Monday, February 23, 2015

News: "Plink" to Appear in Best Horror of the Year, Volume Seven

I got news last week that my short story "Plink" will be appearing in Ellen Datlow's upcoming Best Horror of the Year, Volume Seven.  Needless to say, I'm thrilled.  "Plink" is probably my favorite of my short stories, and I'm happy to know it'll find a larger audience because of its inclusion in this always excellent and highly respected anthology.  What's weird is that The Best Horror of the Year series collects stories printed in the previous year, so when I got the email saying my story had been chosen my first thought was, "Wait, 'Plink' was published?"  I originally sold the story to PS Publishing back in 2010, but I didn't know it had ever been published.  It wasn't until I received my fantastic looking copy of Post Scripts #32 in the mail (after receiving Ellen's email) that I actually had proof.  So it was all sort of backwards-happening, surprising, and also humbling, especially after seeing the table of contents I've pasted below.

The Atlas of Hell                   by Nathan Ballingrud            
Winter Children                     by Angela Slatter                           
A Dweller in Amenty              by Genevieve Valentine         
Outside Heavenly                  by Rio Youers  
Shay Corsham Worsted        by  Garth Nix  
Allocthon                                by  Livia Llewellyn  
Chapter Six                            by Stephen Graham Jones              
This is Not for You                  by Gemma Files                    
Interstate Love Song  (Murder Ballad No. 8)    by CaitlĂ­n R. Kiernan
The Culvert                            by Dale Bailey    
Past Reno                              by Brian Evenson                  
The Coat Off His Back           by Keris McDonald                                                       
The worms crawl in               by Laird Barron                     
The Dog’s Home                    by Alison Littlewood   
Tread Upon the Brittle Shell by Rhoads Brazos        
Persistence of Vision             by Orrin Grey     
It Flows From the Mouth by Robert Shearman         
Wingless Beasts                    by Lucy Taylor            
Departures                             by Carole Johnstone   
Ymir                                        by John Langan   
Plink                                       by Kurt Dinan    
Nigredo                                  by Cody Goodfellow 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

5 Books on Writing That Helped Me

When I started writing, I discovered pretty quickly that I had a lot to learn.  I still remember Sam W. Anderson holding up the short story I'd submitted at a workshop for critique and saying, "You have no idea what the correct format for submitting a story, do you?  I'll have to explain that to you because you can't turn in a story looking like this to a publisher."  I'm pretty sure it was single spaced, but I'm not certain.  What I am certain about though is that I've always hated being ignorant of things.  When I find holes in my knowledge, I try to fill them the best I can. Most writers will tell you the best advice they can give you if you want to be a writer is to--say it with me--read a lot and write a lot.  I'll add a third, read a lot of books on writing.  Some really successful authors out there have written books discussing writing craft.  Some are real stinkers, but here are five books that I found useful.

Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell
This is the first book on writing I ever purchased (10 years ago, almost to the day), and I still go back to it on occasion. Bell has his own system for plotting--the LOCK method--that was a good starting point for me.  It covers pretty much all parts of writing a novel, and gives a lot of helpful choices for outlining, plotting, and scene construction.  As a beginner, I learned a lot from this book.  It really was the perfect place to start.

On Writing by Stephen King
An obvious choice, and one that everyone else mentions, and for good reason--it's excellent.  The first half of the book is King's autobiography as a writer, the second half an exploration of the craft.  I love both parts, but what I really appreciate are the specific nuts and bolts lessons and strategies in the second half.  I find that a lot of books on writing are general in nature--Show, Don't Tell!; Outline or Don't; Don't Use Adverbs!--but King's book, while he does hit on that stuff, offers up a lot of very specific advice on how to do things.  Also, I still teach his lesson on writing description, and I'll never forget his comparing writing to telepathy.  Great stuff.

Story Engineering by Larry Brooks
This is an interesting book that argues that most blockbuster best sellers follow the same plot architecture, almost down to the page.  Even if you disagree with his thesis, Brooks has a lot of really useful strategies in this, breaking the book into "six core competencies" that I find pretty helpful.  The competency he spends the most time on is story structure, something I spend a lot of time thinking about and working on.  Brooks' site,, has a lot of great information and advice, too.

Now Write! Mysteries
I just finished this book today.  75 (give or take) mystery and suspense novelists each contribute essays and exercises on writing crime fiction.  Since this contains so many different authors writing on different topics, not all of the pieces are going to hit home, but you'll definitely find helpful advice in here somewhere.  I especially found pieces in the Creating Scenes, Revision, and From Book to Series sections extremely helpful.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
I mentioned this book in my last blog post.  Lamott's book is more a comforting "I'm-with-you-this-writing-thing-is-hard-but-here-are-some-things-I've-learned-that-might-help" book than a nuts and bolts, how-to book.  But maybe that's why I like it so much.  Lamott's like a mentor you meet up with for coffee who commiserates and offers advice.  Or maybe she's more like a therapist.  Either way, it's great.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Piecemeal Manifesto - Entry 2 - I Embrace the Shitty First Draft

I try to read a lot of books by author's about writing.  It's comforting in some weird way to hear a writer talk about the struggles he or she goes through.  On days when I feel like I'm absolutely terrible at this, I can pull down a writing book and usually get a piece of advice or solace that makes me feel somewhat better.

Probably the most useful piece of advice I've ever gotten from a book about writing came from Anne Lamott's excellent BIRD BY BIRD.  Obviously it's a book about writing, but it's also about Lamott's life, lessons she's learned, and whatnot.  Lamott's also honest in ways a lot of other writers aren't.  She talks about feeling jealous of other writers and just how damn hard writing can be at times.  That honesty is what makes the book one I return to a lot.

Anyway, the piece of advice I mentioned above?  It's this - Lamott is a proponent of giving yourself permission to "write the shitty first draft."  I like so much about this.  First, the idea of giving yourself permission.  Writers know that, as someone (Michael Crichton?) said, "Books aren't written, they're rewritten."  But man, we don't want them to be.  We want them to be right the first time, with the golden light of the universe shining down on us and making that first draft beautiful and ready to publish.  But they never are.  At least not for me.  And if they are for you, keep it to yourself because I hate you.

But what I really like here is the admission that stories develop as you write.  I usually discover my story and characters as I write.  I outline, sure, but it doesn't take too much drafting before I have a better idea.  But somehow in my head, I want it right the first time.  I don't want to have to put the extra work in because it is just that--work.  Good work, to be sure, but work nonetheless.  So I outline and outline and take copious notes, putting off the inevitable actual drafting, writing Chapter 1 and starting because I want it right the first time.  Hell, I'm going through that now, outlining and plotting a novel I should just start writing and figuring out along the way.  I need to trust that'll it work.  It sure did with THE WATER TOWER 5.  From shitty first draft to sale took less than two years.  That may seem like a long time, but that includes the four month agent search as well.  And I outlined the sucker for a long time.  If I'd just given myself permission to write a terrible first draft sooner, who knows how long it might have taken?

Because here's the thing, and this is what I need to remind myself of all the time--I'm a much better reviser.  I work so much better when I have pages to work with.  But drafting, man, I hate it.  Following Lamott's advice though takes a lot of that pressure off though.  I can get the ideas down, work out the plot and the characters, then use those pages as my real starting point.  I don't have to get it right, I just need to be writing.  Others may feel differently, working and reworking the same page until it's right and moving on, but this is what works for me.  Lamott too, apparently.  It reminds me of that other writing commandment I follow that's closely related--Write it, then right it.

Heck, let's give the final word to Lamott as she's so much to the point than I am:

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something -- anything -- down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft -- you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft -- you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it's loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy. 

TL;DR: Sometimes you just need to vomit all of your words and ideas onto the page then clean it up later.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Review: Geoff Herbach’s Felton Reinstein Trilogy: STUPID FAST, NOTHING SPECIAL, and I’M WITH STUPID

Okay, let’s get to it--Geoff Herbach, the author of the three novels making up the Felton Reinstein Trilogy, is amazing.

Wait, I jumped the gun there.  First, I guess you should know the set-up, which is this:  Felton Reinstein, one time high school loser, goes through a massive growth spurt at the end of his sophomore year and suddenly is incredibly fast.  Like stupid fast, hence the title of the first novel.  Now, the jocks who once tortured him want him on their teams, girls are actually talking to him, and he’s left confusingly drifting between the world of anonymity he once knew and a world where the spotlight is on him.  (Or something like that, I’m pretty much terrible at writing summaries, give me a break.)

So you’re probably thinking like I was, “Oh, so these are YA sports novels?”

But no.  And this is why Herbach is amazing.  They're sports novels in that Felton plays football, runs track, and becomes friends with other athletes, but to call it a sports novel, well, that diminishes them. These are books about family relationships, the search for identity, and how being a teenager is confusing and confounding.  Think Chris Crutcher (probably the highest compliment I can give)--sports are the set-up, but it’s more about the people.

Oh, and the novels are all absolutely hilarious, and makes me insanely jealous as a writer.  See, when I started STUPID FAST, I thought it was going to be about Felton becoming an athlete and the football games and whatnot.  But by chapter two or three, it was this other thing entirely.  And you just go with it because Felton is awesome, his struggles are real, and Herbach is a damn funny writer.  He does the same thing in NOTHING SPECIAL.  I went in expecting it to be about Felton’s football season, but no, again Herbach makes it about something else entirely, something that's so much more fulfilling than it would have been if he’d focused on the sports.  I guess that’s where Herbach is one of my new favorites--he understands it’s about character.  Felton, his mom, Andrew (his brother), Gus (his best friend)…all of them read like real people with real lives and real problems, which is pretty much the goal any novelist should have.

So yeah, get these novels.  Now.  They’re fast, funny, touching, and honest.   I came to these novels at the right time, just when I was struggling to figure out how to approach my next novel.  I got fifty pages into STUPID FAST and realized, “THIS is how you do it.  THIS is what I want to be able to do.”  I guess I owe Herbach a drink for that.

And in the spirit of honesty, no, I haven’t read I’M WITH STUPID yet.  I’ll start that today.  But I’m pretty darn confident in recommending the trilogy without having read the last one.  Herbach is that strong of a writer,  no Godfather III/Hangover 3/Spiderman 3 worries here.

TL;DR: I’m terrible at reviews, but the Felton Reinstein Trilogy is amazing and if there was any justice in the world Geoff Herbach would be on the NYT Best Sellers List.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Piecemeal Manifesto : Entry 1 : Be Who You Are

A Long Story Explaining a Basic Concept:
When I started writing back in 2006, I wrote horror short stories.  I suppose that was mostly because of Stephen King.  I'd devoured all of his collections and novels since high school, so it felt natural to try that.  Over the course of a half-dozen years, I had some decent success selling short stories, some of which I'll eventually post on here for you to read.  I also met a lot of other horror writers who became my friends and taught me a lot of details about the publishing world.  Eventually though, I got tired of writing short stories and wanted to try a novel.  The obvious progression was to continue what I'd been doing, so I spent three years (or four or five years, I can't remember, but it was a long time) writing a horror novel.  LUCKY TOWN didn't have traditional horror elements (i.e. - no supernatural occurrences, no monsters, etc.), but was definitely dark--a kid's father has a breakdown and relocates the family to the swamp where he is manipulated by a mysterious passerby into starting a cult that is headed for a Jonestown Massacre-like situation unless the kid can stop it.  So yeah, dark.  If you need further evidence of the mood of the book, my soundtrack as I wrote was a lot of Nine Inch Nails and Trent Reznor's soundtracks.  

Ultimately, LT was read and rejected by nineteen agents, and after cycling through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, I was left wondering what to write next.  Another dark YA novel seemed logical.  It's what I knew from my short stories and LT.  I also knew the horror publishers and agents, and felt I had come really close with LT.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized something that pretty much changed my writing life - I hated writing horror.  Yes, I'd sold a dozen or so horror short stories and had spent three or so years writing a horror novel, but I realized I didn't like who I was when I was writing in that genre.  Because here's the thing - I'm not a dark person.  I have a very dark sense of humor, sure, and can be gross with the best of them, but my overall personality isn't that dark.  And as much as I liked the concept of LT, I didn't find any enjoyment in writing it.  The people, the mood and tone, the plot, all were bleak, and that's not me.  Hell, I really don't even like horror movies that much.  More than anything, I like being funny, or at least trying to be so.  And with that realization in mind, I decided to write something more fitting of me and who I am - a schemer, a plotter, and a smart ass.  And with that in mind, two years later I'd written, gotten representation for, and subsequently sold THE WATER TOWER 5.  

Why I Succeeded Where I'd Failed Before:
I have every belief that WT5 sold because I loved writing it.  Was it hard work?  Yes.  But it was fun work.  I love those characters and that world and their scheming.  I was myself when I wrote that book, and I think it translates to the page.  I'm pretty sure anyone who knows me and reads the novel would say, "Yeah, that's Kurt."  It's my sense of humor - sarcastic, smart ass-y, and somewhat juvenile.  The novel also reads super fast, which is what I like my books to do.  I like plot and dialogue and twists and ensemble casts.  The novel has all of that.  Being myself, writing the book I'd truly want to read, is what made WT5 marketable.  And I think it will connect with people who like stories like I do.

So of course if you remember the introduction to this manifesto, you recall that I struggled with how to approach the WT5 follow-up.  For awhile I thought I needed to write like the most popular YA authors of the day, writing serious, issue-driven novels that get write-ups in magazines and get taught in high school classes.  I figured that was the next step, writing something "bigger", more important, really trying to establish myself as an up-and-coming YA author.  (Man, that sounds so pretentious, right?)   And for a couple of weeks, I played with ideas that might fit what I considered "important." Ultimately though, none of them stuck.  And why?  Because, like with trying to write horror, it's not me.  I'm just not a big issue-driven person.  I could probably fake a novel about a heavy teen issue, but I wouldn't like doing it, and I have no doubt it would be terrible because--once again--it wouldn't be me.

My point...finally:
That's the biggest lesson I've learned so far in my writing - I shouldn't try to be someone I'm not; I need to be myself.  It sounds simple, but it's definitely something I forget from time to time.  So instead of trying to force myself into some preconceived notion of what a successful YA author writes, I'll write what I like to and hope it finds an audience.  That's better than forcing myself into something I'm not, because that's never worked for me in the past.  Besides, I think I can write about serious issues in a lighter way if I choose.  But right now, I want to write fun, funny, entertaining books that read fast.  And that's what I'm going to do.

TL;DR: When in doubt, write who you are.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Piecemeal Manifesto: The Introduction

Selling THE WATER TOWER 5 led to a weird sort of crisis of conscience for me.  I was excited to get started on the next novel, ready to writing something even better.  Because as happy as I am with WT5, I think I can do better.  And isn’t that what I should be thinking?  That “yeah, I like this, but time to push myself and go even bigger”?  But I quickly ran into a problem--I wasn’t sure exactly what book to write. Here’s the thing, all of my favorite YA authors--Andrew Smith, Chris Crutcher, AS King--write books that I don’t write.  Yes, we all write YA, but they write what I would call important books--books that are about the important issues teenagers deal with.  They write books that can change lives, get people to talk about what we should all talk about, but don’t, and really affect their readers lives.  Me, I write fast, fun reads with the sole intent to make the reader laugh.  See the difference?

(Note: This isn’t to say the authors mentioned above don’t write books that are funny.  I mean Crutcher always makes me laugh, and jesus, have you read Smith’s WINGER yet?  It’s hilarious.  But it’s also about something bigger, and that’s just not me.  I love those books, but I couldn’t write those books.  Or at least I don’t write those books.)

So in trying to figure out the next book, and in wanting it to be bigger and better, I was stuck on how to do just that.   Because bigger and better to me equals important.  And I didn’t know how to bridge that gap.  I fought with this for a couple of weeks while deciding on what to write next, and finally came to a solution.  The Manifesto portions of this blog will be dedicated to what I’ve come to understand about myself as a writer, lessons I’ve learned, and things I’ve come to believe about reading and writing.  It’ll also cover, in the upcoming Entry 1, my solution on how to write my next novel.

(Note 2: This all reads like I’m a little headcase-y, which maybe I am.  I tend to overthink things sometimes, no doubt.  Still, working through this is definitely going to help my writing.  I’m sure of that.  And maybe it'll help someone else out there, too.)  

Monday, February 2, 2015

Okay, I'm Serious About This Blogging Thing This Time, I Swear!

I’ve made a new goal for myself which is to blog at least twice a week.  This is sort of a cheat entry though in that I’m counting this blog--about my intention to blog more-- as one of my two due this week.  Yeah, like I said, a cheat, but sue me.

What I’m trying to figure out is what I’m going to focus this blog on.  Back before I sold THE WATER TOWER 5, I used this blog to sort of chart that journey.  But now, well, I don’t know.  There’s still a long way to go until WT5 is published--April 2016, baby!--and a lot of work to be done with edits and promotions and whatnot, so maybe I’ll continue explaining that process as it develops.

But also, and this is just a thought I’ve had, maybe I’ll post writing advice.  I don’t see myself as a fountain of knowledge or an expert by any means, but maybe it would be helpful to share some of the things that have worked for me.  I know I still search out articles and blogs on writing looking for tips and tricks and exercises that help me develop.  And book reviews, too.  And interview.  Shit, I guess more of the same, right?  Since that’s what I’ve been writing anyway, or at least was doing sporadically.

I will make this blog semi-interesting with this bit of information--I now have a film agent.   This wasn’t something I expected, it just sort of happened.   My agent passed my novel around to a few novel-to-film agents, and someone at CAA loved it.  Now, the chances of TW5 becoming a film are INCREDIBLY SLIM, but it’s  fun to dream about.  And the fact that someone at CAA, probably the biggest talent agency in the world, wants to try to show my book around is really exciting.  Again, it’s something fun to dream about. 

Okay, enough rambling.  Off to read some articles on book promotion.  No, seriously.  This is the sort of thing I do with my time.  Now you understand why I was shortlisted as People’s Sexiest Man Alive.

Until next time.