Tag Archives: inspirations

Dance squads and energy on the page

I’m a metaphor junkie.

I also see a fair number of critique or contest manuscripts, and I lead workshops on occasion, so for a while I’ve been trying to find words or instructional help for something I’ve noticed in lots of manuscripts, and that I think separates pretty good work from publishable work, but that I don’t see mentioned often. I’ve thought of it as “coherence” or “cohesiveness,” but when I say things like that, people glaze over. They don’t know what I’m talking about.

But recently, I attended my high-school niece’s regional dance squad competition, and I may have found the metaphor I need.

I’d never been to a dance competition or even a practice before, but it became clear by the third squad on the floor that you could tell how strong each team’s performance was going to be within the first bars of their music. And usually even before. It was a matter of their energy level, which was almost tangible (or not); the sharpness of each young woman’s movements, and her synchronization with her teammates. It was the looks on their faces. It was the ease and precision with which they found their correct spots on the floor before the music began. And a really big clue was how they got to those spots in the first place — whether they walked silently out and wiggled around and looked at each other and shuffled and found the right position — or marched/pranced/stomped out in step, as a single unit, with discipline, and with everything from their swinging arms to the angle of their heads united — from the audience’s very first glimpse. Without second thoughts, adjustments, or tentative steps.

And I see a lot of manuscripts that would not be winning dance squad performances. They’re good — pretty good writing, pretty good story. But they are not contenders from that very first glimpse. They don’t “take the floor” like winners, every word precise, sleek, disciplined, and in step. (This is why I think proper formatting, spelling, and grammar are crucial.)  The first page doesn’t ooze energy and confidence. The smile or sobriety on the author’s face, the tone, balance, and grace of her writing muscles, are not evident on the page.

I understand so much more clearly now how an editor or agent can reject a partial on the basis of that first page. The writing performance, like the dance squad performance, must be telegraphed in those very first moves. And while some agents and fewer editors will see the talent and be willing to help train and choreograph and discipline, many won’t. They’ll let somebody else coach that writer instead.

I still have to figure out how, if at all, this metaphor might be useful in a workshop. But it also makes me think of those “light bulb” experiences in general. If you’re a writer, what light bulbs have helped you jump a level of skill? If you’re a reader (aren’t we all?), what it is about a first paragraph or page that tells you that you’re in for not just a good performance, but a great one?

— Joni, who’s giddy with this metaphor fix and will overuse the analogy for a good while yet. And whose niece’s squad got a third place. Which was about right, in her aunt’s opinion.

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Everything I know about spec fic I learned from…

… Diana Wynne Jones.

Her fantasy novels are light and funny, with organic plots and plenty of surprises. Best of all, her storyworlds are interesting and her characters are lovable. The books of hers that I’ve learned the most from are:charmedlife

Charmed Life. I felt so bad for poor Cat Chance, who goes with his sister to live in a sorcerer’s castle and learn magic. Cat is constantly left to get himself out of trouble that his sister has put him in, and his good nature makes him completely endearing. I loved spending time in the castle and learning about the magic in Cat’s world–magic which is somehow unassuming and engrossing at the same time.

conradsfateConrad’s Fate. Conrad’s training as a new servant in a mansion is fascinating, partly because of the troubled family he serves, and partly because of the magical mishaps that keep occurring. Not only does Jones do a great job of making Conrad likeable, she also takes advantage of a limited POV to keep readers interested in Conrad’s mysterious and charming pal, Christopher, the sorcerer from Charmed Life.castle-in-the-air

Castle in the Air. Again, the main character of this book is somewhat put-upon and yet still kind and clever. He thinks he has it made when he acquires a magic carpet that flies him to a lovely princess, but he’s only gotten himself into a world of trouble. He has a very funny way of offering profuse compliments to everyone he meets, being a carpet salesman by trade, and this trait actually helps him out in some tight spots. Jones also finds a way to weave in characters from another of her books (Howl’s Moving Castle), which makes for some great surprises at the end of this story.

What I find myself trying to capture in my own writing is Jones’s way of letting her reader enjoy the magical settings she has created. I also admire the way she instills a sense of wonder through humor, plot twists, and magic. I find myself re-visiting her books again and again, something I hope my own future readers will do with my books!

cherylicon Parker Peevyhouse can’t get enough of the Miyasaki film based on Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle.


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Everything I know about writing spec fiction I learned from…

bravenewworld_firsteditionThree small words:




By Aldous Huxley. Please, tell me you’ve read it. And if you haven’t, then get thee to the library immediately and check this novel out. Consider it a homework assignment.

To me, this novel opened up the world of spec fiction. Every concept in it challenged society, even back in the 80s when it came my way. And when was the book written? 1931. Um, wow.

Let’s see, there was:

1) Genetically engineered babies

2) Random sex (and birth control)

3) Reservations for people unwilling to change

4) No marriage

5) No regular births

6) A firm caste system

7) And no challenging the system

Oy, what else am I leaving out?

So what did I learn from Brave New World?

Push your limits.

Don’t be afraid to write something controversial. In fact, many times it’s the more controversial writing which will be remembered. (Now where is that work-in-progress of mine?)

Classics can actually be interesting after all (which up until this point was totally not the case to me).

Science fiction ROCKS!

I can’t say that I’ve read anything else by Aldous Huxley. Anyone else have something they want to recommend? Or is this one of those things better left untouched?


PJ Hoover at one point thought living in the world of Brave New World would be cool. Of course, that was assuming she would be an Alpha.


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Everything I know about writing spec fic I learned from…

…Ray Bradbury.martianchron

When I first read “A Sound of Thunder” in eighth grade, I think my brain underwent a permanent change. I was intrigued by the time travel, excited by the dinosaur hunt, and amazed by the twist ending. Since then I’ve enjoyed many of Bradbury’s other short stories and his novels, and I keep Zen and the Art of Writing handy for inspiration.

Some of the most important things I’ve learned from Ray Bradbury:

Endings. Bradbuy knows how to make an ending “click” into place, even an ending you weren’t expecting. Sometimes it’s a mindbender, but sometimes it’s an emotional zing you didn’t see coming. I love the way “The Million-Year Picnic,” about a family accepting their new home on Mars, left me forlorn and hopeful at the same time.

Passion. The story of Bradbury typing away as fast as he can on the first draft of Fahrenheit 451 while feeding nickels into a rented typewriter always makes me feel a bit inadequate. Here’s a man who loves the writing process, who thrives on telling a story, who spews poetic descriptions. The Bittering Family’s transformation into Martians in “Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed” is both beautiful and haunting, and makes this my favorite short story.

Psychology. While I love a good “hard” science fiction novel, I enjoy writing more about the human element of this genre. Bradbury often delves into the psychological impact of technology–the difficulty of adjusting to life on another planet, the horror of science gone wrong, the thrill of youth relived.

How do you feel about Bradbury’s stories? Who inspires you?

cherylicon1Parker Peevyhouse loves her copy of A Medicine for Melancholy


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Everything I know about writing spec fic I learned from…

Norton Juster.

 If I don’t count the Dr. Seuss book that taught me to read, THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH has probably influenced my life more than any other. My fifth-grade teacher read it aloud to her class, and the idea that words, sounds, or numbers might be alive, inhabiting a particular place, or able to act for themselves knocked me flat. I’d read fantasy before —my copy of THE BORROWERS was tattered and I had a friend I visited specifically for her copy of JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH—but TOLLBOOTH was a step beyond because it described not just a make-believe world, but a radically different way of looking at and being in the world right before us. I went through a tollbooth of my own without looking back. 

Words and ideas became playthings for me on a Tollbooth level, not the spelling, grammar, and summer-vacation-essay level. A dimension fell open before me, one in which I could imagine cartoons leaking into the mundane world (REALITY LEAK), numbers that made sounds (THE HUMMING OF NUMBERS), or senses beyond the usual half-dozen (THE FARWALKER’S QUEST). I’m fascinated by books that breach the fourth wall (from playful picture books to Marcus Zusak’s I AM THE MESSENGER). Boundaries like that are for crossing, IMO. Toll optional.

Consider a boundary in your view of the world. (They’re sneaky; we tend to be constrained by them without actually seeing them.) The sky, the definition of what is human, and the boundary we see as death are several that typically  inform spec fic, though there’s always room for fresh eyes. Just as Star Trek has probably influenced the development of communication devices, popular spec fic concepts soon erect boundaries of their own. And what about other boundaries such as birth, the sense of self, the delimiter between macro and quantum physics? Or our expectations of time, which I have yet to see handled in a book in any ground-breaking way, despite scientific suspicion that it doesn’t exist, at least not as we experience it. (Loads of time-travel books work within our fiction-created expectations, but I don’t know any that actually explode the forward/backward model, do you? DUNE may come the closest.)

Hand over your toll and walk through. That’s the hard part. After that, writing about what you see on the far side is easy.

joniicon Joni Sensel, who gets in trouble for crossing boundaries such as wet paint signs.


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Everything I know about writing spec fic I learned from…

Stephen King.

Well, maybe not everything, because there’s Norton Juster, Rosemary Sutcliff, Andre Norton, and a few others, too. Plus a number of authors I’m sure I absorbed back in the days when my reading was just reading—no analytical component with one eye on “what’s working here and how can I do it, too?”

But I’ll start with the King and laud the others in future posts, because we hope this will become a blog series. (Thanks for the idea, lovely readers! Good one.)

We can get into the “is he good or is he a hack?” debate if you like, but here are three of the most important things I’ve learned from gobbling up reading Stephen King:

Characters. Say what you will otherwise, and I might not dispute it, but he is a master of characterization. He makes you care intensely about rather flawed people by inserting the reader deeply into characters’ heads and hearts. This is especially important in spec fic, when characters may not be human or, for instance, they’re living in a time far distant, but we still need to be able to relate. Great details help to define characters, and so does pitch-perfect, authentic, distinctive dialogue and language for each character, but I think King’s real secret here is actually…

Honesty. The man does not shy away from squeamish or impolite topics or from splashing his characters’ flaws across the page, not just revealing them. By telling it like it is about snot or animal lust or jealousy or other less-than-attractive human traits and conditions, he earns the reader’s trust both on more mundane emotions and unearthly matters. It’s rare, at least for me, to read a King book without stumbling on something disquieting—and yet, you have to admit you’ve been there or seen it or imagined it yourself. This writing skill is under-valued and under-discussed. (Discuss, discuss!) My next post will dive more deeply into this topic, because I think it’s especially crucial for spec fic, where you’re asking the reader to suspend disbelief even more than usual.

Endings. Which I’ve learned how to accomplish through his mistakes, not his examples! (Though it appears he’s finally overcome this disability; the final ending to The Dark Tower series is, IMO, perfect. Perfect.) Tell the story and then get out. End the darn book. Sooner, rather than later.

Want to argue with me? (I’d love to.) Or who/what/where has inspired you?

— Joni Sensel, who is proud to admit she reads Stephen King




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