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.


Sunday, July 30, 2017


Next weekend (August 4-6) I will be at Confluence near the Pittsburgh airport spouting crap about science fiction, indoctrinating young minds in the wisdom of joining SFWA,  and renewing contact with my avid fan fans. I'll also be signing and hawking books to help pay for gas*

Since I first discovered confluence back in 1998, when I was invited by a group of Pittsburghians at the Baltimore WorldCon, I've became a more or less a regular attendee.  The first pleasant surprise when I first arrived was discovering the con's focus on reading and the dearth of media, games, or costumes present. The second thing that amazed me was the volume of books being sold in the dealers' room.

Sadly the book-selling performance in the dealers' room has been declining for several years.  At every con fans are walking around with faces glued to the tiny screens of their phones and talking about the latest eNovel they've bought from Amazon or some bulk download service. Printed books, be they anthologies or novels seem to appeal only to those who want them as trophies or as a means of getting an autograph from a favorite author.  The extreme example of this was Ad Astra, the
SFWA Cookbook.  The cookbook is a collection of recipes from SF and Fantasy writers [Full disclosure: my recipe is included as the very last recipe even though it was the first one submitted**] which has achieved success more as an autograph book than a kitchen tool.  It's also sold in eformat, but where's the fun of that?

Perhaps this transition is a consequence of technological progress or the preferences of the millennials, but that trend has sadly allowed more games and whiz-bang-crash media to catch fans eyeballs and take attention away from the printed word.  It's a trend I deplore, but accept as an old and crotchety writer.

I hope to see you there and, if I do, please mention reading this blog post even if it is electronic

* Writing is not a path to great wealth, far from it
**It 'is written as a  fantasy trope            


Saturday, July 22, 2017


The writing life, especially for me is hard, my mood ranging from depression to elation in a matter of days and, occasionally, hours.  Just a week ago I was at sea about where the WIP was going or even if  it was going anywhere at all and today I find myself roaring along at the three quarters of the way through the projected plot with the path clearly before me.

I cannot explain when my subconscious climbed the mountain and received its revelation.  I awoke a few days after writing about the difficulties I faced with no tablets in my arms, no memories of a visitation, and certainly no hastily and undecipherable bedside note that would be a guidepost.  No, I once more faced a scene's blank screen and struggled to compose a first sentence, not expecting to move the story any further along.

Strangely, as I typed that first word, more began to form and one sentence after another was completed; stitching together a few plot points that I'd left dangling and granting a hitherto-fore dull spear carrier with a touch of personality. With a clarity that I'd thought I had lost, the entire sequence of how the plot would unfold became obvious.  Not only could I complete the current scene but I saw where it would connect to the  next and onward to the elusive epiphany.

But that would only complete a first draft.  From there I will move scenes around to make the sequence appear more natural if not sequential* order, repurpose dialogue, impute motives, and toss away much of the difficult parts I sweated into reality. Later edits, in say the fourth or fifth draft, I will correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation.  During each successive draft I'll probably have second or third thoughts on some things and rewrite, only to regret it later and bring back the first version or maybe write a few different lines instead. Trying to nail down what the final, final draft will become is like trying to determine the plot's velocity and position at the same time or determine what the condition of the contents will have when the box is finally opened and a manuscript is submitted: An impossible task.

On reflection, I am probably doomed to continue to bumble along, typing words that MAY turn into something I can send to an editor.

P.S. I am now reconsidering the underlying premise.

* ALL of my first drafts are initially sequential


Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Depths of Despair

I'm a short story writer (see my recent Non-Parallel Universes) but I do occasionally venture into longer works which usually and sadly end up as e-books, hardly ever to be read. Success at the long form has evaded me and every time I venture into that world I run into the same misgivings.

All my stories start out to be short - a few words initially, but in the process of writing, connections begin to form, linkages occur between events and/or characters and scenes, all of which require additional wordage and, less frequently but inevitably, the dreaded exposition! Unlike other literary forms, Science Fiction writers always need to explain things to those ignorant of the technology that (may) form the core of the tale.   The "As you know, Bob," sort of dialogue is just one horrible an repeated example.

But I deviate. My intended short stories often grow beyond my original intent by becoming more complex (or complicated - its awkward little sister) or by the sudden spontaneous generation of additional characters who confuse the tale by infusing combinations of complications AND complexities.

All of this results in my humble tale breaking the 7,500 word barrier, which is when I realize horribly that the plot still has considerable ground to cover before it can resolve. That's all right, I tell myself: a novelette is a perfectly reasonable length if the story merits it.  So, I push on, pounding words on my writing anvil, tempering sentences into glistening chains of narrative, and binding paragraphs into cogent scene frames.  Life is good. I assure myself that this may not be the masterpiece I intended, but will certainly be marketable.

Shortly after I hit the wall of self-doubt.  My inspired writng now appears on rereading little more than scribbled attempts to  make my characters strut and fret their brief time in scenes that seem to add little moment in the overall plot.  I also realize that one of my characters is crafted of tissue and too weak to carry the plot load I've designed.  Another semi-protagonist has no moral core and seems to often act without justification and suffers no consequences.  On and on it goes, the puerile scenes seem to be empty of meaning, the landscape descriptions a mush of ill-conceived scenery, and everyone's  motivations all are weaker than the promise of a cat's affection.

This is the point where I start to wonder if I will ever complete the tale.  The choices churn inside my writer's brain: Which is the proper path for the plot to take, who should lead the charge, and what is the point of spending so many words to reach this point without promising some reward, a debt that I MUST deliver to the reader for investing their time and energy?  The weight of that obligation weighs heavily on me, so burdensome that I cannot think clearly or type another word before I find the answers those pesky questions. I despair that I've invested so much and see no way forward and question whether I should continue to push ahead, hoping that somehow I will be able to shape the mess I've created into something barely adequate or just consign this unfinished tale to the trunk and scribble something better (and shorter?)  Do I have the energy and time to waste on a complete first draft, let alone muster the energy needed to do the revisions for the second or succeeding drafts?  But the story still needs to be told, the plot rescued from its confusion, and the antagonist vanquished.

That's what a writer does.