Short fiction review: “86, 87, 88, 89” by Genevieve Valentine

Part of being an effective writer is learning how to be a good critic. This will be an ongoing series of posts that will review pieces of short fiction in order to both highlight other writers and help me think critically about the things that I read.

The first review is the short story “86, 87, 88, 89” by Genevieve Valentine. Her story appeared in Clarksworld Magazine and can be found here http://bit.ly/10wSD00.  You can also visit her website at http://www.genevievevalentine.com/.

When a city takes action against its own, the ones that are left end up picking up the pieces.

Genevieve Valentine’s short story “86,87,88,89” looks at domestic terrorism through the eyes of those who have to live with the consequences. When terrorists blow up the American Museum of Natural History, the result were raids by the government that left huge swaths of the city in ruins.

The story followed one of many archivists hired by Homeland Security to collect evidence following the raids. The archivist is unnamed, but clearly a New Yorker. Through her, the reader sees a government seeking to justify its war on terrorism.

“When you applied to Homeland Security, they asked a lot of questions about how many questions you asked.”

— Unnamed

The use of secondary documents like reports and email correspondents were central to the story. The documents revealed a government that was obsessed with cataloguing seditious material. This was particularly effective when put up against the unnamed archivist’s narrative.

The archivist believed that the government was doing right at first. That she was doing her part to rid the city of terrorism, but her perspective changed after weeks of picking through through the wreckage and dead bodies.

Seeing her perspective shift was the power in this story.

The archivist was forced to confront the narrative that government needed to find and eradicate terrorism at all costs. Even if that meant turning the guns on its own citizens. Her partner Jesse pointed out the government spies amongst the archivists. They were there to ensure that none were sympathizers.

The most powerful scene involved another archivist named named Kepler who followed the rules and turned in turned in seditious materials to Homeland Security. She watched as Kepler was whisked away for interrogation.

“It would have been someone, eventually. The city needs examples.” — Jesse

What was left at the end was a sense of resignation. That raids could never be undone and whatever sliver of truth the archivist saw on the job would never come to light.

Your career is a game have fun with it

The pressure of building a career  can be overwhelming no matter what you are trying to pursue, but for a person trying to parlay their creativity into a career that pressure can be stifling.

The more time spent worrying translates into mental energy diverted from whatever it is you are passionate about. The way this pressure drives you to inaction often isn’t overt. It’s not an overwhelming fear that paralyzes you, but a low background noise of doubt and fear that nags at you.

Procrastination is the byproduct of this stress. It’s a mechanism of avoidance that is in direct response to our own fears and doubts about what needs to be done. It’s natural to gravitate toward doing things that provide instant gratification, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are the right or appropriate thing to do.

Important tasks and procrastination are like planets and gravity— the bigger the task the stronger the urge to procrastinate. Higher stakes mean the consequences for failure are much greater, which ratchets up the fear and our craving to avoid dealing with it.

There’s no reason to approach your life and goals with such of grim determination. Creating the life and career you envision should be an enjoyable process, not cause you to flee from it. So why do we torture ourselves in this way?

The simple reason is fear. Our careers are such a huge part of our identity that the notion of failure is terrifying. Failing is akin to getting killed— it’s like having a huge part of yourself ripped out and called invalid. Perhaps dealing with this effectively requires a shift in thinking.

To borrow a phrase from Joker in the Dark Knight “Why so serious?

Think of your life, career and everything you do as a game. This game is fun, but it’s not frivolous because there are rules and consequences for breaking them. The beauty of this game though is that you are both player and game designer so by default you should be an expert.

Gamefication is the concept of applying game-like experiences to to real life situations. Generally this is applied to business and marketing campaigns, but it works in your personal and professional life. Knowing that you are in control is critical to a successful career and this is like setting the ground rules. The idea is to set up a framework for what it means to accomplish something and the specific rewards for finishing. When it’s clear what success means then it’s much easier to shoot for it.

Take a moment to consider yourself as the game designer of your own life. The concept and rules are yours to consider, set and abide by. What would this game look like? How would it play?

Start from the top

There’s a concept in game design called Epic Meaning, which is the motivation or belief that players are going to achieve something great. Deciding on the Epic Meaning for your life is the first step because this is the reason why your are playing in the first place.

Franchises like Halo and Mass Effect are prime examples of this. There is no better feeling in the world than knowing that you are the badass that saved the entire human race from extinction so we play out those fantasies. Perhaps your Epic Meaning is not so lofty, but don’t make your life aspirations the equivalent of Tetris.

The key is to make it compelling, something that would get you excited about approaching each day.

Achievement system

Once you’ve decided on an Epic Meaning decide on an Achievement System. These are the parameters for your game and determines the way you approach getting things done.

Think about what kind of game you are playing then create a system that applies to your life. Do you view life as a fighting game that is predicated on mastering techniques and conducted round by round? Is it an action RPG predicated on leveling up and completing quests that contribute to a much longer journey?

Create a system to chart your progress and the parameters for succeeding. If you love competition for example then perhaps create a series of challenges that will allow you to acquire a certain skill. Remember that challenges in a game sense imply a time limit and quantity of things to do so be specific about what completing a challenge means.

If you like Role Playing Games then perhaps your life is a journey and the tasks you accomplish are quests that contribute to a much larger narrative. Define the main quests you need to embark on and the side quests that are worthwhile to pursue. Set clear objectives in completing your quests and the steps needed to get there.

The best way to do this is to take a look at your favorite games and see how the designers went about getting you to play. Structure your goals like the mission structure in your favorite military shooter. Organize your to do list like the challenge mode in your favorite fighting game for example.

Reward Schedule and payoff

The Reward Schedule provides closure and fosters a sense of accomplishment for being productive. Knowing the benefits of playing your game is just as important as what the system of achievement is.

The benefit of completing a certain set of challenges might be learning a new skill or acquiring a new item. Perhaps finishing off that side quest will help you in the journey find a new job or get published. Whatever it is, make sure you know exactly what it is you are getting at the end.

Profiling Professionals- Tricia Peterson

Profiling Professionals is a series of articles that highlights individuals that don’t take the beaten path when it comes to their careers. If you know of anybody that fits this profile email Jose San Mateo at info@jasanmateo.com.

Name Tricia Peterson

Occupation: Artist

Website: http://www.ratgirlproductions.com/

Contact information: support@ratgirlproductions.com

 

It’s fitting that Tricia Peterson’s career as an artist and her website Ratgirl Productions owes part of its launch to a corporate pet supply store’s need to shutter its business.

“I got laid off working a job for six days a week. I was managing a pet supply store and working my bum off,” Peterson said. “One day they set me aside and said the figures were not looking good. It really hit me hard, but I was in an ok place. Then it just clicked and I asked myself ‘why am I not doing art.’”

Ratgirl Productions is now two years old and what started out as an idea has grown into a business with a steady following. She still sets up shop at anime, comic, and furry conventions throughout California, at one point working a pace of three in one month, but now its to the point where she has a group of regular clients and now sells merchandise online.

It usually starts early

Peterson always had an inclination for art. As a young girl growing up in the Napa Valley there was little else to do but spend time drawing up in her room.

“I definitely had a lot of free time and drawing tended to fill that up. When I was young, I’d spend a couple of hours on a doodle,  slaving away to get the perfect shading in. You go into kind of a zone and block out time.”

Her dad was a musician with a penchant for the arts while her mother managed a video store called Video Point in Sacramento. As a kid her family would often watch films together.

“I was born and raised in the Napa Valley; surprisingly not as a wine and dine personality,” she said. “I really had a lot of inspiration from things my parents showed me. My dad would bring home a lot of animated movies especially.”

Peterson hung out with a lot of animals and she often spent her days watching Looney Toons and Disney movies. She said her favorite movie was the Lion King, which had an influence on her style. Visit her website and nearly every page you’ll be greeted by a cute furry creatures that wear human clothes and stand up on two legs.

In the way of formal art classes, Peterson started with art classes and took a video production class at Napa High School during her junior and senior year. She got her hands on studio grade equipment and learned the tools of the trade for an animator. In the summer of 1999, Peterson attended a college level animation course in Valencia, CA at a school called CSSSA (California State Summer School for the Arts. She said that learning techniques like storyboarding and creating scripts were useful for her.

After High School she went to Santa Rosa Junior College and took courses online at Anthem College, but for the most part Peterson taught herself.

Peterson developed her own style through imitation. She would often fall in love with certain characters and stories, try and mimic them then incorporate it into into her own original works.

“I’d watch a movie, see a certain style then try and develop my own sorts of style in genres like anime or disney character types,” she said.

Learning this way allowed her to be flexible when it comes to commissioned works. She can easily adapt to what a client is looking for. Peterson said that clients are often surprised when they look through her portfolio and see all the different styles that she is able to do.

She still learns the same way, often watching animation from countries like France and Russia or exploring animated cartoons from decades past.

Striking it out on your own

Real life was often the most challenging part of pursuing a career in art. Peterson was always a hard worker and after high school she was working 40 hours a week in addition to taking her college courses.

She spent time working retail with a five-year run working at various WalMart’s, but it left her little time to work on her art.  She said, “Certain retail job required a lot of mental focus and my art would definitely take a beating. I wouldn’t draw something for months at a time.”

It wasn’t until she was laid off around Halloween in 2009 that she decided to commit much of her time to Ratgirl productions. She finally took the plunge after she went with her sister to the bank and opened a business account.

The skills she learned from working customer service were useful to her business. She was already saavy with social media and knew how to design a website for herself. It also helped to have strong support from her family.

“I am really thankful from my husband and friends and family who have been supportive of what I’ve been trying to do,” Peteson said. “They would ask  ‘are you sure you want to do just this?’ whereas the average joe will ask ‘how do you make a living?’”

The two most difficult things about starting Ratgirl Productions was time management and marketing. She said that becoming a sole proprietary business was juggling being the boss, production artist, public relations writer and everything else.
A typical day is often a lesson in multitasking.

“Pop in movie to get some inspiration and let my mind flow. I’ll definitely try to keep a somewhat rigid schedule so I don’t work on one thing all day,” Peterson said. “I try to  mix it up and work on couple of different things at once so I don’t get restless and fatigued.”

The more difficult task is marketing. With so so many different artists out there, it’s difficult to get yourself noticed so she spends a couple of hours scouring facebook and social media interacting with her fans.

“Regular posting on my site and keeping a good online presence shows people I’m not just a part time artist, but I’m but here to stay,” Peterson said. “It gives them security that they can hire me and I’m not just going to blow them off. I give each project their due time and people appreciate that.”

Not all of her time is spent online though, she also hits the convention circuit working the artist alleys and dealer room. Peterson said that she had been frequenting conventions as a fan for years so it was natural to bring Ratgirl productions to conventions.

“More often I am trying to keep a face to face presence at conventions,” Peterson said. “It’s really major haul getting to every single events. Whenever I’m at conventions it’s usually on a professional level at dealers room or artists alley.”

Selected Works

Ninja Time

This is a parody inspired by The Cartoon Network Show Adventure time and the popular anime series Naruto. She said It’s a fan favorite on her pages and often the kids that see her at conventions recognize the style.

Kitten Vs. Yarn

This started out as a request from friends to build a little bit more artwork in her portfolio. The very flat style is inspired by some of the more recent cartoons on Cartoon Network.

The Watcher

Produced inbetween getting laid off and starting her business. She produced this piece after seeing a contest on Deviant Art. The theme was Dreams and nightmares.

The Importance of Platform

I’ve always known that building a platform is important to your writing career, but defining exactly what your platform is and how it functions was harder for me to understand. The best way I can explain it is a personal example.

It happened during work when I was doing research for an article at the Vallejo Times-Herald. I was sifting through our online archive, searching for an article I’d written a year ago when I noticed exactly how many times my byline appeared in the newspaper.

In the span of three years, my byline has appeared in the newspaper 340 times and given our circulation size of about 15,000 readers, that’s a lot of people who may view me as an expert on sports in Solano County.

I remember writing a fraction of those articles, but unknowingly I’d built a pretty sturdy platform as a sports reporter.

What is a Platform?

The idea of having a platform is not a new concept and many of my ideas on the subject come from reading about it. The two best sources I’ve found on the subject are in Sage Cohen’s book The Productive Writer and Christina Katz book Get Known Before the Book Deal: Use Your Personal Strengths to Grow an Author Platform. Katz’s book is great if you really want to get serious about this subject.

Platform is an expression of your expertise. It says to people ‘hey world, this is me and this is my experise.’ If you look at it from a business sense this is the organizing principal that will govern what you work on, how you work on it and who you work with.

Being clear about your platform brings focus to your writing life and gives you the criteria to evaluate what projects to work on, what type of research you need to do and allows you to take advantage of opportunities that may be staring you right in the face.

Creating multiple Platforms

The best example I’ve seen of exactly what your platform is actually supposed to look like and how it functions in your writing life is the website of job coach and professional geek Steven Savage.

Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a professional geek whose aim is to help people combine passion, talent, media and technology. Find info on his current project at http://www.focusedfandom.com

You can find his website here.

I met Steven during the Animation on Display Festival in San Francisco two weeks ago. I was trying to network and develop a second platform as an anime and video game writer, when I stumbled upon his panel called “Fans Without a Dream Job.” His tips on leveraging your hobbies and interests into a career led to the creation of this blog and now this post.

If you’d never met Steven before you could figure out who he is and what he’s about by going to his website and taking a quick glance at the home page. It’s the perfect example of clearly defining your platform.

“I am Geek 2.0, where technology, culture, media, and career come together…”

These days, writers rarely have just one platform and many times people that get into writing are experts in something else and fall into writing. Steven has been an Technology Project Manager for the better part of 16 years. He’s also a fan of anime and all things geeky, which he’s leveraged into jobs as a career coach, freelance writer and public speaker.

Steven is also the author of five books that deal with helping anime fans turn their hobbies into careers.

“Any writing job is communication and any career is about communication so it’s not hard for everything you do to feed it back into itself,” Savage said. “It’s easy to think of these things as separate, but you have to tie them together.”

It’s not just important, but essential for writers develop multiple platforms. If your goal is to make a business out of your writing life, it’s important to use every opportunity to bring the service you provide to all the people who need it.

In other words, the more you write the more chances you have to get paid. The faster you produce work, the faster those dollars come.

“A writing job is a lot more complicated,” Steven said. “People think they are  going to be one kind of writer, but the big thing is if you want to write for a living. Write as much as you can.”

Building your Platform

I think Steven Pressfield said it best in his book War of Art. He has a chapter called YOU INC, which expresses the idea that as a writer you are the President and CEO of your writing life. Thinking of yourself as a professional puts you in the proper mindset to think of your writing and work as a service. Your platform is the guiding principal that dictates where you put your time and effort.

In Steven’s case he was fortunate enough to be a Project Manager before being a writer.

“What I’m doing is applying project management skills to writing. What I like to do is start with the endpoint in mind. Ask yourself where your trying to go. This is something a lot of people miss. Look at where you’re trying to go then try to understand it. It helps to understand cause-and-effect once you understand how you’re getting there and where your trying to go. If you have a goal in mind then you can work back and get there much better.”

You have to decide what you are an expert at before you can tell people you are an expert at something. Sit down and figure out what subjects you know the most about and you may realize that is your expertise. If it’s something you have a passion for, but don’t know much about then figure out what you need to do in order to become an expert at that subject.

Once you’ve found your expertise, put it down on paper as a single statement of purpose. This will be your guide as you map out out exactly how you are going to get there.

Proper planning is essential no matter whether you see success as writing a book, running a successful blog or building a freelance career. “Planning is a creative process. The act of planning can be inspiring,” Savage said. “ It’s seeing what we can do. Creativity is something you have to take everywhere.”

The key to planning anything is having clear measurable goals and hard deadlines to get it done.

“The really difficult thing is knowing how long something is going to take. Even project managers at large companies have trouble estimating the size of a project,” Savage said. “The secret for planning a good project is to break things down to reasonably sized compliments. If you’re doing a book, go for X amount of work each day.”

The final and perhaps the most important step is to get started. Whether that is defining your platform, planning out how to reach your goals, or writing. Do something toward building your platform every day, because many times putting in steady consistent effort is the one thing that stops people from succeeding.

An overview of the Writing Process: Planning

Writing is a process and getting yourself to the end of a piece involves a lot more than just actually thinking about what you want to say. Developing a system to get you from rough draft to finished product in a timely fashion is common sense.
The key is knowing what you want done and when you want it done. Call them deadlines or anything else you want, but they are necessary. The trick is to create hard deadlines for yourself. Avoid soft deadlines that are unfocused and unclear about what being “done” means.

Negotiating deadlines with yourself  is the same with the people you are writing for. Learning to hit deadlines that are realistic and move you forward is a skill that all working writers have. This is the way I do it, but it isn’t a rigid system.

You are free to take anything I’ve outlined here and incorporate it into your own process.

Planning

The first thing I do with any writing project is outline my expectations for this particular story and stick it right at the top of my page.

Some things I keep track of  in this upper portion of the page:

Goals- A simple statement of what I want to accomplish with this story. This is the part where you say what you are writing and when you want to complete it. I change this part at each due date until the project is completed.

Due date- I put the due date for a story prominently on the page. This isn’t necessarily a “done” date but the date your scheduled to revisit this project and revise the top section. Something is finished when I reach a due date and feel that I’ve completed everything that needs to be done.

Word Count- I usually keep a cumulative word count and the number I want to hit for each day at the top of a story.

Prospective audience- Thinking about this helps set the tone every time you sit down. It puts you into a mindset to write a magazine article or  piece of fiction because you are writing for somebody. The faster you can focus on what you are writing, the more useful your time will be. Sometimes a story is only meant for your eyes only and that’s ok. Projects like that are necessary, just keep in mind why you want to write this particular piece and let that guide you.

Finishing any project is a matter of  having a clear view of the end you want to achieve and mapping out a specific schedule for completion. Once you’ve worked out all of your expectations for a story, gear every single minute you work on a project toward hitting one of the goals you’ve stated above.
For example, I may have 15 minutes to work on a piece of fiction. In order to maximize my time I have a clear goal in mind to write at least 500 words in that span. After the time is up I see how many words I got through and added it to my overall word count.

The other part that people tend to avoid is measuring progress and adjusting expectations. At the end of each week I’ll look at the top section of every unfinished project and check my current progress against expectations I set the week before.

Review your work as often as you think is necessary. Some people go months or even an entire year before thinking about their goals again. Either way,  the important thing is to think  about your goals and find a way to make them focused and relevant.

Here are a few questions I consider each week along with some follow up questions:
Did I honestly fulfill my expectations for the week (Celebrate if you did) ?
– If no  then ask, why didn’t I meet expectations?
-Then, how can I adjust my goals to make them more realistic?

If yes then ask think about setting more ambitious goals or stay at this pace until next week’s review.

Next topic is rough drafts.

Sports writing and the art of fiction

Life has a way of telling you it’s time to slow down reassess your priorities and after getting back from a Thanksgiving visit to my sister in Portland my writing life took a backseat to a cold that’s dampered any real momentum gained from a relaxing vacation. Between full-time work and taking cold medecine, I’ve lost about two weeks worth of meaningful writing time, but it has turned into an opportunity to really examine my writing life.

I’m fortunate to have a job that coincides so well with the writing life and over the years there been no better writing teacher then cutting your teeth as a journalist. Aside from writing daily and getting into a rhythm of getting published every week, being a Sports reporter has taught me to be a professional writer.

The difference between between being a writer and a professional writer is that a pro writes for an audience. It’s a shift in mindset that is the difference between writing in your private journal and getting your name in print. The prose doesn’t just honor the self, but the audience that is going to read our work. A professional assesses the expectations that come with any writing situation and writes with the mindset of meeting the contract we make with the reader through every word, sentence and paragraph that is written.

I wonder why there aren’t a lot more fiction writers out there that love sports. Writing sports comports so well to what fiction authors do that it really isn’t that big of a leap to write in either genre. In sports there is built in drama with a clear conflict that is really easy to understand and covering events requires you to be observant and describe events in scenes. Sports reporting also puts you in writing situations that many fiction writers do not have to deal with.

After going to a writers group with a bunch of novelist, I found it amazing that many of my peers had been working on a single story for months and for some years. I wonder how someone could work on something for that long. Often on game nights I have an hour often 30 minutes to produce 1000 words of copy. There is no time to think about what you’re writing. It’s write, rewrite, edit and watch it go to press. This isn’t the business for perfectionists or falling in love with your ideas it’s about writing and writing some more.

Some of my best prose has come out of these frantic moments and often the writing requires  clever language, metaphor and subtle descriptions. Here’s a lede from a gamer I wrote this season and you’ll see that there are literary devices in here and even a bit of dialogue.

The opening round of Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs rested on the wind and a prayer on Thursday night.
Fortunately for the Benicia High School boys soccer team, the ball bounced in its favor on a blustery day at Drolette Stadium as the Panthers tied their game against Cordova 1-1 on a stoppage time goal by senior Dante Arias in the second half. They later won 4-2 on penalty kicks after 20 minutes of scoreless overtime.
“It was more based on luck,” Arias said of the tying goal. “You’re there and it just happens for you sometimes.”
Arias, Jared Thieme, Matt Judd and Zach Coan all converted their penalty shots for Benicia while the Lancers missed two of theirs.
The Panthers earned a second-round match up against Placer in Auburn on Tuesday thanks to the play of goal keeper Kenneth Butts, who didn’t allow a goal except for a penalty shot by the Lancers senior striker Anthony Sanchez in the 53rd minute. He also stopped two shots in penalty kicks to seal the Panthers’ win.
Clarity is the bottom line for any writer whether you are writing fiction, essays or a corporate newsletter and the skills I’ve learned from sports writing has carried over to every writing situation I’ve encountered. it’s about laying out a logical sequence of events for readers, stating things plainly enough to make sure nothing can be misconstrued and most important it teaches you to trust your writerly instincts.

Finding your voice as a writer

A writers voice is simple to define but elusive to find. The real great writers, the ones that have a lasting place in this business are the ones that capture it day-after-day, story-after-story and still leave you coming back for more.

Voice is a confluence of style, tone and diction that is unique to you. It’s why you can pick  a random passage from Old Man and the Sea not knowing who wrote it and know that you’re reading Ernest Hemmingway.

How you develop a voice is really not that hard, the problem is actually doing it requires a lot of work that many would-be authors aren’t willing to do. On a practical level it requires you write reams of pages and on an emotional level you have to be willing to plumb the depths of your soul time- after-time until you are comfortable with what’s there.

Some writers find the blank page very scary, but I embrace it and often take solace in it. Writing is a healthy emotional release that I’ve come to rely on in some of the darkest moments in my life. Often emotional moments in life are measured in tears or bursts of anger, but for me it’s measured in blank ink and word counts. Emotions are given form on the page in metaphors and similies and distilled into sentences and paragraphs until I can say that it is off my chest.

You find a voice in those moment you hold up that mirror  and figure out what’s deep inside. To find it consistently means “going there” over and over again until you can call upon it at will. When I write matters of grammar and mechanics are so far from my mind and really, writing produced in that fashion sounds mechanical and stilted. Not to say you should master those things, but it isn’t the most important thing when it comes to the act of writing something that is compelling.

The soul of a story is comes from the most obvious place— you.

No other person thinks and talks like you  and really, no other person can write like you either. The question is how much work are you willing to put in to figure out exactly who “you” are.

Good writing is born in a place of honesty and  good writers spend their lives being honest with themselves. That may be hard to believe, but it’s the reason why people take their writing so personally. People get their feelings hurt at workshops because getting critiqued is akin to making a judgement on them as a person.

This may sound weird, but you have every right to take it personal. That is you and if you put one iota of yourself into producing something then it will sting to hear somebody tear it down. It’s about being comfortable enough with who you are and the writing you’ve created to say “ok, I’m willing to improve my writing and willing to improve myself no matter how much it hurts.”

It takes a strong person to overcome that fear and write for an audience just once and it takes a person of character to do this over and over again.