW: Well the topic my writing focuses on changes every time. But the focus that all my writing has in common is trying not to suck. Because if it sucks I feel like I’m letting down a whole team of people with sub-par garbage if it sucks. I write about what interests me and hope therefore it will interest others.

TC: What do you look for in a podcast topic?

NE: Well, it has to be interesting enough to want to write about it, so no articles on cutlery in the ‘verse are pending. I guess it has to be in line with the sort of things we generally do on the show. So we have various threads like “Serenity Speculation,” “Broadwaves,” “They’ve All Got Stories,” that sort of thing. But we also go out in unusual directions sometimes with the special features and editorials. Quality is the key though. We try to be as interesting, accurate, and entertaining as we can and all the writing goes through a crew review process before being recorded and edited and we are all expected to bring articles up to scratch and are free to edit each other’s work in the crew wiki we use for the purpose. So there’s no room to be precious about what you have written. (Most editing is minor stuff like grammar and readability, but sometimes major changes are needed to improve articles, so it has to be a collaborative process where the show comes first.)

PW: To be honest, glory. It makes me feel bad, but yeah. I think most people are looking for it even if they don’t admit it. I also look for constructive criticism. After the glory fades the criticisms are really the only things that help you.

TC: What kind of freedom do you have when writing for a podcast?

NE: Complete freedom (to a degree). It’s a podcast, we don’t make any money from it, people don’t have to listen to it. We could say whatever the hell we wanted.

HE: There’s a freedom associated with your words being spoken rather than read. An informal style is more appropriate and the more unnatural-sounding grammar rules can be ignored!

TC: What kind of restrictions do you have?

NE: Several self-imposed ones. The podcast is about Firefly. We will not bring real-world politics or religion into it other than for comparison purposes. We try to keep it PG-13 level, though we make no claim to be a PG-13-rated podcast. This is for adults. We’ll use the word “shit,” but generally not “fuck” or stronger (though we may imply it). You wouldn’t believe the fuss a few folk made over a promo we ran with JC Hutchins and Scott Sigler which appeared to have them both swearing like troopers, but where every actual expletive was bleeped out (though you could figure out what word it would have been). It was hilarious, but some folk didn’t like it. Won’t stop us doing it again though; like I said, it’s a grown-up podcast. (In contrast, on “Sending a Wave,” which I have taken part in, there are no such self-imposed restrictions and folk swear as much as they do in everyday speech (it’s not scripted), which is good, ‘cos I swear like a total ****.

We try to keep things “international” in that any article that starts talking about “here in the States” or “of course here at home in the UK” gets changed. We have crew (including me) in the UK and Africa as well as the US and Jill in the UK started it all off. Our listeners are from all corners of the globe, so we are self-consciously an international podcast. Hmm, what else? We don’t accept submissions from listeners (not always true, but when we have, it’s always been by invitation). And we won’t plagiarize someone else’s work or use outside sources of material without credit. (Again, unless by invitation).

What we do try to do is maintain the character of The Signal. Stuff that gets too far away from the essential “feel” of the show is not pursued, or will be adapted to fit in more with the type of segments we do. Which is not to say we don’t experiment, but other ‘casts do things like forum reviews, read out fan fiction they like, or run convention recordings in full. Which is fine, they don’t need us treading on what they do. (The Firefly podcasts do actually talk to each other and are friendly 🙂 The Signal does have a particular, quite highly-produced flavor to it. This works, the listeners like it, it works for the crew, so why dick with it?

HE: None in particular, except that for the podcast I write for, it is important not to be too long and wordy as it doesn’t fit the tone of the podcast.

PW: Well, at the beginning of the podcast season when I’m being assigned the episode I’m going to write, I’m given an overview of what should be in the episode. Most of it is stuff that I pitched anyway, so it’s not a real problem at all.

The only other restriction I can think of is that I have to watch my language as I kind of have a filthy mouth. Whilst the podcast is technically flagged for language anyway, I really don’t want to drag it down to the vile depths that I could. Beta readers check everything over before the script goes into production and they usually point out what I’m doing wrong. They really are the unsung heroes of the podcast and everything I write would be tacky and offensive without their guidance. Thank you beta readers.

TC: How do you handle writers block—can you even have it?

NE: Yes, I can get it. “Badger’s World” stalled for a while because I couldn’t see how to continue it as it was. So I didn’t. I ended it with a six-episode arc that departed from the existing format in many ways, but which was some of the most enjoyable stuff to write. Generally though, if I stall on something, I’ll leave it for a day or two before going back to it. Or I’ll ask my wife, She’s great with ideas.

HE: If the deadline isn’t close, I just leave what I’m doing and come back to it another time. If the deadline is close, I usually don’t struggle with writer’s block!

PW: For me writer’s block is just another word for video games. I don’t handle it by playing tons of video games.

TC: What other kinds of writing do you do?

NE: Um… not a lot. The Signal takes up about all the free time I have outside of work and family and sleep.

HE: Academic writing for linguistics conferences, journals, books, etc. I also write teaching material and grammatical descriptions of languages as part of my job. I write a blog-style email to a group of friends every two weeks.

PW: Mostly comic book scripts.

TC: How is writing for a podcast different from other writing?

NE: I don’t know, how is it?

Apart from work-related stuff (science, technical, reports) and doing a few things for QMX and Jason Palmer Studios (not professionally), The Signal is pretty much all I have written for.

I guess one of the things though, is having to write for the spoken word. Some stuff just doesn’t work when read out, though it may look OK on the page, so you learn to slant towards ease of reading if it’s an article. I often have to edit myself on the fly when I realize I’ve written an overly long or complex sentence for myself and get tied in knots trying to read it! With the audio drama, especially a comedy-flavored segment like “Badger’s World,” it’s more theatrical as you have to write believable dialogue that sounds good or funny or both. So that’s a whole different approach in itself.

HE: The only other kind of writing I know is academic writing—I’m a linguist by profession. The podcast writing I’ve done has been very different! The individual pieces of podcast writing tend to be much shorter than the average linguistic article. The deadlines come much faster too! It is also very different writing something that will be heard rather than read. For example, long sentences might work well for a reader, but often shorter ones work better for a listener. I can be more informal in style in podcast writing too, which I enjoy.

PW: For me podcast writing is different because there is so much work done on the episode after it has left my hands. It gets edited and then tons of people have to act out the dialogue, contributing a lot to it. It doesn’t just get posted on the internet somewhere. Instead, way more work goes into it than I could really fathom.

TC: How is it the same?

NE: Well, at a guess, you have to be able to express ideas clearly, be able to write coherently, spell reasonably well, and have a fair idea of grammar.

HE: I try to apply some of the same principles to both kinds of writing. For example, I try to be honest about the level of confidence I have about something I’m saying. Do I say “This shows that…” or “This appears to show that…”? I also try to back up any point I make, whether it is for a podcast audience or for a lecture hall full of linguists.

PW: I still manage to work jokes about Street Sharks into the script.

TC: Have you been published? Where?

NE: Only a few scientific papers and posters at academic meetings (which other folk actually wrote, just using my data: that’s actually normal practice—first author actually writes the paper, others are generally contributors and final author is usually the group leader/professor). I have written the descriptions for some of Jason Palmer’s Serenity art on his site, but that’s about it.

HE: I have had some linguistic papers published in books, conference proceedings, on the internet and so on.

PW: Yes, and I wish it was good enough for me to plug here. It’s isn’t. It’s the kind of thing where I’m embarrassed it ever saw print and I actively encourage you not to look for it.

TC: What do you like best about writing for the podcast?

NE: When it all comes together and you hear an article you wrote performed and edited well, or an audio drama piece come to life with all the other actors adding their talents. When you know that it’s good and someone else (outside the podcast) agrees with you. When folk like it (and believe me they’ll say when they don’t!).

HE: It is fun! I enjoy creating something just for pleasure and doing something very different from my day job.

PW: Well, I think my favorite thing is to just tell a story that is incredibly specific. Very few people will really care about it but the fact that I can tell it and have a genuinely interested audience is really terrific.

TC: What do you like least about writing for the podcast?

NE: The time pressure mostly. We have a regular two-weekly rolling production schedule that lasts all year (apart from short summer and Christmas breaks), so we typically produce 22–23 regular shows per year, plus several bonus shows, which may contain material that’s not up to the sound quality levels of the regular show say, or stuff that just doesn’t fit in a regular show (there are far fewer self-imposed rules).

HE: Nothing so far, but I’ve only been doing this a few months!

PW: On the flipside, that audience frightens me half to death. Nothing makes you try to write better than the fact that people will inevitably listen to your terrible, cliché dialogue. I suppose it’s really better for my writing in the long run, but it makes me incredibly nervous.

TC: What kind of advice do you have for writers interested in podcasting?

NE: Do it! It’s fun and folk will give you feedback if they like (or dislike) what you are doing. It can be very rewarding, especially if stuff you do has a resonance with listeners or they get attached to characters you have created. But do it for yourself. If you are passionate about something, you are probably not alone and there may already be a podcast you could join. If not, start your own! At the simplest level, it’s very easy, you just need to give it a go. If other folk are involved, it will improve your writing as well, as that tends to bring everyone’s game up, when other folk are looking over your work.

HE: Make sure that whatever you’re going to be writing about is something you are passionate about.

PW: If you know you might want to write for a podcast, get involved in that podcast any way you can. I started as a beta reader and advertiser of the podcast. Eventually you’ll have an opportunity to pitch an idea.

Also, there’s really nothing to stop you from starting your own podcast. You may not have a full voicecast or tons of listeners but if you like doing it, who cares? Some of my favorite podcasts have way less than 250 downloads per episode, but damn, are they good.

You can find as many podcast lists as there are podcasts. You can find them on iTunes very easily, which is a good place to start.

My thanks to the three podcast writers who volunteered to answer my questions. I appreciate their patience as my interview was originally scheduled for April and got pushed back to the end of the year.

Final Poll Results

Delicious Morsels: Interview with Bizarro Fiction Author Jeremy C. Shipp

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Jeremy C. Shipp’s writing includes short fiction, novels, a screenplay and more. Visiting his website is like taking a trip through a liquid funhouse with the ghost of Hunter S. Thompson. Naturally we snatched him up for an October interview, coinciding with the release of several delicious morsels of new work.

Toasted Cheese: October is a busy month for you, with Cursed and Harlan County Horrors both being released. What other work do you have coming out?

Jeremy C. Shipp: I love October, because of Samhain/Halloween, and so this is an extra special month for me. I also have stories upcoming in Cemetery Dance, Apex Magazine, and other publications. I’m not sure exactly when these stories will be published, however.

TC: For your Harlan County Horrors anthology story “Kingdom Come,” you were given a setting—Harlan County, Kentucky—for a horror story. Where did you go from there? Tell us about your process for writing the story and what it’s about (without spoiling the surprises). Was the process typical of how you work?

JCS: My process for writing “Kingdom Come” was not typical for me, because I don’t often research a specific place before writing a story. With “Kingdom Come,” I read everything I could about Harlan County, and found a place I connected with, Kingdom Come State Park.

With “Kingdom Come,” I wanted to write a dystopian tale that reflects, in a fun-house mirror, the systemic evils that Harlan County has faced in the past. The story is about a man who goes on vacation with his family, and begins to lose everything. His family, his mind. And only by losing everything does he find the truth about himself, and about Kingdom Come.

TC: In other interviews, you’ve said that the theme of equality—and the danger of hierarchy—runs through your work. Is this a conscious choice or something you discovered in looking back at your work?

JCS: I never attempt to convey certain messages in my writing, but my worldview is reflected and explored in my writing. I believe whole-heartedly that hierarchical thinking is one of the greatest evils in the world, and so many of my characters must face this evil. I do what I can to make the world a better place, even in the smallest of ways, and so my characters do the same.

TC: Even though you write fiction that encompasses multiple genres, do you consider yourself primarily a writer of “bizarro” fiction? How fluid do you find genre and how do you play with it and the reader’s preconceptions?

JCS: I never set out to write a bizarro or horror or dark fantasy story, but these are how many of my tales are categorized. And I’m glad. Genre, to me, has more to do with community than literary conventions. The bizarro and horror communities have embraced me and my writing, and I have embraced them back. Within these communities I’ve found writers and readers and editors who connect with my writing. This is a blessing.

As far as my actual writing process goes, I write what’s in my heart and mind and spleen. I try to open my mind, and travel beyond the boundaries of my own preconceptions of what a story is or isn’t. This is not only a meaningful experience for me. It’s fun.

TC: Tell us about the theme of “transformation” and how you use it.

JCS: The transformations in my stories are usually emotional, spiritual, ideological transformations. For example, Bernard in “Vacation” experiences a major paradigm shift. And his shift reflects my own ideological transformation.

My characters aren’t heroes. They’re ordinary people, with insecurities and prejudices and weaknesses. Sometimes they must help save the world, by defeating the darkness in themselves. They must learn to love and accept themselves. They must discover their inner power. And so, they must transform.

TC: Darkness and humor aren’t what some would consider a natural combination. Tell us something about your opinion on the combination or separate elements.

JCS: First of all, on the subject of darkness, I want to say that while I believe in evil systems and ideas, I don’t believe in evil people. In my mind, everything in existence is inherently worthy of respect. Anyway, I believe that humor can be used to battle evil. Also, the darkness of our world is often ridiculous and absurd. And so, for me, darkness and humor go hand in hand.

Of course, I’m very conscious about my use of humor in stories. My goal is never to make light of serious situations. But humor and absurdity often exists, even in the darkest of times.

TC: You write a lot of strong, central female characters. Tell us about some of your favorite female characters and how they evolved as you worked on their stories.

JCS: My goal is always to create characters who will be viewed as whole human beings. I don’t want to create stereotypes or archetypes. And so, my female characters are strong, fragile people. Because everyone in the world is strong and fragile.

My favorite character so far, probably, is Cicely from Cursed. She’s a passionate, creative, weird human being. When I first started writing Cursed, I didn’t understand her completely. She was a stranger to me. As the story continued, my understanding of her deepened, and she became more and more complex. This is the reason why I love writing novels so much. I get to stick with the same characters for so long.

Another character I’m very fond of is Bridget, from the novel I’m working on now. Bridget is a depressed, unhappy person, with a lot of love bottled up inside her. There are forces in the world that want to claim her, and hopefully, she’ll find the strength to follow her own path. She believes she’s an uncaring and unworthy person. She hates her body. But I hope she’ll learn to love herself. I’ll do what I can to guide her in that direction, but in the end, she’ll have to make all the hard decisions herself.

TC: Do you find that fans gravitate toward a certain aspect of your work? How vocal are your fans?

JCS: Judging by the feedback I’ve received over the years, my readers seem to be people (and yard gnomes) who enjoy stories that are both entertaining and thought-provoking. I try to write stories that are socially, emotionally, and spiritually conscious, and my readers appreciate this. I’m very lucky to be a cult writer who has a very vocal and very supportive fan base. It’s because of my fans that my readership grows every day.

TC: Have you found that online/electronic publishing opens your work up to a greater audience or is it difficult to find readers open to taking that ride?

JCS: Most of my readers seem to enjoy both online and print media. Many of my online stories are free to read, which is nice, because this allows readers to try out my work without spending any money. Then, if they connect with my writing in a positive way, they might end up buying my print books or subscribing to Bizarro Bytes.

TC: Tell us about Bizarro Bytes.

JCS: Bizarro Bytes is my story subscription service. For $12, subscribers get twelve new, previously unpublished bizarro tales written by me. They get a new story every month, delivered to their email, in the e-book format of their choice. Higher level subscribers also get added bonuses, like their name in one of my stories. You can read more about Bizarro Bytes here.

TC: Who are your influences (not only writers but directors, musicians, artists, etc.)?

JCS: Myriad artists inspire me. Hayao Miyazaki, George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, Takashi Miike, Terry Gilliam, Jim Henson, Chan-wook Park, Pink Floyd, The Flaming Lips, David Firth, George Lucas, Joss Whedon, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Arundhati Roy, and many, many others.

TC: What inspires you? What challenges you?

JCS: I’m inspired by all the wonderful artistic creations that I love. I’m inspired by my friends and my family and the people I overhear in the grocery store. I’m inspired by the horrors of our world. Civilization as a system challenges me. At times, I have to work hard to stay hopeful and positive. So every day, I write out ten blessings. Ten things, big or small, that touch my heart. This helps.

TC: What writing advice do you wish you’d heeded sooner? What writing advice do you wish you’d never listened to?

JCS: I’m lucky, because most of the advice I’ve been given over the years has been helpful in some way. And when someone gives me bad advice, I can usually recognize that fact.

TC: What are you consuming lately?

JCS: I’ve been consuming daal, green smoothies, bizarro books, American Born Chinese, The Dark Crystal, Return to Oz, Ponyo, Spirited Away, Let the Right One In, Kare Kano, Naruto, and The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra.

TC: What are you working on?

JCS: I’m currently working on a new novel called Bridge, a story collection called Fungus of the Heart, a short film that might end up being called Fairy, and a comic series. I can’t say much about any of these at this point.

TC: Please tell us about your short film Egg and the process of creating it.

JCS: Jayson Densman, director extraordinaire, is a fan of my books and stories, and he approached me about doing a project together. So I wrote the script for Egg, specifically for him. Egg is the story of a man’s shattered psyche. He’s searching for the truth about his past, but this is difficult, because his memories are always changing. You can watch the trailer on YouTube.

TC: Finally, what do we need to know about the gnomes?

JCS: Yard gnomes are compassionate, magical creatures that live in hunter-gatherer-based eco-villages. They believe that every word they speak and every muscle they move should be an act of love. Also, they’re doing everything they can to prepare for the collapse of civilization, but they try not to worry too much about it.

Jeremy C. Shipp is a weird author of bizarro, horror, dark fantasy, and magic realism. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in over 50 publications, the likes of Cemetery Dance, ChiZine, Harlan County Horrors, Apex Magazine, Pseudopod, and The Bizarro Starter Kit (blue). While preparing for the forthcoming collapse of civilization, Jeremy enjoys living in Southern California in a moderately haunted Victorian farmhouse with his wife, Lisa, and their legion of yard gnomes. He’s currently working on many stories and novels and is losing his hair, though not because of the ghosts. His books include Vacation, Sheep and Wolves, and Cursed. And thankfully, only one mime was killed during the making of his first short film, Egg.

Final Poll Results

Finding Your Fairy Godmother: A Guide to Acquiring a Literary Agent

Absolute Blank

By Seanan McGuire

ELEVATOR PITCH: “Can you sell this in the time it takes to ride the elevator?”

It’s time to talk about something that’s near and dear to every writer’s heart. Something that many of us regard as falling somewhere between “fairy godmother” and “the monster in the closet.” Something that can legitimately make the difference between success and success that takes a whole lot longer to accomplish. No, I’m not talking about talent.

I’m talking about literary agents.

QUERY: “Dear Mr. Agent, I have written…”

As a writer, if you want to become a professional, it’s your job to write something that’s good enough to sell. Not “have an idea that’s good enough to sell.” Not “have enough talent to change the literary world forever.” The first thing you need to do is write something that’s good enough to be worth an agent’s time. How will you know when you’ve done that? Well, that’s very personal, but I recommend finding someone who’s equipped to give you an honest opinion—a creative writing professor, a writer’s group, or just a really blunt friend—and asking them.

Background Image: Tom Simpson/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

For purposes of today’s discussion, we’re going to assume that you’ve got a finished, salable product. Awesome! At this point, the potential for a literary agent comes in. Now, a literary agent’s job is to take that something that you’ve written… and sell it. Sounds simple, right? It both is and isn’t. The literary agent will understand business protocols, the current state of the market, reasonable expectations, and what a good contract should include. A good literary agent protects the interests of his or her client, prepares them for the realities of the publishing world, and generally frees the writer’s time up for, I don’t know, writing.

I’ll be frank: many authors don’t have agents when they first start out. The agent-to-author ratio is scary, especially since you don’t need any training to stick “author” onto your name. Most agents are already representing several clients, and there’s no magic number for how many they can handle. I, for example, am relatively self-starting: point me at something, tell me it has a candy center, and I’ll see you next month. In contrast, Olga here needs daily contact or she starts freaking out, and when she’s freaking out, she’s not getting anything done. An agent who could handle four of me may be hard-pressed to handle me and Olga.

Look at it this way: being an agent is something like trying to plan a dinner party, only instead of dietary restrictions and seating plans, you have amount of hand-holding and sanity exams. I can’t tell you how to get invited to that party. You’re going to have to do that on your own. What I can do is tell you how to, hopefully, improve your chances of using the correct fork once you get there.

Also look: many authors who have written good, salable books manage to sell their first book, or even their first several, without the aid of an agent. It’s true that the number of major houses willing to consider unrepresented authors is down. It’s also true that the number of accessible small press houses willing to consider those same authors is up. It can be difficult to tell the genuine small houses from the predators, but if you want to be a professional author, you’re going to spend hours in the research trenches. Researching publishing houses is the least you’re going to be expected to do.

OUTLINE: “Make sure you cover the major points quickly and cleanly.”

I want to be clear: I am not the girl to ask if you want to know how to write the perfect cover letter, the perfect agency query, or the perfect book pitch. The idea of writing a synopsis makes me break out in a cold sweat, and I regularly beg my Siamese to write my book pitches for me (she always refuses). Fortunately, there are a lot of resources that can help you with that. I recommend starting with the annual Guide to Literary Agents. There’s a new one every year, and it’s always packed with reference material, advice from real literary agents, samples of good queries, and more. So yes, you need to do your homework.

The homework doesn’t stop with learning the basics. You can’t query every literary agent in the world at once—in fact, that would be a really bad idea, since every agent has his or her own areas of specialization. If you query an agent who only does science fiction with your non-fiction book about the history of pandemic flu, you’re not going to make a very good impression.

First steps:

  1. Figure out what genre or genres your work fits in. All work fits somewhere, even if that somewhere is a blend of more standard genres. Your zombie western is “horror” and “western.” If you can, find an agent who does both. If you can’t, pick which genre represents your baby better, and try agents from that side of the dividing line.
  2. Make a list of agents who sound like they could be a good fit for you and your work. You can do this by going through the Guide to Literary Agents, by researching which agents represented books in your genre, and by looking for agent web sites. (A small bit of etiquette advice: if you have friends who are published authors, feel free to ask them “who represents you?,” but don’t follow that up with “will you introduce me?” This puts them in a very bad position. If they think you’d be a good fit for their agent, they’ll offer that introduction on their own.)
  3. Now that you have a short list of possible agents, it’s time to read any and all agency documentation you can find. If the agent has a web site, read the web site. If the agent has a Twitter feed, read the Twitter feed. If the agent has a blog, read the blog. Many agents have embraced the Internet age, and will make their desires in clients (and their client dos and don’ts) very clear.

Now that you’ve taken your first steps—you’ve found the agent or agents you want to query, and you’ve read enough to start to feel vaguely like a stalker—it’s time to prepare your pitch. Which brings us to our next major point. Major enough that it needs to be presented all in capital letters:


I mean it. I really, really, really mean it. Agents are people who read and sell books for a living, and that means that reading comprehension really, really matters. Agency guidelines are sort of like airport security: if you set off the metal detector after you’ve been told to empty your pockets eight times, you may miss your flight. If you ignore submission guidelines, you may find yourself in the same situation. Metaphorically speaking.

SYNOPSIS: “Twitter and Facebook are the face of the enemy.”

So you’ve found an agent who’s potentially right for you. You’ve managed to compose a letter that doesn’t make you want to put your own eyes out with a pencil, and a synopsis/outline that doesn’t make your book read like a non-pharmaceutical sleep aid. You’ve opened the lines of communication. You’re done, right?


You know how job interview advice has started to include “be careful what you post on the Internet, because your potential boss can see it?” Well, this also applies with literary agents. They expect us to be a little bit insane—we’re writers, after all—so you probably don’t need to worry about those pictures of you in full costume at last year’s San Diego Comic Convention. They even understand that many up-and-coming writers will have Secret HistoriesTM in the fanfic mines. That’s all good. So what do you need to avoid?

You need to avoid running straight to your Facebook and posting “OMG I GOT AN AGENT!” when they haven’t actually signed you. You need to avoid running straight to your blog and posting “Jane Doe of Doe-Ray-Mi Agency is SUCH A BITCH she didn’t LOVE MY BOOK.” You absolutely need to avoid Twittering during telephone conversations with potential agents (not kidding here).

As I noted before, many literary agents have learned to take advantage of all that the Internet has to offer, and that includes checking on potential clients to see whether they can be professional. Seeing nasty slams at agents who didn’t sign you, or comments about ongoing negotiations, just make you look like you’re not ready to take the business of writing seriously. That’s not something that all agents are going to want to be associated with.

CONCLUSION: “Thank you for taking the time to consider…”

Literary agents are good. They make your job, as a writer, infinitely easier. They are not, however, door prizes handed out for reaching a certain level of skill. If you’re good, and you’re willing to work to find the agent that’s right for you, I have faith that you’ll be able to take that step. Do your homework, do your research, and bring something awesome to the table.

Believe me, the work is worth it.

Final Poll Results

Writer’s Glossary, Part II: Genres, Subgenres and Supergenres

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Part two of our “Writer’s Glossary” series concerns what we write, specifically genre. The examples given are by no means all-inclusive but are designed to give an overview of genre, subgenre and supergenre. This article is meant to answer general questions about genre and to inspire exploration of new-to-you themes, character motivations, settings and more. If you’d like to talk about additional genres, subgenres or supergenres, join the discussion on Just the Place For A Snark or create a new discussion on our genre board.

The liquidity of genre allows for hybrids of any kind the writer can imagine. Think of genre as banks that guide the river of your story as it goes along, maybe merge with other rivers to create vivid new bodies of work, branching off in new directions or staying a central course. For ideas of melding genre or exploring new-to-you genres, try our A Pen In Each Hand exercises that accompany this article.

Click here for more information on any of the books mentioned in this article.

Writer's Glossary, Part II

Background Photo: (CC-by-sa).

Genre: the style, form or content of the work. Examples include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Adventure: Physical danger and risk are main themes with strong focus on the hero’s actions.
    • Treasure Island, The Three Musketeers, Hoot
  • Biography: An account of someone’s life (an account of the author’s life is an autobiography).
    • The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Theodore Rex, Lulu In Hollywood
  • Comic books: features a story told using art as visual narrative and relying more heavily on dialogue.
    • Seduction of the Innocent, The Killing Joke, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers
  • Creative non-fiction (CNF): Uses literary technique to tell a true story (compare to journalistic writing); when the story follows a fiction-like arc, it is sometimes called “narrative nonfiction.”
    • Coming Into The Country, The Accidental Buddhist
  • Crime: Criminal activity, motive and detection are main themes.
    • The Big Sleep, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Get Shorty
  • Diary / journal / personal weblog writing: Meant as a method of personal reflection, often only available to the author.
    • The Diary of Anne Frank, The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery
  • Epic: Action takes place over a long period of time, centered on a heroic character or group of characters and exceptional events. Compare to epic poetry.
    • The Lord of the Rings (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King), War and Peace
  • Erotica: Uses literary technique to tell a story with action centered on sexual arousal and activity.
    • Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Story of O, Delta of Venus
  • Essay: “A literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything, usually on a certain topic. By tradition, almost by definition, the essay is a short piece”[1] Essays may be non-literary, such as photo-essays. Narrative essays use literary techniques like arcs and transitions (compare with academic essays).
    • Dress Your Family In Corduroy and Denim, James Baldwin: Collected Essays
  • Fan fiction (fanfic): Uses established characters to tell original stories not written by the creator of the characters.
    • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
  • Fantasy: Uses magic and supernaturalism as central to the plot and setting. Compare to science fiction and horror.
    • The Wizard of Oz, The Mists of Avalon, The Hobbit, The Earthsea novels
  • Horror: Uses literary techniques to frighten, unsettle or horrify the audience; employs macabre and/or supernatural themes. Compare with fantasy and science fiction.
    • Dracula, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, Frankenstein
  • Journalism: Conveys news without opinion. News conveyed with opinion is “editoral journalism” or “op-ed.”
    • The New York Times: The Complete Front Pages: 1851-2008, The Best Newspaper Writing series
  • Literary fiction (lit fic): Character-driven—this story could only happen to the characters in it—often appealing to a narrower readership than mainstream fiction but is not aimed at any specific audience.
    • The Great Gatsby, Beloved, The Corrections
  • Literary realism: Everyday activity and experience are central to the story.
    • Middlemarch, Sister Carrie, The Jungle
  • Mainstream fiction: Closely identified with literary realism, mainstream fiction appeals to a general audience and is plot-driven—the action of the story could happen to any character—as opposed to character-driven (literary fiction). Mainstream fiction may coexist in a single work along with another genre.
    • The DaVinci Code, The Lovely Bones, The Poisonwood Bible
  • Memoir: Differs from autobiography in that autobiography is an overview of the subject’s life whereas memoir is focused on certain aspects of the subjects personality or experience.
    • On Writing, The Glass Castle, Wild Swans, Running With Scissors, Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper
  • Romance: Main theme is the growth of romantic love between two main characters, with an upbeat ending. Sexual activity is less graphically described and intrinsic to the plot than in erotica. “Category romances” or “series romances” are shorter and rotate out of print at a faster rate than “single-title romances.” Specific guidelines about word count, shelf life, etc. vary by publisher; generally category romance runs 60,000 words or less.
    • The Flame and the Flower, Daddy, Sweet Starfire, A Knight In Shining Armor
  • Science fiction: Uses imaginary yet possible elements as aspects of the plot or setting, such as space or time travel, alternate timelines or dimensions, psionics or technology. Compare to fantasy and horror.
    • The Handmaid’s Tale, The Time Machine, The Man in the High Castle, Starship Troopers, The Road
  • Speculative fiction (spec fic): Explores new/imagined worlds that are unlike the real world, generally an umbrella genre for sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc. Slipstream: combines spec fic and mainstream/lit fic. For examples, see entries for cited genres.

Subgenre: more specific distinction within the genre. Examples include (but are not limited to) the following:

Action subgenre examples:

  • Western: set in the American frontier (usually west of the Mississippi River), often with an antihero as a main character.
    • Lonesome Dove, The Leatherstocking Tales, Riders of the Purple Sage, No Country For Old Men
  • “Space Westerns” are spec fic pieces that use “western” themes and characters but are set in space or in alternate worlds.
    • Time Enough For Love, the TV shows Star Trek and Firefly
  • Thriller: Uses action and fast pacing to thrill the audience. The hero’s journey climaxes with his defeat of the villain (compare to mystery).
    • The Bourne Identity, Lazarus Strain

Comic book subgenre examples:

  • Graphic novels: a type of comic book using narrative and dialogue more like traditional novels.
    • Watchmen, The Sandman series, Maus, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
  • Manga: Japanese comics, which may be any genre and are often published as serials. Manga outside Japan may be written in any language but the art maintains a strong Japanese aesthetic; manga translates to “whimsical pictures.”
    • Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon, Ronin, The Dirty Pair, Oh My Goddess

Erotica or fan fiction subgenre example:

  • Slash: fan fiction that depicts romantic/sexual homosexual relationships. Slash is almost always between two male characters; the terms “femslash” and “saffic” have come into use to distinguish slash fiction about female characters.

Crime subgenre example:

  • Mystery: Plot is a puzzle to be solved by reader and protagonist; climaxes with the solution of the crime (compare to thriller).
    • A is for Alibi, Murder On the Orient Express, the Nancy Drew series, The Maltese Falcon

Horror subgenre examples:

  • Gothic: Combines elements of horror (the supernatural, the grotesque, etc.) and romance to create suspense.
    • Wuthering Heights, The Shining, Rebecca
  • Southern gothic: Uses the same devices to explore social issues rather than to create suspense. The setting is usually (but not always) the American south.
    • The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Wise Blood, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Green Mile
  • Paranormal: uses ghosts, hauntings and other supernatural elements.
    • Carrie, Interview With The Vampire, The Shining, The Amityville Horror

Journalism subgenre examples:

  • New journalism: movement in the 1960s for journalism using literary techniques. Compare to “creative nonfiction” today.
    • In Cold Blood, The Right Stuff
  • Gonzo journalism: subjective journalistic reporting using a first person narrator and blends fact and fiction, favoring style over accuracy.
    • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Paper Lion

Sci-fi subgenre examples:

  • Hard SF: emphasizes scientific detail; hard science (chemistry, physics, etc.) is intrinsic to the story.
    • 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Ringworld series
  • Soft SF: emphasizes character, emotion and story; sciences intrinsic to the story are generally social sciences (sociology, economics, etc.).
    • Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Handmaid’s Tale
  • Dystopian/utopian: Setting is an alternate society, either ideal (utopia) or nightmarish (dystopia), that serves to reflect elements of contemporary society.
    • Gulliver’s Travels, Brave New World, The Time Machine, V For Vendetta
  • Steampunk: Set in a time when steam power is still used, often in Victorian England; may additionally use alternate history.
    • The Difference Engine, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
  • Cyberpunk: Combines cybernetics and technology with societal breakdown, often in a “near-future” time period.
    • Necromancer, Blade Runner, Trouble And Her Friends
  • Alternate history: plot concerns a deviation in actual history that creates an alternate society.
    • Men Like Gods, The Man In The High Castle, Night Watch
  • Apocalyptic/post-Apocalyptic: explores “end of the world” scenarios and society.
    • The Last Man, The Road, The Stand, Oryx and Crake

Fantasy subgenre examples:

  • Dark fantasy: combines fantasy and horror.
    • Coraline, Imaro, The Vampire Chronicles
  • High Fantasy: an entire imagined world at stake. Compare to S&S and Epic.
    • His Dark Materials, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia
  • Low Fantasy: uses the real world as a setting but adds supernatural elements.
    • The Borrowers, The Indian in the Cupboard, Pippi Longstocking
  • Note: The Harry Potter novels and The Chronicles of Narnia combine low and high fantasy. The “world within a world” of these series is high fantasy, with an entire world at stake, but the frame of the stories is low fantasy; the high fantasy world is entered through a portal in the real world.
  • Sword/sorcery (S&S): combines adventure and personal stakes. Compare to high fantasy.
    • Sword and Sorceress, Conan the Barbarian
  • Urban fantasy: set in real world contemporary urban society; cities may be real or imagined.
    • War For the Oaks, Dreams Underfoot, The Heir Trilogy

Romance subgenre examples: Note: romance has many subgenres, most of which are hybrids with other genres (ex: paranormal romance, mystery romance); these are fairly self-explanatory.

  • Contemporary: set after 1945.
    • A Love Of My Own, Perfect Match, The Trouble With Valentines Day
  • Historical: set before 1945 and includes many subgenres (ex: Regency romance)
    • Dedication, The Ruby Ghost, November of the Heart, Company of Rogues series

Some subgenres can be found under any genre. Examples include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Comedy: uses humor to amuse the reader and has an upbeat ending. Dark/black comedy utilizes taboo subjects for humor (ex: death, rape, war, disease). Blue comedy utilizes crude or sexual topics or risqué language.
    • A Confederacy of Dunces, Summer Lightning, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Slaughterhouse Five, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Discworld novels
  • Coming of age (found most often in YA, mainstream and literary fiction): concerns the transition from adolescence to adulthood.
    • The Catcher In The Rye, The Secret Life of Bees, Treasure Island
  • Historical fiction: Attention is paid to historical detail and accuracy and may utilize historical figures or situations.
    • Ivanhoe, A Tale of Two Cities, The Remains of the Day, The Outlander series
  • Pomo: “post-modern”—after 1945—often parodies the “modernist” movement, which employs literary realism. Pomo is likely to use metafiction and magical realism.
    • Howl, Naked Lunch, Catch-22, Fight Club
  • Metafiction: the conscious address of fiction devices within the work.
    • Misery, Wicked, From Hell, Atonement, Slaughterhouse Five
  • Magical realism: illogical action or settings juxtaposed with real world action or settings; originated in Latin American and Spanish literature.
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude, The House of the Spirits
  • Satire: “Artistic form in which human or individual vices, folly, abuses, or shortcomings are held up to censure by means of ridicule, derision, burlesque, irony, or other methods, sometimes with an intent to bring about improvement.”[2] Satire often employs humor.
    • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Animal Farm, The Discworld series.
  • Tragedy: dramatizes human suffering—which could be avoided by different choices by the characters rather than external influence—with a downbeat ending, often the death of the protagonist and other principal characters.
    • King Lear, Hamlet, Phaedra, Antigone, The Crucible
  • Transgressional: Features characters who live outside the mainstream of normal society and often deals with taboo subjects.
    • American Psycho, Naked Lunch, Trainspotting

Supergenre: based on intended demographic rather than the work itself. This is a relatively new term and not yet widely used. Works in a supergenre may be part of a genre as well, such as horror, biography or sci-fi. Examples include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Children’s literature (kid lit): Targeted at readers age 12 or younger, Often divided into the following categories:
    • Picture books (ages 0–5)
      • The Big Red Barn, Goodnight Moon, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom
    • Early Reader Books (age 5–7)
      • The Dick and Jane series, Where The Wild Things Are, The Cat in the Hat
    • Short chapter books (ages 7–9)
      • The Winnie the Pooh series, The Little Bear series, the Fancy Nancy series
    • Longer chapter books (middle grade novels) (ages 9–12)
      • Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Heidi, Coraline, the Little House series, the Goosebumps series, the Heir Chronicles, the Harry Potter series
  • Young adult literature (YA): Targeted at teenaged readers.
    • The House On Mango Street, The Outsiders, Forever, the Twilight series, the Uglies series
  • Chick lit: Targeted at women (increasingly including teens), usually light in tone and often humorous.
    • Good In Bed, The Shopaholic series, Trust Me, Bridget Jones’s Diary
  • Christian lit: Targeted at Christian readers, religious faith is intrinsic to the plot, themes and characters.
    • The Left Behind series, The Purpose Driven Life

Societal, political and personal constructs and experience are explored in several genres. In addition to major genres, this fiction may also be subcategorized according to the sex, race, ethnic identity or country of origin of the author. These works are not targeted at any specific audience and are not compromised by the primary genre under which they are categorized. Within the examples cited above, you will find feminist, African-American, Chicano, LGBT and similar subcategorizations.

[1] Aldous Huxley, Collected Essays, “Preface”
[2] Encyclopedia Britannica: Satire

Final Poll Results

Collecting Oral History: Interview with Elizabeth Jacoway

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Bonnets)

2007 was an interesting year in Little Rock, Arkansas; it was the fiftieth anniversary of the Central High School integration crisis and emotions were high. Books were published reflecting every perspective of the issue. Among the many books I read and authors I met during the year, the most refreshing and honest was Betsy Jacoway. Her book, Turn Away Thy Son, approached the crisis via interviews with the myriad people involved. As a transplanted Northerner, the whole integration issue seemed foreign to me, and her book gave me a perspective I would not otherwise have had. When Betsy had a book signing at the bookstore where I worked, we clicked and became friends. I am delighted that she would share with all of us the process of collecting oral history.

Collecting Oral History: Interview with Elizabeth Jacoway

A Brief Bio

Turn Away Thy Son Elizabeth Jacoway grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she attended the public schools. As a child she lived through the Little Rock desegregation crisis of 1957–1959, but wearing the blinders imposed on a privileged southern white female by the culture of segregation, she failed to “see” or to question what was happening in her community. Not until she landed in her first graduate seminar, conducted by George B. Tindall at the University of North Carolina, did she begin to examine the flawed and tragic history of her region. In the years since that painful introduction to the realities of her own past, her intellectual focus has been on the sources, dynamics and impact of racism in American life. After receiving a Ph.D. in southern history from the University of North Carolina in 1974, she taught at the University of Florida, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and Lyon College. Married and the mother of two grown sons, she has lived for thirty years in the small, Mississippi-delta community of Newport, Arkansas. In 2007 she published the book about Little Rock that she had been working on for thirty years, Turn Away Thy Son: Little Rock, The Crisis That Shocked the Nation (Free Press).

Turn Away Thy Son won the 2008 Willie Lee Rose Prize, awarded by the Southern Association for Women Historians for the best book in southern history by a woman, and also the 2008 William Booker Worthen Literary Prize, awarded by the Central Arkansas Library System.

TC: Could you explain how one goes about collecting oral history, and how one does that in a sensitive environment such as race relations. Just your process will be fine.

EJ: In 1976, I was very fortunate to receive a year-long NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities] grant to inaugurate my study of the Little Rock Crisis. My graduate training had stressed the importance of starting with archival research rather than reading what other historians had written about my subject, so I simply dove into the papers of Daisy Bates (mentor to the Little Rock Nine) at the Wisconsin Historical Society, Brooks Hays (Congressman from Little Rock) at the JFK Library in Boston, and Dwight Eisenhower at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, KS. At that time, these were the major collections that were available to researchers, and as you can imagine, at each of them I encountered dramatically different impressions of the same events.

By the summer of that year I was able to compile a list of over a hundred people who were still alive and who had played significant roles in the Little Rock story, and I started studying the available literature about how to conduct an interview. That process would have been so much easier if I had had access to the Internet! As it was, I was bound to the library and to correspondence with such organizations as the Oral History Association.

Just about that time, the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina invited me to do interviews with Daisy Bates and Vivion Brewer (President of the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools), and so I prepared ferociously and jumped in with both feet. Both interviews turned out to be delightful and incredibly revealing, and I was hooked. I realized immediately that the interview was a potential source of information that could not be found in any archive or library, and that it allowed the researcher to ask questions about things that no one had thought to record. Of course the interviewee always has his or her own biases and agendas, and everything he or she says has to be checked against archival materials, but the interviewee also brings an immediacy and interest to the subject that newspapers, diaries, and secondary accounts fail to convey.

After my Bates and Brewer interviews, I began to prepare enthusiastically for what I could see was going to be the best source of information for my book. I had already initiated a spin-off project that focused on the role of the South’s white businessmen in the Civil Rights Movement (eventually published by LSU Press as Southern Businessmen and Desegregation), so for the remainder of 1976 I interviewed over thirty of Little Rock’s business leaders from the 1957–1959 period, and I also interviewed (because he happened to be in town) Harry Ashmore, editor of the Arkansas Gazette during the crisis.

I had grown up in Little Rock, and most of these men responded to me favorably because they knew me. This was just twenty years after the crisis, and many Little Rock people still felt a defensiveness about it and a reluctance to talk to outsiders about it. My being an “insider” helped me gain access to these people, but undoubtedly it also blinded me to some of the nuances I might have noticed if I had come from a different cultural milieu.

At this point, I talked only to white people (except for the commissioned interview with Daisy Bates)—in part because I was focusing on the business leadership, but also because I did not have access to the black community, and I did not feel that I understood the issues and the feelings across that racial divide. I felt very keenly my limitations in being able to bridge that divide, both as a white person and as a woman.

A series of events converged to take me away from my focus on 1957—marriage, motherhood, a move away from Little Rock, two other book projects—as well as fear that I had waded into a study that was going to make a lot of people unhappy (which it has). At length, however, the Little Rock project just reached out and grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go. To my great good fortune, my work led me into a friendship with Annie Abrams, one of Little Rock’s leading advocates of interracial harmony and an old friend of Daisy Bates. Through Annie, I developed routes of access into and a deepening understanding of black Little Rock. Also, Minnijean Brown Trickey (one of the Little Rock Nine) has become a real friend, as has Elizabeth Eckford (the stoic black child in the iconic photograph of Little Rock). I can’t pretend to understand the experiences these women have had, and an entirely different book could have been written from their perspectives, but through their generosity, they have helped me enormously to bridge the gap between my world and theirs. For me, it has been one of the most enriching experiences of my life.

TC: Betsy, this is great. I thank you.

Could you delve a little more into the actual process? From making contact, determining your questions, how you conducted the interviews—and if anyone said no (or just clammed up during the process) and how you dealt with that.

The actual interview process involves making contact, usually by phone, then followed up by letter with more of the specifics. I used to make extensive lists of questions before the interview, but I learned quickly that the interviewee will lead you off into uncharted waters and that the best approach is to let him or her run in the directions that suit them—at least until you have established rapport and given the interviewee a chance to get on record whatever he or she thinks is of importance.

The hardest part of the interview is to get your tape recording equipment set up quickly and as unobtrusively as possible, so that you and your interviewee can kind of forget about the fact that the tape is running (this always makes folks self-conscious). They will usually be nervous, so I always start with an open-ended question (one that can’t be answered with a yes or a no) and let them run with it as long as they want. Then I start to steer the interview into the subjects I want to be sure to cover. I save any delicate questions for the last quarter of the interview, and by then my subject is usually comfortable with me and willing to be forthcoming. Of course you never offer judgments on anything they share with you, you never contradict or correct them, and you never go off on tangents of your own (and sometimes that’s hard).

As a general rule, interviews should not last longer than an hour or so, because most folks get tired and lose interest in the process. The great exception to this rule is Justice Jim Johnson, who is now in his late eighties and who will still be going strong after three hours! I have interviewed him two dozen times because he is an absolute font of information, and also because he is incredibly honest with me—telling me the bad things about himself as well as the good! For my purposes, however, most people have told me all that I needed to know from them in about an hour.

Only one person has refused an interview with me, and that is Melba Patillo Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine. She wrote a powerful memoir titled Warriors Don’t Cry, and she thinks that’s all that needs to be said on the subject of the Little Rock crisis. She does not believe that someone who was not inside Central High School in 1957 could possibly have anything to say of value, but of course if she’s right, all historians would be out of business. I hope my book demonstrates that there are many perspectives on any historical moment, and that it broadens our understanding of the concept of “truth” to examine any incident from multiple points of view.

Governor Orval Faubus had been interviewed so many times by the time I sat down with him that I found his responses to be fairly rehearsed. I came back for a second interview ten or fifteen years later and tried to steer him away from some of the pat answers he had been giving for years. He said at one point “there are things that I know that I’m not going to tell you unless you ask me about them,” and of course this was very frustrating to me! Apparently he took many of his secrets to the grave.

The standard practice in the oral history business is for the researcher to have the interviewee sign a release form giving permission to quote from the interview and use it in subsequent printed work. Many presses require this legal documentation before agreeing to publish your work, and many libraries and archives require it as well before accepting interviews for deposit. After the interview, the researcher then transcribes the tapes (or pays someone to do it), and amazingly enough, one hour of tape requires about eight hours of transcribing. This is what makes oral history programs so expensive.

Ideally, the transcribed interview should be returned to the interviewee for editing and corrections, but since I did not have a staff to help me with this part of the process, I rarely returned my interviews for correction—and sometimes I did not even edit them myself. I conducted well over a hundred interviews, and maybe half of these yielded one or two tidbits each that found their way into the book.

The same is true of archival research. You might spend weeks in a particular collection and then use just one or two bits of information from that research trip. This can be very frustrating, but you have to immerse yourself in information to get a feel for how it all fits together. It is not unlike putting a puzzle together, or solving a mystery.

TC: This is wonderful, Betsy. What is your next project?

EJ: Well, my son is on the list for a kidney transplant and that is consuming all my time.

TC: You know our thoughts and prayers are with you. Thank you so much for taking the time for this interview.

Final Poll Results

Twitter, Tweet, Twits:
How the Hottest Social Media Platform Helps Writers

Absolute Blank

By Kristin Baxter

By now, if you haven’t at least heard of Twitter, you should probably just get back to dusting your cave paintings and chasing away those pesky pterodactyls.

What you may not know, however, is exactly what Twitter is and how it can help you as a writer. And no matter what the media says about Internet geeks discussing what they had for breakfast or how annoyed they are at their boss, Twitter can help you. As with everything on the Internet, it’s simply a matter of filtering out the useless information to get to the good stuff.

What the Heck is a Twitter?

Twitter is a microblogging platform. Twitterers—also known as tweeple, tweeps, or twits, the latter of which we’ll use for this article’s purposes—post messages up to 140 characters in length.

Twitter homepage

What you’ll see when you go to

These messages, or tweets, appear on a twit’s page and are seen by their followers. Followers are people who choose to add you to their list of people whose tweets they watch.

If a twit doesn’t have followers, they’re essentially talking to themselves. And while much of the Internet can consist of people talking to themselves, Twitter is a waste without followers. And if you’re not following anyone, you won’t receive an ounce of information. Once you’ve begun following people, your Twitter “feed”—what you see when you first log in—will show the most recent tweets posted by your friends.

kristophrenia's Twitter page

My Twitter page. At the top is the text entry box, where I answer the question,”What are you doing?” Below that are the most recent tweets from people I follow. In the right sidebar are my statistics: number of people I follow, number who follow me, and how many tweets I’ve made. Below that are links to my replies, direct messages sent to me, and any tweets I’ve favorited.

Feeling silly yet? Well, yes, it does sound silly. What’s not silly, though, is how much it can help you weed through the overwhelming mass of resources on the web.

If you’re not yet convinced, I’ll offer an example from my own experience. A few months ago, I woke up one day, made my usual oversized pot of coffee, and began my morning Internet surfing. Checked my sixteen email accounts, my Facebook, my RSS feeds. And then I hopped onto Twitter. One of the writers I follow had just posted a link to the blog of literary agent Caren Johnson, of Caren Johnson Literary Agency; Ms. Johnson was offering writers the chance to post a short pitch for their novel in the comments of her blog. For each pitch, Ms. Johnson either requested a partial from the writer or offered her reasons for passing.

If you’ve done the query route, you know how very rare this is.

The catch: writers had 24 hours from the initial blog post to enter their pitch. I discovered the opportunity a scant two hours before the deadline. I hurried to tweak my pitch to her requirements, watching the seconds slip away as I did. Then I took a shower, as I knew that otherwise I’d spend the next twenty minutes hitting the refresh button. By the time I was dressed and blow-dried, Ms. Johnson had requested a partial from me. While she eventually rejected my novel, she offered her reasons—something that was a huge help in fixing a flaw in my voice.

If it weren’t for Twitter, I’d never have seen the post, or at least not in time to take advantage of it. Now that’s a resource.

No more rummaging through page after page of blogs by agents, editors, and fellow writers. No more searching through the many online publications that follow the publishing industry’s movements. No more wondering what articles and announcements you’re missing. Once you’ve found and followed a good selection of writers, agents, and editors, you can go to your Twitter page and find out all the latest.

Twitter vs. Facebook, MySpace, and Blogs: The Big Difference

So you have accounts with Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, a few dozen other social networking accounts, and a blog, all of which you use with varying frequencies. Why add one more to the pile?

Facebook and all its buddies help you connect with the people you know. Twitter, on the other hand, is the perfect place to connect with people you don’t know, but want or need to agents, editors, and other writers. Follow them, and they might follow you back. Even if they don’t, you’ll have immediate access to what they have to say.

The sparse amount of information required for an account—name and email address—adds to the privacy level. Controlling the information you release on Twitter involves nothing more complex than evaluating your own words. Rather than worrying what old, embarrassing, and perhaps incriminating picture a friend might post and tag with your name—one of the scariest parts of Facebook now that everyone’s boss, mother, and grandma has an account—you just have to watch what you say. That’s all Twitter is: words and links.

The Basics

Once you’ve created an account, you can begin following people. To make it easy for you, click here and log in, if you aren’t already. Then simply click the Follow button under my picture (yes, that’s me). Congratulations! You just followed your first twit.[1]

There are a few ways to find more people worth following.

Every twitter user’s page shows their friends in the right sidebar.

kristophrenia's Twitter friends

A selection of people I follow.

Click the View All link under the block of pictures, hover your mouse over each twit’s username, and see if their personal description catches your interest. If it does, just click the Follow button under their username. Or go straight to their Twitter feed by clicking on their picture. See some interesting tweets there? Click the Follow button under their picture.
kristophrenia's Twitter profile

Following a user is as easy as clicking a button.

Another useful method is through @replies. When you want to reply directly to someone’s tweet, simply place the @ sign and the person’s username before your tweet.

A real life example:

20orsomething: I love books and I love publishing, and Twitter is a fantastic resource for both. Reveling in words and soaking up the knowledge…

kristophrenia: @20orsomething I know! I’m continually amazed by how useful this is, once you’re following the right people.

If someone following me were curious to know more about Susan Pogorzelski, a.k.a 20orsomething, they can simply click the link to her profile in my reply. I’ve followed many people after seeing the interesting conversations they had with my friends; conversely, I’ve gained several followers after they saw my own conversations with their friends. You can keep up with @replies directed at you by clicking the @username link on your homepage, or by using the many applications designed to bring your Twitter feed to your desktop or your iPhone.

Once you’ve built a decent base of friends, you can start using the information they post—and disseminating information you find by tweeting links to interesting articles and blog posts. Twitter automatically shortens any URL under 30 characters; other ways to convert links include TinyURL,, and Snipr. Copy and paste the URL you want to shorten into any of these websites, then copy and paste the resulting shorter URL into your update box. For example, the URL for becomes Posting URLs is a great way to connect others to interesting articles, making you an important resource in their world; it can also be wonderful self-promotion. The number of unique visitors who came to my blog last month was twice the number that found me the month I joined Twitter.

Did someone post an update that you find interesting, something that you want to share with your friends? Give credit by placing the letters RT (which stands for “re-tweet”) at the beginning of your update, followed by an @reply for the original twit, then paste their update. Just a few days ago, my friend strugglngwriter posted a comic cracked me up. I showed it to my followers and gave him credit by tweeting:

RT @strugglngwriter As a writer, this comic from Wondermark made me laugh:

Certain subjects tend to blow up quickly on Twitter as everyone tweets on a trending topic; Twitter keeps these organized using hashtags (#topic). A great example is “Follow Friday”. Every Friday, many twits post an update listing their favorite, funniest, or most useful friends using the @reply feature. With the addition of the tag #followfriday to the update, users can easily search for Follow Friday posts without having to weed through every update that includes the word “follow” or “Friday”.

How to Maximize Your Time

If you intend to use Twitter as a professional resource, it’s important to streamline your list of followers. This greatly reduces the amount of useless or inane information that will appear in your feed, and we all know there’s a massive amount of inanity out there. Feel free to follow your friends, but don’t feel obligated to follow every “social media expert” that follows you.

But how can you find all the people you should follow? One great resource, aside from the methods mentioned above, is WeFollow. Here, users can add themselves to a database with up to three descriptive tags; for example, I chose #fantasy, #youngadult, and #writer. Add yourself to the database, then skim through the listings for writers, agents, editors, and the genres in which you write.

The first site that helped me find compatible twits to follow was Mr. Tweet. Simply follow Mr. Tweet on Twitter, and he’ll Direct Message (DM) you back. Once he’s analyzed your followers, he’ll DM you a link to a personalized site, where you can find a list of recommended twits based on who you already follow. Mr. Tweet updates bi-weekly, so you can find more great people to follow every other week. The more writers and publishing people you follow, the more information you have access to.

To get you started, here’s a list of agents and editors who tweet:

With the increasingly fast pace of news on the Internet, our ever-decreasing attention spans, and the rising ubiquity of the agent or editor blog, something like Twitter is desperately needed if you want to keep up. So come on out of the cave, dodge that pterodactyl, and follow me.

I promise I’ll follow you back.


  • Make sure you have the option “E-mail when someone starts following me” turned on (Settings ? Notices). This ensures that, when someone follows you, you can follow them back if you wish.
  • Like so many other useful tools, Twitter can be addictive and distracting if you allow it to be. To avoid getting irrevocably sucked into the information black hole, give yourself time limits. Use Twitter as a reward for writing. And by all mean, keep that browser closed while you’re writing.
  • Be a part of the conversation. Don’t be afraid to reply to tweets you find appealing or funny. Just make sure that what you have to say is interesting, informative, or at least entertaining. As with everything on the Internet, think before you tweet.

Kristin Baxter lives in Johnstown, PA, a city full of characters. She’s been a reporter, a technical writer, and an assembler of travel mugs. Presently, she drinks too much coffee and stays up far too late while writing young adult novels.

[1] I’ll freely admit I’m not the most useful twit; I aim more to entertain myself and my followers, and I enjoy having moderately wacky conversations. I’ve met a lot of hilarious, interesting twits that way. But I also post interesting links to industry articles, and I follow every agent, editor, and writer I can find.

Final Poll Results

Writer’s Glossary, Part I: Elements of Fiction Construction

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Welcome to the first of Toasted Cheese’s new “Writer’s Glossary” series.

This article defines elements of fiction construction (characters and story elements). These are some of the most common storytelling elements, ones that writers and readers use when speaking about the story. If you don’t know what an editor meant when she said “the narrative didn’t work for me” or “I enjoyed the relationship between the nemesis and the antagonist,” this article might be the resource you’ve been hoping to find. Of course this glossary is not all-inclusive but it should give you a good foundation for you to perform further research.

The second Writer’s Glossary is scheduled for October 2009 and will be about the business of writing and publishing.

Writer's Glossary, Part I

Background Photo: (CC-by-sa).

People in the Story

Narrator: the voice within the work telling the story.

  • Nick Carraway, The Great Gatsby
  • Holden Caulfield, The Catcher In the Rye
  • Scout Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird
  • Chief Bromden, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • Unreliable narrator: a narrator whose credibility is compromised.
    • Patrick Bateman, American Psycho
    • Dr. James Sheppard, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Protagonist: the main character.

  • Scarlett O’Hara, Gone With the Wind
  • Jake Barnes, The Sun Also Rises
  • Celie, The Color Purple
  • Hero: a protagonist who faces and overcomes extraordinary challenges.
    • Harry Potter, the Harry Potter series
    • Frodo Baggins, The Lord of the Rings
  • False protagonist: a character who seems to be the protagonist until he is disposed of and a new protagonist takes over.
    • Bernard Marx, Brave New World (new protagonists: Helmholtz Watson, John)
    • Mary Crane, Psycho (new protagonist: Norman Bates)

Antagonist: a main character (or group) working against the protagonist.

  • Mister, The Color Purple
  • Randall Flag, The Stand
  • Nurse Ratched, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
  • Villain: a main character who works in opposition to a hero.
    • Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series
    • Sauron in The Lord of the Rings
    • Jame Gumb in The Silence of the Lambs
  • Nemesis: A character who creates trouble for the protagonist but is not necessarily opposed to his goals.
    • Fagin, Oliver Twist
    • Gollum, The Hobbit, The Two Towers and Return of the King
    • Severus Snape, the Harry Potter series.

Foil: a character whose contrast with another character, usually the protagonist, underscores aspects of the other character’s personality. The characteristics they share are often superficial, such as appearance or a shared history.

  • In Hamlet, Laertes acts as a foil to Hamlet in that both men experience the loss of their fathers via murder (Polonius by Hamlet and King Hamlet by Claudius, respectively) but while Hamlet has spent the play deciding what to do to avenge his father, Laertes acts immediately by challenging Hamlet to a duel, underscoring Hamlet’s indecision.

Archetype: a generalization about individuals as created and reflected by the whole of a culture.

  • Father/Mother Figure (Sirius Black/Molly Weasley, The Harry Potter series)
  • Trickster (Peeves the Poltergeist, The Harry Potter series)
  • Mentor (Remus Lupin, The Harry Potter series)

Stereotype: a generalization about a group of people, which varies among cultures often based on prejudice. Common stereotypes tend to be applied to ethnic, racial or economic groups or classes.

Stock character: more narrowly defined than archetypes, stock characters can act as shorthand for an author to introduce a character about whom the reader already has an expectation or knowledge.

  • The hooker with the heart of gold, the ugly duckling or the “redshirt” (i.e. an expendable character who appears only to be eliminated, referring to the red shirts worn by undeveloped Star Trek characters who appeared as part of the crew for away missions during which they would be killed).


Elements of the Story

Narrative: the telling of the events of the story by the narrator; the way in which the narrator communicates the story to the reader

Prose: a free form writing style which uses full sentences and paragraphs, reflective of everyday language.

Voice: the unique way in which a writer uses elements like syntax (word order), character development, plot structure, etc.

Plot: The main sequence of events. (See also.)

  • Subplot:a secondary storyline, usually involving secondary characters
  • Plot hole: a gap in the logic established by the story
  • Plot device: an element introduced in order to move the story forward. Examples include deus ex machina or a MacGuffin.
    • Deus ex machina: literally “God from the machine” – an unexpected event which serves to alter action in the story or solve conflict
    • MacGuffin: an object that is not as important as the motivation of the characters to acquire it. Examples include the Maltese Falcon or the “papers of transit” in the film Casablanca.

Act: a unit of the overall story. There are usually three acts: the first act establishes character, place and scenario, the second introduces and perpetuates conflict and the third includes the climax and dénouement (ending). Acts tend to take up ¼, ½ and ¼ of the story respectively.

Pace: the rate of flow for the action.

Theme: an idea or message conveyed in the work, usually conveyed in an abstract way. Themes may be simple or complex and there may be several minor themes in addition to a main theme in a long work.

Atmosphere: the mood of the story

Symbolism: something in your story used to evoke something else. Symbolism may be cultural/universal or contextual/authorial.

Tone: the feel of the work.

  • serious, humorous, sarcastic, playful, etc.

Cliché: a saying or expression that is so common it lacks substantial meaning.

  • cuts like a knife
  • thick as pea soup

Dialogue/dialog: words spoken by characters; written conversations.

Dialect: speech patterns, determined by factors like region or social class, including vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar.

Flashback: shifts the action of the story to a previous point in time and then back to current action.

Foreshadowing: hinting at an event which will come later in the story.

Frame: “surrounds” the main story as a narrative technique that provides context for the story within.

  • Frankenstein
  • Wuthering Heights
  • Heart of Darkness
  • The Turn of the Screw

Metaphor/simile: connects seemingly unrelated objects (simile uses “like” or “as” to accomplish this). Specific metaphor types include:

  • allegory: an extended metaphor that illustrates an important attribute of the subject
  • catachresis: mixed metaphor, one that connects two disparate identifications (ex: While looking for the needle in the haystack, make sure you don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater)
  • parable: extended metaphor that teaches a moral lesson

Persona: usually refers to a unifying force throughout a book, linking different situations and narratives and guiding the reader through the work, sometimes subtly suggesting conclusions or opinions the reader should have about characters or situations, in the opinion of the author. The persona is not the same as the narrator.

  • Authors who have used regularly personas include James Joyce (Ulysses) , William Faulkner (As I Lay Dying) and Charles Dickens.

Exposition: Opening narrative used to orient readers in the story.

Rising action: Narrative leading up to the climax.

Crisis: a turning point; a moment of decision; there may be several crises in long works of fiction or drama.

  • Celie standing up to and leaving Mister, The Color Purple
  • Janie shoots Tea Cake, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Climax: The height of action, the ultimate crisis or turning point where several elements combine to create “fireworks” (even though the climax may be a quiet moment with little action).

  • The fight over Daisy, between Tom and Gatsby, The Great Gatsby
  • Holden gives his red hunting hat to Phoebe, The Catcher In The Rye

Falling action: Narrative following the climax, leading to the dénouement.

Dénouement: the resolution of the plot (sometimes called “catastrophe” in tragedy).

Catharsis: purification, cleansing or purging, often symbolic in literature.

  • Brutus’s death in Julius Caesar
  • Gatsby’s body floating in the pool, The Great Gatsby

POV: Point of view. Point of view is either first person (“I” or “we”), second person (narrative voice addresses the reader as “you”) or third person (calls characters by name). Third-person POV may be limited (action shown through one character) or omniscient (action may be shown through any character’s experiences).

  • First person POV: Rebecca; The Great Gatsby
  • Second Person POV: Bright Lights, Big City
  • Third person limited POV: Harry Potter series
  • Third person omniscient POV: The Lord of the Rings

Narrative mode: encompasses POV and includes elements like stream of consciousness or the reliability of the narrator

Sequel/prequel: The events of a sequel fall after the events in a previous work. The events of a prequel come before the events of the previous work.

  • The Silence of the Lambs (sequel to Red Dragon).
  • The Magician’s Nephew (prequel to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, both part of The Chronicles of Narnia).

Info dump: A chunk of information, usually exposition, not integrated into the story, usually superfluous to the action

AYKB: “As you know, Bob…” Implausible dialogue often used to explain something to the reader that the characters already know; an “info dump” disguised as dialogue. Here are some examples from Dracula:

“It is the eve of St. George’s Day. Do you not know that to-night, when the clock strikes midnight, all the evil things in the world will have full sway? Do you know where you are going, and what you are going to?” She was in such evident distress that I tried to comfort her, but without effect. Finally, she went down on her knees and implored me not to go; at least to wait a day or two before starting. –Bram Stoker, Dracula, Ch 1

When all was ready, Van Helsing said, “Before we do anything, let me tell you this. It is out of the lore and experience of the ancients and of all those who have studied the powers of the Un-Dead. When they become such, there comes with the change the curse of immortality. They cannot die, but must go on age after age adding new victims and multiplying the evils of the world. For all that die from the preying of the Un-dead become themselves Un-dead, and prey on their kind. And so the circle goes on ever widening, like as the ripples from a stone thrown in the water. Friend Arthur, if you had met that kiss which you know of before poor Lucy die, or again, last night when you open your arms to her, you would in time, when you had died, have become nosferatu, as they call it in Eastern Europe, and would for all time make more of those Un-Deads that so have filled us with horror. The career of this so unhappy dear lady is but just begun. Those children whose blood she sucked are not as yet so much the worse, but if she lives on, Un-Dead, more and more they lose their blood and by her power over them they come to her, and so she draw their blood with that so wicked mouth. But if she die in truth, then all cease. The tiny wounds of the throats disappear, and they go back to their play unknowing ever of what has been. But of the most blessed of all, when this now Un-Dead be made to rest as true dead, then the soul of the poor lady whom we love shall again be free. Instead of working wickedness by night and growing more debased in the assimilating of it by day, she shall take her place with the other Angels.” –Bram Stoker, Dracula, Ch 16

Final Poll Results

Finding the Perfect Pencil: Tools for the Modern Writer

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Jack Kerouac famously typed On the Road on a scroll of tracing paper so his thoughts wouldn’t be interrupted by having to insert new sheets of paper.

John Steinbeck wrote East of Eden in pencil:

For years I have looked for the perfect pencil. I have found very good ones but never the perfect one. And all the time it was not the pencils but me. A pencil that is all right some days is no good another day. For example, yesterday, I used a special pencil soft and fine and it floated over the paper just wonderfully. So this morning I try the same kind. And they crack on me. Points break and all hell is let loose. This is the day when I am stabbing the paper. So today I need a harder pencil at least for a while. (Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, p. 35)

Generations of Little Women readers are familiar with Jo March’s ink-stained fingers and clothes, which were no doubt inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s own inky fingers.

And many a writer—maybe even you—has romanticized the notion of writing a novel in a notebook while sitting in a cafe or on a park bench, but when it comes down to it, for most of us twenty-first century writers, a computer is not just nice to have, it’s a necessity.

But your computer should be more than just a tool for getting words to paper. A laptop equipped with the right tools can be a writer’s best friend—a writer’s notebook, word processor, reference library, and personal assistant all in one.

Here are some of my favorite writing tools.

Background Image: Dan Iggers/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Writer’s Notebook


What it is:

Delicious is a social bookmarking service that allows users to tag, save, manage and share web pages from a centralized source. With emphasis on the power of the community, Delicious greatly improves how people discover, remember and share on the Internet.

Why I like it:

My bookmarks toolbar is fine for saving sites I frequently visit, but I needed a better option for links to specific pages I’m saving for research or writing purposes. With Delicious, I can tag each link with multiple keywords or phrases, and the resulting cloud tag gives me a visual representation of my ideas, which helps me organize my thoughts and saves time in the planning stages of a writing project. I chose Delicious because I like that the focus is on the bookmarking part of social bookmarking (I’m more interested in organizing my own bookmarks than in seeing what other people are saving).

Some other bookmarking options:


What it is:

Office OneNote 2007 is a digital notebook that provides people one place to gather their notes and information, powerful search to find what they are looking for quickly, and easy-to-use shared notebooks so that they can manage information overload and work together more effectively.

Why I like it:

You can print to OneNote (rather than to your printer), which saves a lot of paper and means you can “print” when you’re not actually attached to a printer (good if you want to save a receipt for a purchase, for example). When you copy & paste something into OneNote, the URL or file location, date, and time are automatically appended, which makes it easy to keep track of sources and credit them properly. Everything you add is automatically saved (there is no “save” button). OneNote is actually not one notebook but a set of them (as many as you want to create). Each notebook is divided into sections, and each section is divided into pages. As a writer, you might set up a notebook for each work-in-progress. One way of using the notebook would be to set up a section for each chapter and a page for each scene. Another would be to set up a section for each character. You can type or handwrite, add photos, video, sound, and rearrange sections and pages (without having to tear anything out!).

Some other notebook options:

Word Processor


What it is: 3 is the leading open-source office software suite for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, graphics, databases and more. It is available in many languages and works on all common computers. It stores all your data in an international open standard format and can also read and write files from other common office software packages. It can be downloaded and used completely free of charge for any purpose.

Why I like it:

OpenOffice does pretty much everything MS Office does—but it’s free. OO had the very useful “convert to PDF” function long before MS Office did. It’s easy to convert your OO documents to other formats (including Word docs). I like using OO for my creative writing; it’s nice to keep it somewhat separate from work stuff (done in Word)—and it means I can leave the default template in OO set up the way I like it for writing fiction.

Some other word processing options:

Reference Library


What it is:

Bloglines is a FREE online service for searching, subscribing, creating and sharing news feeds, blogs and rich web content. With Bloglines, there is no software to download or install — simply register as a new user and you can instantly begin accessing your account any time, from any computer or mobile device.

Why I like it:

Sure, you could keep the links to the sites you’re interested in a folder and click on each individually every day to see if there’s an update—but that’s so 1999. Why would you do that when you can subscribe to each site’s feed and have the updates delivered to you? Instead of visiting X sites, you only have to visit one. No update? No waste-of-time visit. With a feed reader, you can keep up with much more than you can the old-school visit-each-site way—and that’s great because there are a ton of awesome writing-related feeds available to subscribe to, including literary journals, blogs written by writers, agents, and editors, publishing news, words of the day and more. I use Bloglines (Beta) because I prefer its interface and like that it’s web-based.

Some other feed reader options:


What it is:

WorldCat is the world’s largest network of library content and services. WorldCat libraries are dedicated to providing access to their resources on the Web, where most people start their search for information.

Why I like it:

The beauty of WorldCat is that you can search multiple libraries (public and university/college) at once. Enter your location and the book you are looking for, and WorldCat will tell you all the libraries that have that book from nearest to farthest away. It’s a huge timesaver!

Directory of Open Access Journals

What it is:

Directory of Open Access Journals is a service that provides access to quality controlled Open Access Journals. The Directory aims to be comprehensive and cover all open access scientific and scholarly journals that use an appropriate quality control system, and it will not be limited to particular languages or subject areas. The aim of the Directory is to increase the visibility and ease of use of open access scientific and scholarly journals thereby promoting their increased usage and impact.

Why I like it:

Access to electronic versions of scholarly journals has generally been restricted to current university students and faculty. Those who don’t fit into that category and don’t live near enough to a university to visit the library and read the paper versions were out of luck. More recently, however, publishers have started to see the value of open access journals—that is, journals that anyone can access—great news if you’re a writer looking to do some background research for a story or novel.

Some other research options:

Personal Assistant


What it is:

Zotero is a free, easy-to-use Firefox extension to help you collect, manage, and cite your research sources. It lives right where you do your work—in the web browser itself.

Why I like it:

Keeping track of the books and writers you need to cite, acknowledge, or thank at the end of your works-in-progress can be a chore—especially when it comes to putting those references into a uniform style. But with Zotero, what used to take hours now takes no time at all. Zotero is a Firefox add-on (if you’re not already using Firefox, this should be sufficient reason to switch!). It’s super-easy to use. For example, if you want to cite a book you found at your public library, just pull up that book’s page at the library site and click on the blue book icon in the navigation toolbar (where you’re probably used to seeing the orange RSS subscribe icon) and the book and all its associated information will be added to your Zotero library (no typing!). When your manuscript is complete, you can create a bibliography (in the style of your—or your editor’s—choice) instantly (again, no typing or formatting required). Best thing since sliced bread!

Some other reference manager options:

Gmail & Google Calendar

What it is:

Gmail is a new kind of webmail, built on the idea that email can be more intuitive, efficient, and useful. And maybe even fun.

Organizing your schedule shouldn’t be a burden. With Google Calendar, it’s easy to keep track of life’s important events all in one place.

Why I like it:

I think every writer should have a webmail account for submissions purposes. For one thing, it’s permanent—or at least as permanent as these things get—unlike ISP, work, or school email addresses, which you lose access to when you change service providers, jobs, or graduate. For another, you can set up the account so the name on it matches your byline, which is extremely helpful to editors. (For example, if Mary Elizabeth Smith wants to be published as “M. Elizabeth Smith,” then that’s the way her name should appear on her submissions account—not “Smith, M. E.” or “Beth Smith” or any other variation.) Gmail has a lot of great features going for it, but the best part is that when you sign into your account, you also have access to all the other Google services. I especially like the Calendar because when you add an event, you can set it to email you a reminder. This is perfect for me because I’m always checking my email, but I’m bad at remembering to check my calendar for upcoming events. Now I don’t have to—the reminders come to me!

Some other organizing & submitting options:

There are also many new tools that can help you with networking and marketing your writing, and we’ll focus on some of those in upcoming articles. While this list is admittedly subjective and by no means definitive, I hope encourages you to think about ways technology can enhance the writing process. As Steinbeck discovered, there is no perfect pencil: some days one tool works best and the next day it’s something different. Keep open to new tools; keep experimenting. The beauty of electronic tools is that adding a new one doesn’t mean you have to give up an old one—and you don’t have to give up your cafe dreams either—just take your laptop with you.

Final Poll Results

Plot + Emotional Journey = Good Story Structure

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

For a long time, I’ve known that a good story is just as important as good writing. Or possibly more important. But what makes a good story? In search of what makes a good story good, I took an online class that focused on story structure and development. I found that just as good writing has some basic rules that writers should be aware of, good stories have a standard structure.

Most writers know that stories need a good plot. Plot is the sequence of physical events. Aristotle proposed a basic plot structure that should be present in a good story: the inciting event, the complications, the climax, the dénouement, and the resolution. Writers depending solely on Aristotle’s incline, however, risk missing half of what makes a story a good story.

Also critical to a good story is the emotional journey undertaken by the character. This journey is usually defined by the protagonist’s character flaw. And like plot, the emotional journey also has its defining moments. There is the backstory, where we are introduced to the protagonist, the crisis, where the protagonist’s main flaw sends the protagonist into inner turmoil, and the epiphany, where the protagonist confronts the flaw head on and either overcomes it or fails to overcome it. A story in which the protagonist fails to overcome the flaw is a tragedy.

The plot and the emotional journey do not work in isolation. Events drive the character, and the character’s emotional reactions drive events. The plot sequence meshes with the emotional journey sequence to form a solid story. A well-structured story will contain the following checkpoints, in order:

Plot + Emotional Journey = Good Story Structure

Act 1:

  • The Hook:
    Start the story with an exciting introductory action to draw the reader in.
  • The Backstory:
    Introduce the main characters and reveal the protagonist’s flaw (through action, not exposition!).
  • The Inciting Event, or Trigger:
    This is the defining event that starts the protagonist on both the emotional and physical journey. This event is generally instigated either directly or indirectly by the antagonist, the person or force acting against the protagonist.

Act 2:

  • The Crisis:
    The crisis is an inner moment of emotional turmoil caused by the triggering event and the protagonist’s flaw.
  • The Complication, or Struggle:
    The physical action that occurs as a result of the triggering event and the crisis is driven by external events and the character flaw. The action is mostly directed by the antagonist.
  • The Epiphany:
    This is the inner moment when the protagonist realizes he or she needs to change, and makes the conscious decision to overcome the character flaw.

Act 3:

  • The Plan:
    The protagonist has confronted the flaw, and can now move in a new direction. This ends the struggle, and allows the protagonist to find a potential solution to the main problem confronting him or her.
  • The Climax:
    The protagonist confronts the antagonist. The insight from the epiphany allows the protagonist to use the antagonist’s own character flaw against the antagonist. Whether protagonists ultimately triumph or fail in a climax depends on whether or not they were able to overcome their own character flaws.
  • The Ending, or Resolution:
    The effects of the climax are shown, and both the emotional journey and the plot are brought to a satisfying conclusion.

These acts are structure points, not space guidelines. They are not each meant to be one third of the story. Writers can spend varying amounts of time on each act. An act and a checkpoint should only be as long as they need to be.

In one story, Act 1 might be a paragraph, while in another, it might be several chapters. The crisis could be several paragraphs, or it could be a single sentence.

For most stories, the bulk of the writing will probably be in Act 2, with the struggles. The struggles should escalate until the character reaches the epiphany.

Act 3 is often short as well. Generally, you don’t want the plan to drag out. Once the character has reached the epiphany, things start to move quickly toward the climax, and then quickly from the climax to the end.

Putting it In Action

Let’s see how this structure works for one of the more popular stories of our time: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Here’s one way to break the story down into its checkpoints. (Disclaimer: These checkpoints are my interpretation of the story after the fact and may or may not agree with anything J.K. Rowling has thought about.)

Act 1 (3½ chapters)

  • Hook:
    The wizarding world is celebrating the defeat of the evil Lord Voldemort, and the infant Harry is left on the doorstep of his aunt’s house.
  • Backstory:
    Harry is bullied by his family, particularly his cousin. Also, strange things happen around him that make his aunt and uncle very angry. He is unsure of himself.
  • Trigger:
    Hagrid the giant reveals that Harry is the son of a wizard and a witch, and that he is to go to Hogwarts, a school for wizards. Harry’s Aunt Petunia accidentally reveals she’s known his past all along.

Act 2 (8½ chapters)

  • Crisis:
    Harry is shocked to find out the truth about his parents. He struggles to reconcile people’s expectations of him because of his past, and his own self-doubt and confused identity.
  • Struggle:
    Harry tries to find his place in the wizarding world. Mysterious events related to the Sorcerer’s stone occur, each one more dangerous than the last. Eventually Harry finds the Mirror of Erisid, which shows him his parents, and he becomes caught up in the identity he never had.
  • Epiphany:
    When he is caught at the Mirror or Erised by Dumbledore, Harry eventually realizes he has to learn to depend on himself and be who he is rather than the person he never was.

Act 3 (4 chapters)

  • Plan:
    Harry and his friends find out that Voldemort is back and is trying to steal the sorcerer’s stone. When they can’t find Dumbledore, they resolve to save the sorcerer’s stone themselves.
  • Climax:
    Harry and his friends navigate a series of magical challenges. At the end, Harry must leave his friends behind to face Voldemort by himself. Voldemort, who has possessed one of the teachers, tries to kill Harry, but touching Harry sends him into agony, and Harry defeats him simply by being who he is.
  • Ending:
    Harry becomes a hero to the school, and shows that he will not be as easily bullied when he returns home. This highlights his new-found confidence in himself.

Viewed through this structure, the story hangs together. There is a strong theme of accepting yourself for who you are that becomes apparent when you look at the different checkpoints. Notice, too, how the checkpoints related to Harry’s flaw of self-doubt about his identity. A lot of Harry’s struggles are directly related to his self-doubt and how it affects his interactions with the external events perpetrated by Lord Voldemort and his minions. He ultimately realizes his lack of identity (as represented by his parents) is fueling this self-doubt and that he must learn to accept himself as he is. And it is because of who he is that he is able to win in the end.

A Backbone, Not a Ball and Chain

I’ve heard people complain that using a story structure like this takes the creativity out of writing, and makes all stories sound the same. But the structure is actually very flexible, and not all checkpoints must have equal weight. For example, an action-adventure story would focus more heavily on the plot checkpoints than on the character’s emotional journey checkpoints, while a work of literary fiction would focus more heavily on the emotional journey checkpoints. The amount of time spent in each checkpoint can also vary widely.

Remember: This structure is the backbone of your story, not the flesh, and not chains wrapped around the flesh. Use the checkpoints to shape your story, not as your story. It should be deeply embedded in your writing rather than brought to the surface and made obvious. The emotional journey checkpoints should evolve naturally from the character flaw and plot checkpoints. When you plan for this to happen, your story is stronger and more satisfying.

Final Poll Results