Ten Quick Grammar Lessons From The West Wing

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C Stuart Hardwick:

I think I feel a blog series coming on…

Originally posted on Graham's Crackers:

If you want to write well in any capacity, professional or otherwise, you should watch The West Wing.  Hell, you should watch it over and over again, scrutinize, memorize, take copious notes and write countless essays on its tropes and its impact on the human psyche.  Rarely, if ever, has there been a series so in love with the peculiarities of the English language.  Truly – few writers can turn arguing over grammatical construction into entertaining television.  Not lost is the irony that if Aaron Sorkin were inclined to participate on Internet message boards, he’d definitely be considered a grammar Nazi – in the best sense of the word of course.  Presented then for your perusal, ten useful takeaways to pin to the office wall for reference whenever needed:

  1. Unique means one of a kind.  Something cannot be “very unique.”
  2. Nor can something be “extremely historic.”
  3. Alliteration can make a reader need an avalanche…

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My Hugo Euro’s Worth

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Sad puppies. Yeah.sad_puppies_3_patch

When I bought this house, there was…an agitator… in the neighborhood trying to get the government to buy his house because of a tiny quantity of hydrocarbons found in a bit of pipe left buried when the land was cleared. The state had come, the EPA had come, an independent testing company had come, and they all agreed the solution was simple: fill in the hole and get on with life.

But no. This chap kept making noises and getting the media out and convincing the ladies in the bridge club that fumes and leachate from the cypress bark mulch used here was actually a dangerous CHEMICAL that was going to turn the place into three mile island. Or something.

This guy wanted a buyout. Never mind that in the absence of any actual problem, houses were already selling at market value, and that a government cleanup is never going pay you more than market value and that if you shovel shit at the neighbors loudly and long enough, you might actually succeed in driving the market prices down. For everyone.

So I killed him. Not really. I think he died of old age or finally moved to Antarctica where there are no petrochemicals at all, or he got wrapped up watching Gossip Girl and forgot all about it.

But I digress.

I’ve yet to meet (in person) a scifi or fantasy author I didn’t like. I certainly haven’t met them all, but I have met a couple who’ve been embroiled in certain recent controversies. And we’ll just leave it at that.

Look. We all wade in this little pool together. And we all need each other’s help and support. We can each try to fill ‘er up with clean and clear bright water, or we can be the kid with the stinky diaper. And get hoisted by it.

I do not have an axe to grind with regard to the Hugos. To be honest, I kind of skimmed over the early SP3 posts with the graphs and the analysis showing how the whole system has apparently collapsed into a shameless sham of anti-meritocratic crapulence. Partly that’s because those posts had, you know, math and stuff. Partly it’s because there are others far better positioned then I to worry about such things and because I never really expected the Hugos to be any different from any other part of human experience.

It seems clear to me that both principal sides in this debate have, or at least started from, reasoned positions that they genuinely believe to have validity and merit. And that’s fine. Opinions are free. Debate, exposition, analysis, and yes, even argument are all critical to society. But to criticize an action, a process, an outcome, is one thing. To demonize a person or group based on supposition is quite another.

This year I have watched as a bunch of writers, most of whom I know to be talented, some of whom I consider friends, have heaped on one another a crap heap of vitriol to high and so deep, it was bound to come crashing down. And now, for some of them, it has. And we all stand here spattered in poo.

It’s time to change the water. It’s time to stop and recall that before it became about selling tickets to Worldcon, boosting careers, assuaging egos, and anointing the best of the best, the Hugo was about honoring Hugo Gernsbach, a man who committed his life to evangelizing science for the lay public.

We live in a world running short of petroleum, fresh water, habitat, and–you know–fish. Where both sides of the political spectrum operate by insult, distraction, and obfuscation, so they can keep the onr percent of their constituency that pays all the money making more and more and more. And we’re worried about whether one group of another is biasing the distribution of little plastic rocket.

I humbly suggest that we are all better served by resolving our procedural disputes through respectful discourse and leaving the exploration of political ideas to our fiction. That’s what it’s there for, after all.


Here read some more about the kerfuffle, if your want to, I guess. I have a novel to write.

Are Sad Puppies Sad Gits?
Jennifer Cambpbell-Hicks on the nominations.
John Sclazi’s Take

You can also Google Brad Torgersen, who launch the opening salvo in this year’s campaign, but who I’m not going to link to, because…he’d done himself enough harm this week.

Meet The Winners – Daniel J Davis

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As we start this year’s Writers of the Future workshop week, join me in welcoming third quarter winner, Daniel Davis.

Stuart: Welcome Daniel, and congratulations! So who are you, sir?

Daniel: I’m a veteran of the Marine Corps and the Army, with a combined total of almost nine years of service.

Stuart: Well thank you, sir (snaps out crisp salute).

Daniel: I’m still not sure how I managed to sign two different sets of enlistment papers without either one of them saying “Air Force” at the top. I think I’m just a slow learner.

Stuart: Yes, well, where would we be without you? ;-)

Daniel: I’ve also been a machinist’s apprentice, a security guard, and a building maintenance worker. I spent most of my life in Massachusetts, but I currently live in North Carolina.

Stuart: Well Mr. Hubbard always said a variety of jobs can be good for the writer’s soul. And what led you into writing?

Daniel: I’ve always had an interest in it. I used to create a lot of stories in my head when I was a kid. Most of them were inspired by movies or TV shows. I think the first one I ever actually wrote down was a knock-off of Jaws, which I banged out on my mother’s electric typewriter.

Stuart: Oh electric huh? Swanky. My mother insisted she could type 60 WPM on an Underwood. To this day, I think she was making it up.

Daniel: In high school, I tried to write science fiction stories during study periods. They were violent, nihilistic, and poorly written. I was heavily into things like Mad Max and Escape from New York at the time, so I ended up with pages and pages of gunfights and flaming ruins that were recognizably local places.

Stuart: Well you know. Hormones.

Daniel: I can only imagine what would happen if I tried to write something like that on school grounds nowadays.

Ultimately, though, writing was just another pastime. I was never especially serious about it. Publication was something I’d never even considered.

That all changed when I read Heroes Die by Matthew Woodring Stover. It was exciting. It was full of twists and turns, realistic characters, and vivid imagery. It was a story that had an honest, emotional impact on me. Even better, it was a thrill ride from start to finish.

I knew right away that I wanted to give someone else that same experience some day. Never mind great art. My ambition is to write a great piece of entertainment.

Stuart: And nothing wrong with that. In my opinion, the one is of diminished value without the other. Describe your “writer’s cave” your preferred writing location.

Daniel: The spare bedroom doubles as my office. I have bookshelves in there filled with my favorite SF/F titles, and a Japanese incense bag hanging next to the bed. The bag was a gift from my brother-in-law, who teaches English in Yokkaichi. They’re traditionally hung in a workspace for good luck at the beginning of the New Year.

I tend to write on the bed, with the dogs curled up next to me, and a pair of headphones to cancel out the rest of the world.

Stuart: Do you have any unusual talents or hobbies?

Daniel: I sing even worse than I dance.

Stuart: I like that as a talent. Like a superhero who stuns the bad guys with his dancing and then drops them with a blood curdling yodel.

Daniel: Fortunately, the only person who’s ever had to deal with that for any prolonged period is my wife.

Stuart: My condolences to her. Man, the military, bad singing, and writing. She should get a medal.

Daniel: I’ve also dabbled in various martial arts over the years, including judo, kempo karate, and kung-fu. I’m not especially good at any of them, but I have learned how to fall down, and how to laugh when someone breaks my nose. I’ve done a bit of fencing, too, which means I know at least a dozen ways to die on the end of a sword.

Stuart: Ha ha! I took Korean Kuk-Sul-Wan for a while. I really enjoyed it, but the owner gave free lessons to this very nice chap named Jose in exchange for tiling the bathroom. Jose had biceps the size of redwoods and a low center of mass, and I’m pretty sure he could have taken all of us on, black-belts included, without putting down his drink bottle.

How long have you been entering WotF? Is this your first contest win?

Daniel: This is my very first time entering. I didn’t know much about the contest until recently. I always saw the book on shelf at Barnes and Noble, but for some reason I just assumed it was an “Annual Best of” anthology showcasing previously published works. I never knew it was all original, never-before-seen work.

Stuart: Well all right! You da man!

Star Trek or Star Wars?

Daniel: One of my earliest memories is of my parents letting me stay up late to watch Star Wars on basic cable. My older sister gave me the picture book with all of the still photos from the movie, which I read until it fell apart.

Stuart: I remember my cousins had these big newsprint comic books before we ever saw the movie. I remember sitting in this ancient bed in my grandmom’s house, escaping to Tatooine. My dad didn’t understand the concept of going to see a film if you already knew the story.

Daniel: I also still absolutely love the first three Star Trek movies. I just never got too into the TV series. It was always running opposite reruns of Lost in Space when I was a kid. And Lost in Space had cooler monsters and a robot.

Stuart: Fair enough!

Pantser or Plotter?

Daniel: I’ve been a pantser for the past several years. Since I’m not fabulously rich and famous yet, I might have to re-think that strategy.

Jokes aside, I only started to learn about plot and story structure within the last year, after I picked up a copy of Writing to Sell by Scott Meredith.

Stuart: Excellent book, though some chapters are better than others.

Daniel: Now I’m working to become a bit more methodical in my writing. Learning how to plot ahead of time is definitely a big part of that. But there’s also an undeniable thrill that goes along with discovering the story as I write.

I suspect that by the time I find my “sweet spot,” it’s going to be a little bit of both.

Stuart: I think you’re right.

What’s the nuttiest thing that ever happened to you?

Daniel: I took part in a blindfolded sparring match when I was twenty. Naturally, I got my posterior parts handed to me in a pillowcase, but I was still happy that I got to push and challenge myself like that.

Later on, I found out that I was the only one who was blindfolded. The moral of the story is that you should never trust your friends. Especially when those friends are a bunch of jackasses looking for a cheap laugh.

Stuart: Yeah…I kinda saw that coming. Don’t feel bad, we all get duped my our so-called friends at some point.

If you had a superpower, what would it be?

The power to give witty, interesting answers in interviews.

Stuart: Not bad. Not bad at all.

Daniel: And Wolverine claws.

Stuart: I, um…ah….

What was your favorite toy growing up?

Daniel: I grew up in the golden age of action figures. I had G.I. Joe, Transformers, He-Man, Thundercats, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Voltron, and Rambo. How do you pick a favorite?

Stuart: I actually thought they made up Voltron for Jimmy Neutron.

Daniel: And of course, most of the TV shows I watched were basically half-hour toy commercials (I can’t be the only one who remembers that kid-friendly Rambo cartoon).

Stuart: Well thanks Daniel. I’ll be watching to see who brings home the Golden Pen. Regardless, I know we’ll be seeing more of each other.

Meet the Winners — Samantha Murray

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With Writers of the Future week right around the corner, say hello to second quarter winner, Australia’s Samantha Murray!

Stuart: Hi Samantha. Nice to meet you. Tell us about yourself.

sam-press3Samantha: Apart from a writer, I’m a stay-at-home parent right now, which is awesome. In the past I have been, variously, a teacher, an actor, and a mathematician.

Stuart: And what got you into writing?

Samantha: I was always into writing. I just got in my own way for a long time. I can remember writing a story at school when I was about 9 and being suddenly transported by the ideas and story arcs bubbling away in my head. It was going to be a magnificent and fascinating tale! Unfortunately, I didn’t get time to write it all down, and when we next returned to the writing task I had forgotten where I was going with it, and, despairing for an ending, followed the advice of my parent and concluded with “it was all a dream.”

Stuart: Oh no!

Samantha: Luckily I’ve learned not to do that since then. Even at the time I knew it was a cop-out!

I submitted a story for the first time when I was about 20. It was to an Australian anthology and they rejected it, which was horribly discouraging at the time, because I didn’t know back then that rejections are common and don’t necessarily mean that you are an atrocious writer.

I’ve been wanting to be a writer for more than 20 years, but I’ve only been actively doing something about it for the last 3 years.

The biggest obstacle was always myself. I wanted to be a writer, but apart from notebooks full of scratchings and dabbling with playwriting I wasn’t actually producing a product. A combination of procrastination, fear-of-failure perhaps, an inability to find the determination to push through the hard bits.

Stuart: I think we all can identify.

Samantha: One day, I found myself with two small children, horribly sleep-deprived and time-poor. And I had a story idea. I wrote notes on it (not so unusual). But then I did do something unusual – I sat down and wrote it. All of it. All the way to the end.

Stuart: Hurray!

Samantha: My theory is that having very little time to myself managed to push the urgency-button that procrastinators need to do things. I realised that in a very real way IT WAS THE LAST MINUTE. If I didn’t do it now, I would never do it. And I had wanted to do it for a long time.

Or perhaps I had just grown up.

Stuart: I can definitely identify. I did technical writing for years and dabbled, but I always thought someday I’d be a writer. Then one day, I realized the days eventually run out.

Describe your “writer’s cave.”

Samantha: I don’t really have a cave. I think I should get one. Actually, now I want a real cave, because that would be cool.

Stuart: Caves are cool. Year round (winks).

Samantha: I write on my lap-top and quite often I end up sitting on my bed. I do have a desk but it is covered in, um, stuff. When we go away to the beach house I have my lap-top on the kitchen table and get up early and write with a view of the trees out the window. And there is no internet at the beach house. No internet is really, really good for my writing.

Stuart: Yes. Although in my case, the internet give the girls something to do while I sit on the porch in blissful silence.

Do you have any unusual talents or hobbies?

Samantha: Some of my joints are hypermobile, so I can do this thing where I clasp my hands together behind my back, and then take my arms over my head round to the front with my hands still joined. I worked out I could do that after watching a circus of people doing freakish things with their bodies, one of them used such a manoeuvre to get out of a strait-jacket. Walking home I said “I can do that,” and I was right. I wish I had a more exciting talent, but yeah, it might be helpful one day if I happen to find myself in a strait-jacket.

Stuart: How long have you been entering WotF?

Samantha: Around two and a half years. I only wrote three stories specifically for the contest, other times I sent them stories I had at hand, or rewrites, or things I didn’t think were a fit but I’d run out of time to do anything else. I remember thinking that I really should put in a much more concerted effort with WotF, because (especially coming from Western Australia) it really did have a lot of bang-for-my-buck. I even wrote it down as a goal. The next morning I woke up with a story idea which I brainstormed into my notebook. “I reckon this one will win,” I thought, given the serendipitous timing with my new resolution.

Stuart: Well there you go.

Samantha: That story didn’t win. It didn’t get a chance to, because the story I had _already_ entered the previous quarter won. I got the finalist notification about five weeks after I wrote “win WotF” on my goal list.

Stuart: Ha ha! Win! Star Trek or Star Wars?

Samantha: My initial response to this was “Star Wars!” but that is mainly because I have two young boys who are obsessed with Star Wars right now. So we live in a star wars-infused environment. Some twenty-odd years ago, however, I was a big fan of Star Trek TNG. I was holidaying in the U.S at the time, and I remember staying up late to watch all of the episodes on TV.

Stuart: About three years before we met, my wife and I both stayed up all night watching a marathon of all the TOS episodes. If only we had known each other, we could have watched them together!

Are you a pantser or Plotter?

Samantha: I’m a panster, at heart. I always know where the story is going to end though. Just the idea, or maybe a single sentence. Without that I can’t write the story, once that has popped into my head I can start, and make the rest of it up as I go along. I am a first-drafter though. Most of my stories (and indeed, all of my published ones) are essentially first-drafts. I write really slowly though, so I think I am editing as I go along.

Stuart: Yeah, I’m still breaking myself of editing words that may not survive into the final draft. I think part of that is confidence, trusting that the crappy first draft is doing what it’s supposed to even though is may not be, as sweet on the ear.

What’s the nuttiest thing that ever happened to you?

Samantha: A really long time ago I did some radio work for a very small local radio station for the blind. They had a kids segment and had a comedy-star-sign bit which I got to write and deliver in this low husky voice over the radio. It was meant to be light-hearted, so I had complete freedom to make up whatever I wanted. “Aquarius… stop wearing that hat. Your friends hate it. People in the street hate it. You hate it, deep down, where you won’t admit it to yourself. The hat hates itself. And it hates you. Just stop. Please, please stop.” Silly stuff!

Stuart: That’s terrific. I had a friend would once gave away bad fish over the radio. And the winner came and got it. That experience will come in handy when you’re famous.

If you had a superpower, what would it be?

Samantha: I think I should play to my strengths and be procrastination-girl! I could procrastinate dying, and thus live forever.

Stuart: Sheer genius! When you were a kid, what was your favorite toy?

Samantha: I don’t have a very good memory of my childhood, but I do remember having a pencil family. Yes, it was a group of pencils of different sizes and colours that I had anthropomorphised into characters. There was one that had been sharpened down to an inch of its life that was the baby pencil.

Stuart: Well I’ve always said, you don’t have to be crazy to write, but it helps a lot. When I was little, I got a spanking for playing spaceship with mason jar full of canned beets. The ship crashed.

Tell us about your winning story.

Samantha: “Half Past” is a story about a girl with a peculiar kind of magic. Her mother is dead, and her father is distant, but she is never lonely – she makes her own companions. Then one day a visitor arrives who might change everything.

Stuart: Cool! Well congratulations again Samantha. Enjoy your week in LA, and if you ever run into last year’s winner Shauna O’Meara, tell her I said “hi!”

Follow Samantha at http://mailbysea.wordpress.com


Meet The Winners – Steve Pantazis

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Continuing with this years’ Writers of the Future winners, say hello to self described computer geek, Steve Pantazis.

Stuart: Welcome, Steve, and congratulations on your win. Introduce yourself.

Steve: I run a small software firm in Southern California, using my analytical brain during the day to troubleshoot data issues and my creative brain at night to make sweet, sweet prose. My dream is to author fiction full-time, but such an enterprise requires many publishing credits under the belt, lots of content for the masses, and a strong following of readers—something I hope to humbly achieve in the future. Until then, I will be working on getting my first novel published and sorting through lines of software code until my face turns blue.

Stuart: And when you aren’t writing?

Steve: When I’m not penning a tale, I’m cheffing it up in the kitchen, making culinary delights for my better half, who has playfully nicknamed me “Love Chef.”

Stuart: Ha ha. Now that’s a nom-de-plume!

Steve: Yes, she inspires the foodie in me. My friends joke about my postings of food pics on Facebook, wondering how I stay so thin. I tell them it’s portion control. Hah!

Another passion involves the great outdoors. As a person of Greek decent, I embrace the ancient Athenian belief of balancing the body and mind. Hiking, working out, and playing tennis are part of my repertoire, especially here in beautiful, sunny San Diego. For those of you stuck behind the keyboard, I say get out and do something good for your body. Trust me, if you’re a writer, it’s important to get the blood circulating, and not just in your fingertips.

Stuart: Very wise. Sitting at a desk all day is not what humans are built for. What got you into writing, Steve?

Steve: My journey as a writer began when I was eight. It was the year after the original Star Wars movie came out, and I was already inspired by the imagery in the epic space opera when I chanced upon a book fair at my grade school. I remember the books being displayed on foldout tables at the school library, and my allowance money burning a hole in my pocket, eager to be spent. I had no idea what to buy. In fact, I had never bought a book in my life. But there it was: The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien, sitting on top of a stack of volumes, the cover depicting a painting of the famed Shire from the story. I picked up the softcover novel, leafed through the pages, smelled the wonderful scent of freshly printed pages, and knew I had to have it.

Stuart: Oh man, I remember that smell, and the smell of the floor wax at the town library. It all comes rushing back.

Steve: With my allowance gone, I went to work consuming the book and feeding my imagination. Soon after, I combined the wonder of Star Wars with the fantasy of The Hobbit, and created my first story, a space adventure that took the reader to a number of worlds across the universe. It was then that I knew I was meant to be a writer. I didn’t want to write; I didn’t like to write. I HAD to write!

Stuart: And where do you feed the habit?

Steve: I’m a night owl, so my creativity blossoms after the sun goes down. My preferred writing spot is on the couch these days, with ambient music piping gently through the speakers of my laptop. Before I met my significant other, I was a coffee shop freak, spending many an afternoon and evening sipping specialty coffee while composing my latest story with my headphones on, drowning out the commotion of those around me. I miss going to a coffee shop, but my couch does me wonders. And, of course, my partner says she enjoys my company, which is what really matters.

Stuart: Indeed. How long have you been entering WotF?

Steve: My first entry was for the 25th anniversary of Writers of the Future. I wrote a short story based in the same universe as my winning story for Volume 31, “Switch.” Back then, I thought I had a story that would be irresistible to the judges. Little did I know that my character development was woefully under par. It took a number of entries over the years, and plenty of good reading, to get an idea of what might work. My advice to future contestants is to make sure the reader cares about your protagonist. If you accomplish nothing else, make that happen.

Stuart: Good advice. And this is your first win?

Steve: This is my first contest win, although I have placed in the top five on several Writer’s Digest magazine contests, including their annual Short Story Competition and Popular Fiction Awards.

Stuart: Well that’s nothing to sneeze at. Those contest must attract a gozillion entries each. So do you follow the muse or try to plan things out?

Steve: Plotter, for sure, although I enjoy it when my stories organically take a detour. Seriously though, I feel an author should know the beginning and end to a story, no matter what kind of writer they are. You need to have some notion of the end goal in order to get there. For me, I like to outline a story to form a sense of progression. It doesn’t have to be so detailed that there isn’t any wiggle room for the unexpected, but it still needs to have some shape in order for it fulfill its promise. And fulfilling the promise to the reader is the key, no matter if you plot the story or fly by the seat of your pants.

Stuart: You put that well. Structure, but with wiggle room, room for craft to grow.

So tell me something nutty that you did.

Steve: Joining the military on a whim. I had never considered military service, and then my stepmom said to me one day, “Hey, why don’t you check out the Air Force?” Two weeks later, and I was signed up. The nutty part was lying in my bunk on the first evening of basic training, wondering, “What the heck did I get myself into?” Years later, I look back on my decision as one of the best I ever made. It just goes to show you that doing some things on a whim isn’t always a bad thing.

Stuart: When you were a kid, what was your favorite toy?

Steve: Lego. My grandparents bought me a box of Legos when I was seven. I knew right away that I had a creative side, and Legos let me create in three dimensions. It paved the way for a lot of “idea building” in my life. Funny thing is that I live close to Legoland, and I’ve never been there. Go figure!

Stuart: I used to love all the construction toys, Erector and what not, for that reason.

Tell us about your winning story

Steve: “Switch” was inspired by my novel, Godnet, which introduces the future of the Internet—the Mindnet—where you use a simple neural implant and a good network connection to immerse yourself in a virtual reality world overlaying the real one (think Oculus Rift or Microsoft HoloLens, but on steroids!). In “Switch,” the Mindnet serves as a subplot to the main story, which is about a cop who uses his addiction to a high-tech drug called Switch to catch the kingpin dealer at the center of it all. The story just came to me one day, and I knew I had something special when I finished the last line.

I entered the story into an earlier WotF contest, and received a semi-finalist nod. That prompted me to make it better. My last submission hit gold. The moral of my tale: Don’t give up! If you believe in your story, and it falls short of the mark, retool it, and try again.

Stuart: Well there you go! Any parting advice for those aspiring authors out there?

Steve: Yes. I’ve created a mantra that sums it up perfectly: “Read voraciously and write prolifically.” You have to read regularly to get the mental juices flowing; and you have to write consistently to keep your creativity going. Set aside time to do these things. Even if you have a full-time job, kids, and a loaded-down plate of to-dos, eke out a few moments to follow your passion, and make it part of your daily ritual. After a number of years, you’ll have something to show for your hard work—and you’ll be glad you did!

Stuart: Well I can’t wait to visit the world on “switch”. Thanks, and again, congrats!


Steve blogs at http://stevepantazis.com/wordpress and you can follow his publishing news at http://www.stevepantazis.com or on Twitter at @pantazis.

Meet The Winners – Michael T. Banker

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Continuing in this year’s Writers of the Future series, meet third quarter winner, New York’s Michael T. Banker

Stuart: Welcome Michael, and a big congrats on the win! Tell us about yourself.M. Banker Picture

Michael: I have a lot of imaginary friends whom I occasionally write stories about and this is generally considered to be a respectable use of my time. No one has sat me down yet to express concern over my mental health. I’m grateful to live in an age where that’s possible.

Stuart: Ha Ha! Well put! So how’d you get into writing?

Michael: When I was a kid, my friend told me that he wanted to write a book, to which my response was, “As of five seconds ago I’ve always wanted to write a book, too.” I started to plot out a novel in high school, which was fun and good practice, but I didn’t actually write much. I took a creative writing class here and there. It wasn’t until after college that I figured out that if one wants to be a writer, one needs to actually write!

Stuart: That sounds a lot like my story of how I got into programming. I started out helping a friend on his science fair project. But what made you finally go all-in?

Michael: Why do I do it? It’s mentally and emotionally challenging–and fulfilling. It’s a way of organizing my thoughts about the world and human nature. It’s an opportunity to practice stepping out of my brain and into someone else’s.

Stuart: I can see that. Tell me where you do your writing.

Michael: My favorite place to write is on the subway, in cafes, standing in line. But that’s because if I’m writing in these places, I’m probably really into the story and can’t get enough down.

Stuart: Yeah, I carry my little netbook with me everywhere—you never mind having to wait when you can spend the time writing.

Michael: Usually, though, I just need the quiet of my apartment. I will actually wear ear plugs because I find the sound of my keyboard distracting. I use a Kangaroo, which is a hybrid sitting/standing desk, so I’ll often write standing up.

Stuart: Awesome! A fellow stander! I highly recommend it. And what do you do when you aren’t writing?

Michael: I’m either weirdly creative for an actuary, or weirdly analytical for an artistic type, although I suspect that combination is pretty common for writers. My day job is pricing insurance, running models, building Excel spreadsheets. On weekends I throw pottery, I’m teaching myself how to play piano, I really, really want to get into drawing but haven’t carved out the time to do it properly. I splurged on a Cintiq which is awesome, so…maybe gradually.

Stuart: Yeah, I think you may be right about that. I have writer friends who are into everything from robotics to soap. And I do my own plumbing. I have a leaking irrigation line to repair this weekend. :-)

How long have you been entering WotF/ is this your first contest win?

Michael: Five years or so. I credit WotF with teaching me how to churn out a story regularly. I’m thrilled to have won on the cusp of pro-ing out, but WotF would have been influential on my career whether or not I ever made it to their fancy gala.

Stuart: That’s a very healthy attitude. I always say I entered for the training and hoped to earn some pro-level feedback. Winning was just a super, super nice bonus.

Micheal: I won one other contest, Albedo One’s “Aeon Award,” and got a very nice check for my efforts. There was no trophy or award ceremony or anything, though, so really it just felt like another sale. WotF is unique like that.

Stuart: Well hey, that’s pretty sweet! That’s a definite for the old CV.

Are you a pantser or a plotter?

Michael: A plotter, so much a plotter. I need to know where I’m aiming, even if I change course mid-stream. There are a tremendous number of interesting details to decide in the moment, as I’m writing (how would my characters really speak and behave, how do I convey this image, transport the reader into my setting, frame this scene to accomplish everything that it needs to, etc., etc.). Plot exists on an entirely separate level, and my brain doesn’t bend both ways at once.

Stuart: I like how you put that. I know a lot of writers chafe at the idea as an assault on the art. I don’t see that. Writing is a craft, and all craft is a blending of engineering and art. Plotting is more the engineering side.

If you had a superpower, what would it be?

Michael: The ability to observe (through a crystal ball, my mind’s eye, whatever) any planet with life on it. Because they’re obviously there. It’s not on the Marvel list of approved superpowers, but I’ll have that, please.

Stuart: Good one! Yeah, that would be very cool, even if it was fairly simple life.

When you were a kid, what was your favorite toy?

Michael: I don’t know, but my earliest memory is playing with a duck — literally just a duck-shaped thing cut out of a block of foam. My mom said I had to go somewhere so I asked if I could bring it with me. So I’m playing with my duck in front of the car window, which cracks open in the back rather than rolling down from the top, and then suddenly it’s out of my hands and I just remember staring out the rear windshield, watching my foam duck bounce away on the pavement behind us and disappear.

Stuart: Oh no! My condolences for your loss—and to whomever may have been hit in the head with the thing! You know, I have one of those also. When I was little, we used to go treasure hunting (fossil and relic hunting) in the South Dakota badlands. I have this memory of sitting on a mountain, playing with my match box cars, and one rolling down the hill. When I was a teenager, I mentioned this memory to my mother, saying how odd that I specifically remember NOT retrieving the car, and why that might be. She said, “It’s probably because you were tied to the tree.”

Yeah. Well, how else do you keep a rambunctious three year old from falling over the nearest cliff, right?

Stuart: If you adopted a unique wardrobe tag (ala Dr. Who’s scarf/bowtie etc.), what might it be?

Michael: I call my look, Things I Found Strewn Across My Floor to Cover My Nakedness. I’m pretty happy with it.

Stuart: Very practical. Um…wear a tux, though, you know, for the gala.

Tell us about your winning story

Michael: I originally submitted this story in 2011 to K.D. Wentworth, who gave it an honorable mention. I’m sure I’ve edited it since then, and of course I sent it to a number of markets in between. I submitted it again because the story I wanted to submit for Q3 wasn’t quite ready and I didn’t want to rush it. It feels a little weird, like me from four years ago won the contest, but it goes to show that you shouldn’t self reject. Sometimes the right story and the right editor just need to match up.

Stuart: Very true. A lot of people don’t get that.

Micheal: This story isn’t very representative of most of what I write. It has a little more of a light-hearted/YA feel. But I did have fun writing it. Occasionally I write a story that reminds me that I need to have fun. There are a lot of ways I’d described writing, but fun isn’t usually one of them.

Stuart: Well I can’t wait to read it, and your other work. Thanks for stopping by and again, congratulations!


Check out Micheal’s work at Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, among others.

Meet the Winners – Sharon Joss

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Scifi for the WIN!

Starting the new week, say hello to Writers of the Future winner, Sharon Joss!

Stuart: Hi Sharon, and congratulations! Tell us who about yourself.

Sharon: I started out in the aerospace industry as an operating systems programmer, working on real-time systems for the space shuttle Columbia. Over the years I gradually moved into the high tech industry as a Technical Program Manager, integrating hardware and software for digital presses in the publishing industry. I’d always wanted to be a writer, but never felt like it was a ‘real’ job. All that changed in 2009, when I got laid off and decided to pursue writing as my full-time career.

Stuart: Wow! I love the eclectic career path. As you’ll earn in April, L Ron Hubbard used to take jobs just for the experience so he could write about them—at least, that’s what he claimed. So you always wanted to write; where’d that drive come from?

Sharon: My dad used to read to us kids at the dinner table after the dishes were cleared on Sunday nights– Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling. For years, I thought my dad had actually written those stories, and I wanted to be a storyteller, just like him (he was actually a college biology professor). I also loved Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang. Then I discovered Lloyd Alexander, Ray Bradbury and Andre Norton, and I was forever hooked on adventure and speculative fiction.

Stuart: Awesome! I’ve always said my mom’s stories reminded me of Steinbeck, except her stories were real life and it was the other way around. So now that you’re wriiting, what’s your “writer’s cave?”

Sharon: I’ve got my writing desk set up at the top of the stairs. The landing is relatively spacious, and there’s a big window and great light, but nothing in the view that will distract me from writing. My desk is basically a door laid across two file cabinets, but I’m surrounded by bookcases, and there’s a really nice chair that the dog sleeps in while I’m working. I’ve got a couple of nice framed posters on the wall (one with a phoenix, the other a dragon), and post its on nearly every surface. My sister calls it ‘the command center’, and I suppose it is.

Stuart: Nice. I especially like the repurposed door. When I was a kid, my dad had this huge, really heavy duty workbench in his shop which was like no other. It wasn’t until I was grown that I realized it was just two by eights nailed across two chests of drawers. It was super solid and did the job. Do you have any unusual talents or hobbies?

Sharon: I’ve trained dogs for years; and competed with my Australian Shepherds in obedience, agility, and rally events. I also owned a sailboat for several years when I lived in California, and have sailed to Catalina many times.

Stuart: Sweet! I has a mini-Aussie, and though I don’t put the time in that I should, I’ve found training her is the secret to keeping her happy. Working dogs gotta work, writers gotta write, eh?

How long have you been entering WotF/ is this your first contest win?

Sharon: I submitted my first entry to WOTF in December 2012, after hearing about the contest in a Dave Farland editing class. Before my winning story, I’d submitted five stories, two of which earned Honorable Mentions. I’ve never won a writing contest before.

Stuart: Very nice! So are you a pantser or a plotter?

Sharon: I’m a major (and highly detailed) plotter for long fiction, although my short fiction outline is basically just a few sentences.

Stuart: Yeah, that’s as me. I find it’s at that outlining stage that the short story ideas sort themselves out from the novel ideas. So, if you had a superpower, what would it be?

Sharon: The ability to communicate with animals (and other non-humans). Or flying–flying would be cool.

Stuart: Flying would be awesome. I think I can already read my dog’s minds though. Especially the terrier. He’s pretty assertive. ;-)

When you were a kid, what was your favorite toy?

Sharon: Although I think they’s pretty creepy now, when I was a kid, I loved hand puppets and marionettes. And Mr. Potato Head.

Stuart: Hand puppets? Creepy? You should search YouTube for the Scottish Sock Puppet theater. That’ll either cure or confirm that view.

Thanks Sharon! It’s been great, and I can’t wait to see you walking across the stage!


Follow Sharon at http://www.sharonjoss.com or on Twitter at @josswrites