James Van Pelt

Writing Words Fantastical and Otherwise

Category: Uncategorized

“Finding Orson” at Curious Fictions

My latest piece is up at Curious Fictions, “Finding Orson,” which appeared originally in STRANGERS AND BEGGARS.

It’s one of my teaching stories–I easily have an entire collection’s worth of stories about high school from both the teachers’ and students’ point of view.

This one takes place in a world that looks exactly like our own except that everyone has a super power of some kind that kicks in during adolescence. You can imagine what it would be like to teach a classroom where some students have already received their “gift,” while others are waiting for it to kick in.

Well, you don’t have to imagine it–you can read about it in this story.

The other item of note here is that I wrote “Finding Orson” in 2001 while attending The Colorado Writing Project at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, which was a very cool program. Connie Willis was a guest speaker. I introduced her to the group of teachers in the program. That gave me an opportunity to absolutely gush about her achievements.

What I notice most about this story now is how far grading practices have changed in less than twenty years. When I wrote it, teachers still kept physical gradebooks where they wrote down students’ progress. When I had to determine grades each quarter, I would sit with my hand-written gradebook and calculator, entering the numbers and figuring averages. Now, grades go straight into the computer where parents and students can see a constantly updated, running record of their progress. When the grading period ends, I press a button, and all the figuring is done for me, saving a couple hours of manually entering everything.

I don’t think anything else has changed in the classroom other than that in the last twenty (or sixty) years.

Read the story.

An Occasional News Post

I have been spending much of my online time in two venues. The first is Curious Fictions where I try to post a story a week, generally on Wednesdays. The site contains a ton of free fiction. Readers can also subscribe to writers they like or give them tips.

Of course, I like tips. You can also follow writers who you want so when they post new stuff, you are notified. There’s a place to “like” stories or to comment on them. My latest contribution is “The Small Astral Object Genius,” which appeared the first time in Asimov’s.

I also have been posting short fiction reviews at Black Gate. Those also appear every two or three weeks and are free to read. The column is called “Stories that Work.” My mission is to comment on stories that I think are successful and what recommends them. I’m not searching for a “best of” necessarily, nor am I reviewing the stories I don’t think work. Here’s my latest for Black Gate.

Of course, I also hang out at Face Book regularly.

Keep safe! Social distance responsibly.

Becoming a Writer

A Goodreads member asked me a while ago what my advice was for aspiring writers. This was my reply:

This is an interesting question. I’m doing a 45-minute presentation at a local comicon that’s entitled, “Becoming a Writer.” It’s an intimidating topic for only 45 minutes! I think that I have to start with a rock-solid basic to answer the question, which is to read, read, read and write, write, write.

I know, that sounds unhelpful and stupid, but it’s actually the formula. You read to get story and language running in the back of your head, and you write because most of us have a lot of crummy writing to get through before we start getting to the better stuff. Writing is like any other art: you progress. Almost no one starts as a genius from the get go. They start crummier than they’re going to end up, and the only way to get from the beginning to the better is to wade through the crummy.

You read a lot to find your influences, and you write a lot to find your voice. It’s that simple.

Being simple doesn’t make it easy, by the way. If you want easy, inherit a lot of money.

Becoming a Creative Writing Teacher

At the end the last school year, I mentored two teachers who were going to teach Creative Writing for the first time. I put together a syllabus for them and a notebook (and thumbdrive) filled with examples, exercises, quizzes and everything else I could think of to help them get started.

I realized today, though, that no matter what I gave them, especially for teaching poetry to high school students, that nothing would start them down the path to being creative writing teachers better than collecting the first set of poems from the students.

This is about how teachers who haven’t done much creative writing (which neither had), can grow as a helpful guide to other writers.

Here’s what happens to the new teacher with that first stack of poems, or at least what should happen: the teacher reads the first poem. It will be both the best and worst high school poem that teacher has read. It will have almost no connection to any of the poetry the teacher read in literature classes. It will be an artifact all on its own.

Then the teacher reads the second poem. There’s a chance that it will vary so wildly from the first poem that there will be no comparison, like comparing an apple to a racoon. But by the time the last poem in the stack is read, the teacher will be able to roughly divide the poems into categories of effectiveness. A few of the poems, for whatever reason, will impact the teacher as a reader more strongly than the rest.

Now the teacher, if the teacher is going to be helpful to the students, has to be able to do at least two things for the class: first, tell them what qualities he thought the strongest poems possessed, and show the class those poems. Secondly, the teacher has to be able to say something constructive to each student about her/his poem.

That’s all: generalize about the set of poems, and be specific about individual ones. Hopefully the teacher does this in a positive fashion that stresses how writing is a personal, subjective, growth-centered activity. Every student feels their first effort was validated, and that they learned something from it and their classmate’s efforts to write one they like better the next time.

That’s all. This teaching stuff is a cinch. (See what I did there?)

Curious Fictions and Keeping the Word Alive

I see I haven’t posted here for a while. Most of my online time is spent at my Facebook page, which is facing a reality: many people use FaceBook and few visit author’s pages, but, still, I like a dedicated website.

I started my online presence at LiveJournal. I still have an account there, although it’s fairly dusty by now. I haven’t done much with other online media. I have a Linkedin account, but I don’t know why, and I post the occasional video at Youtube. Mostly, as I said, I visit Facebook. Lately, I’ve added Curious Fictions to my activity.

I like the idea of Curious Fictions. It’s a place where authors can reprint their backlist of previously published short stories. Readers can read many of the works in their entirety for free. They they can “like” the stories, comment on the stories, follow authors they enjoy, subscribe to an author (pay them monthly, sort of like Patreon), or leave a tip.

This way, authors can keep their words available and, possibly, generate a little more income from them.

I am posting a story a week there. Since I have over 150 stories to choose from, I have almost three years worth of content. Someone asked me if I was worried that publishing the work online might detract from my short story collection book sales. I’m not. Curious Fictions, if anything, may sell a few books. If someone likes my stuff online, they’re much more likely to look for more of it.

That’s why books exist!

At any rate, if you like short fiction, or you would like to see a sampling of my work, visit Curious Fictions. If you do, leave a comment there, or a “like,” or (cough), money.

New Collection: The Experience Arcade

My fifth collection of short stories, The Experience Arcade, will debut at World Fantasy in San Antonio in November.

The collection consists of twenty-four of the thirty-five short stories that I have sold from my write-a-story-a-week-for-a-year that I started in 2015.  I’m trying some new approaches with this collection:

First, every story has a brief teaser for the readers, sort of like what Analog does for their short stories.  Second, every story has a postscript for writers and teachers that talks a little bit about the thinking that went into the writing of the stories.

I don’t know if the additional material will make the book more interesting or not.  I do know that when I was young, I never read introductions or epilogues.  As an older reader, I find the extra information very valuable.  We’ll see how the experiment in format goes.

I’m also creating a web page with support material specifically for teachers who would like to use any of the stories (or the entire collection!) in class.  You can see what I’ve done so far by clicking on The Experience Arcade: A Teacher’s Guide in the menu at the top of the page.

My experience on how best to promote strong sales that I learned from my previous books isn’t very helpful, I’m afraid.  My first collection, Strangers and Beggars, and my first novel, Summer of the Apocalypse, did well.  The sales on the other books have been hard to graph.  I can’t see a pattern, and I don’t know why some books do better than others (other than the obvious that maybe some books are just, well, better).

We will see.

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