James Van Pelt

Writing Words Fantastical and Otherwise

A CHRISTMAS THEMED TALK ON CREATING VIVID CHARACTERS

I was able to do something last night that I have wanted to do for a long time. The Western Colorado Writers Forum asked me to do a presentation for their monthly writers series, so I proposed a talk about creating vivid characters.

But this was a DECEMBER talk. What an opportunity! I based the entire presentation on Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol.”

And what a master-class demonstration of creating a character that story is! I argue that character can be revealed in seven different ways (with the possibility for an 8th technique): appearance, speech, actions, thought, how others respond to the character, how the character controls the environment, and what the narrator says directly about the character (the 8th, which I recently realized, is what the writer reveals about the character’s past).

Dickens uses all those techniques brilliantly in “A Christmas Carol,” starting with the one I advise writers to avoid: having the narrator directly state what the character is. Dickens starts the story with this technique, though:

“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.”

Dickens goes on like this for three more paragraphs, and its wonderful.

I pointed out that for many stories, the plot is a vehicle to carry a dynamic character from being one kind of person to another kind. “A Christmas Carol” certainly is that kind of story.

Then, Dickens uses the same techniques he used to introduce Scrooge to the readers to show that he’s a diffferent man at the end. He describes Scrooge’s appearance, speech, deeds, thoughts, control of his environment, how other characters react to him, and, finally, direct narrative exposition.

The story is a tour de force of character presentation.

The story ends with the same technique he used to begin, narrator exposition:

“Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

“He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”

 

Book Giveaway of The Experience Arcade

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Experience Arcade and Other Stories by James Van Pelt

The Experience Arcade and Other Stories

by James Van Pelt

Giveaway ends December 15, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

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Review of The Experience Arcade

Don D’Ammassa reviewed THE EXPERIENCE ARCADE AND OTHER STORIES. The killer quote for me is “There are very few writers who can turn out a steady stream of high quality stories. James Van Pelt is one of those talented few.” I’m glad the collection worked for him.

Experience Arcade Cover Reveal

My new collection, THE EXPERIENCE ARCADE AND OTHER STORIES, is now up for preorder at both Amazon and Barnes and Noble. We can now reveal the entire cover! I still get all squishy inside when I see my name on a book. It makes me feel like I was when I was ten-years old at the library, looking for which science fiction authors my book would appear between when I grew up (it was Jack Vance and A.E. Van Vogt).

 

New Collection: The Experience Arcade

My fifth collection of short stories, The Experience Arcade, will debut at World Fantasy in San Antonio in November.

The collection consists of twenty-four of the thirty-five short stories that I have sold from my write-a-story-a-week-for-a-year that I started in 2015.  I’m trying some new approaches with this collection:

First, every story has a brief teaser for the readers, sort of like what Analog does for their short stories.  Second, every story has a postscript for writers and teachers that talks a little bit about the thinking that went into the writing of the stories.

I don’t know if the additional material will make the book more interesting or not.  I do know that when I was young, I never read introductions or epilogues.  As an older reader, I find the extra information very valuable.  We’ll see how the experiment in format goes.

I’m also creating a web page with support material specifically for teachers who would like to use any of the stories (or the entire collection!) in class.  You can see what I’ve done so far by clicking on The Experience Arcade: A Teacher’s Guide in the menu at the top of the page.

My experience on how best to promote strong sales that I learned from my previous books isn’t very helpful, I’m afraid.  My first collection, Strangers and Beggars, and my first novel, Summer of the Apocalypse, did well.  The sales on the other books have been hard to graph.  I can’t see a pattern, and I don’t know why some books do better than others (other than the obvious that maybe some books are just, well, better).

We will see.

How to Improve as a Writer

I finished my two-day class called “Creative Writing for Teachers who would Like to Write” yesterday. I think it went well. I sent them this letter to the teachers today to give them some suggestions for what they can do for themselves as writers on their own (besides reading, reading, reading and writing, writing, writing).

Hi, all,

We talked a little about outside resources for writers that can help you on your journey, so I thought I could send you some specifics.

The first is writing workshops or writing retreats and conferences. A workshop would be where you meet up with other writers to share and critique each others work. A retreat is sort of like a writer’s vacation where you go to write in the company of other writers. A conference is more educational in its nature where there will be presentations during the day related to writing and/or publishing, but, depending on the conference, there can be opportunities for a professional critique of your manuscript or a chance to pitch a project to an editor.

I go to the Rainforest Writers Retreat in Washington each year. It’s easily the best five days of writing I get. It sells out quickly, but there are many other writing retreats all over the country. I also attend two or three conferences a year. Because I write science fiction, fantasy and horror, I go to conferences that focus on those genres. In the last year, I attended the World Science Fiction Convention that was in Kansas City, and MileHiCon in Denver. I will go to the World Fantasy Convention in San Antonio in early November.

I don’t think I can encourage you to look into attending a retreat, workshop or conference more strongly. It would be something you are doing to both acknowledge and feed your commitment to yourself as a writer.

You might also consider looking for or forming your own writers’ critique group. You can see guidelines here: http://writersrelief.com/blog/2014/09/start-writers-group-set-success/

Retreats and Conferences:

A list of well-respected writing retreats around the world: https://thewritelife.com/writing-retreats/

Colorado writing retreats and conferences: http://writing.shawguides.com/Tag/colorado

Writing Organizations:

Another way you can help yourself is to join a writing organization. The Grand Junction area has two that I can recommend. The Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers (http://rmfw.org/) and the Western Colorado Writers Forum (http://westerncoloradowriters.org/index.html). Both organize events for writers, including presentations, contests, critique groups, etc.

There are also national writing organizations that might interest you (http://writersrelief.com/writers-associations-organizations/)

If you are interested in writing for publication and are looking for markets for your work, one of the best resources is at https://duotrope.com/. They describe themselves this way: “Duotrope is a subscription-based service for writers and artists that offers an extensive, searchable database of current fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and visual art markets, a calendar of upcoming deadlines, a personal submissions tracker, and useful statistics compiled from the millions of data points we’ve gathered on the publishers we list. We have been honored as one of Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers. Also, Preditors & Editors selected us for their Truly Useful Site Award.”

I hope this helps. Have a good summer and may all your words flow easily.

Best,

Jim Van Pelt

Marketing Short Stories

LATE RAINFOREST REPORT. MARKETING SHORT STORIES: Joe Iriarte posted some insider information in the comment thread about his upcoming Daily Science Fiction story about his progress in selling short stories, which reminded me I wanted to do this post. I appreciate when other writers share this kind of information.

Because we had so little connectivity at the Rainforest last month, I wasn’t able to do a detailed report of the days, including my talk on the 52-Story effort. I talked about the process of writing the stories a year ago at Rainforest, the same week I wrote the last story. This year’s talk was a lot about marketing. For the last two years I’ve been hilt deep in marketing short stories, so I’m feeling pretty good about what I know of the state of the marketplace right now. Here’s what I reported to them:

Remember, everyone’s experience in selling stories is unique, so YMMV on these numbers and conclusions.

First, the background. Two years ago I decided to try Ray Bradbury’s challenge to write a story a week for a year. I’ve seen other people do it, although most of them were writing pretty short pieces. I averaged 3,595 words per story, and 186,937 words total. I submitted the first of the stories a couple weeks after I started the challenge. My process generally was to finish the first draft of the story in a week, and then rethink, rewrite and polish the story over the next week while I was writing that week’s story. At my peak, I had over thirty stories circulating at the same time.

I found markets through Ralan, The Submission Grinder, and notifications or invitations for markets on my FB feed.

As of today, two years and a month after starting the project, here are the numbers for the project:

– 33 of the 52 stories have sold
– 6 stories sold to the first market I sent them to
– 125 submissions for stories that sold to the 2nd or subsequent markets
– 149 submissions of the stories that have not sold
– 280 submissions total
– 1 sale for every 8.48 submissions
– 10 rejections is the most any of the sold stories suffered
– 12 rejections is the most for any of the unsold (so far)
– 26 rejections from one unnamed pro market that rejects quickly–this is a market I’ve never cracked
– 3 other markets I’ve never cracked rejected 29 stories between the three of them
– Several stories sold to markets that were new to me
– 12 of the 33 sold to pro-paying markets
– 2 of the submissions resulted in a request for a rewrite
– 1/5 of the rejections were personal.

CONCLUSIONS:
– I was able to find places to submit all the stories pretty much all the time. If there are that many markets, then the short story marketplace is robust. The Submission Grinder lists 25 markets in science fiction that will pay six cents or more per word. There are many more, beautifully done, semi-pro magazines that I’m proud to submit to who pay less.
– This is an old lesson, but if you are going to write short stories and submit them on spec, you have to be thick-skinned. I have been submitting stories seriously since the 80s. I’ve sold 145 stories, been a finalist for the Nebula, and the Theodore Sturgeon Award. I’ve appeared in several Year’s Best collections. I think I’m doing okay, but I’m still rejected at an 8 to 1 ratio. Mike Resnick doesn’t suffer from this ratio, I’ll bet, but there’s only one Mike.
– On a side note, if you want to sell more of what you write and be rejected less often (and as a whole be paid better for it), write non-fiction. Unfortunately, I like what I like. Writing on spec is what I do.
– Submitting is way faster now that almost all markets take electronic submissions, but it still takes time. Knowing the marketplace, Submitting in the correct form, keeping correspondence professional, etc. is a part of the process and it isn’t instantaneous.
– I think if you regularly use Ralan and the Submission Grinder, you should send them donations. I also pay for NPR. If I’m getting value from someone, I owe them that.
– Submitting regularly is how you learn the market. It’s also how you develop relationships with editors. I’d been submitting to George Scithers for several years before he bought something from me. Because I kept submitting, he started sending personal rejects. After a while, we had a healthy pen-pal relationship. I sent 5,000-word long letters in the form of a short story, and he sent back a page with a sentence or two that was personal. Still, I felt a connection. I’m not into writing science fiction just to sell the things. I like that I meet other people, some of them whose contributions to the field are awesome. Communicating with the people who have provided so much reading enjoyment to me and others is fulfilling all by itself.

Ed Bryant: RIP

Locus has announced that Ed Bryant passed away in his sleep. Damn. Ed was the first real pro writer I met, and his friendship and encouragement has buoyed me ever since.

I met Ed sometime in the early 80s. He was a pro-writer guest at a writing conference at Colorado Mountain College in Glenwood Springs. This was the first writing conference that I had ever attended, and I was pretty nervous about submitting a manuscript for Ed to read. When our scheduled time arrived, though, I felt confident. After all, I was a long-time reader and an English teacher. Surely my short story would shine with my inner talent! What Ed said to open our discussion was, “If I tell you up front that this is unmitigated shit, then everything I say afterwards will sound better, right?”

He decided by the end of the thirty minutes that the story wasn’t quite “unmitigated,” but it still was terrible.

I was miffed by the critique, so I rushed to the nearest bookstore and bought the only Ed Bryant book they had, CINNABAR. My figuring was that when I read his work, I’d find out what a hack he was. But CINNABAR was brilliant. And he was absolutely right about my story.

Once I started going to conventions in the mid-90s, I ran into him all the time. He always bought my latest book and had me autograph it. He even came to a couple of my readings when I was in Denver. When we went to Chicon in 2000, we convinced each other that we both had to have an expensive, black bomber jacket with the Chicon logo on it. I saw him wearing his last year.

Ed was way kinder than he had to be. Like many other people, certainly everyone who attended MileHiCon and saw him regularly, I will miss him. His contribution to science fiction and fandom was huge.

My Hugo Eligibility Post

It has been a good publishing year for me, and I have a bigger list of stories than I normally have that are eligible for awards. Despite the awkwardness of sounding like I might hope that someone maybe could consider something I’ve written for an award, I’ve compiled a list of what appeared in 2016.
 
I really, really, really am proud of all of these stories, but if someone pressed me to say which ones I think are most likely to attract Hugo/Nebula voters, I would say the ones in the better read venues, Analog, Asimov’s, OSCIMS, and Interzone. Of those, the one I have the most affection for (as if I could choose among the children) is “The Continuing Saga of Tom Corbett: Space Cadet” in the Dec. Analog . . . or maybe “Three Paintings” in Asimov’s . . . or . . . damn it!
 
But, really, I’m happy with all of them. For example, I think “The Lies” that appeared in Daily Science Fiction is one of my best works, sentence by sentence (and don’t you think it’s possible one day that a story from DSF will show up on a major award ballot?).

“In Memoriam,” Abyss & Apex, Jan. 2016.

“Orphaned,” Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show #52, Sept. 2016

“Maybe if One Person Less,” Daily Science Fiction, Oct. 21, 2016

“Zoo Hack,” Perihelion, May 2016

“Mars, Aphids and Your Cheating Heart,” Interzone #264, 2016

“The Silk Silvered Skulls of Millen Mir,” Triangulation: Beneath the Surface anthology, 2016

“No One is so Fierce,” Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, 2016

“The Lawn Fairy War,” See the Elephant, 2016

“Titan Descansos,” Alien Artifacts, Sept. 2016

“The Continuing Saga of Tom Corbett: Space Cadet,” Analog, Dec. 2016

“Writing Advice,” Daily Science Fiction, July 22, 2016

“We Have Always Lived in the Hamlet,” Lightships and Sabers, 2016

“Falling Out of Downey,” Grand Valley Magazine, 2016

“Death of a Starship Poet,” Analog, July/August 2016

“The Heated Door,” Silent Screams, 2016

“The Lies,” Daily Science Fiction, Jan. 19, 2016

“Neoteric Urban Archaeology,” The Best of Both Worlds, 2016

“Three Paintings,” Asimov’s, April/May 2016

First Person Narration

LEARNING FROM THE MASTERS: THE USE OF “I” IN FIRST PERSON NARRATION: About every third story of mine is in first person. It’s good for voice pieces, and sometimes making the character the narrator feels like the best choice, but when revision comes around, my manuscripts are flooded with “I”s. Ton of them, which bothers me, so the first revision step is to cut them down. Really, five “I” uses in a single paragraph is amateurish. So, tonight, while preparing for tomorrow’s 9th grade class, I reread Truman Capote’s beautiful “A Christmas Memory,” which is 4,800 words long and written in first person. In all those words, the narrator only refers to himself with “I” about twenty-five times. He’s 163 words into the story before it appears the first time. Some student papers will have twenty-five “I”s in the first 250 words, and my own first drafts are hardly better.

The pronoun shows up more often than that in Capote’s piece, but the other uses are in dialogue from the character’s “friend,” his elderly cousin. It’s admirable restraint, and a true lesson in handling first person narration.

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