Friday, April 18, 2014

A Fork in the Road: Revise or Continue?

Over the last couple of weeks I've complained about being Lost in Plotland and then thrashing about in The Plotland Swamps for sixty-some thousand raambling words. Several times I've lost courage and wanted to abandon this writing free of structure, allowing whatever comes next to mind as the words pour forth.  It has been a confusing effort for one who usually takes an engineering approach to composing stories.  This scene, description, or discussion needs to go earlier, I sometimes think as I'm pounding out words upon words.  I pause and ponder where I might put that fragment and then, recalling my promise to write, write, write like the wind, I continue on, with a note to correctly place those bits during the inevitable revision.   But I worry.  I seem to be writing a LOT of these misplaced pieces.   Perhaps I should put them in their proper places now and ....

No, no, no!! That's my Structure Muse trying to take over the controls.  Has your time come, I whisper to him/her?  Should I continue to write like a careless fool, paying little to logic or consistency in the headlong drive to a conclusion (as opposed to THE conclusion, which will probably appear on the fifth or tenth revision, if then?)  Maybe it wouldn't hurt if I stopped to revise and edit the material already written before attempting to finish?  Or would it be a mistake to arrest the flow and step back?  Should I unshackle SM to revise and edit the material already written before attempting the finish?

Then I remember my promise to dive headlong into this experiment and decide to keep SM locked away until my raw creative fires have burned away and the story is at last abandoned, if not "finished."  Only after the tale is done I will avail myself of SM's editing skills.


Friday, April 11, 2014

The Plotland Swamps

Last week I complained about being Lost in Plotland.  This week's contribution relates to the thrashing about that continues as I plunge ever deeper into the swamp of misdirected plots.  The more I try to untangle the vines of confusion, the tighter they seem to embrace the characters.  Soon, if I do not figure some means of extricating them, they will become one with the rigid trees, not only unable to change, but unwilling to do so.  Already their feet are immersed in the plodding mud, straining to take each slow step forward.  Instead of moving the plot along they talk about the surrounding morass, chatter of past experiences, go on and on about relationships, and complain of how miserable they are to have come so far from the bright path they set upon at the Introduction.

"Blah, blah, blah," they say, filling pages with empty dialogue that does not advance either the main plot nor even advance this byway in the slightest.  "This should not be," the writer screams.  "I have set them on their quest, established the POV characters, and had them encounter the first of three setbacks. Why is this story wandering so far from my three part construction?  Why is this story NOT bending to my will?"

Since I began writing fiction (to escape from the more technical stuff that actually paid decent money) I have taken an engineer's approach to crafting the story's structure, detailing the parameters of each (necessary) scene, describing characters in fuller detail than will ever appear in the final version,  and of course doing the research so the story will seem "real" to the reader. I will shamefully  admit to using verisimilitude where accuracy wouldn't work.  So far my scientific approach to writing has allowed me to write hundreds of stories, a few of which I've sold.

But back to the point of this rambling, so like my cloudy story:  Could it be that my writerly mind is  rebelling against the way I work?  Could it be that by forcing a structure on the first draft, of trying to bend the plot to my will, of trying to make the characters behave, my brain is telling me to let the story go where it will? Is it insisting that writing without an outline, without a known plot, without determining where the story will go is how I should proceed?

That seems an anathema, insane, and extremely risky. Dare I let loose, write without forethought, babble on and on with little sense of purpose?  Others tell me this works, but I have only their word for it. I suspect in my heart of hearts that they, like me, struggle endlessly to keep their stories under control and feign to admit it. Yet, yet there is the chance that such a radical departure might be worth the risk. All I have to lose is this sorry draft that remains mired in the swamp of confusion.

Do I dare?


Saturday, April 5, 2014

Lost in Plotland

You've been there, I am certain.  You have a great story that's developing well.  The words flow easily.  The scenes can be conjured up on the spot, and the dialogue seems realistic (well, as "realistic" as fictional speech can be*)  You kicked it off with a great premise and the story development using flashback and foreshadowing are working.  Things are going wonderfully.

And then an idea occurs to you (and when doesn't it?) - something not in the original plan for your story, but which is really, really interesting and/or fun and abruptly takes the story off on a tangent.  Sure, you say to yourself, this brilliant new subplot might add a little more length to the story, but why not if it pays off in the end?

With that in mind and the confidence of hubris, you begin to flesh ot the subplot with bit more description,  add a character or two, scribble a bit of explanatory dialogue, and frame the whole thing in already established settings. You roll along, feeling wonderful about the way things are going to go, quite unaware that your unconscious writer's brain, aka "Muse" disliked where you were originally heading and wanted to divert you.

Suddenly you find your plotting vehicle has gone twenty miles off the road you so confidently set upon and cruising in territory not completely thought through.  In a panic you try to bend the plot back to where you thought you'd left the road, but it is no longer where you thought it was.  You are lost!  Panic sets in as you figuratively cast about, searching for a path that will take you back without success.  Every twist and turn you attempt confuses matters more. The plot compass isn't working any more.  In desperation, you try diagrams, outlines, chronological lists, everything you can think of to bring clarity to your story, but nothing seems to work. The draft is such a complete mess and beyond redemption that you contemplate dumping the entire subplot, but the new story is in YOUR head and so interwoven  that you cannot ignore it.  It would be like revising history.  No, there must be a better way to align the stars and plot your course.  There must be some magic that will clear the confusing mist away.  There must be.

And it is called editing.

*Real conversation, usually transcribes to sound like the babbling of rude idiots


Friday, March 28, 2014

The Writer's Guide to Life

This should be inscribed in the Preface of the Writer's Guide to Life:  You are not alone.

It's such a simple statement yet so difficult for anyone addicted to writing to fully grasp.  Consider this: A writer sits in a dark room, sharing their innermost thoughts in solitude, except for, perhaps an unsympathetic cat or two, and pours words, words, words into the machine, onto the paper, or into a microphone. There is no cheering crowd at the writer's back, urging them ever onward, no coach on the sidelines shouting encouragement, and no boss to come by and tell you that you are doing a good job. Nope: You get buttkas for the hours spent hammering on your writer's anvil, save blurred vision, a bad back, and perhaps too much of a need for caffeine (should there be a deadline involved.)

But know this: Out there in the real world there are thousands of writers just like you - thousands! They are all brothers and sisters of the word, who struggle with their personal demons, fight the endless self-doubts, and agonize over every rejection, dismissal, or refusal that comes their way. Yes, they may be of your kind, but they are also your enemy and competition, the hated authors who unknowingly flaunt their successes in your face.   You know who I'm talking about.  Their names appear on the covers of books and magazines, they sit on panels at conventions, they get interviewed, and they travel to exotic locations "for background."  You hate them. You love them. You envy them. You wish they would die, die, die so your works would stand a bit more of a chance of acceptance from the editors.

And yet you sincerely and heartily wish them continued success.

The ease with which your fellow writers produce their works is an illusion, you know.  They are just like you in every way.   None of them never, ever created anything memorable without putting forward considerable effort.  Their work appears effortless only because you only see their headlines, their successes, and their fame.  What you don't see is the mountain of creativity that they had to climb.  Their private failures and disappointments are hidden and personal, away denying your perception and understanding.   Every writer has hopes and fears, battles the endless self-doubt, and lives with the constant fear that their muse might suddenly disappear into regions from which there can be no return.  Writers always worry about death, and more so if it should happen before their damned novel is finished.

The Writer's Guide to Life ends with these words:  Keep writing, keep hoping, and know that you are not alone.


Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Inherent Messiness of Writing

It seems so simple, writing a  little story.  Shouldn't take long.  Couple of hours, maybe.  You know how it's going to go.  Even have a nice hook in mind.  Oh yeah, and a killer ending that will rock every reader back. Great!

So you sit down, read a few e-mails, check your social media suite, hit a couple of web sites and then begin.  Open a blank screen in the old WP and .... and....and....

What was that opening that seemed so awesome in your mind a short time ago? Somehow it doesn't seem so good when you've written it down.  It doesn't matter; you still have that killer ending, right?  But on reflection even it doesn't seem as incisive as you imagined. You can work on those later, after the central story stuff is developed.

And there's a lot of story stuff  that you didn't really think through in that first flash of inspiration.  Neither had you thought through the plot, the way the story would unfold, and what the overarching theme should be.  Those and  thousand details that now conflate your thoughts, so you read more e-mail and social to take your mind off it for a moment before you really settle down.

But how to do that?  What sometime works for me is a diagram or two - you know, to sketch out the progress of the story's scenes. That usually leads to blocking out the time sequences on a spreadsheet so you don't make bone-headed mistake the copy editor can embarrass you with. Oh yeah, facts and settings need to be reasonably accurate, so you have to do research (and yes, cat videos do count, if only for the slight relief they provide!) and have that pile-o-facts readily available.

Your workbench starts to look like an explosion in a library. Spreadsheets, little reference windows, color coded scene blocks, calendars, and of course, your word processor of choice (Scrivener in my case.)  Gods, with all this clutter how can you be expected to get any work done?

But a first draft does get completed and it is what we professional writers charitably call a PoS.  The sequence of events, the motivations of the characters, and the settings are all wrong, wrong, wrong! Worse, the prose itself sounds weak, non-lyrical, and completely lacking in metaphor and allusion. The first draft is a travesty, a miserable attempt that barely stands a chance of improvement.

So you begin to move a few sections about, maybe trim a phrase here and there, check the e-mail, socials, etc, and occasionally think of a better way to express a thought.  Slowly, you breathe life into a character, work hard to make the setting a bit more realistic, and maybe throw out your original opening for something not quite as good, but more appropriate to what remains of the original concept. Crap, now you have to change the ending as well so that it flows naturally from the arc of the plot.  The fifth, sixth, or umpity-ninth edit results in a story not quite as good as you first imagined, but at least it won't embarrass you when you submit it.   It's good enough.

But not  nearly as good as the idea you just had with an absolutely great opening scene.


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Tax Time Thoughts

Oh crap, where did I put that check stub, or the acceptance letter saying how much I would be paid, or the receipts from Staples?  What about the toll tickets for driving to the con, oh, and the parking lot receipts, that is if I remembered getting them.  Maybe they're still in the glove compartment?  What do I do about the pile of comps on the bookshelf or ......

Filing the US federal tax forms is not only pure freaking misery but forces one to lapse into the reality of their disorganized life.  Don't they understand that all I want to do is write - not be a damned bookkeeper.

Even if you get all your paperwork together there are still problems.  A publisher is only responsible for sending IRS Tax Form 1099 when the total amount paid to a writer in a single tax year is greater than $600.  For the 99.9999% of us who write genre short stories, such huge payments from a single publisher are hardly ever the case - you have to sell a LOT of words to a single market at pennies per word to make more than $600.

In an ideal universe income records automagically flow to the writer from responsible corporations who always file Forms 1099. In this fantasy land the writer should have no problem listing every cent of their income.   But over here, in the real world, this does not always happen - even when payments exceed the limit.  Neither do the publisher/editors who slip payments through PayPal or other e-means provide the necessary forms.  Yet, despite these, the IRS insists that a writer acknowledge ALL income received regardless of whether they received documentation or not. Even if a writer manages to sell a half dozen short stories in a single year they still have to list every one of those pitiful amounts.

Listing a writer's pitiful income is not an arduous task, given a small number of sales, however it is really embarrassing to admit that you received only $10 for a fucking novella that took you six agonizing months to write, even if it was finally (Hooray!) a SALE!

At the absolute bottom of market, one step above fanzines, there are the non-payment "publications" that pay ONLY in complementary copies.  Does a writer count those two or three copies as income and, if so, at what price?  Is it considered barter when you exchange your hard-won words for printed magazines or ephemeral electrons on an obscure website?  Maybe you could charitably consider those as tips except - wait a minute - tips are supposed to be reported as well!

 This forces one into excessive contemplation of work that might be more financially rewarding, of books unread, of shows not seen, and of family neglected.  Putting those aside, the writer grumbles, sharpens the computer keys and drearily enumerates their modest successes, cursing fate, penurious publishers, and citizenship.

Perhaps next  year won't be so difficult.


Friday, March 7, 2014


At the top of speculative fiction reign the lords of literate mien who cast off novels with ease, compel readers into autographing frenzy, and attend conventions as honored guests. Agents and editors alike swarm to their sides while publishers wet their seats in anticipation that these lords of literature should deign to sit beside them at award ceremonies. Their books are easily found in bookstore windows and on end caps.  Some of them even make a living at it.

Below the highly esteemed lords gather the lesser lights, those knights of the realm who produce books that are respectfully written, but somehow fail to gain the public's attention and thereby achieve stardom. These knights are the stalwarts, the strong mid-list host who produce the bulk of literary content that supports the publishing kingdom. Without their diligent efforts the reigning lords, editors and publishers, agents and fans would not exist.

The expeditionary force, the army behind the royal assembly, are those who carry the pikes and shields and trudge along in anonymity, gleaning literary sustenance from the roadside while supporting ourselves by other means.  The spear carriers sit at no signing tables, are not hosted by convention committees, nor do they ever find hordes of clamoring fans awaiting their appearance, yet their number is legion and in total literary output overwhelm the total output of the nobility.

The pen-weilding army can be found battling for attention among the anthologies, magazines, and web sites. You will find them toiling away in their hovels at word rates that scarcely buy a crust of bread or even provide enough to afford attendance at any convention beyond easy commuting range. The struggling spear carrier fights hard to simply to remain within the van.  Ever present in their minds it that failure to produce in their hard-scrabble writing life can leave them forgotten in the wake.

Yet, even the members of this under-appreciated army are not the lowest creatures of the realm.  At the sides of the vast marching host stand the minions; the drudges, the sculls, and wanna-be scavengers who cannot join the march despite years of endless efforts to produce something salable.  These minions beg for scraps as they work long and hard to find the key, the magic words that will unlock an editor's heart and grant them admittance.  Frustration is ever their companion and failure upon failure their only hope as the endless horde marches by, aware of the desperation at the roadside and fearful of rejoining them.

Yet, despite all the barriers of talent and skill, of endless failures, even a lowly  minion can find the strength to wrest a gleaming sword from the stone, raise it above their head, strike a new direction for the march, and become a lord of the future.