Four Green Squares

the tiny little blog no-one will ever read

The Awkward Robots present: The Red Volume June 30, 2014

Filed under: clarion,writing — FourGreenSquares @ 1:42 pm

designed by the amazing E.G. Cosh

Its that time of year.  The Clarion write-a-thon is in full swing.  This year, the Clarion 2012 class is not just fundraising through accepting pledges for x amount of work. We thought it would be good to share the outcome of the all that hard summer writing.

Thus, we are pleased to announce The Red Volume, featuring stories written by the Clarion class of 2012 during the 2014 write-a-thon.

All donors to Clarion though any of our write-a-thon pages will get a copy. Good fic, better cause: can’t get more win-win than that.

In addition, all future proceeds from the anthology will be donated to the Clarion Foundation, which provides scholarships to enable people to attend Clarion. I know Clarion changed both my writing and my life, and the Clarion Foundation makes that experience available to everyone, regardless of financial status.

You know you want a copy! Sponsor me here and grab one!



Plot-hole-whack-a-mole, or the post in which there are many, many hyphens June 15, 2014

Filed under: clarion,writing — FourGreenSquares @ 7:18 pm

So, I figured out the scene.

And I really felt what Steve Pressfield calls Resistance. Words on the page like sludge instead of a cascade out of my pen. Not right. This or that? Start here or there? Before or after? Move it to later?  Am-I-a-writer-or-a-goddamn-engineer-and-why-did-no-one-warn-me-I-need-to-be-both?

That moment when the voice in your head senses its moment, slips from its crevice to pipe up, “You can’t do this, you know.  You can’t. 3rd draft and you’re  still faffing. C’mon, stop kidding yourself.”

I think my Tai chi and meditation are paying off because I’m definitely better at being self-aware about moments like this. A def. light bulb moment: Aha, Resistance, I see you.

Half the trick of such self-awareness, I’m learning, is having the vocab to parse what’s happening. Yes, names have power, and here, they let me differentiate strands of thought from the formless mass of goo at the bottom of my subconscious that occasionally births monsters to rampage across my mind.

And yes, once again as in critiquing, so in life. Thank you Clarion.

So–I was able to say, You know what, Resistance? I really want to finish this scene today. No, it won’t be perfect, but I have tomorrow to make it better. Today, I just want it done.

And I did. :)

I think this is why I love first draft and approach editing with, shall we say…more trepidation?

First draft: white-hot out of my brain, no time for doubts. But the mess that results…

Which is why now, done the second draft (yay me, I finished the second draft), I’m trying something new for the third draft.

My first draft, I figure out which, out of all the millions of possible stories/plot lines/directions/etc., is the one story I really want to tell. I simply can’t do this in outline because I need to get my characters walking and talking their way into trouble, to singe themselves on the forge of experience, in order to learn who they are–what their story actually is.

Second draft, I tell that story.

Normally, second draft is also where I come up with a Cool Act Three Plot Twist, change everything, and end up playing endless rounds of plot-hole-whack-a-mole until a new idea seizes my brain and I abandon the old novel, mid-draft.

Not this time.

I always write longhand, then type up the first draft  and try to edit the typescript. I hate working with typescript or on computer screen, but always told myself, “It’s stupid to write the entire thing again longhand. What a waste of time. Really. Trulio.”

So I’d type it up, then the stiff print on the page would freeze my mind and I couldn’t draw all my little arrows to marginalia and header notes that meander around the rim of the page so you actually have to turn the paper upside down to read them.  Fun.

Typescripts. Not fun.

So–Resistance, I see you. This time, I said, so what if I have to hand write it all out. I like writing longhand better, and its more fun.

That’s my goal for draft 3. Yes, I’m editing (!) and shaping (!!) and its all hanging together (!!!), this novel that fell out of my pen, but I want to keep it fun. Typescript looks like work. (Turnabout is fair play. I was so easy for my subconscious to fool for so long, only fair that I get my own back).

And I’m also realising that all my endless plot-hole-whack-a-mole has protected me from this point. I say protected because it’s almost ready to show people. So much easier to continually faff around with Act Three than actually finish.

“See, I am working,” I could say, as I hefted my hammer to bash at those plot holes. Making it better. Or different. Different is better, right? ( I should have that on a t-shirt).

Clarion really helped me realise (by which I mean it shoved my face under the water and refused to let me up to breathe until I had an NDE and saw the beckoning light) when different isn’t better, because different is taking you away from the story you really want to tell. For easily-distracted me, well, that was another amazing light bulb moment.

And here I am, halfway through editing Act One of Draft Three.

Today, I have slayed the dragon of Resistance.

Feels good.

And now I have to do it again tomorrow.


Wicked Words loose in the World May 27, 2014

Filed under: clarion,writing — FourGreenSquares @ 4:57 pm

As I mentioned before, my story “Stranger has Disconnected” was accepted for inclusion in  the first issue of Wicked Words Quarterly.  I am pleased to announce that the issue is available now!

There I am:

Stories and contributors: 
In a Tower copyright © 2014 Nicole Tanquary 
The Diary of Magreth Frogonne copyright © 2014 Phyllis Green 
The Flicker of Farolitos copyright © 2014 Matthew Barbour 
Spookmoth copyright © 2014 D.J. Cockburn 
Odin Waits copyright © 2014 Jason D’Aprile 
The City of the Wren copyright © 2014 Robin Wyatt Dunn 
Dinner Time copyright © 2014 Mai-Chi Pham 
Stranger Has Disconnected copyright © 2014 Deborah Bailey 
The Old Neighbourhoods on Mars copyright © 2014 J.J. Steinfeld 
Pipe Monster copyright © 2014 Logan Merriweather 
Mac the Repairman copyright © 2014 Adam Gaylord 
2007 OR-10 copyright © 2014 Ellen Denton 
Dare to Sleep copyright © 2014 Tony Peak 
Diamondback copyright © 2014 Teri Chetwood

This was my week 3 Clarion story. I’d written very description- and atmosphere-heavy stories in the first two weeks so I wanted something different–hello, chatlog-format story that is all dialogue. I want (again) to say thank you for all 2012-ers and amazing week 3 instructor Ted Chiang for amazing feebdack.

Which means I’m going to get my first plug in for the Clarion Write-a-thon

It runs from the end of June through the beginning of August, mirroring the workshop dates. Its a great chance to raise money for workshop scholarships, meet other Clarionauts, and if you plan to apply, to get a taste of the workshop pace.

And, direct from the website: “Remember, there are prizes! We’re giving away plaques again. But better yet, our top five fundraisers will receive free critiques from some of Clarion’s most eminent faculty and friends. Everyone who brings in $250 or more will receive a critique from a Clarion grad.” So all aspiring writers, this is a great chance to start your stories for next year and get them critiqued.

If anyone wants to sponsor me, pop on over to my writer page.

I hope you enjoy the story–let me know what you think!



The good, the better, and the ugly May 10, 2014

Filed under: clarion,the way it is,writing — FourGreenSquares @ 6:23 pm

May, May, May. What are you trying to do to me?


First, I suppose I should share the good news: My week 3 Clarion story “Stranger has Disconnected” will be in the first issue of Wicked Words Quarterly out in June. It’s about a customer service chatbot attaining sentience and contains the epic line “Eggs are made of chickens and darkness”. You know you want to read it.


I’ve also got another story passed up from slush to editorial board (informed by email), and another that (fingers crossed, going by the time frame, though I’ve not been told explicitly) I think is in the same boat. Fingers crossed.


Except to type. Or write. Yes, you can uncross your fingers for that.


Congrats are also in order to Clarion classmates Sam J. Miller for his Shirley Jackson Award nom. (Cross those fingers again—way to go, Sam!) 2012 is on a roll.


All of which makes me wish I didn’t have a day job so I could spend all my time writing.


Even when that writing is, in fact, editing. I love editing other people’s stories (my day job is an editor and copyeditor, after all) but my own…we hates it, we do.


At least when I edit other people’s manuscripts, I can make all the suggestions then…not actually have to tear up the text, muck up dialogue that interleaves perfectly, hack apart descriptions that evoke the right mood, disrupt pacing that hits all the right emotional notes yet ends at just the perfect point…Argh. Now I have to do all that again?


(Of course, revisions are also when I realise I actually failed to do any of those things the first time, so at least I get another chance. So maybe edits are a Good Thing Really.)


Nope. Still hate ‘em.


I really like this novel. I wrote the first draft in a few weeks, and amazingly for me, it came out essentially structurally sound. I quickly realised, however, that I’d set it entirely in the wrong place and too close to present day. I also had the wrong job for one main character. Once I got those sorted, I dashed out another first draft, also in a few weeks.


Then, despite my gut instinct—because years of experience had drummed into me that nothing I write is ever structurally sound the first time around—I proceeded to fiddle endlessly in outline until I completely messed up the story. A friend pulled me back from the brink and the story, with a few minor tweaks, was restored to its second-first-draft form.


But there are still enough changes that I have to edit rather than simply polish. And actually edit, not just write new scenes from scratch, which tends to be easier for me most of the time.


Grr. Edits. Hiss. Did I mention I hate them?


Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaattttttttttttteeeeeeeeeeeeee them.


Just in case there was any confusion.


I’m at least trying something new. Rather than leave typing them up to the end (because I also saddle myself with the ridiculous need to write everything longhand first), I’m going to type and second-round revise as I go. Maybe not leaving myself with all the hated parts at the end will help? Maybe?


If only I had time. I can write a first draft anywhere: bus, café, hurricane… The story is in my head, and I just need pen and paper to let it fall out. But editing…I have to cram the story back into my head to work on it, and that takes more time and concentration. And silence.


And May, merry month of May, what are you doing to me?


Grand opening of the new Writers’ Studio premises (yay!), dance recitals, many, many  family birthdays, board meetings, and the tail end of dissertation season. Plus regular work…


In the grand tug of war between sleep and writing, the latter wins. Until the former takes revenge in the form of gibberish.


Have I reached that point yet?


Can’t you tell?


A walk in the rain and lightning in the living room April 7, 2014

Filed under: writing — FourGreenSquares @ 5:05 pm

As I was walking in the rain yesterday to catch the bus into town, I found myself thinking about an old Steven Wright joke. As he paces on his bare stage set, he mutters about how his electricity went off so he used his camera flash to see enough to make a sandwich (pre-digital days so this was an actual lightbulb on top of the camera). This led his neighbour to call the police to report lightning inside his house.


It struck (!) me that writing is like lightning inside the house. It illuminates briefly but totally, then you’re stuck stumbling around in the dark trying to remember where the coffee table was, based only on a memory that’s mostly after-image anyway.


In the joke, SW goes on about how he tries to explain to the cops why he took 36 pics of his living room. Back in the days of film, that def. counted as eccentric.


That, to me, defines what a first draft is. 36 pictures of your living room, taken when no other light source exists. If you close your eyes, you know your story’s landscape intimately. But that doesn’t mean you can necessarily navigate it in the physical realm. Not yet.


The joke kinda trails off with SW muttering to himself (as is his wont), and that’s kinda how first drafts end too.


Of course, a second draft is like being a police sketch artist, trying to recreate a likeness from garbled, conflicting snatches of description glimpsed during an adrenaline high. But that is a post for another time


Mission Critical March 2, 2014

Filed under: clarion,writing — FourGreenSquares @ 7:16 pm

I’m very pleased to let you all know that my story “Mission Critical” is the featured story in the new issue of Luna Station Quarterly.


Direct link to story.


Let me know what you think…
Oh, and without this turning into another Clarion squee post, I have to say that this is the story where everything I’d learned at Clarion and have struggled since to integrate finally gelled. It felt different whilst writing it, like I could be both in the flow as the words fell out of my pen and at the same time see what those words were doing on the overall story level. Worth all those tossed out drafts (of the novel, not this story) over the past year and a half as I tried to figure out how to use everything I learned.
Of course, applications to the 2014 Clarion closed yesterday, so instead of encouraging people to apply, I can only say best of luck to everyone waiting to hear!



Cat waxing shopping list February 12, 2014

Filed under: writing — FourGreenSquares @ 11:57 am

I wrote this a while ago for the Nottingham Writers’ Studio and thought I’d share it here. I’d love to hear your favourites as well–I’m always on the lookout for good writing books, and my cat will thank you too!

The Writers’ Bookshelf

Books on writing are their own type of dangerous seduction. Reading them feels so productive, it’s easy to convince yourself that you are, in fact, working. Not that writing books are rubbish or wastes of time. On the contrary, there is much to be learned from books discussing writing craft.

But as writers love to write about their favourite topic—and what’s more favoured than writing?—the sheer volume of how-to books out there threatens to make choosing the right ones a cat-waxing exercise all on its own. How do I know this? Uh, have you seen how shiny my cat is?

So let my procrastination be to your benefit. This (short!) list contains books that I’ve found particularly useful in writing narrative fiction. I’ve divided the list into three types: craft, conception, and the writer’s life.

Craft: Dealing with the Words on the Page

Self Editing for Fiction WritersSelf-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print, by Renni Browne and Dave King
This is a classic. Once you have your story down in draft form, the advice in this book will show you how to hone that rough draft into a polished piece. It covers everything from mechanics such as show versus tell, characterisation, dialogue, and exposition to the more ephemeral aspects of story beats, knowing when to cut, and voice.

However, despite such a nitty-gritty focus, this book is not a how-to for someone first picking up a pen. It requires a certain level of functional technical knowledge and, as the name indicates, is intended to guide the editing stage rather than the draft stage. But as “writing is re-writing”, advice focussed on this crucial stage detailing how to fix story problems makes this an invaluable volume.
Techniques of the Selling WriterTechniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight V. Swain
This book breaks down the components of story in a manner that both is intuitive and logical—no easy feat! The transformation from idea into story is fraught: so many decisions, so many directions a story can go. At the same time, you need to consider pacing, tone, voice, and the ever-dreaded ‘what happens next’.

Swain, a long-time writing teacher, deconstructs storytelling into its smallest component part—its atom, if you will—which he calls ‘the motivation-reaction unit’.

Thinking of your story in terms of actions and reactions helps ensure that pace, character consistency, tension, and atmosphere are part of the story’s bedrock.

Writing for Emotional ImpactWriting for Emotional Impact: Advanced Dramatic Techniques to Attract, Engage, and Fascinate the Reader from Beginning to End, by Karl Iglesias
As a screenwriter, Iglesias brings the big-screen perspective of hooking the audience with emotion. He sees creating an emotional connection between characters and reader as a crucial element that makes a book “un-put-down-able,” and dissects this quality in amazing, incisive detail.

He doesn’t focus on engineering blockbuster plots or larger-than-life characters but on presentation: how the order of scenes, the tone, the prose and descriptions, and the pace, all serve to hook the reader and drag him or her into the story world. It is an element that is often overlooked, so I believe this is well worth the bookshelf space.

Conception: Behind the Scenes

Dynamic CharactersDynamic Characters: How to Create Personalities that Keep Readers Captivated, by Nancy Kress
This also deserves its reputation as a classic. Kress, a long time writing teacher and writing advice columnist for Writer’s Digest magazine, has decades of experience—and her expertise leaps off the page. She starts with external character traits, moves on to internals, then covers how to bring them together in a plot that allows characters to take on lives of their own.

The book is easy to use, with helpful checklists and other exercises as well as myriad examples that demonstrate how small changes in personality can lead to big divergences on the page. The format also allows you to dip in and out as you need; you don’t have to read it cover to cover but can use it as a handbook as you work on a draft.
Writing the Breakout NovelWriting the Breakout Novel: Winning Advice from a Top Agent and His Best-selling Client by Donald Maass
Maass is a long-time New York powerhouse agent who wrote this book to help writers address what he identified as the most common story flaw, a perception honed from his slush pile: boring stories. Mechanics and voice, lovely characters and setting—these can lay dead on the page unless the story itself crackles.

As noted editor Teresa Nielsen-Hayden often says, “Plot is a literary convention. Story is a force of nature.” This book tells you how to whip up hurricanes, tornadoes or earthquakes of your own devising by starting right where it counts: the premise.

Maass uses examples and exercises (all the while urging you to write it now!) to help you transform a generic idea into a breakout premise that is original, captivating, and dynamic. But don’t think that this means you have to write pacey thrillers or twisty crime dramas. These techniques, based on creating well-rounded characters facing internal struggles mirrored and complicated by external challenges, work in all genres and styles of writing.
The 3 a.m. EpiphanyThe 3 a.m. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises that Transform your Fiction, by Brian Kiteley
This lesser-known suggestion packs a wallop. When Kiteley, another long-time writing teacher, says uncommon, he means it. Unlike other exercises, the ones in this book are small, focusing on intricate, bite-size applications of techniques. At first they can seem strange, such as “write a 500 word scene told only in images, no dialogue or exposition,” or “write a 1000 word short story in which an alarm clock going off in the middle plays a crucial role.” But once you do a few and read his rationales, you realise that they are designed to get you thinking about and practicing specific crucial techniques. You will come out of this book able to understand story at a deeper level and feel much more in control of the words on the page by understanding how they operate on many levels. One of my first sales was of a story based on an exercise from this book.
The Writer’s Life, or Writers are Meat-bags Too

The War of ArtThe War of Art: Break through the Blocks and Win your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield
Supposedly, there are two types of writers: those that can’t stop writing, and those that hate writing. This book is aimed mostly at the latter though is invaluable for anyone who sometimes faces a struggle settling down to the page, and can be called a classic for all the right reasons.

Pressfield kicks ass and takes names and gets you back on the page, even if kicking and screaming, where you fall in love with writing all over again.

Read it every morning if you have to—though he’d call this Resistance—and get back where you belong, spilling your soul, one word at a time.

The Artist's WayThe Artist’s Way: A Course in Discovering and Recovering Your Creative Self by Julia Cameron
A dancer’s instrument is her body, a singer’s, her voice. But what is the writer’s instrument—besides the pen, of course? The brain. Julia Cameron offers an inspiring volume that helps you keep your instrument in top shape.

She covers issues from getting into the writing habit, discovering what you really want to say, and developing confidence in your right to write, to getting over blocks and avoiding burnout by taking time to “re-fill the well.” Whether you are looking for practical tips on the writer’s lifestyle or just want to settle down with what reads like a conversation with a much-smarter friend who can offer advice from the trenches, this book can jump-start or re-invigorate your creative muse.

So there you go. Some wonderful books to help you break through whatever writing obstacles are currently bedevilling you. And if your cat ends up as nicely waxed as mine, at least you’ll have plenty of new skills to write about it in an engaging way!



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