Hello and welcome back to the blog! I’m sure you have noticed that things look a little different around here, including the web address. I upgraded the blog to a website with its own domain. I also took the time to do some tweaking. Everyone should be able to comment without being prompted for information. There is also a new tab on the menu at the top of the page, Books & Short Stories. Right now, the only thing under that tab is a link to a short story available on Amazon Kindle.
My plan for the blog this week had been to share the first of two installments of a short story I wrote last year. This weekend I prepared the short story by rereading it and doing a light edit. I then went to my Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing page to unpublish Service To Die For. It has been static for months and the only time it sold anything was for free. It was time. That was when I realized it was still part of the Kindle Unlimited program, which has a ninety-day exclusivity rights. I had been under the impression the enrollment in Kindle Unlimited had expired, which it had. What I didn’t realize is it automatically renews (I switched this feature off). The long and short of it is Service To Die For will have to wait until after April 18 to appear on the blog. In the meantime, I have done my best to make sure that if you wish to read a story by the writer of the blog you’re reading, then you have an opportunity to do so. The story is free today and tomorrow (Monday, March 23 & Tuesday, March 24) as an eBook on Kindle and always free for Kindle Unlimited users. There is a link under the aforementioned Books & Short Stories tab.
With that lengthy introduction out of the way, let’s get on topic. As you can tell by the catchy title, the topic of this post is what other writers have taught me. I don’t think that requires further explanation, so let’s get started.
I’m sure that it won’t surprise you to find out I don’t possess a degree in creative writing or have an MFA (Master of Fine Arts). Everything I know about writing I learned from reading and writing as much as possible. The degrees listed above aren’t necessary unless you want to teach writing or brag (don’t be that guy). Most of the learning that takes place as a writer is done in a gradual manner, without any awareness at the time. These are only some of the lessons I’m aware of having learned, taught by writers who didn’t realize they were teaching me.
This one probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to faithful readers of this blog. Mr. Stine was my childhood hero and inspired me to start writing. The middle grade horror writer is on this list for two distinctly different reasons.
- He taught me that reading could be fun. Eventually that evolved into finding joy in the writing process. This was a lesson learned as a child. It’s one that I still believe in. If a story doesn’t bring me joy, whether I’m the reader or the writer, it won’t hold my attention.
- He is an example of what I don’t want my writing to become. This is a hard one to write about, but I have always promised to be truthful. R.L. Stine was my favorite writer as a child. As an adult who happens to be a writer of the same genre, I can’t say that I’m much of a fan. Goosebumps books are campy in an unintentional manner, silly in an intentional manner, and are full of cheap scares. That’s without mentioning the mediocre writing or the lack of credit given to the audience. The two unpublished novels I have written in the past year are as far from R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps as possible while remaining in the same genre.
Mr. Chizmar is a relative newcomer to the list of influential writers in my life. He is probably most famous for cowriting a book with Stephen King. Classifying Chizmar’s writing is a little difficult. Some stories fall under the umbrella of horror, though most of the stories I have read are crime related. Grit, I guess you could say. Chizmar writes about grit.
- There is more than one way to tell a story. While reading a collection of short stories by Chizmar about a year and a half ago, I stumbled upon a very good short story. The story was about a teenage girl spending the summer with her grandma (or possibly her aunt), who lives in a lakefront town. A teenage boy invites her to a party. During the story there are short macabre glimpses into the future. Call it foreshadowing, if you wish. I will simply call it brilliant. Chizmar found a way to make a perfectly ordinary story something much better. That’s what good writing should do.
- It’s okay to write about the grittier and lesser known/talked about sides of life. Obviously, I have to be careful since I write middle grade fiction. Yet it’s doable. It’s for this reason I chose a foster child for my main character in From Darkness Comes… and will continue to shine a light where some might not want to look.
Stroud happens to be the writer of my favorite middle grade series, Lockwood & Co. He is the type of writer I strive to be. His books are well written with a serious tone. Yet the characters are lighthearted and know how to have fun with one another. The pacing of his books is second to none in the middle grade genre. Also, there aren’t cheap scares; those are very much real.
- Start at the beginning. I have talked about this simple logic before and I’m going to do it again. Most writers, including myself, tend to start the story before we truly need to. We spend chapter upon chapter building character and giving backstory when we should really be getting to the point. Every book I have read in the Lockwood & Co Series starts with action. I have tried to replicate that in my own novels since becoming hooked on this writer.
- Pacing is important. Like I said, Stroud’s books are brilliantly paced and second to none in the genre. There is a steady stream of action taking place. Yet the writer knows how to slow things down at times and still keep the reader engaged. It’s brilliant work. Jonathan Stroud is quickly becoming a favorite writer of mine.
As with R.L. Stine, I’m sure faithful readers of this blog could guess that King would be on this list. He is also the writer that has taught me the most about the craft. A high school English teacher before striking gold with Carrie, King wrote a book about writing aptly titled On Writing. The book is twenty years old now, but still worth a read for any writer wanting to better their craft. The list of things that I have learned is long, but here are the highlights.
- Don’t let yourself be confined by genre. King is considered the master of horror. That doesn’t mean it’s the only genre he writes. Over the years King has written a lot of short stories and novels outside of the horror genre, with brilliant results at times. The Shawshank Redemption, The Body, and The Dark Tower Series are good examples.
- A final draft is the first draft minus ten percent. This is a boring editing lesson that every writer should know or learn asap.
- Habit is important and just write. I think these two go hand in hand. King writes everyday without fail and doesn’t leave his chair until his word-count is met. In On Writing he recommended to do the same. I have taken this advice to heart, though I’ll admit to writing six days a week instead of seven.
- “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” This is a direct quote from On Writing. For writers it’s the simple truth. Luckily, I have never had a problem with reading. I read because I enjoy it. The same goes for writing. If you don’t enjoy either, well, I suggest you find something else to do.
That’s it for today. I have made some changes to my plans regarding my novels. I regret to inform you that I am going to keep those plans to myself for a while. My posts over the past month or so have been all over the place. From now on I will only put what I’m confident about on this website. You can trust that I finally know what I am going to do (yes, it is different from last week). What I chose feels right. There will be more news in the months to come. Thanks for reading.
Remember to follow your dreams, even if they terrify you.
Stephen Michael Roth