April is Poetry Month – Are You Ready?!

by Karen Shoemaker

When I was younger I’d told myself when I “grew up” I was going to be a writer. Turning 30 and becoming a mother in the same year seemed pretty solid evidence that I had reached grown-up status so I started getting serious about that childhood dream

I got lucky. 

However, just because I’d read an average of 75 books a year for 20 plus years didn’t mean I knew anything about writing them so I signed up for a class at our local university. I got lucky. Ron Hansen was in town for the summer and was offering a couple of beginning writing classes. I didn’t know him then, he was just some cute guy who strolled to the front of the classroom that first day and started conversing with us about writing. He was so disarmingly charming I fell in love (Please don’t tell him or my husband about this. Let’s just keep this secret between us, okay?), and I didn’t really recognize how much valuable information he was offering about the fine art of fiction writing.

I have described his teaching method as a kind of time-release capsule of knowledge. The knowledge was given out over the six-week period in asides, conversations, assignments and readings in such an organic way that it became a part of his students, not something that we carried out in our backpacks and tossed in the corner when the semester was over. I aspire to being that kind of teacher.

I’m reminded of him often, but especially during the month of April. (That’s Poetry Month for those of you following along at home.)  If I had taken only one piece of Ron’s advice I’d still be a better person than I would have been if I hadn’t taken that class. 

 Read a little poetry every day before you sit down to write fiction, he told us.

Though he taught fiction writing, he recommended that all writers start out each day by reading poetry. This habit, he told us, would enliven our senses to the true tool we have to work with as writers: language.

He was so right. I learned to love poetry in part because of his fiction writing class. I write a little bit of poetry now and then, most of it during the month of April when I write without thinking about how bad I am at it. Instead I just get caught up in the joy of language. 


Care to join me? 

•    Commit to the Poem-A-Day Challenge.
•    Check out Found Poetry Review’s National Poetry Month project to read poems from their “troop of poetry scouts.”
•    Visit the Poetry Foundation’s annual poetry blogging extravaganza that hosts 20+ published poets.
•    Follow poetry events taking place on Twitter: @POETSorg.
•    Participate in Poem in Your Pocket on April 30.
•    Check out the poems on http://poems.com/
•    See other news and events for National Poetry Month at Poets.org.

Healing of The Core Wound

The following excerpt is from a great article on the CORE WOUND by Lara Sterling. This is written for screenplay writers but it applies to novel writers as well.

"Core wound is a term I learned while I was at Writers Boot Camp. I can’t remember how it was defined there exactly, but if I define it for you right now, the main character’s core wound is the pain the main character is suffering from, which is specifically causing her to act out. The main character flaw -- or misbehavior, as Writers Boot Camp calls it -- is the action/s the main character takes to exhibit this wound. You need your main character to have a proactive flaw, because otherwise you don't have any action. You can’t base a movie around the fact that your mother told you she didn’t love you at five years old, but you can base it around the action that, as soon as you reached adulthood, because of that formative experience, you have decided to act out by never committing in any relationship. 

The same goes for having witnessed your father beating your mother at a young age; now your movie is how you are vengeful toward men as a result. The character flaw of being fearful needs to have been caused by something specific that happened in that main character’s life; but your story is about the journey of them then overcoming that flaw. However, at some point, during the course of your story, your main character must also address the source of their misbehavior, which is encapsulated in the darkest hurt they have inside of them, e.g., their core wound.

The main character's core wound should often be healed right before the final confrontation. Or perhaps it is healed during that confrontation, but the main character cannot triumph over the opponent until it is healed. The core wound is the last one thing that is holding the main character back from being her true self, from shedding off the mistakes of the past ...


Critique Criteria for Writer Groups - If Your Group is Serious About Commercial Publication

by Michael Neff

Below are some categories and criteria for engaging in critique of novel-length fiction. This will help guide your writer's group and make the critique more focused and less arbitrary.

Premise and Plot

  • Does the premise or story concept sound high concept? Original? If so, why? Defend your conclusion. What makes it unique when compared to published novels or nonfiction in the genre? You must effectively argue this case for or against. If against, present examples why it might not be sufficiently original to capture the interest of an agent or publisher.
  • Are you able to discern the primary source of dramatic tension and complication that creates the major plot line(s)? Can you or the writer create a conflict statement for the novel that demonstrates, for example:

  • The Hand of Fatima

    A young Moor torn between Islam and Christianity, scorned and tormented by both, struggles to bridge the two faiths by seeking common ground in the very nature of God.

    Summer's Sisters

    After sharing a magical summer with a friend, a young woman must confront her friend's betrayal of her with the man she loved.

    The Bartimaeus Trilogy

    As an apprentice mage seeks revenge on an elder magician who humiliated him, he unleashes a powerful Djinni who joins the mage to confront a danger that threatens their entire world.

Part II
  • Is the first major plot point that changes the course of action and begins the second act of this novel clearly defined? Can you state it? Keep in mind that the first major plot point begins the plot line noted above, i.e., the rising action of the story as a whole.
  • Insofar as you know, does the story as presented to you display the mandatory tropes of the genre? If so, how? Be inclusive with your response. Demonstrate knowledge of your genre and its tropes. Does the author do anything to present or frame the tropes in a unique manner?
  • Does the novel possess a setting and/or unique world that works to high-concept the novel, or at least make the story much more interesting and unique? If so, what features of this setting do you find unique or valuable to the story when compared to others? Do specific circumstances or characters evolve from the setting that make it valuable? If so, what or who are they?
  • What novel(s) published in the last few years does this story most closely compare to? Why? This must be supportable with specifics and not general statements. Does it compare favorably? Is it sufficiently unique despite the comparison? If so, why?
  • Why is this story, as presented, one that publishers will buy? To put it more simply, why is this story one that readers will pay to read? Respond to this with clarity and detail.

Narrative, Scenes and Style
How does the story read? Each one of the following bullet points must be addressed.
  • Is the prose itself completely free of errors and ambiguity? Does the writer say more with less or is she/he wordy? Are the verbs sufficiently active or too much variation of "to be"? Also, is the writer good at description? Not sure? Ask them to provide examples of description of objects, events and people.
  • Is the reader oriented spatially or do characters feel disembodied? If this narrative were film, would it make sense?
  • Is the narrative sufficiently engaging? If yes, what makes it engaging? If no, what should be done to make it engaging? Be specific.
  • Does the narrative include, as a whole, the three primary levels of conflict, i.e., internal, social, and plot related? If so, list them one at a time, and their context. If not, what should be done to include them?
 Part II
  • Are the scenes set properly? Do they have a defined beginning, middle and end? Do we get a clear concept of who/what/where, etc?
  • Does the prose itself evidence mastery of the form given the demands of the genre? If so, how? If not, why? What can be done to improve it?
  • Does the narrative present situations, issues, circumstances, characters or plots that seem too predictable or stale from overuse? Or would you term the narrative more unpredictable and original, insofar as possible given the demands of the genre? 
  • If more than one point of view, does the writer juggle the multiple POVs with skill? If so, how? If not, why not? Ask for more narrative samples as necessary.


The main thing here is to focus on the manner in which the characters reveal themselves in the course of the narrative, via dialogue and action.
  • Do they feel real or simply two dimensional?
  • Do we observe them at their best or worst in the course of performing an action?
  • Is the author using show-don't-tell techniques to portray them or simply delivering exposition?
  • Do you feel any sympathy or empathy towards them?
  • Is there anything unique about them or do they feel overly stereotypical?


Three Things I Know Now that I’m an Expert

by Karen Shoemaker

The novel I sometimes thought would never see the light of day is now one year past its release date and that makes me an expert on all things you could ever possibly want to know about a successful publishing career.

Okay, maybe not an expert, and maybe not on all things you could ever want to know. But I can come up a couple of things I think writers should know about publishing that could help them as they march toward literary stardom.

1. Start building you platform within two days after birth. If you haven’t developed a significant network and become a known authority on a topic connected to your book by the time you’re out of elementary school you might as well forget it.  Just kidding. Actually everything I could say (and more) about platforms has already been said well by Brooke Warner and a number of others all over the web. What I think is even more important than your platform is you. You need to be a good person who is good to other people. I know, it sounds cheesy to say that, but really, it’s true. People who run reading series, write reviews and blogs, recommend you and your work to others, invite you to speak at conferences (or accept your pleading to let you in) are first and foremost people. Don’t be an asshole toward them, help them help you, and if you can help them in return, all the better. Write reviews for other authors, recommend other writers to be a part of a reading series, run a reading series and invite them yourself. As a writer, you’re a member of a literary community; be a good literary citizen by actively supporting the community, not just yourself.

2. Social media posts do not a literary oeuvre make.  Social media in general is a Vampire that will Bleed You Dry if you let it and the blood it is draining from you is your creative energy, the very energy you need to be a writer. The barrage of advice about what you need to do before, during and after your book’s publication date always includes the directive to take up tweeting, facebooking, pinning, gramming and blogging on a regular, witty, well-researched basis. I spent far more time than I care to admit creating accounts on various platforms, setting/forgetting/resetting passwords, designing themed pages, staring thoughtfully at stats, and composing pithy bits of wit and wisdom for the various sites. If you do an internet search of my name now, a year later, maybe maybe you’ll find me on Facebook where you’ll learn incredibly important things, such as: 

a) I like chocolate; 
b) I’m thinking about letting my hair grow out to its natural gray; 
c) I have a new grandbaby (okay, that one is important); 
d) links to show that my novel actually has had some success beyond being loved by my family and closest friends (yay!). 

What you would probably find if you find me at all is evidence of lots and lots of what I think of as “pretend writing.”  If you could superimpose a time line on what else I typed into my computer for the three months before and three months after my novel’s release date you wouldn’t find any evidence of any literary endeavor. What. So. Ever. Am I embarrassed about that? A little, but mostly I’m just glad I pulled up in time. I’m writing again, in part because each morning when I sit down at my computer I set a timer and when the time goes off, off goes the “pretend writing enabler” (i.e. social media). My friend Trish Lear turned me onto a time management technique called the Pomodoro Technique and it has changed my life, but it doesn’t work for everyone I know so it’s not a miracle of any sorts. What I do know is you have to find something that works for you and do it. Keep working. Eyes on the prize, babies. Keep them there.        

3. Don’t spend so much time worrying about how the book is doing, or what you’re supposed to be doing, or what you should have done better that you forget to have fun. I write serious fiction, by that I mean my novels and stories have serious themes: life, pandemics, war, God and the absence thereof. It’s no wonder I sometimes have trouble getting myself to start work each day. More than once I have written myself sick because I’ve created a sick sick sick character. Sometimes I set the timer not so much to get myself to start working, but to stop - to remind myself to get up and walk away from the computer, to look outdoors, smell the coffee, call a friend. Anything to help me remember I am alive in my own reality. After staring into the abyss of a scene involving godless violence, it helps to remember, as the immortal bard Walt Whitman wrote, “I am large. I contain multitudes.” I need to remember to let the multitudes out to play on a regular basis.Oops, there goes the timer. 

Remember: time goes faster than you think it should, so don’t waste it: Live. Write. Be.

Karen Gettert Shoemaker is the author of the novel The Meaning of Names, published by Red Hen Press in 2014, and the short story collection Night Sounds and Other Stories, published by Dufour Editions, 2002.


RESTORING THE TROLL TROPE - Concepts and Solutions Regarding the Use of Tropes in New Fantasy Fiction

Using the Rowling "Harry Potter" approach, you create a sympathetic underdog and render highly imaginative events with masterful narrative while also introducing more characters who are unique and endearing to the reader. Meanwhile, as mysteries writhe beneath the surface and the reader is absolutely gripped, you introduce the trope (e.g., a roving killer troll) in a circumstance that can't help but create immediate concern.

      - Michael Neff

Which tropes must you employ in fantasy fiction vs. those you must reconsider, and perhaps discard or alter? What techniques might an unknown writer use to avoid overdone-to-a-char tropes and create a competitive fantasy fiction novel that trumps the slush pile? ... A writer who shall not be named was recently asked in a forum to identify what she believed to be overused fantasy tropes (YA or adult). As follows:

Golden-haired princesses, elves that are beautiful and magical and powerful and the most powerful race, grumpy dwarves that live underground, talking dragons, magical swords, white steeds, unicorns, vampires in general, looming castles, wizards with staffs (seriously why can't they have some other enchanted object?), female characters that are thin (particularly protagonists), the prince is always the most desired choice for a boyfriend, Caucasian protagonists and races, other races that resemble humans (Elves, dwarves, orcs are all roughly humanoid), female characters able to talk with animals, some magical object of power that will save the world, helpful hermits that always turn up at the right time, green eyes ...

A major problem for you, the modern day fantasy or young adult fantasy writer, consists of the struggle to identify which tropes are acceptable right now in the genre, which tropes should be modified or "refitted" and returned to the battle, and which should be avoided as if they were mines set to explode you into rejection letter hell.

As a writer workshop leader, I stress high concept stories (insofar as humanly or inhumanly possible) and the ability to view your work or the work of others with the eyes of a professional in the business--in other words, would you put your career on the line for that novel in an editorial meeting surrounded by senior editors, your bosses and the always bitching marketing department who demand great marketing hooks? Let's see one example of the contrast that becomes apparent at such time the brain of a hypothetical neophyte fantasy writer is compared with that of a veteran literary agent.

Through the eyes of the writer penning a story about a prophesied dragon-riding princess known as "The Chosen One" who wields a flaming sword of power while on her way, together with her favorite faerie, Glynfee, to visit the Wizard Crumgar at Hell's Keep and enlist his aid in finding a team of elves and dwarves to help her defeat evil and thus fulfill the prophecy:

I've seen dragons and prophecies, wizards and such, and I love Tolkien and Ann and Robert and all the movies with these creatures in them ... they're everywhere, others love them, and this tells me such things are what people will always wish to read about.

In other words, the fact of reading and seeing overused tropes done so many times by great authors, or in films, or in the Halloween costume store, leads to the assumption that because they are ubiquitous or prevalent they are somehow immortal, never to be overlooked or overdone.

A novel-dooming assumption if there ever was one.

Can you imagine the hundreds, perhaps thousands of manuscripts like the one above that don't stand a chance? Or do they? Let's see the same manuscript or story concept through the eyes of a veteran fantasy agent:

Oh my God, another dragon-riding princess out to fulfill a prophecy ... And let's see, some elves and faeries, of course, what else? A flaming sword? Argh! I'm getting two hundred of these a week. Can't anyone write anything that sounds original? I'm suffering an existential crisis ...

The literary agent, on the look for high concept stories, something unique she can sell a publisher, is going mad after reading query letters about novels that all begin to sound the same. Can you sympathize with her? Isn't she more likely to focus on a story that doesn't sound like all the rest? Isn't she/he? Isn't THAT the story you should be writing, aspiring fantasy author? Shouldn't you try to stand out from that Montana-sized slush mob from archetypal flaming-sword hell?

But how to do it? Besides simply avoiding the mention and use of faeries, witches, flaming swords, and so forth, let's explore and consider other ways. You might high-concept a fantasy novel by creating a unique setting for the novel. A writer we know recently created a special tree hundreds of miles in diameter called The Brood Haven and populated it with various cultures and creatures, and explained it in such a way that it came alive and fascinated all who heard it. One of our writers at Author Salon has created a unique and complex fantasy version of Manhattan, but one alive with personality in a world that somewhat mirrors our own. Settings such as these will help convince agents and editors to take the novel seriously.

Another way is to invent a culture in a fantasy world different from other trope cultures, many of which typically mimic medieval or Tolkien-esque cultures. But how? Look for a culture extant on this planet (or from the past) that is unique ... search New Guinea, South America, Africa, the South Seas, even American cults, or perhaps just Thailand, and brainstorm a new and unique culture for your world, but unharness the imagination. Be aggressive with it. Between unusual cultures and settings, you create a hooky little pouch within which to insert those tropes the genre demands and which never grow old enough to go away: the battle of good vs evil, the game of romance, the need for a hero, conflicts between allies, among others.

Or let's pretend you simply MUST have a troll in your story, maybe even a killer troll. Okay, fine, we'll leave it out of the query letter or pitch simply because it might be a FLUSH WORD (i.e., agent hears or reads word and in her mind a hand reaches out and pushes the flush button).

Using the Rowling "Harry Potter" approach, you create a sympathetic underdog and render highly imaginative events with masterful narrative while also introducing more characters who are unique and endearing to the reader. Meanwhile, as mysteries writhe beneath the surface and the reader is absolutely gripped, you introduce the trope (e.g., a roving killer troll) in a circumstance that can't help but create immediate concern (as opposed to an early exposition comment about "the Trolls of Hell's Keep"), and attempt, insofar as possible, to make an aspect of the killer troll a bit different from other troll tropes. And while you're at it, introduce the monster without reference to it being a troll, calling it something else (the "Bolly Wumpus" or whatever), and only later, a character might say, "In another time, they called them trolls. But these aren't really trolls, not like our parents knew them ..." etc.

In effect, you counterbalanced the overused trope by giving it a new twist, introducing it with a new set of clothes or background, or by containing it within a special setting or circumstance. Keep in mind that none of the aforementioned is possible without imagination. It's your best friend. Push it to the utmost and it will help you stand out from the flame-sword slush mob and get a contract.

And as a bonus, your agent and editor will love you.

btw, anyone invent a steampunk Troll yet? No? ... Yes?

- Michael Neff