Friday, April 29, 2011

Honing my Craft

So I've slowed down production quite a bit. I cranked out 15 stories in 2 months. Now the output is slowing to a trickle.

The hard part for me was breaking out of the generic word symdrome I wrote out in my last post (two posts ago according to Blogger--- the internet has been doing weird things to my posts lately, even on forums). I blame part of this on my job. When I write a legal review, I want to be clear. When I write a story, I want to be evocative.

Now it turns out I have a bad case of HWS: hack writer syndrome. All I want to write about is nail biting suspense, monsters emerging from interdimensional portals, people going mad, and violence. Lots of violence. Ultraviolence, you might say.

But really? Isn't there another way to resolve conflict than pulling out a Colt .45 and splattering the bad guy's brains across the wall?

Apparantly not. I was writing a story about old age and death, a wistful meditation on change and impermanence.

You know where it went? A retired government assassin fighting genetically enhanced mutants. Does that sound wistful? Meditative?


This is one reason I'm writing a novel. When I feel like writing about some one dodging laser blasts or discovering some horrible secret, I can stick it in there.

When I write short stories, I want to write something---


---meaningful. But still involving. Like many others, when I read a "literary" piece, I end up scratching my head. How then to write something interesting, engaging, and meaningful?

This is the holy grail of genre writing, I believe.

But its hard to shake the hack. I set out to write a story recently, dipping into my warm, wonderful child memories of growing up in the Midwest in the late 1980's.

It features a child murderer, a psychopathic pre-teen, and a ghost.


Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Seven Stages of a New Writer

A Satire.

Stage 1: Hopeful. Timid fingers tap across the keyboard. A story forms. How exciting! It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. He reads it through, again and again, making sure the flow is smooth and the writing is clear.

Stage 2: Elation. At last! He has finished a few stories! Now to get them published. Excited, trembling he finds a list of possible places to send his work. There are so many. Who will have the privilege of first publishing this dynamic new writer? He sends off his work, a tear in his eye.

Stage 3: Dreamy. Which award will he win? The Stoker? The Nebula?

Stage 4: Denial. Ouch, a rejection! How could they reject a great story like that? Look at the drivel they publish by "established" writers! All those -ing words and adverbs!

Stage 5: Grief. More rejections. He's a terrible writer. He should give up. His time might be better spent surfing the internet. Or taking up a new hobby. He was good at pinewood derbies so long ago. Ah, the innocence of youth. His wife says things like "Oh God, do I have to hear this again?"

Stage 6: Anger. Even more rejection. What's with these editors? He can't be that bad! Form after form. Look at all those horrible writers on the internet. They don't even have complete sentences! He writes a story about how the evil editor gets eaten by an alien plant. That'll show 'em!

Stage 7: Bargaining. Forget the Nebula. He just wants to publish in a reputable magazine.

Okay, a pro magazine.

Okay, a semipro magazine.

Doesn't anyone want to read his stories?

Stage 8: Non-acceptance. He won't accept defeat. Ever. Repeat.

P.S.: As an interesting side note, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who came up with the Five Stages of Grief, was convinced of the validity of near death experiences.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Lite Slush and Beginner Mistakes

So I've been working in a few fiction workshops.

For a while, I've been disappointed. Good feedback is difficult to come across, even in a forum dedicated for feedback. I wanted more people to look at MY stories. Give ME feedback.

In the meantime, I've been looking at other people's stories and developing my own ability to critique. Now I'm starting to think that the true value is not in getting solid critiques for my stories, although these are helpful.

The true value is developing a critical eye.

I read an article about how getting a job as a slush reader can make you a better writer. I looked into it, and discovered an average slushie is expected to read at least 10-20 stories PER WEEK!

Reading all these workshops subs, I'm probably looking at an above average slush pile. After all, workshop submitters care enough about their work to ask for feedback. What has popped out at me are two common beginner mistakes (which I make as well).

The first is underwriting:

The cowboy walked into the bar.

While gramatically correct, there are no vivid images here to spark the imagination. I read this and all I see are words. This could be any cowboy anwhere in the world, at any time from 1800 to the distant future.

The second is overwriting:

The weather beaten, road weary gunslinger curled his lip, a scar connecting the corner of his eye to the end of his chin, as he shoved through the vented, swinging, wooden doors to the saloon and put his road dusty leather boots on the polished hardwood floor.

Too much! I'm overwhelmed and confused. I don't know what's going on now.

I think we're looking for some sort of happy medium. I don't know what that medium is yet, but when I find it, I'll let everyone know.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Third Dimension

I reread many of my stories last week. They depressed me. The writing was often--- not always, but often--- tepid. It didn't snap. It was like a news story. Just the facts. This wasn't a bad thing. The stories were unfinished. I had the bones, but not the flesh or the feeling. They say that readers read looking for an emotional experience. It is not enough to tell a story, the story needs to engage at an emotional level. I had gotten so caught up with submitting that I hadn't developed my stories to where they were as good as they could get. They hadn't fully blossomed yet. Based on what I've read, there seem to be three keys to breaking into the third dimension.

1) Details. Look at the opening of this story and notice how the author incorporates precision and detail in showing the texture of his world.
The last shot fired in the Battle of Chametla hit Private Arnulfo Guerrero in the back of the head. It took out the lower-right quadrant, knocking free a hunk of bone roughly the size and shape of a broken teacup. This shot was fired by a federal trooper, who then shouldered his weapon and walked to a cantina on the outskirts of town, where he ate a fine pork stew with seven corn tortillas and a cup of pulque. The shot was witnessed by Guerrero’s best friend, Corporal Angel Garcia, and by Guerrero’s dog, Casan. Casan was a floppy-eared Alsatian he’d stolen from a federales base the year before.

2) Motivation Response Units. It isn't enough to show the action. We need to see the character's reaction. Learn more about MRUs here:

Example 1) Just the action.

The tiger dropped out of the tree and sprang toward Jack. Jack raised his rifle and fired a shot. The bullet grazed the tiger's left shoulder. Blood squirted out of the jagged wound. The tiger roared and staggered, then leaped in the air straight at Jack's throat.

Smooth, easy to read. But missing something.

Example 2: Action plus character response

The tiger dropped out of the tree and sprang toward Jack.

A bolt of raw adrenaline shot through Jack's veins. He jerked his rifle to his shoulder, sighted on the tiger's heart, and squeezed the trigger. "Die, you bastard!"

The bullet grazed the tiger's left shoulder. Blood squirted out of the jagged wound. The tiger roared and staggered, then leaped in the air straight at Jack's throat.

Very different. In the first one, it is like we're observing the scene. In the second, we feel it.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Glorious Rejection

I got rejected today, but I feel as light as air. Why is that, you might ask? Is it because I am a step closer to meeting my goal of 100 rejections? Is it because I now have an excuse to troll Duotrope for the next market?

No, because it was a fantastic rejection from one of the top magazines in the Spec Fiction business. I feel some measure of validation as a writer.

I think a lot of writers feel this way. I've been churning out all these stories, but it is difficult to tell if they're any good. Some of them look good to me, some not so good, but what do I know? I'm trapped in my own head. I'm not an expert. No one wants to be the self deluded fool holding up diamonds made of glass.

Like being a defense attorney, it seems that as writers we are bound to lose most of the time (which means rejections). One of the keys to surviving in such an environment is to re-define success. An acceptance is a success, no doubt. But a rejection can be a success. A form rejection can be a success if it is a high tier rejection. Getting a rejection from an editor as opposed to a slush reader can be a success. Simply getting 100 rejections, which means you're producing and submitting, i.e. an actual writer, can be a success.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Moment of Realization

After reading my stories and comparing them to the internet, and doing a lot of looking back at my pile of rejections, one thing is becoming clear to me.

Before I say what that thing is, let me say that I've always prided myself on being a quick learner. I've also developed, over the years, a sense of objectivity. I feel that I can see my beauty and my flaws, without being blind to either.

My main character flaw has been patience. This was ironically drubbed into me at a meditation retreat where I was assigned the Kanthi Kuti. Kanthi in pali means patience. Patience has never been a virtue of mine. I like to resolve things quickly.

So I think my fiction needs more polish than I'm giving it. I think I'm trying too hard to produce a great quantity. And I think I've done a good job, I've got some favorable rejections. But they are rejections. Taking a hard look at myself, I would say my writing is currently short of the professional range. It lacks the snap and polish of a pro piece. I would say I'm writing at somewhere in the semi-pro range. I've been primarily submitting to pro markets. If I focused more on the semi-pro, would I have more success? Maybe. I might be overestimating myself.

My goal for this month is to focus on rewriting a few of my pieces. I need to figure out how to make them sparkle for the pro markets. I think part of it is by developing the depth of the world they are set it. This is part of the literary piece of literary genre fiction, I believe. This level of development requires: *gasp* PATIENCE!

I'm trying out a few online workshops to help me with this part. We'll see how it goes.

Monday, April 4, 2011

2 Rejections for the Price of 1

Last week, I submitted a story to Lightspeed. I was impressed by their response times, 2.0 days on average. Of course, I am also impressed by their editor, JJA, and their magazine. But 2.0 days, unheard of.

I submitted a story. It went into their queue. Slowly, over the next day and a half, it crept up higher and higher to #1.

And it stayed at #1.

And it stayed at #1. I started to get excited. I was rounding on 4 days for a 2 day rejection place. I had *gulp* made it out of the slush pile.

So I got a rejection from JJA. It it didn't work as a reprint. Good luck on finding a home for your reprint.

A reprint? Why, I haven't even published yet! What's this about a reprint?

So I sent back a message. It's not a reprint! Won't you love it now?

JJA sent back immediately. He pulled my cover letter. Yep, I'd written "previously published" instead of "previously unpublished".

And besides, it didn't work as an original story, either.

Oh well.

So I'm counting that as 2 rejections, for the price of 1.

And I'm changing my cover letters.

But here's a toast to Lightspeed and JJA. Immediate response, and he cleared up the error quickly. He didn't have to do that, on his own time, probably from home. But he did. I think that says a lot about him as a person.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Reading Aloud

Internet Tip of the day: read your manuscripts aloud.

When I came across this, I groaned. Oh no, isn't it enough I go over my drafts time after time?

I tried it recently. Oh my God. Things that you think look good on paper sound much different to your ear.

This was codified by Elmore Leonard in his writing article: if it sounds like it's written, re-write it.