advice for writers

Here are links to two recent posts I did on my Blue Zoo Writers blog, a site that focuses on the writing process.

Secrets of Goblins and Good Writing

William Alexander’s debut fantasy novel Goblin Secrets recently just won a National Book Award for Young People’s literature, and it’s a wonderful piece of literary storytelling. Goblin Secrets is a book that adults will enjoy as much as young readers. And for writers in particular, it offers many noteworthy examples of delightful prose and approaches to captivating storytelling.

Six Writing Tips from J.R.R. Tolkien

Are you a fan of The Hobbit? A Lord of the Rings geek? Perhaps you just enjoy a good story, well told.

For writers, here are some tips drawn from Tolkien’s work. Attention to these principles will improve your writing.


Here’s a new & recommended blog for speculative fiction writers, the Clarion Blog, “discussing the art, craft, and business of speculative fiction.”

Started this May, it offers posts with titles like: Is Your Lizard-Man a Close Talker? (by Kater Cheek). It also has guest posts from agents & editors, and offers frequent writing prompts/story starters. Stuff to tickle the imagination of any writer!

It’s connected with the well-known Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. Based at UC San Diego, 2010 sessions start end of June. Too late to register for this year, but consider it for a coming year.

For more, here’s how the Clarion Writer’s Workshop works and why so many participants go on to literary success.

It’s a famous program; it offers the chance to learn (about craft and career) from the best writers of fantasy and science fiction. (For decades, Clarion was at Michigan State University in East Lansing. In 2007, it relocated to the San Diego site.) Faculty writers in residence for 2010 include Delia Sherman, George R.R. Martin, Samuel R. Delaney, and Jeff VanderMeer. From the workshop’s website:

Clarion is an intensive six-week summer program focused on fundamentals particular to the writing of science fiction and fantasy short stories. It is considered a premier proving and training ground for aspiring writers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Instructors are among the most respected writers and editors working in the field today. Over one third of our graduates have been published and many have gone on to critical acclaim.

(I also enjoy a book on my shelves called Storyteller, by Kate Wilhelm, who co-founded and taught for many years with her husband Damon Knight at Clarion. Kate is the author of more than 30 novels; her book is chock-full of detailed tips for good storytelling, along with a behind-the-scenes look at the early years of Clarion.)

Note: Two other spin-off, independent workshops exist: Clarion South in Australia and Clarion West in Seattle, Washington. Founded by Clarion alumni, the workshops follow “the Clarion model.”

So check out the new Clarion Blog . . . if you want to connect with a high-powered community of writers with the right stuff!

Okay, maybe not the best idea I’ve had. But it combines a couple of hot movies of the year, G-Force and (coming in October) Zombieland.

Anyhow (segue!) . . . There’s a good LiveJournal discussion group called Fangs, Fur, & Fey, for writers of urban & paranormal/dark fantasy featuring fur (werewolves), fangs (vampires), or fey powers (dangerous fairies). And variants thereof.

On that site, I saw this great post by author Jennifer Lynn Barnes, evaluating the relative appeal, fictionwise, for those dark choices.

Ms. Barnes is the author of several books of urban supernatural fantasy for teen (and up) readers, such as Tattoo (2007), with this review from Publishers Weekly, via

Barnes’s book about four friends who get special powers from their temporary tattoos has some fun moments, despite the far-out premise. [. . .] Delia [one of the four] also delivers the book’s best line when facing off against evil Alecca: “You think you’re bad?… I’m on the cheerleading squad; I know what real evil looks like.”

Here’s a bit from that Fangs, Fur, & Fey post by Barnes, “On Hotness”

I’ll freely admit that typical vamps have their drawbacks. Personally, were I given a choice, I’d prefer the heart in my guy’s chest to be beating, and normally, I go for more of a healthily tanned skin tone than the whole Creature of the Night thing. That said, there’s something about vampires that just seems tragic and strong and too, too dangerous in a really Forbidden Love kind of way.

When I think of werewolves, I automatically think of intense emotions – joy, rage, love, and the like, but I see vampires as more naturally stand-offish. They’re colder, more calculating. They’re often solitary. They distance themselves from people. But here’s the thing: I think it’s a million times hotter when a character’s human emotions come as a surprise or seem somehow discordant with their supernatural nature than when they don’t. When a vampire falls in love, it’s not just romantic. It’s a miracle. It’s eternal, and in a lot of universes, the odds seem so stacked against it that any tenderness I see from Mr. Fangy makes me go totally weak at the knees.

Interesting authorial thoughts . . . going to the question of why authors chose particular types of supernatural beings, given all the choices, to populate their fantasy stories.

In the world of genre fiction (prone to stereotypes), how do engaging characters come to life?

When it works, it’s that blend of (a) ancient archetype, plus (b) a fresh story and individual personality of a specific character . . . building a tale that merges classical and very personal forms of thrills and challenges and changes that throws fuel on the story’s fire.

Check out the Fangs, Fur, & Fey site if you’re interested in the hip, fun, and very popular field of urban & paranormal fantasy today.

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

Odyssey is an outstanding speculative-fiction writers workshop, a 6-week program (early June to mid-July) with pro editors: serious workshops for serious aspiring writers on their way up.

Here though, on their website, is a fun page, called The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, that mixes great opening lines with some hysterical clunkers from the infamous Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

Here are a couple of the fantastically funny Bulwer-Lytton beginnings:

The dragon cast his wet, rheumy eyes, heavy-lidded with misery, over his kingdom – a malodorous, rot-ridden swamp, with moss cloaking brooding, gloomy cypresses, tree trunks like decayed teeth rising from stagnant ponds, creatures with mildewed fur and scales whom the meanest roadside zoo would have rejected – and hoped the antidepressants would kick in soon.

Not to be outdone in dreadfulness:

Gringran Roojner had only gone to see the Great Warlock of Loowith to get his horoscope and he couldn’t believe he’d been sent on a quest for the legendary Scromer of Nothleen to ask him for the answer to the Riddle of Shimmererer so that he could give it to the Guardians of Vooroniank, thereby gaining access to the Cave of Zothlianath where he would find the seldom seen Cowering of Groojanc, whose spittle was an absolute necessity in the making of the Warlock’s famous pound cake, the kind with raisins.

For comparative purposes, the Odyssey page intersperses a batch of good (and published) opening sentences by workshop graduates.

Check out the details of the Odyssey workshops, at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, one hour from Boston. Or read the text of this testimonial, by Lane Robins, comparing her creative writing training in college to the Odyssey summer session:

Odyssey: A Step on the Journey, by Lane Robins

I majored in Creative Writing in college. . . . But the college workshop experience wasn’t helpful for me as a genre writer. I wasn’t writing what I wanted to write, and so I wasn’t getting the feedback that I needed to get. This fact became rapidly apparent when I began sending stories out to genre magazines and collected rejections by the handful. (. . .)

Then I heard about Odyssey. Six weeks of intensive writing and critiquing, taught by the Dell Abyss editor, Jeanne Cavelos. (. . .) At Odyssey, I could ask an actual editor why the story “didn’t quite work,” something I’d heard more than enough of by then.

Until Odyssey, all my writing instruction had been focused on tiny, technical details, or story ‘rules’ that I had unconsciously absorbed after years of reading. Odyssey taught me about story structure, about asking myself questions, and about understanding the reader’s expectations as well as my own.

Odyssey taught me to look at writing from a more analytical standpoint, first while critiquing others, then in my own writing, and did so in an environment that was both challenging and nurturing.

Did it work? Robins started a new novel that fall, Maledicte, which was published by Del Rey in 2007. It was well reviewed by Publishers Weekly and Booklist, noting: “Robins is a fantasist with a future,” and “well-paced adventure and arresting characters,” respectively.

Kudos to Odyssey and director Jeanne Cavelos. Fantasy fiction is built on a tradition of great storytelling . . . and for many writers, that means unlearning the literary self-obsession too often learned in college writing programs.