Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Trace gets a starred review from Publisher's Weekly!

So, this happened; thus providing a kind of validation I hadn't known I wanted.

Yes, I was hoping to get more reviews from more sources before the book came out, but I was thinking peer reviews, advance readers, bloggers & such.

This is really cool.

An "amazing" debut.


 The Curse of Jacob Tracy
Holly Messinger, Author 
Stellar writing and a strong story define Messinger’s amazing debut. After Jacob “Trace” Tracy nearly died at Antietam during the Civil War, he became connected to the spirit world. He tries to hide his ability to see the dead, working as a hired hand guiding wagon trains out West in the late 1880s. When a girl is accused of murder, Trace is lured into using his gifts to protect the innocent, but the cost is high. Messinger’s writing is a clinic on how to immerse the reader in a historic setting (such as his details on how 19th-century newspapers operated) without drowning readers in facts. Psychological and visceral horror mix in set pieces that build to a climax as Trace is forced to confront his fears about his abilities. Trace and his partner, Boz, quickly endear themselves to the reader, bantering and battling in a manner clearly inspired by the old Weird Tales; their interracial friendship (Trace is white and Boz is black) is well written. Though there’s a satisfying closure to Trace’s arc, this should be the start of many more Weird Western adventures. (Dec.)

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

would you rather...

So last weekend a guy I know was organizing a "great race" kind of relay to raise money for the homeless. One of the challenge stations was sponsored by Schendler pest control, and contestants had to either eat bugs (mealworms, mostly) or answer questions about an essay describing Schendler's company history.

Out of 400 contestants, not one took the test.

Which just goes to show people would rather eat bugs than take a reading comprehension test.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

short stories: P90X for your writer's brain

I'm a novelist by nature; I tell epic sagas. But at this distance, I can say I learnt the most about plot structure by writing short pieces, both stories and nonfiction essays. A story is, after all, a thematic argument, and if you don't know how to structure a convincing essay, neither will you be able to write a compelling story.

I remember distinctly the first two stories I wrote that I knew worked. It's significant to say that I wrote them after I'd taken a couple of pivotal classes in business writing and persuasive writing. Those classes impressed upon me that I was writing for an audience, and the audience couldn't see all the dream-logic explanations in my head—they needed concrete evidence.

I wrote those two short stories ("Galatea" and "The Bridgeport Job") about Quinn Taylor, a character I had already written three novels about. I did this deliberately; I knew the character and the world very well and so guessed I could be succinct with her. The plots themselves were conceived in my head whole, in thematic terms—I imagined the character's inner conflict and set out to resolve it. 

This isn't to say I knew exactly what would happen, but I had a set of possible options from the conflict I had established, and I picked and chose at every juncture. It was an eerie and awesome feeling of power, to steer the story from scene to scene instead of just wandering unsure of what would happen next. Those two stories were the first to get a thumbs-up from my writer's group—even though they had been "meh" about the Quinn Taylor novels. 

I never tried to sell those stories. They are decent, not great. But I treasure what I learned from them.

And so I say, even if you dislike short stories there is value in writing them. They are a golden opportunity to practice structure and theme and how they work together: 

1. Establish your theme (a/k/a motivating conflict, a/k/a thesis topic) at the beginning to intrigue the reader. This can be man-against-man, man-against the world, or man-against-himself.

2. Develop the theme/argument via examples (situational conflict) through the middle.

3. Resolve the theme by bringing it to a logical conclusion, and make it satisfying by addressing all possible counter-arguments (loose threads, plot holes).

Another big advantage to learning through short stories is economy. Short stories can seem much less intimidating to a beginning writer in terms of time commitment. Short stories can be read and evaluated at a gulp, which means you get more meaningful critiques from your writer's group. And fitting a story into 5000 words forces you to be efficient with characterization and description. Nothing will teach you to excise excess modifiers like a word count restriction. Every word has to count in a short story, so you learn to be precise.

So if your novel isn't getting the raves you hoped for, and you find yourself protesting, "It gets really good after the first few chapters!" take your writer's brain to the gym and push it through a few short stories. Low reps, heavy weight. You'll be amazed at the difference.