Writing Magic

This week’s post is by writer extraordinaire Laura Lancaster, Vice President of the Interior Chapter of the Alaska Writers Guild. She is fun, clever, and has excellent taste in apple juice. Behold her wisdom!magic cards

When I was 12 I learned a magic trick from my next-door neighbor. She showed me an ordinary quarter, put both her arms behind her head like a pitcher about to throw a curveball and scrunched up her face. Then she brought her arms forward and showed me her empty hands.

“See, I just pushed that quarter into my neck. In a few seconds, it will land in my mouth. It doesn’t hurt because it’s magic.” Then she reached into her mouth and tossed the quarter in a high arc. It bounced across the floor with a magical metallic ring.

If I ever see you in person, I’ll teach you the trick that turned me, a shy awkward tween into an awkward ham who did goofy magic tricks.

My favorite went like this: I placed the magic baseball cap in front of me on a table. I declared,“I can make three balloon animals in the time it takes most people to make one.”

Then I whisked a rubber glove from my ball cap, blew it up, held it on top of my head and yelled, “chicken.” I held it high and squeezed the fingers, “cow.” Then I let the air out and the glove dangled, limp. I slowed and dropped my voice. “Jelly fish.”

Even though my shows got lots of laughs, I made lots of mistakes. I once had an audience member stand next to me while I did the quarter trick. He looked behind me and learned the secret. Once I had a large audience and my mom told me I had turned away from the microphone and everyone in the back hadn’t heard a word. They applauded out of politeness.

Now I’m a beginning writer. I look back on my career as a teenage magician and I realize I had found my style, or genre, of magic, but I needed more tricks, practice and critique. Writing is no different.

magic levitationMagicians have to master stage presence, precise movement, and misdirection the way writers have to learn plotting, character creation, effective research, world building, precise prose and any number of other skills. If any of those elements are weak, the magic disappears.

Fortunately, if I, as a goofy, awkward teenager could learn magic tricks and face the nerves of performance, I can learn to write fiction.

I’ve learned from books, blogs and magazines, but one of my most helpful tools are writers groups and professional organizations. I even became the Vice President of the Interior Chapter of the Alaska Writers Guild Interior and I’ve found that even if you are not published, there are three reasons to get involved in the writing community.

Practice Makes Better-

Often writers organizations sponsor critique groups. If you are at a place where you can show your work to others, you ought to. Critique groups, whether online or in person, are a great place to start. You may find partners who understand what you want to do and help you do it better. Like magic coaches, they can show you where your patter is flawed, or when they saw the quarter hidden in your sleeve, so to speak.

Guidance In Going Big-

The community talent shows where I did my magic were a place to start, but to get noticed, you have to work a lot harder. Many writers groups sponsor writing classes or conferences and they’ll give you access to big-time writers who teach craft and agents who can advise you about your pitch or query letter. If you are considering hybrid, indie or self-publishing, many authors in professional organizations have done it and are willing to share what they know about publication options, promotion and sales. Magicians never reveal their secrets to the audience, but the most generous reveal their secrets to other magicians and it’s true of the writers you’ll meet at professional organizations.


Communication is possibly the hardest thing we humans do. We must have a clear idea in our own heads, then convey it to someone else. Miscommunications have caused professional ventures to fail, battles to be lost and families to split. No one gets it right the first time or all the time. How can we persevere long enough to become effective writers?

I’ve found that meeting regularly with writers is my most powerful motivation. When I meet with my critique group and I didn’t make a submission, everyone one reminds me that they want to find out what happens next, and I know it’s not just politeness, they want to help me write better.magic marbles

I have solved many a plot or characterization problem with other writers over coffee, writers I met at Alaska Writers Guild meetings, and I have helped them do the same. The topics speakers bring to monthly meetings and conferences, such as how to submit to an agent, help me, even if I don’t apply the lessons…yet.

Some people have said that writing cannot be taught, but most people would not say that about stage magic. Natural performers still need to learn skills through professional guidance. Natural storytellers have weaknesses that they must recognize and overcome. Every writer has been there. Keep working. Learn from those around you. Professional writers organizations can put those people around you. So when you watch David Copperfield perform an illusion or read Dicken’s David Copperfield, remember, you too can make your writing magical.

Laura Lancaster is a foodie, sci-fi aficionado and fortune cookie baker. She has been the Vice President in charge of the Interior Chapter of the Alaska Writers Guild for the last four years. She is writing sci-fi novels and short stories. Find her on social media: Twitter: Phoenix40below Facebook: @Phoenixseries and blog: lalancaster.com

To find out more about the Interior Chapter of the Alaska Writers Guild email awginterior@gmail.com or go to www.alaskawritersguild.com/interior-chapter


The Pros and Cons of Big and Small Writing Conferences

Our guest this week is Brittany Maresh, a fellow word monkey trapped in the icebox.  (Woot! Alaska!)  I met Brittany at a writer’s conference and have been internet stalking her pals with her ever since. *coughs*  Plus, she knows more about conferences than anyone I’ve ever met.  Brittany is a total geek with amazing hair, cranks out embarrassingly fantastic wordcounts during NaNo, and teaches archery. Archery!  Not convinced of her super-coolness yet?  Read on…

conferenceWith the vast array of writing conferences that exist in the U.S., picking which one is the right one can seem like a Herculean task. There are so many factors in picking the one that is right for you. Today, we’re going to look at big versus small conferences – the pros and the cons of each.

We’ll start with the plus-side of a large conference:

As you can imagine, large conferences are a lot of hustle and bustle, business cards and handshakes, and searching for the right panel room.  With so much going on, you have to approach a large conference with a plan. The schedule is posted ahead of time, so you can pick panels and figure out which ones you need to show up early for to guarantee a seat, plot out quiet room time, and figure out which nights you need to head to your room a little early to slip into your formal wear for the fancier receptions, or into your mask for the masquerade.

With so many panels and opportunities, it’s very unlikely that you’ll have much down-time with nothing going on and nobody new to interface with. There’s always another panel to attend, late-night reading, open write time, or open-mic. There are workshops, sponsored room parties, and a seemingly-endless sea of new people to meet, and typically at least once chance to get all dressed up in formalwear.

You’ll find a panel on every subject you can imagine – from YA to picture books, beginner writing skills to advanced-level marketing.  Pitch-sessions and workshops come in all genre-ranges and experience levels, from junior agents just starting to fill their list to the top agents from the top agencies in the U.S. If you’re a writer, there’s something for you – something new, and someone new to talk to about it.

On the social side, there’s never a short supply of other writers to sit down and discuss the craft with, and if you’re brave, there’s always a lost writer or two looking for a friendly face. Be brave – talking to the lost writers is a great way to meet a new critique partner, or future best-seller.

And now to the pros of attending a small conference:

If hustle-and-bustle is the name of the game for the larger conferences, intimacy is the word for smaller conferences.  They might not have as much going on, but there is more room for adapting to the audience they’ve got, rather than the audience they expected. This is a place where you can ask a question and get an answer, not hope that you get a chance to ask.

Workshop and pitching at a smaller conference becomes much more personal – after all, when there are only 40 or 50 people in attendance, and four presenters, they start to see a lot of the same faces, and get a sense of who you are, what you’re about, and what they’d like to recommend you read or work on.  There are more chances to have an in-depth conversation with the professionals, and a lot better odds that you’ll make a few solid friends – people who go to the same panels, have the same genre interests, and will be great contacts to have later down the road.  Though you won’t meet as many writers, you’ll spend more time with the ones you do. This can lead to stronger, longer-lasting friendships and an easier networking experience.

You might only pitch two or three times, at a smaller conference, but you’ll be pitching to someone you’ve had a chance to talk to, gotten a chance to know, with a pitch you’ve had a chance to refine one-on-one with a professional.  You’ll get honest feedback, and with a bigger time slot, you’ll more memorable if you end up submitting to them in the future.

While there are less people to pitch to, there are often more chances to get help with a tricky synopsis, a crumbling query letter, or feedback on your first five pages. There are often group outings, with a chance to really get to know the guests that are invited along. Trips to book stores, or a museum, or the funky buffet down the road.  And beyond the cost for yourself – your meal, your train ticket into town, and so on – there is rarely an extra fee.

As to the cons of a large conference:

Big conferences are big opportunity – but you’re just one of hundreds of writers, and there is always someone who is more poised, more polished, and with better-sounding premise. It can be a little disheartening, and people can be a little more cut-throat about talking to the pros.  You have less of a chance to be an individual, and less of a chance to get to know the pros that are in attendance. While there is always something happening, it can be hard to prioritize, and you always feel like you’re missing out on something. With the panel levels varying widely – from beginner to pro – you never really know what you’re going to get when you sit down at the start of it.  There’s also a tendency to nickel-and-dime experiences. Paid meal-with-the-pros, keynotes, and pitch sessions add to the cost, as do mixers and formal events.

Big conferences are intimidating, and with the focused, eye-on-the-prize population a lot of them have, they can also be extremely discouraging and make a new writer feel like they’re so far behind, they’ll never catch up.

And the smaller conferences:

Small conferences are cozy. Intimate. And sometimes a little cliquey.  The people who have attended for years all know each other and most of the new people came in through one of the old. They already critique for one another, have in-jokes, and read each other’s works.  Breaking in and making friends can be a struggle, but once you’re in, you’re in for life.

There can be a lot less to do, and everything hinges on the presenters that are in attendance. If they’re no good at panels, there will be very few good panels. If they’re terrible with feedback, you won’t get much professional feedback. If none of the three or four pros in attendance do your genre, there isn’t another professional that will.

Final Thoughts:

Whether you attend a large or a small conference, are a beginner or an expert, the thing that will make the most difference is how much you put yourself out there. Take the opportunities that are presented to you. Submit a first page, a query letter, or sit for a critique.  Talk to the shy writer in the lobby before check-in, and the out-going out-of-towner looking to make new friends. Focus on learning, experiencing, and actively engaging in the experience. And remember, whether you’re at a large or a small conference, you can’t be everywhere at once, so focus on the panels you do make it to, and not the ones you’ve missed.

Can’t get enough of Brittany’s wisdom?  Follow her on twitter!  And while you’re at it, check out these other conference-going Alaskan writers: @SummerHugsBooks @Kate_Dutton @kirstenupnorth @ChristinaSeine @Stataliasbooks @NikkiHyson and @jwintersak

Matter of Factly Fictional

vikings Silverdale_Hoard_group_shotToday we have a guest post that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time.  (Even before I asked them to write it! I’ve been admiring from afar and all that jazz.)  Besides impressing me with their amazing ability to speak every language ever (including computers! They speak with computers, aahhh howww?), they always have the super coolest premises for their writing.  Let’s listen in as Antonius dispenses their wisdom!

Mary Poppins sang “Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down”, but I would like to adjust that: “Just a spoonful of facts makes the fantasy go down”. What do I mean by that? I mean that by researching and using facts, it will strengthen both your other-world fantasy and any other fiction.

To me, fiction is about presenting something that rings true. Even when suspension of disbelief is necessary (“all/some humans have developed the ability to fly”), readers should be able to nod along with your world. How do you do that? Well, most important is to keep your world’s rules consistent–even if it is a consistency that the reader won’t spot for a while–and the second is to get inspiration from reality.

> Did you know that long before western Norsemen (current Norway/Denmark mainly) attacked England–which kicked off what is referred to as the “Viking Age”–eastern Norsemen (current Sweden) had traveled into Russia and other countries east of Scandinavia? By 1000AD, Norsemen had traveled as far as Constantinople and Baghdad, and traded with both Christians and Muslims.

“But,” I hear you object, “that’s all well and good for anything set in our world, but what if I write other-world fantasy?” Even then, says I. Get inspiration from various cultures, try to get an understanding for them, and see what you can use. What weird facts do you know, and can that help you build a richer world? You don’t even need to mention it, not always. If you know that the streets of your city are covered with cobblestone imported from a nearby kingdom and that the workers were convicts, that’s going to influence how you describe things.

> Did you know that Erik Håkonsson (957–1024), Jarl of northern Norway, and later Jarl of Northumberland, wasn’t born in wedlock? In fact, his mother was a thrall, though his father was a jarl. It wasn’t until Christianity had ruled Scandinavia for half a millennia that being born outside of wedlock stopped a child from inheriting from their father.

Now, you write fiction, not historical documents, so don’t write dissertations about the cool things you found regarding 15th century courting habits in the middle classes of Korea. You may, however, need to spread a few bits of fact in there to show naysayer’s that you do know what you’re writing about, and to support more unusual choices in characters or settings.

> Did you know that within their sphere, women were as powerful–if not more–than men? It was the land owner’s wife who had the keys to the food stores, and when the men were unavailable, it was up to her to defend the lands in case of an attack. Gender roles were firm, but women were not seen as lesser in the same sense that has been historically true in Western Christianity-influenced society. While parents arranged marriages for girls as young as twelve or thirteen (though generally with similarly-aged boys), a woman could divorce her husband for mistreating her, or mistreating their children, or for not keeping her satisfied sexually. Children were divided up between the mother’s and father’s family in case of divorce.

What counts as “unusual choices”? That depends on what you’re writing. As an example, let me present Helga Yngvesdotter (Helga, daughter of Yngve), a fictional character in one of my stories set in late 900s. She is far from the “rye blonde Nordic viking man” stereotype, but each step of the way I can “justify” if I ever needed to (and felt like giving anyone who’d object the time of day).

Her father was the Jarl of Håkeby (Håkeby existed at the time), and her mother was a Nubian raided from her homeland and sold as a slave in Constantinople. When her father and step-mother (her mother died when she was only seven, and her father remarried) were executed by the King’s men–as an example of what would happen to those that kept their faith true rather than converting to Christianity–she decided that since she had no brothers or uncles, the duty to avenge her father came to her.

Women would rarely be recognized as war leaders, but with the society as focused on personal strength and retribution, she could use that to gain the loyalty of the few of her father’s subjects who were still alive.

I at least enjoyed researching all the things that eventually coalesced into Helga, the last priestess of Ran, and I hope you will enjoy it too, once her story is published.

Antonius M. works with the literary speculative fiction genre, weaving threads of the human experience—historic and contemporary—on the loom of Scandinavian folklore. These experiences include trauma, mental health, first love, being transgender, and being a stranger. Their first publication is Solitary Duality in the anthology Summer Nights.

How My Writing Has Changed Over Time

This week, we have a guest post from the ever-fantastic Melanie Francisco, known in the Twitterverse as @blacklily_f.  This gal is one mean beta reader, a drill sergeant of a sprint runner, and a fount of endless online hilarity.  A no-nonsense kick in the pants, Melanie is full of snark and sass, and if you aren’t already pals with her… what the heck is wrong with you?

metamorphosisJill and I were having this discussion the other day, about how our work has changed over time. I know yours will too. I gave it some deep thought, wrote a blog post, edited it and thought very seriously about sending it to Jill. It’s a self-indulgent piece about my emotional state. It seems most of my writing is like that these days. So….here’s something a little bit more serious.

I started writing very young, in the 5th grade. I had a mentor who wrote a play at my church. I was in puppets and I was supposed to perform the work with others. My parents, who were already well on their way to ruining me, had raised me to debate the merits of literary work. I opened my mouth, inserted foot and said something extremely rude. Thank God I had an awesome mentor. He just sat me down and said, “Well Melanie, if you don’t like it, why don’t you write something better?”

Why indeed? So I did. I had a certain set of rules. I had to cover a certain topic. I had to have a certain setting. I had to have parts for all of my comrades. I wrote it over the next week. Sure, it needed to be edited, cleaned up a bit, but I got it done. And my mentor said, “This is good, Melanie. We will do your play.”

We didn’t. We didn’t do the performance at all. It fell through, but my love of writing began. I started writing stories. I started writing science fiction novels. I was incredibly naive. It showed. I wrote mostly about external forces. I had no clue about characterization. I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. It was my outlet.

I needed one. Life in my house was…complicated. (I know what you’re thinking, aren’t all families complicated? Shush, I’m sharing here.) I didn’t have a voice at home. My little sister was really sick all of the time with Type 1 diabetes. Both of my parents are visually impaired. My grandmother, who lived in the house to be our driver/babysitter had early onset Alzheimer’s. Problems at home never, ever stopped. Compared to those problems, who was I?

But then something horrible happened. My dad read my work. He called it “wordy”. GASP! I quit. I was thirteen years old. I couldn’t handle it. I left it alone until I went to college. But I got lost in books. Books of all kinds. Literary works, romances, science fiction, fantasy, romance…I read them all. (Yeah, I know romance is in there twice. I read twice as much of it as other stuff. Go ahead, judge me.) To this day I love nothing more than getting lost in a really good book. Especially if it’s one of my own.

But what that complicated home life taught me was that sometimes life is really complicated. And it drew me, when I finally got serious about my writing to epic fantasy. I frequently weave at least five, if not eight story lines together. Getting a good story, good plot twists, in depth familiarity with the whole life-is-not-fair concept I know how to deliver a twist. My mom was an English major in college. She’d wanted to teach high school English so we sat at the dinner table and took stories apart. So I know how to spot a plot hole. I know about characterization. I was ready to begin writing.

My weaknesses are prose and daring. I really pushed myself last year to get over the daring issue. As I’ve gotten older, more mature, I’ve consciously worked on taking more risks. I mean seriously people, where in the world is it safer to take a risk than on the page of a work no one else can see? Be evil. Kill characters. Make your readers hate you. Make your characters hate you. Make your characters have sex with their worst enemy and enjoy it. Write it raunchy. Write it bloody. Write it shocking. Just write it, Mell. My mantra last year.

It worked. Suddenly I had a richer world, a more dynamic story. I had characters hurting, reacting, and going all crazy. It was glorious. (And still my CP hated it.) So this year is about prose. Considering the words I use to tell the story. And just when I thought I knew what that was about, I realized I was wrong. I went back to the drawing board. Scene selection. What’s going on in the story? Why this scene? What has changed? What’s interesting? Now, what are the most interesting words I can use to bring my reader to the edge of his seat? It’s hours and hours of work. I’ve spent a week getting a scene right before. I ask for help more readily these days. And I enjoy it.

Now go back and look at your work and ask yourself, what’s changed? Do you know why? Ask for help if you need it. Look your weaknesses in the eye. Face down your doubt monster. Let other people read it. Be humble. Get better. Love the process. Enjoy it. Life is meant to be enjoyed. Love your work. Treat it as you would a child. Do what is best for your story no matter how badly it hurts you. At the end of the day, you will be exhausted. I am. But you will put your head on your pillow each night knowing you gave it your best. That’s what we all want from life. Just do it.


The Other Side.

Hi. Jill’s husband here.  Jill asked that I do a post for her on her birthday!  So I’ve sent her to bed and am writing this in her stead. I think this will be useful but first you have to step into my world for just a second.

I love games. In particular, I voraciously play a certain card game that involves two players, each with a deck of cards. Many people become attached to their deck, and see it as an extension of their persona. It has been carefully crafted.  It is their tool for defeating opponents. It contains rare cards that they own. In short, people want to play with their deck. So it came as a surprise to my opponent at a tournament yesterday when I asked if we could switch decks (during a non tournament game).

The reason I do this is to lean how my deck operates from the opponent’s perspective. Some cards may not seem powerful, but when played against you are quite brutal and visa versa. This made me realize that I was a good person to talk about living with a writer and focus on the other side.


actually i just needed an embaressing picture

Being stranded on a park bench in a flooded lake may hinder writing time…

Living with a writer is an interesting study in the use of time. There is never enough to go around. I take way more time in our relationship, and with more immediate specter of income, we both agree that my career time constraints have priority over Jill’s. I thought that her time writing could be truly flexible, but it has come to my attention that she is more productive at certain times of the day or has a routine that she prefers to work within. I don’t always realize when I’ve disrupted that routine.

Alpha/Beta Reading

Usually I have the role of reading material as it is generated. Or at the very least ideas are reviewed off me. In many instances I am just awed at what Jill can produce. I am not a writer nor do I enjoy the process, but I have read quite a bit. To quote that one guy: “I may not know much about [writing], but I know what I like.” My comments are often like that. I may have a minor complain about a character or how the story is laid out, or I may just express my love of how similar situations were treated in my favorite books. Jill is the one who has to mold that whimsical desire into her storyline in a literarily appropriate manner. In a similar vein, some of my proudest moments come from giving ideas to her stories that actually come to fruition.

Moral Support

yep, they're cute alright!

Moral support is about all they can do to help…

The biggest influence I think I have on Jill as a writer is as moral support. Full disclosure here: sometimes I think that all this writing stuff is useless unless its getting a paycheck. But then I realize that my schooling and unpaid internships are generating just as much money. And I truly believe in the skills my wife possesses and the material she produces. I think it is amazing and people should pay to read her work. Besides, even if her current novel fails to every publish it is still not a “failure”. It’s a piece of good writing, of value for her, and to all who do read it.  Is a painting useless is if no one buys it? No. Writing is clearly an art, and there is something beautiful and inspiring about the creating of art. There is not a way to really put a price on that.

Other Other Side

I just want to end my note here by reiterating my example of the card game. In the game, there is always a single clear opponent. From what I gather of the writing business there are a number of people who have an important opinion of what a writer does. The spouse is at the bottom of that list in many ways. I think this blog has many examples of how to gain the perspective of the agents, readers, publishers, editors, and reviewers.

I hope we can all get a little more understanding of each other by “switching decks” as often as possible.

Thank you Jill for being so wonderful, and happy birthday!

Cutting Words- Revising

I encountered Wendy Sparrow on Twitter whilst totally, unabashedly eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation. (Warning to all people considering being my Twitter pal: I eavesdrop. Constantly. Shamelessly. Nothing is safe.) And, like the little weasel I am, I followed the link intended for other eyes, and found this little gem on the other end. Of course, it was so beautiful that I had to introduce myself and beg her indulgence in letting me reblog it for all of you fine folks. (Because this is a NaNo month and, in addition to goofy, vaguely-creepy doodles, this is what I do.) Without further ado, the LDS (like me!), supposedly-grown-up-military-brat (like me!), mother of two (like me!), writer extraordinaire (eh, close): Wendy Sparrow!

I’m working on a revision– which is to say I’m a breathing, working writer. Revision is the other side of writing. I spend more time revising than actually writing. Something always needs revision and, if you’re prolific, maybe several things need revision all at once.

As I’ve grown as a writer, I’ve started to notice words that show up for a cameo in everything I write–as well as I’ve noticed things that just need to be cut or noted in revision. So, when I do a read-through, I don’t need to do anything other than highlight the word to know what needs to be done with it. For my revisions, there are three types of word annihilation.

Read More Here!

On Feminism & Fiction (and Real Life, Too)

Madison Dusome. Even her name is poetry. Picture a midair superhero with a boa constrictor draped around her neck as she parkours her way through an epic food fight with desperate authorities in a Costco in Canada, and you’re almost halfway to her monumental level of magnificence. Given the staggering amount of cool points she’s accumulated, I can’t tell you anything more or the universe might explode from sheer awesome. Enjoy this small taste of her kick-donkey coolness as she teaches us all how to be a little more rad.

On Feminism & Fiction (and Real Life, Too)

I participate in a lot of writing/creative communities online, and this summer there has been a lot of talk about women in writing and fiction – not only as writers but also as characters. To be completely frank and maybe a little incendiary, I’m pretty bored of hearing about how there aren’t enough of us, or about how the industry is sexist, et cetera. I fought with myself all summer to not write this blog post, but the articles, posts and tweets just kept coming. So now I’m adding my (pointless) opinion to the mix.

TL;DR Version: Girls and women: stop playing the victim. I’m not saying to shut up about sexism – pretending it doesn’t exist isn’t going to help – but doing anything with the attitude that you’ll fail “because you’re a woman” is a terrible way to live your life, and isn’t helping anyone. You want to change the statistics? Change them, then; don’t cite them and bemoan your fate. Be proactive.

Here we go…

To read the full article (which you totally should), Follow The Link! –>