Writing For A Cause

Troy D. Smith is from Sparta, Tennessee. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, and teaches U.S. and American Indian history at Tennessee Tech. In addition to history, he writes short stories of all stripes, has written for several magazines, published poetry (but not lately), and writes western and mystery novels.

It’s a funny thing about writers. Sometimes, when we go about our life’s activities, especially if those activities involve worthwhile charities or causes, we forget about the wellspring of contributions we have access to as authors. Those contributions include both our own well-honed talents and those of the network of colleagues most of us are connected to.

In my day job, I am a history professor at Tennessee Tech University, specializing in Native American Indian history. In that capacity, last year I was asked to serve on the board of directors of a new project: the Standing Stone American Indian Cultural Center. At the time, it existed only as a concept: a center located in the Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee, which in the colonial and pre-contact area had been a trade and diplomacy crossroads of sorts between several different tribes, that would eventually house a museum, an educational program offering various classes to the public, and fund indigenous cultural events and –someday –perhaps fund one or more scholarships to nearby TTU for American Indian students.

We’ve come a long way in a year, but we have a lot further to go. Most of all, we need to find funding –we had hoped to procure grants and so forth, but the continuing economy doldrums have dried up many of the sources we could normally have turned to. We have been brainstorming ways to reach potential donors who might be able to help –we tossed around ideas about fundraisers and outreach activities. That’s when it hit me.

I’m a writer. I write westerns. Lots of my friends write westerns.

Westerns are often about Indians.

Why not a fund-raising short story collection?

So I put out the word –and am putting it out now.

I will be overseeing the publication of Tales from Indian Country, under the aegis of Standing Stone American Indian Cultural Center (SSAICC). Authors are being asked to donate a story (keeping their own rights to said story, other than for this publication) –either an original tale or a previously published one they have the rights to –featuring American Indian protagonists and/or Indian themes. We do ask that they be well researched for cultural accuracy. There are no minimum word counts, though there is a 10,000 max. All royalties (beyond printing fees and other costs) will go to the SSAICC. The book will be available in both paperback and digital; if there is enough interest from writers, there may be more than one volume. With the potential long shelf life of books in this new digital age of ours, there is a chance our anthology (or anthologies) will continue to benefit the center as it grows (with the understanding that, if SSAICC should dissolve, the royalties would be diverted to a similar Native American Indian educational project.)

I would never have considered the possibility of editing such a volume if I had not spent the past year editing Western Fictioneers’ Wolf Creek series (and by the way, the fourth book in that series –The Taylor County War- just came out). Several of my colleagues from that series have already offered to pitch in for Tales from Indian Country. Like me, they are delighted to have a chance to use their unique skills for a greater good.

I encourage you to also think of ways to use your fearsome and formidable powers for some noble cause. And, if you write about Indians, or have done so, please consider pitching in to our cause, as well. You can email me at tdsmith at tntech dot edu for details. You can also learn more about SSAICC –including just what the “Standing Stone” of the title refers to. You might also want to check out the SSAICC Facebook page (or make direct financial contributions to their Fundrazr page).

Planting the Decision Tree

Monica Valentinelli is an author who lurks in the dark. Recently, she released a science fiction novella titled “Redwing’s Gambit” which was based on the Bulldogs! RPG. She has over a dozen short stories published and two novellas with more on the way. For more about Monica and her work visit her website.

At some point in your career, you’re going to get some advice on what to do with your written works or your future as an author. Maybe the suggestions will originate from a peer or your mentor. Maybe it’s from an old teacher or a friend of yours. Maybe you spot something on a website just like this.

Getting inundated with advice isn’t always a good thing, because often pieces will conflict with one another or worse – derail you from your current manuscript. This article is geared to help you keep your focus on the page and weigh the benefits of what recommendations you encounter.

Here are a few decision tree matrices that will help you decide what’ll work best for you and your work:

  1. Knowledge – What background information are you required to know before you act on the advice that’s been given to you? How much time are you willing to spend researching the validity of the claim or learning the pieces you aren’t up-to-speed on? While you can’t put a price on knowledge, it is an intrinsic asset and one that may require more effort to attain in specific cases when technology, new forms of writing, etc. are involved.
  2. Achievability – Based on what you’ve been told, how many other authors have successfully replicated that same piece of advice? Or, are you willing to risk everything on the off-chance you’ll be “lightning in a bottle?” Another way of looking at whether or not a piece of advice is valid for you, is if the recommendation hyper-focuses on a trend. Just as one example: the latest zombie craze may sound like an opportunity in disguise, but what’s chic in fiction now has already been written, revised, and edited. If you can leverage that monster-of-the-day, great! If you can’t? Well, then maybe your forte is not braaaaaaaiiiiinnnssss.
  3. Relevancy – You know yourself and your work best. Ask yourself whether or not the advice is relevant to what you want to do, what you’re working on, and where you are now in your career. This is probably one of the most important qualifiers when you process information, because you’ll need to decide how well that fits with what your goals are. If you find yourself questioning your work to the point where you desire to change what you’re doing before it’s completed, then you may want to reconsider who and where your getting the recommendations from.
  4. Distraction – Will the advice prevent (or delay) your completion of what you’re currently working on? If yes, what benefits do you hope to gain from applying the advice and do they outweigh finishing your manuscript? This concept goes back to relevancy, but it also further clarifies whether or not you can acknowledge how the recommendation will negatively impact your manuscript or goals.
  5. Experimentation – If the advice given to you is a risk, is it one you’re willing to take? How much time do you want to spend experimenting versus strengthening your core competency? By identifying opportunities for trial-and-error when they arise, you can help shape where you want to go, provided you’re in a position to accept a positive or negative outcome. After all, speculative ventures are not guaranteed to work. That’s why they’re experiments.
  6. Data Crunching – Can the advice be backed up with good data? Would you be willing to use that data and apply it to your own career? Oft overlooked, data is crucial to any business owner who wants to make fact-based decisions. Mind you, good data can be difficult to obtain and it’s often a snapshot of a larger picture. The idea behind getting data in the first place is to have supported claims and avoid anecdotal bits of advice that are steeped in conjecture. Data removes the emotion right out of the equation and can help keep you grounded when you want facts.
  7. Financials – Will you be able to afford to take the advice you’ve been given? Or does it cut into your time to do other paying work? A lot of advice doesn’t always come down to the “M” word – money – but more often than not hidden costs can start to affect your pocketbook. In addition to time, stress is an invisible expense that can spur you to write or freeze your fingers. When you stop producing, whether they be short stories, novels, articles, etc. you affect your ability to monetize your work. Advice itself may not have a dollar sign attached to it; but the application of it can both positively and negatively influence your bottom line.
  8. Timeliness – Is there an expiration date on the advice? Does your success or failure rely on how fast you can complete the recommendation? The adage timing is everything is often true for pieces of advice that are not only time-sensitive, but also demand your full attention. Understanding the “what” and the “how” of what someone is proposing can pale in comparison to the “when.”

Hopefully, these eight concepts will help remind you what you already know, that advice is cheap if not free. However, nothing can replace the precious time you spend in front of your monitor, typewriter, or notebook writing. Regardless of what anyone says, you’re the only author qualified enough to shape where you’ll go. By training your inner voice to critically think about how the advice you receive applies to your work – you’ll be able to do just that.

Against Story

What do people want? “A good story.” How do we know? People can barely say anything else. When editors describe the sort of material they’re looking to acquire, they want “a good story.” Readers are always on the hunt for “a good story.” Good stories are also useful for shutting down a variety of discussions. Are there not enough women being published, or people of color? Who cares who the author is, so long as he or she writes a good story? Can writers do different things with their stories—create new points of view, structure words on the page differently, work to achieve certain effects not easily accessible with more common presentations? Why bother—a good story is the only important thing.

Now, when some people talk about a good story they mean a good reading experience. A good reading experience doesn’t necessarily involve a story at all. But many people, when they say a good story, mean a good plot, and want all the other elements of fiction subsumed to the plot. And not just any old plot, but the plot as detailed in the famous triangle of that old anti-Semite Gustav Freytag. (The anti-Semitism is why he’s pretty much known for his geometry rather than his creative writing, these days.) Rising action caused by a sequence of attempts and failures, while concurrently a set of revelations slowly illuminate the original cause of the dramatic action. Then there’s a climax, and a brief unwinding of the emotional tension caused by the conflict’s resolution.
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Against Craft

Writing is often described as a craft, and usually in counterposition to art. In the Romantic Era, art was seen as the precinct of special, sensitive people, who were inspired by a Muse. Craft, on the other hand, involved practice, tradition, and the perfection of skills. Today, professional writers are almost a single mind—writing is a craft, not an art.

There are a few good reasons to ally with craft. Writing is hard work, and revision thankless. Yet, plenty of non-writers just imagine writers “being creative” and generating stories. Then the money flows on in. Writing skills can be learned, though mostly just by reading widely, and so it has a lot in common with other crafts. Practice makes…improvement. (Not perfect.) Then there’s the publishing aspect. Writers take assignments, write to certain themes or lengths, and many pride themselves on their ability to write anything.
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