Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Wall

When I sit before the keyboard, even when I do so with intent, I am never certain of what will come.  Sometimes ideas for stories arrive in bunches, all trying to shout loudest to gain the attention of that part of my brain that starts composting and composing (I often confuse the two since both require the ferment of everything I can recall.)  Sometimes I need to be working on a story on X subject that my mind, like an eager puppy, jumped on.  Other times I intend to deal with a completely different subject that screams so loudly for attention that I MUST try to write it.

And there's the rub. In the fervor  of enthusiasm I sometimes hastily begin to compose the masterpiece while the story idea is still fresh and will continue until exhaustion forces me to stop. Sometimes enough  residual energy remains that I am energized to continue to expand and enrich the draft when I next face the keyboard, but sadly, not always and, to be completely honest, hardly ever.

Yet when I touch the keys and begin seeking words equal to those that followed that initial burst of creativity I discover that they, more times than not, come hard.  Even when I fight to wrest every word that will propel the story forward I still fail.  Even attacking the draft from a different direction is to no avail. I am unable to recover that spark that made me so hastily write more words than I am now willing to abandon.  I question if I burned the candle of creativity too fiercely?  Should I have written for another hour or two?  Did I simply not think through the task I faced or fail to define the path the story had to take? No matter how much I try I cannot move the story forward yet am unwilling to admit defeat.

So the piece is shelved, trunked, or simply set aside, waiting for my return.... someday.

However, and often enough to feed my writing addiction, the words flow golden from my mind to the keyboard, each sentence perfectly formed and fraught with meaning. The prose created is crystal clear,  unambiguous, and well-defined. On these rare occasions, no matter how long I am away from it, I can return and continue to the very end.*  When it is finally submitted days after, I bask in the glow of a work well done.

But then comes another morning when I sit down to write.  Before I touch the keyboard I ask myself which will happen; will I face that impenetrable wall or not?

I never know until I begin.

*Usually after only four or five edits


Saturday, October 7, 2017

Achieving Perfection

Lodged deep within the dark recesses of my mind lies the image of Pat, the perfect writer; an imaginary writer against whom I am continually comparing myself.

Pat never lacks for a story idea and executes each with flair, always picking the proper word on the first or second draft, executing a knowledge of the English language with lyrical descriptive passages that somehow do not detract from the execution of a well composed plot. Pat does not spend hours and hours sweating over text but dashes off a few pages before taking a break to converse with agents, editors, and fans and then returns to glance over what has been produced before departing for dinner with friends, leaving an immaculate desktop behind, the computer sleeping while digesting the  portion of a masterpiece it has been fed.

Pat earns enough from writing to pay the bills and never has to take time off to transport spouse or kids to the doctor, market, or some damn PTA thing or other.  Pat's life is orderly and calm so that nothing ever interferes with the hours of pleasurable writing that structure the day.  At night, Pat sleeps soundly and is never beset with nightmares or worse, niggling self-doubts about the passages crafted during the day.

Pat has a wonderful career, with works appearing with great regularity in magazines and thick print novels (in hardback, of course). Pat is sought for panels at all the large conventions where long lines appear at the signing table where Pat never fails to write astonishingly gracious bon mots to accompany the flourishing signature in each and every volume.

I fail to measure up to any of Pat's attributes.  My writing schedule is erratic and the proper words are ever evasive, forcing me to use those of less force or meaning. I lie awake at night worrying about editors taking too long to make decisions, worrying that a magazine will fold before my story ever sees print, worried that the latest piece I sent obviously needed more work so I shouldn't have been so hasty to send it off, worrying that I am not spending enough time on my writing, my family, my job and all of that, all of the foregoing, crashes around my head as I struggle to mold one word after another into something that seems to make sense in draft after draft.

 Yet, despite all the negativity, all the demeaning aspects of writing, I nevertheless find it endlessly fascinating to wrest sense from thought and then to hone that rough nugget of raw draft through repeated edits until the precious jewel within is revealed.

That is why I write despite the niggling image of Pat in my head.


Sunday, October 1, 2017

Time Hopping

One thing my recent trip to China (Beijing, Shanghai, Chi'an, and Hangzhou) has proven is that I am no longer the long distance traveller of my earlier days. Twenty hours crammed into a coach seat and a twelve + hour time shift each way has given me such a bad case of jet-lag (or is it jet-lead?) that random naps are the only rest one gets.

Needless to say the time spent there was wonderful; great food, wonderful people, and traffic management systems that are beyond belief:  Imagine count-down timers on read and green lights! Six way directional arrows.  Hundreds of electric and manual bikes darting among trucks buses, and cars with hair-thin margins of clearance.  Despite excellent public transportation, the crowded motorways seemed to move at walking speeds.  Impressive masses of hundreds of colorful shared bikes clustered at every subway entrance or bus stop. Of course all this is necessary because of the sheer density of the population.

Shanghai at night
Shanghai, Beijing, Hangzhou, and Chi' an were impressively modern and, at times, I felt I was on the set of Blade Runner.  The architecture was more impressive that Chicago's and I don't doubt that the buildings' architects as well known. On the outskirts of all three cities were tall monoliths of hundreds of apartment buildings marching to the horizon with nary an individual house in sight.  As many new towers were being build as those already in place.  You had to get beyond the big cities to find any classic  architecture.

"Protect your iPhone," we were warned of theft, but  as we went among the crowds we noticed that everyone was using or carrying their own (and mostly more up to date versions than mine) wireless phones. The younger crowd appear to be as addicted to their digital devices as our own.  In fact, more often than not, our pictures were taken with phones than old fashioned cameras.  This occurred mostly at tourist spots where we no doubt appeared strange to people from China's interior region who were unfamiliar with westerners. The more cosmopolitan crowd ignored us.

Everywhere the Chinese were wearing Levi's, Nikes, and tees with English slogans/trademarks. We are truly living in a world culture when you can't tell the natives from the tourists. Which is on point since the Chinese tourist industry appears to be booming.  I imagine their floating tourist population is on par with our own as they visit significant sites from their own thousand years history.

One word about the food.  Three meals a day with at least twelve delicious dishes each and never a repeat (except for the rice, beer and Sprite/Cola) and every dish a delight. Chicken and pork predominated and only once did I find a beef selection. Not a one resembled American "Chinese food."

There were so many story ideas at every turn and the inability to sleep has given me ample time to mentally compose at least two short stories and one more complex piece. Now all I need to do is find the energy to write them.

When I recover, that is.


Monday, August 28, 2017


One of the problems of being a conscientious writer is that I never know when to leave things alone. The old saying that "better" is the enemy of "good enough" seems to apply to drafts as well as practically everything else.   Sadly, I seem to have a serious case of revisionitis.

In my previous post I went on and on about my methodical approach to producing a decent draft ms. Immediately after writing that I created  new epiphany/denouement scenes  and pronounced the piece finally, finally, FINALLY complete. Then, that night I awoke with a new bit I had to insert to improve a scene. Naturally, the ripple effect then proceeded to slightly change related scenes and, not surprisingly made me think of other changes and "improvements."

So, here it is two days after the last of the ripples died down to wash against the smooth sands of the story no more. On what must have been the hundredth re-read of the draft* I realized how little those last minute ideas had influenced the basic story.  They were  mere glosses on the narrative, necessary only because they painted a more complete picture of a character or the background scenery. Had this been a fantasy story the glosses would have overwhelmed the bare bones of the tale, which is why those picaresque stores tend to result in thick novels and not short stories.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy writing an expansive background to reveal social behaviors, an alien planet, or beliefs far different from my own.  I did this in my latest published novella in Analog, a prequel to my VIXEN novel.  But for the piece I am/have been working on, such ormolu turned out to be, on reflection, unnecessary. I need to learn better to offer only enough wordage  to sketch in the broad details and let the reader color between the lines with their own (and probably richer) imagination.  With all that in mind this piece gets sent later this week after I make a few more adjustments.

I'm sure they won't affect anything.

*In print because I can't depend on my lying
 eyes to spot all my typos and misspelled words.


Monday, August 21, 2017

Jigsaw Puzzle

Generally I am a sporadic writer and a constant pessimist regarding the progression of a story's development.  I tend to compose a story sequentially, the writer's hand gliding forward through the story's events until a beginning, middle, and end are written.  My first draft is always a mess whose scenes jump about  without unity, whose characters are unfocused in motivations and goals, and whatever concept drives the "plot" will be observable only to the most discerning of readers.  Research (aka watching cat videos) is a time consuming part of this development.

My second draft is slightly better, and usually longer as I spackle words over the obvious cracks in a ham-handed attempt to achieve clarity. Characters become somewhat more defined, and elements of plot begin to emerge as I begin to understand what I've created.  This draft is still a mess, but one with acceptable spelling and punctuation. Research is more focused and only infrequently falls into the Internet's cat holes.

My third draft is where murder  most foul occurs.  Thanks to my readers' group, who mercilessly butcher my offering, I realize which scenes are unnecessary and which are mere filler to achieve word count targets and put them aside. I am sometimes advised to combine characters' quirks to reduce reader confusion and thereby reduce the story's body count.  Much bloody ink is spilled in this process diluted by gallons of cold coffee and assorted curses.

In the darkness of my writer's hovel I continue to refine a fourth, and, hopefully final  draft. The plot becomes more evident as I focus on its impact on each character and, oh yes, throw a few more parts of the story off the sled as the wolves of self-imposed deadlines approach.  The draft is still a mess - accurate in its progression but boring as hell. Sadly, I commit myself to another round of edits and rewrites for what I promise will be my final draft. I've used the bathroom considerably more on this version.

My fifth draft is where I assemble the pieces of my jigsaw puzzle. My first task is to focus each scene into as near perfect form as possible, even if it means rewriting or cutting and pasting portions between scenes.  Each scene needs to be refined into more explicit emotional, explicative, confusing, and humorous, forms.  I constantly fight the tendency to add the dreaded expositional narrative that is ever the bane of SF writers.  In the end, my draft exists as a virtual deck of scene cards that I can move about.  It is still dull as hell but finally almost a story.

Editing the sixth and (hopefully) penultimate draft is when I begin to doubt my ability to write. I start to doubt that this piece will ever see publication. I pick it up, read it, and disgusted, stick it out of sight, out of mind.   Nevertheless, it festers in my subconscious. Guilt finally forces me to confront it with fresh eyes and look at the story as if it were a piece of music - John  Cage for sure, but music nevertheless.  I deal out my scene cards and compose the final-final draft by arranging scenes into a more dramatic presentation.   I place serious scenes beside others containing a riff of humor, offsetting that humor with pathos, or forcing the unfortunately necessary exposition bits into places where they won't harm the flow.

The rhythm of the piece begins to take shape through the magic of foreshadow and back story until it crescendoes into a blazing finale that I usually slap together to replace the one that looked so perfectly right before the rearrangement.  Unlike my original version, I write this finale with a complete understanding of the stories' content.

Editing the final, final, God-damn it FINAL draft consists of housekeeping - title, by line, formatting, page numbering, and whatever font selection might please the editor.  Those done the ms flies through the magic of electrons to whatever editorial catch basin I select.

Leaving only the agonizing wait for a reply.

* I know I've subtly hinted at this before in earlier posts.


Sunday, August 13, 2017


Once again I am stalled, at a standstill, bereft of ambition, without energy, and otherwise lack the willingness to write a single word on my many, many WIPs.  This has happened before (witness my earlier posts) so I know I will eventually recover from this condition.  It isn't Writer's Block,which shuts down the creative engine, that afflicts me.  Lord knows I can still pound out glowing sentences had I the spirit to do so.  Nor is it a lack of ideas: I've never been without for more than a few days, some of which have eventually turned into a story. No, this just seems like I lack the driving energy to produce anything important .*

I wonder how many other writers have periods like this?  Do they stew over their lack of progress or choose to work on equally challenging, non-writing activities? Do they read the stories of better writers, of which there are too many, or drink themselves into oblivion, sometimes with alcohol, but more frequently coffee, while they stare at the blank white screen?

It's not that I haven't been productive.  My collection of favorite stories I have written in the last decade came out in April.  I have two stories awaiting publication at Analog and have submitted two more that I am confident will be accepted.  I've just had my story "Yesterday's Solutions" published on the X-Prize contest site. A reprint of my short-short story "Delivery" appears in the recent "Stories for the Throne" anthology, and I've got a Shardie novel coming out in the fall.

So why am I experiencing an overwhelming feeling of ennui; a disinterest in producing yet another page or two? Am I burning out? Is it a fear that continuing to produce stories will confirm my inadequacy as a writer? Is it doubt in my own ability to write something worth reading? Or is it the certain  knowledge that I live with all the time that nobody really gives a damn about me or my stories?

Are these the reasons I lack the energy to hammer away at the writing anvil?

* Turning 80 does that to a man


Monday, August 7, 2017

Tugging the Lose Thread

The Law of Cascading Consequences states that you cannot make a simple change in a story once you've begun writing the draft.  As the story acquires words, thoughts, and scenes the smallest, least significant change will affect your entire story. Tugging at a story's tiny bothersome thread sometimes unravels the writer's initial conception.

Most writers begin with a somewhat formed idea of what they want to accomplish before they type that first word of a draft.  The writer might believe they are in control of their characters, settings, and time frames.  They also sort of know the core of what they want the piece to express as they type, type, type in an effort to reach that end and, before they know it they have a sizable chunk of text.

As they edit the first draft (which is the beginning of the second) they decide to alter the text and, taking the metaphoric pen in hand, make a small, change, only to discover as they continue to edit, that change has cascaded and requires further "adjustments."  For example, a change to a single character's response to an event early in the story colors subsequent appearances of that character because that small change requires that there be an underlying reason for their response. This can easily be handled by scribbling a line or two.

But that explanation alters the character's personality and, accordingly, affects every character that observed their response. Depending on their reaction their depiction too must change and,suddenly, without intending it, the second draft takes on an entirely different color and you realize that your well written second draft needs more revision and, in the process the writers realizes that wonderful scene they sweated blood and tears to get "right" in the initial draft has become irrelevant.

Slight changes continue to occur during the many, many attempts at achieving a "clean" draft and  each has a similar compounding effect.  Although this seems frustrating, it is a necessary part of the creative process as the writer sharpens their vision.

The cascading consequences of changes in subsequent drafts can be increasingly devastating especially when necessary in the penultimate draft (which was amusingly thought might be the final one.) This causes the writer to question why they even started writing their tangled prose and wonder at their ability to write coherently.

Not that this ever happens to me.