Saturday, December 31, 2011


I've been meaning to write this for weeks, but the time never seemed right.  I mean, where's the harm of putting it off for another week or so?  It's not like anyone is breathlessly awaiting my few words of dubious wisdom so why not do something else, something more pleasant than bitching about doing it,after all, the appointment isn't for two hours and it's only an hour's drive away or  I'll start the dinner later, no sense letting the food cool or the deadline is still weeks away: I still have time.   Excuses, excuses, excuses - anything that will put it off, whatever "it" happens to be.

I must admit to the affliction of procrastination.   Some of it is pure laziness, a little worrying if a story is good enough, if it's as good as it can be, or just is a piece of crap not worth the price of a stamp or even the push of a button. Yes, and there's the fear of rejection that no matter how many sales you have is ever in your mind.  I've managed to overcome that last, but not my reaction when it happens.  But still I hesitate over a piece and then hesitate some more.

When a new idea comes to me I can draft at a fair rate, but usually tap out after two hours and have do ANYthing else. Successive two hour sessions work sometimes, but not always and hardly ever at night.  My editing speed is somewhat slower mostly because I try to craft each sentence and paragraph into sensibility.  When my primary editing (first pass) is done I usually begin the real process of writing - drafting new material to enhance or improve the story, shifting things around a bit here and there, and, of course, editing the entire story once more so it will appear to have come from the same hand.  I call this latter, painstakingly slow bit the plodding stage.

Would that each story went smoothly through the above stages like clockwork. Instead I find excuses to stop and work on something else (I have about twenty pieces at various stages now.)  Often I will work on a new idea so I don''t have to work on something underway.  Even when I manage to successfully finish something I find myself asking whether it is good enough, knowing that often better is the enemy of "good enough" or if I am just procrastinating?

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Paean to Holiday Food

The holiday season is filled with cheer. This is the solstice, the deep dark days of the year where every instinct cries for sugars and fats to better stave off the coming scarcity of winter.  We toke up to survive the cold, to put on the layers of insulating flesh, and to store energy that will help us better survive the lack of forage as the snows accumulate and trap us in our dens.  This instinct is the result of thousands of years of evolution, of mastering nature, and of coping with the seasonal cruelties.

Eating is as natural as breathing and yet the food nazi's caution us against feasting through the season.  Better to have a teaspoon of hummus rather than that wonderful crab dip, they declare.  Better for your health to eat a saltine than a sugar cookie, and certainly more wise to sip flavored waters than quaff that champagne they report.  Reduce the calories, eliminate the sugars, and don't ever, ever overindulge is their mantra.  For every cookie or eggnog recipe in the newspapers there are twice that number of cautionary columns espousing the benefits of nutritional health. It is as if there is a war on [gasp] actually enjoying the season's offerings..

The point that these scrooges seem to miss is that holiday food is meant to be ENJOYED. We don't eat only for the nutrition that fuels our daily efforts.  We also eat for the pleasure that it provides. We eat so we can experience the diversity of flavors and textures that are easily available at this time of year.  And yes, we also eat to enjoy the company of others when sharing a meal, a spread, or even that little plate of cookies in the break room.  Eating is a social activity that enhances whatever we happen to be consuming and when better to do so than in this season of good tidings?.

So I say to ignore the critics, the nay sayers, the gloomy nutritionally pure, and those whose bleak outlook on eating poisons the mind. Fill your platters, my friends, drink of the best offered, and experience the bounty that surrounds us during these dark days.

Winter is coming.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Role of Story

Producing a compelling story while writing well and with style is the shining goal of anyone who scribbles in their dark, lonely rooms and an objective too infrequently achieved.  But telling a good tale isn't about simply writing properly; it's being able to craft a story.

I think that writing properly, that is with the correct spelling, grammar, punctuation and sentence structure, is a skill that practically anyone can obtain through sheer persistence. You can even become an accomplished stylist, artfully stringing linguistic flourishes in pleasing cadences that speak to the reader's need for seamless continuity akin to poetry, but only after a lot of practice.  With even greater effort, you can possibly demonstrate such such supreme facility with language that the casual reader must keep a dictionary close to hand to grasp what is being presented.

The primary role of a writer is first to grasp the reader's attention to the exclusion of all else.  It is not difficult to writer something that will entertain, but being able to tell a compelling story that has heart, to challenge assumptions, to enlist the emotions, or to engage the reader in ways that speaks to their very soul requires that the writer has to go beyond mere skills.

I know very few writers who can create a story in a single pass.  I know some for whom the story emerges with only minor editing.  The vast majority of writers, I suspect, struggle like me to find the heart of their tortured prose and only after endless polishing does the story reveal itself. Often I do not know what the story is about until I complete the first draft, and most of the time, not even then.  In fact, most of the stories I've written were not obvious at the outset and, like a sculptor, I had to chip away the overburden of draft and grinding away the parts not needed to reveal the story within.

But where did that story come from? Was it there all along or did I impose it while editing? I have no answer to that question.

I doubt I will have time for another blog until the new year so I wish all of you a most blessed holiday season.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Grandma's Nut roll (Not a fruitcake!)

This is a fun project to do with your friends or kids, although you may not be able to keep them from snacking along the way.

One of  the delicious treats my mother -in-law prepared each year was her exceptionally rich nut roll, a concoction that combined the tastes of nuts, candy, and two sweet dried fruits.  We started making this roll ourselves twenty years ago as a Christmas treat for family and friends.  Strangely, we have never experimented with different ingredients, but I imagine that dried pineapple, mango, or papaya would work equally as well as dates and raisins.

The recipe is simplicity itself: Graham crackers, Walnuts, Pecans, Dates, Raisins, and Gum or Spice Drops, and Marshmallows.  That's seven pounds of ingredients, folks!

Tear off six or seven pieces of waxed paper about  twenty inches long.  You will use these to shape and hold the rolls later.

Measurement of the ingredients is simple since all of them come in (about) one pound packages that can simply be dumped into a large bowl for mixing after they have been chopped.  The graham crackers provide structure for the roll and so should be crushed into small pieces.  The most tedious task is cutting the gum drops into small pieces since their original size is out of scale for the other ingredients.

After you have everything except the marshmallows thoroughly mixed in the large bowl you need to melt the marshmallows with a cup of milk over low heat until the mixture is smooth. At this point you mix the other ingredients while stirring to coat everything with the melted marshmallows.  It never seems like there is enough, but persistence pays.

This next step cannot be done by one person since the mixture is extremely sticky.  One person should quickly place handfuls (about a pound) of the gooey mixture onto each sheet of the waxed paper.  The other person, who has clean hands, should immediately press it into a loaf shape.  Wrap the rolls tightly and refrigerate until cool (and solid).  Rewrap each loaf in fresh wax paper as soon as possible since the original wrapping with adhere tightly if left too long.

We generally cut quarter inch slices, since thinner slices tend to fall apart.  

Saturday, December 10, 2011

How Many Characters to Use?

Over the years I've come up with a few rules (think more like guidelines rather than laws) about populating my stories.

The question I usually ask myself when I start to build a short story, novelette, novella, or even embark on a novel is how few named characters I'll need to tell the story. A single character can carry an entire short story but a novel usually calls for multitudes.

In general, I like to use full names for the main characters, single names (first or last) or title for the supporting players, and none at all for the spear carriers and chorus members unless they are some off-stage reference of historic character.  I have the same approach for providing physical descriptions, clothing, personality traits, etc. The reason is that I want to paint a physical picture in the readers mind, and this means providing specific details over the course of the story's arc.

An arc is a sequence of scenes, each of which has a beginning, middle, and end. The major arc is the main plot that drives the entire tale.  I try to let the main story arc revolve around a few named characters, preferably the ones who are going to appear in the epiphany and denouement - think of a couple in a romance, for  example.  At the intermediate lengths of novelette and novella, the arc of the story determines the number of character interactions.  Within longer works there could be many intermediate arcs and those digressions sometimes require different characters. 

I find it difficult to mentally keep track of more than three named characters and think the limit for any scene, and probably the arc containing that scene, should be limited to no more than that number.  A five part conversation is difficult to write and still harder to read.  By keeping it simple, merging characters, and consolidating you prevent the reader from having to twist their brain around all the "X said-isms."  Recently I noticed this "law" at play in Laura Anne Gilman's Vineart trilogy.  While the viewpoint character dominated the main arc, she never has more than three named characters interacting within an arc.

The general guideline is to allow the story to dictate the number of characters, but restrict the number within each arc to make it easier on the reader.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

My Grim Statistics

At the end of each year I compile the numbers on stories I've completed, those in circulation and in process, against those I've managed to sell.  As usual, I get depressed.  Despite this year's effort to increase productivity and pay more careful attention to craft, I've done no better than usual: I produced about 160,000 words of completed and edited material and sold approximately tenth of that (Three stories.) This is even more depressing when you realize that I generally draft twice the amount of words that make it to the final cut!  True, there is a lag between production and sales, but experience has taught me not to be optimistic. That same grim statistic holds up when I look at all the stories written and first sales (I do not count re-sales in my totals): for every sixteen words of finished words I produce I manage to sell but one.

I am not a prolific writer. I struggle to get a thousand words a day of semi-edited work done and end up casting most of that away during the editing process. I constantly hope for a plot to appear in the story, for my characters to come alive and their dialogue to be less wooden.  I wait for my scenes to glisten with reality and a theme to emerge.  I cast this way and that, the emerging story drifting with the tide, rudderless and lacking the wind of creativity.  It becomes an increasingly confusing mess and all the time, overlaying every writing moment, is the certain knowledge that whatever it becomes will not be found worthy of being published.

Which raises the question of why one chooses to write if there is so little acknowledgement, so little success from so very much hard work?  Am I so different from other scribblers out there?  Is the cursed reality of being a short story writer to face more rejection than acceptance?

And my answer is this: I continue to write day after day, ever seeking that perfect phrase, that precise word, that well constructed paragraph, scene, or chapter and, when I do manage even one of those little accomplishments, it makes it all worth the while.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

What is the Right Length?

At a panel not too long ago I was asked how I decided how long to make a story.  My answer at that time, somewhat facetiously, was that a story was as long as it has to be and not a word more.

In the past year, in addition to working on some novels, I deliberately set a limit of no more than 7,500 words as the upper limit for any short story that I wrote, with a strong preference for keeping them around 5,000 words.  Of the eight competed, I managed to write just three within those limits.  Four went over the 7,500 word limit and, sadly, the final one is now threatening to become more than 20,000 words and become practically unsaleable.

So why couldn't I stick to my goal and make them all short?  At what point did my stories become longer than planned and why?  I honestly don't know the answer to that question, but I do know that there was no point at which I said "enough!"  I do not pad the stories, adding unnecessary details and diversions that wander far from the plot or delve too deeply into descriptions, internal ramblings, or the price of tea in China.  No, I set out with my plots sketched out, knew where the story line was going to end, and how I wanted to develop the idea(s) but ...

Here's a hypothetical:  To get from dramatic point A to dramatic point C something had to happen - perhaps a new character needed to be introduced, a bit of backstory, a little foreshadowing, or a piece of exposition.  The introduction of this material isn't really a choice but called for by the demands of the story as it strives for completion.  Without that something being introduced, the story would fall apart or fail the reader in some way.  You can't fight it, so you do what is needed and welcome the something into the flow and that gives rise to another scene or two, some more interactions, and, before you know it, the story has taken itself over the limit.  Worse, when the final editing is completed, and when all the fluff and nonsense has been removed you discover that the story has resolved into the size it was meant to be.

So who decides on the length of the story being told?  Did the plot force it to be a certain length?  Were the characters' backgrounds and personalities the driving force? Was it the descriptive density of the setting?  Perhaps it was the sheer number of interactions that had to take place?  So many factors, so many choices and who is the writer to decide?

A story becomes as long as it needs to be.

Friday, November 18, 2011

On Drafting

The first draft is a story that you tell yourself - a raw expression of the thoughts that race through your head as hands translate imagination to scenes, characters, settings, drama, and plot.  You race to get them all down as they come; constantly worrying that the magic will fade before you are done. You race through, throwing thoughts at the text without ordering or forcing them into any semblance of order.  Get the draft DONE is the imperative.

But soon the magic does dissipate, only to haunt your dreams, letting you wake with a flood of new ideas, new departures, new concepts.  You burn to get these down before they vanish from memory, before the day's reality captures your mind with prosaic concerns.  Did you have time to dash off a quick note, a sketch, or  a few reminder words to help you when you have an opportunity to return to the draft?     How do you keep this going? Do you have the energy to do this time and again?  The pressure of the idea become intense, forcing you to return to the draft until, in a final burst of energy, your draft is done. All of your ideas have bled into the draft.

Then you read it and discover that it is a mess:  The character definitions are a muddle and their motivations unknown, suspect, or nonexistent.  Viewpoints shift from one character to another.  Scene description range from excessive to spare, inappropriate in some places and oddly misplaced in others, lending nothing to the dramatic point.  You belatedly discover that the blue vase on the first page becomes red on the third, a box on the seventh, and disappears entirely for the next twenty, only to reappear as a cat. Madness!

And it is at this point that the work of writing really begins. If  you ever hope to sell it, you'll have to tame this unwieldy mess. First you have to tighten the characters and give them a consistent world view. Then you have to decide how to handle the scenery, keying it to the plot's needs instead of simply supplying descriptive narrative.  You have to find the place where the story really starts and shift whatever scenes came earlier in your time line into flashbacks or reverie. Is there a place where you could put some foreboding - something  you hadn't consciously thought of while scribbling those first approximations of a story?  Did I mention assembling the various ideas into cogent scenes, or placing them into an order that would make sense to a reader who is absent of your creative insight?  In other words; crafting your rough draft into readable form.

This reworking of the draft isn't a quick and dirty pass-through.  No, you have to work the draft again and again until all the questions above have been addressed.  You have to make the plot appealing to both the sophisticate and the novice.  Then, only then, can you start worrying about grammar and spelling before casting it out into the cold, cruel world.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Backing Up

Writing on the computer is a joy, but the ease with which we create and save our work makes us forget what a thin thread supports our archives. The accidental brush of a hand can erase a year's effort, a power outage could easily destroy a day's work, and a hard drive failure always seems to happen at the worst of times.

All of the foregoing points out the necessity of making back-up copies of your works, including those in process. Backing up has been my mantra since my first computer, with over thirty drafts and all my previously published works, was stolen many years ago.  A second theft of my computer was less catastrophic because I had just cut a CD of my writing files, but still lost the drafts and outlines, notes and clippings of works in progress, along with a host of non-writing related material.  That's when I bought an external hard drive on which to store everything and began storing my CD's separately.  This was an awkward process for a non-OCD writer, like me, who had to schedule backup sessions so I would not forget.

As I said in the title, backing up is hard to do, but it's something every writer should do.  When Apple introduced Time Machine to automatically save my files I nearly cried with joy and bought an external  2TB drive to support it.  Recently I put everything on the Cloud AND still back up every few hours on my Mac's Time Machine, For really, really important files I also back them up on a 500MB external drive.  Every six months I cut a DVR to keep in my car, and send a copy of all my files to my archivist at Northwestern University at the end of every year, along with my "papers" (scrawled notes, marked up printouts, letters, etc.) All this might seem excessive, but the peace of mind this grants me is well worth it.  Did I mention that I am slightly OCD?

Backing up has had some additional benefits besides protection against inadvertent loss.  Earlier this week I realized that two of my old stories had mysteriously disappeared from my current machine.  Had I deleted or filed them elsewhere than my writing files? I began searching, first through the older files on my primary external hard drive, which contained copies from 2009 to the present with no luck.  I then looked through the older back up drive that contained copies from 1998 to 2008, again with not success.  Finally I went to my stack of original CDs, the ones I made when I first began saving files, some of which went back to 1995  (Yeah, I'm a packrat!) and found them.  They are now restored to my current files.

I've had two complete machine failures since I started backing up and managed to restore everything because of my willingness to put in the effort to back up regularly and thoroughly. I would advise you to do likewise.

Friday, November 4, 2011


As part of my health program I've begun walking three miles or so each day.  I walk outside, along the roads when the weather is good and around the local mall when it is not.  The road I follow is fairly busy as it winds its way toward the Mall, shopping centers, and Annapolis.  Besides the health benefits the walk gives me time to think about whatever story I happen to be working on and, on occasion, gives me something new to consider.

Usually I see something of interest on my outside walks. It might be a flock of birds rising noisily from their nightly roost, a raccoon returning from a night on the town, a few indecisive squirrels dodging cars (and a few somewhat flatter), and the detritus and cast-offs from passing litterbugs that have not yet been swept up by the litter patrols.

Based on the cans lying alongside the road, light beers seem to be the favorite, with canned (non) iced tea a close second, and soda pop a distant third.  I have also seen car parts, plastic bags, scatterings of glass and plastic shards from an accident, an occasional tool, chunks of lumber, and, most mysterious of all - right shoes - at least three in the past month.

How can someone lose a single shoe, I ask, and why only the right one?  Are there yahoos riding about at night with their right leg out the window who do not notice their shoe's departure? Could they be the same ones who negligently toss their cans and bottles aside? Alternately, could some runners be hobbling along, too exhausted to notice that their right feet have become unshod?  There must be an answer, but what could it be?

As if the presence of  abandoned shoes were not confounding enough, this morning I discovered one (right, of course) that was still nicely laced and tied with a bow.  Tied! The sight stopped me in my tracks.  So instead of working on the story idea du jour I found myself framing scenarios about those shoes, about the  castoffs of a mobile civilization, and the strange circumstance that would bring a tied shoe to a spot of woods in the middle of the night. Is there a story there?

My mind churned with the possibilities.  How would I frame the explanation?  Was it tossed out the window in anger by a lover, thrown away in revenge for some slight, or was it the remaining effect of someone whisked away by aliens? I hesitated, almost tempted to slide down the bank to see if a foot was inside, with a mangled and dismembered body further up the ravine, but I did not.

I'm not a horror writer.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Endings (and Beginnings)

Recently, at the CapClave convention in Gaithersburg, I was a panelist on the ironically named ENDINGS panel, which happened to be the final panel at the Con. The four writers on the panel talked about the types of endings they used and the struggles they all faced in creating the"right" one.

While everyone agreed that every writer has some idea of the goal of a story. it was more true than not that the definition of that goal changed as the writer introduces one fact, one incident, and one plot twist after another into the exposition.  What started out as an idea of a perfect ending for the situation turns out to be less than satisfactory by the time they reach the end and will probably fail to provide the release from tension created.  Worse yet, the reader may not accept the original goal and feel cheated as a result.  The non sequitur is never a good idea.

The best ending, we all agreed, should both reflect the opening scene or premise and be the logical conclusion of the story's major arc.  Just like a good joke, the punch line comes quickly after the epiphany and the quicker the better!

Too often I discover that the true beginning of my stories are not where I started, but one or more scenes or chapters further along. I sometimes, but not always, discover that, by moving that scene or snippet to the front and incorporating what was formerly there as an aside or even reflected as back story during the exposition, This not only increases the dramatic tension in a short story, but it also clarifies the story's movement toward the epiphany and tells me how the ending needs to be framed.  Simply providing a logical solution or resolution to the story's situation does not always satisfy the reader.  There should always be a denouement that reflects psychologically to the beginning.  

So in talking about the endings we end up talking about the beginning as well, which only proves that the beginning and end are the Ying and Yang of a story. Apart they are nothing and together they constitute a logical whole.

Friday, October 21, 2011


This is not about writing but something that has irritated me for too many years.

I live near the grounds of the annual Maryland Renaissance Festival which, for more than a month, attracts thousands of people to chew turkey legs, watch plays, but crafty stuff, sword fight, and do all the things that represent old English customs from about 1200 - 1700, more or less. Fun stuff but costly (especially the turkey legs and I'm not talking about the damn tights that ride up your crotch and.... not that I'd ever wear anything like that, no sir, not me, never.  Besides, they itch.

There is no train station, metro liner, bus service at the Faire (note how I am getting into the spirit of things) so everyone has to come by automobile to produce acres and acres of parked cars, some so distant from the entrance that some take a lunch so they can snack along the way.  Hillsides of automobile, cascades of steel and plastic stretching as far as the eye can see.  Acres and acres of parked cars each of the weekend days it is open.  And all of those cars make it to the site down a two-lane road forming a parade miles long and manages to block access to the surrounding communities.

None of which bothers me much, except that they all seem to need gas.  The nearest station/snack shop has eight pumps, four on each side, and has two entrances at ninety degrees to each other.  Cars pour in from either of the entrance to gas up, some coming from the right and others from the left.  In a logical world this would present no problem: Cars would line up to take their turns like good little soldiers.*  But we do not live in a logical world.  In the real world car manufacturers have no appreciation of mechanics or the realities of gas stations.  Willy-nilly they put the filler pipe on the driver's side or the passenger's so that it is impossible to have an orderly line.  Instead the cars butt head to head, cutting from one side to another and, on too many occasions, finding that the side nearest the pump is the wrong side.  In older times, but hopefully later than the RenFaire period, hoses were long enough to reach the opposite side of the vehicle, but today the behemoth trucks, SUV's, and even ordinary cars, that is not possible.

What I want to know is why there can't be some standardization?  I don't care which side they want or whether it has a flip lid or not.  Just put the damned filler cap on one side.  Is that too much to ask?

So each Saturday or Sunday a low level conflict takes place as those in line for one side scream at those who, at least to them, cut into line from the opposite direction, or block them from leaving by parking too close. Lesser skirmishes blow up when someone* decides to do a little shopping or have lunch while leaving their car at the pump, but that is a subject for another day.

*except for the occasional oblivoid (e.g. asshole) who ignores social conventions

Friday, October 14, 2011

Why do I write?

Writing professionally means producing stories that are salable.  Being salable is, in part, meeting the needs of the reading public by giving them satisfying, interesting, and challenging stories.  Editors are attuned to their customer base and routinely reject pieces that might be of excellent literary worth but would not resonate with their readers.  If someone wants to earn a living at writing they have to focus on current fads, current tastes, and the whims of the reading public.

But there is another side to writing and that is to express a thought, an emotion, a vision, or a hope that bears on the human condition without hope of a sale.  This is writing as an Art, putting down something because it needs to be written.  Much of what is produced solely as Art might turn out to be crap (Sturgeon's  90% rule) but it can also be something new and exciting.

I  have a trunk and, in that trunk, are the unsold stories and pieces of stories I've created over their lifetime. The number of stories in the trunk reflects my ability, rate of production, or willingness to finish the pieces enough to sell.  As I've improved in skill, the proportion of unsold pieces in my trunk has diminished in relation to my total output.  Occasionally I pull something, a finished story that did not find a willing editor, or an unfinished story that could be brought to fruition with a little effort, from the trunk and make a sale.  Rarely, and in direct proportion to the age of the piece, I've managed to sell an old story, but usually not the oldest since they reflect a time when I was not nearly as accomplished nor skillful. 

So which path do I follow - to write what is in my heart or to write what I think will sell?  Years ago an agent told me that, with my name, I should write stories about war, action-filled pieces with heroic characters in dire circumstances.  Instead I've written more thoughtful pieces, some of which focus on military conflict, but most do not. My stories range all over the map and mostly concern modern society, occasionally something in the news, or even arise from a vagrant thought as some  half-forgotten memory catches my imagination. Whatever, I write what is in my heart as best I can and then search for an editor who will appreciate it. Writing as an art is my motivation.

But it is nice to make a sale. 

Saturday, October 1, 2011


I haven't written a damn thing in three days, and that is not because I haven't the time. It's just so hard to get moving.  Running in creative molasses is more like it.  Wooden words, weak phrasing, unstructured rambling paragraphs.  What is going on?

Is this what writer's block feels like?  I've half a dozen stories in the final stages of editing and seem unable to move forward on any of them.  Let's see, I have finished rewriting the novel - and am still plagued with "Hey, why don't we change this?" thoughts that prevent me from moving forward.  I have novelette that is stuck on resolution, three short stories that still need rearrangements, and one that is finished but just doesn't feel quite ready to be released.  All told, I have about twenty-four pieces lying about, crying to be finished.

I thought this was bad until I talked to Michael Swanwick who admitted that he, master of the form that he is, always seems to have more than forty uncompleted works polluting his workspace. I am such a piker in comparison.

Whenever I got stalled before I'd gather some old stories together, put them in Kindle format, and upload the collection to the Kindle store.  Just did that and it didn't help a bit. Not only that, but eventually I'll run out of previously published stories to put into collections.  What then - upload a few of my unsold (and unedited) novels to see how they meet the brutal reality of the reading public?  At this point it doesn't seem likely that sale to someone who might publish print editions is likely, not with the current state of the industry.

So why can't I move forward?  What is holding back the creative juices? Should I worry about it or not?  Indecisions sucks!

But so does lack of progress.

Monday, September 26, 2011


It is hard to believe that I have been steadily blogging for over a year about my writing life. Who would have thought there was so much to say, so much to deal with?

All I wanted to do at first was to explain - for my own benefit - how I put a story together. This was partially because I was trying to formulate a replicable way of writing short works at the time - a  necessity caused by the disappearance of my natural long novelette or short novella lengths from the marketplace of Science Fiction.  I had to change me rambling draft until i drop approach and pound the dump into some semblance of order to something more rational. Scene Theory I and II were the result and I discovered Scrivener, which was appropriate to the new procedure.

In later blogs I reflected in greater depth about the process of moving something from the creative spark to submittable form, and then went on to test that process on a piece I'd just gotten under contract. there result was a sting of posts as I moved from stage to stage, discovering along the way that I'd forgotten the final step - the eleventh step of the Ten Step Process.

Since then I've discoursed on and on about my emotional issues when writing, the frustrations and joys of bringing an idea to life, and the agonies of turning one's little fantasies loose on the world. I've written about my cats, sailing, hiking, and some other issues of my writing life, but mostly these blogs have been about the way I deal with being a writer and my thoughts on the process.  Much of this I've also converted in talks, presentations, and rambling discussions with others afflicted by this writing curse.

Over time I seem to have acquired a modest audience, some of whom have been kind enough to contact me and (I hope) read some of what I have produced as a writer.  If you are one of these, or just joining their happy group, I hope these little snippets of wisdom(?) will continue to be helpful, illuminating, or interesting.  If there is some aspect that you think I've missed, please let me know.

And thank you for following my rambling blog.

Friday, September 23, 2011


Years ago, the brilliant and insightful reviewer, Michael Dirda wrote the following pean to short fiction in his Washington Post book review column as a forward to a very short novel.
"Short stories contrive to use a single incident to illuminate a whole life: They aim for a short, sharp shock. Novels, those fabulously loose and baggy monsters, frequently transcribe entire biographies, reveal cross sections of society or show us the interaction of several generations.  They contain multitudes.  In between lies that most beautiful of fiction's forms, the novella or nouvelle.  Here, the writer aims for the compression that produces both intensity and resonance.  By focusing on just two or three characters, the short novel can achieve a kind of artistic perfection, elegant in form yet wide in implication. .."
Those words have remained pasted above my computer ever since I first read them and, whenever I doubt what I am doing, I reread them and take heart that I need not pump up my stories to some arbitrary length, that I need not introduce unnecessary complexity and complications to torture the protagonist, that I need not expound endlessly of some fact or circumstance that could be encapsulated in a few words.  No, I can write what needs to be written for that story, neither more nor less and when the final word, be it the five thousandth or the thirty-two thousandth, is written it is the end.  Reading those words tells me there is no need to be embarrassed about whatever length I write so long as I do it with honesty and integrity.

But it sure is nice to make a sale.

Saturday, September 17, 2011


Someone asked about my recent blogs and wanted to know if I was developing an inferiority complex about my writing. My response was that being depressed about the industry in general and my place in it was more about facing the reality that I have to deal with than acquiring a psychological affliction.

My feelings of inadequacy are part and parcel of trying to write better as opposed to not earning a decent return for my efforts.  Daily, I write under a cloud of concern about my place within the genre and deal with rejection as my stories are rejected by successive editors.  Is there angst? Sure, and in copious amounts. Also despair at never achieving more than a footnote in someone else's biography.  Then there is the haunting concern that the well will run dry, that suddenly the words will fail to flow, that someone else - at this very minute - has just written the same damn story in a much, much better way and with great style.   Then there's the gnawing fear that some fan or critic will completely misunderstand and misinterpret something I wrote (and perhaps not quite so innocently.) 

The pressure of keeping my name before the editors, before the public, to keep producing ever better works until I end up despairing of ever topping my past efforts is a constant worry as well.  Each day I stare at my Work in Progress (the manuscript before me and the half dozen or more partially written pieces lying in disorganized array within my work folder) and despair of ever getting anything sufficiently done to my satisfaction.

As if those demons weren't enough, I have to fight my own imagination.  While writing I am beset with new ideas, plot variations, new characters, and twists and, always, my irreverant sense of humor threatens to upend whatever I am trying to hammer into shape.  As if just finishing the umpteenth draft wasn't enough of an effort I still feel the burning desire to re-write, revise, improve, and make whatever I'm working on a bit better. I seem never to be satisfied with good enough.

Maybe I'm not alone in this.  Maybe there are thousands of writers who have their own demons as they struggle to put words on paper, to give birth to some new concept, worldview, or idea.  Maybe all of these demons are part and parcel of what writing is all about, as if the act of creating something new, something the world has not seen before, validates the effort. 

I hope so.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Lonely Middle

DragonCon was a cold bath for all but the most prominent writers or those with a dedicated fan base.  The lesser lights lingered in the shadows, their feeble presence all but disappearing in the overwhelming fire of the famous.

Writers are like stars; some flash brilliantly as novae with a significant work while the vast majority - neither brilliant nor inept - produce a steady stream of readable, and moderately interesting stories.  There are an enormous number of writers who inhabit this realm.  They are the ones who produce enough material to have a (very) modest following, but never manage to put out enough material to produce a decent income.  They are hobbyists for the most part, some investing more time and effort than warranted for the rewards.

Most of these strive solely for the joy of writing and the occasional adulation crumbs tossed their way.  These writers are the other people on convention panels, the ones who sit beside the stars.  They are the ones with the program ribbons standing around watching the long lines at the novelists' autographing tables. They might not shine brightly, but they are the ones who fill the between pages of magazines month after month and give our genre variety and novelty.

These pedestrian writers build the foundations of our genre that are the bedrock upon which the stars build their reputations.  Without the deep background of concepts, images, tropes, and insights these steady producers create there would be no market.  There would be no such thing as an our genre.

So let's hear it for those who labor in the shadows of the greats. Let's hear it for the ordinary writers who consistently produce readable works.  Let's hear it for those who keep this genre interesting.

And why not go out of your way to thank the less-than-famous whenever you can.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Joys of Revision

For some writers the most enjoyable part of the process of getting a story done is the initial creative process - getting down a sketch plan of the plot, figuring out the characters and settings, and how to torture the readers with twists and turns.

For others too impatient to do the above ( altho in all honesty they've probably done this in their head but are loath to admit it) the joy comes from putting the words down, crafting phrases, sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and chapters.  Some will admit that the story takes over and tells itself as the writer provides eyes and fingers to let it flow through them.

For myself, I somewhat enjoy both of these, but don't really see that as a lot of fun.  My stories seldom flow like liquid gold, nor do they self-assemble like Lego blox.  Instead they resemble a random scattering of pieces that need to be assembled by hand and, while fitting them together, making modifications, and adding missing parts.  In a lot ways this is like building a stone fence where the various rocks are neither uniform nor regular but must be stacked into a solid structure.

My personal joy comes from making the scraps fit, of polishing the words and scenes to perfection, of mixing the mortar of flow and continuity, and making the story stand as a unified piece.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Souvenir Books

What is the role of the physical book?  A recent podcast interview with Tracy Hickman by the estimable Mur Lafferty raised the subject of books as souvenirs.  A souvenir is something that you hold to remind you of times past, of voyages taken, of friends no longer nearby, and of events you've attended.  We are surrounded by these - yearbooks, paperweights, programs, pressed flowers, bits of ribbon, and badges.  We also have on our bookshelf books that have been read.  The purpose of these is not to be used but to serve as touchstones to memory, to remind us of what surrounded that particular piece of otherwise worthless bit of junk.

In this day of electronic publishing novels and stories are ephemeral, no more than a scattering of electrons flitting across the screen, it source some distant server, and whose ownership more represents renting than ownership.  You know that you've bought and paid for this. You can clearly demonstrate ownership by displaying in on your device.  You can even show the receipt from your purchase.  But the only way you can "see" this is to bring it up on your device. You can't passively "see" it as you contemplate something in the quiet of your room. You can't "see" is as part of a lifelong collection on your bookshelf. You can accidentally and quickly open it to reread a favorite passage.

I think this attitude drives a significant part, estimated at 25% of the eBook market, to purchase print on demand, hardback, or trade paperback editions of things they've already read on their Kindle, iPad, Nook, or Sony reader.  They won't do this for everything, but they surely will do it for something memorable and pleasurable.

They want them as a souvenir of hours lost in another world.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Impressions of WorldCon

WorldCon is a circus of delights. Where else can you walk down the hall and meet a half dozen top notch writers in as many steps?  Where else can you watch the panelists talk about the writing life, the genre, and almost anything else that comes into their minds regardless of the panel topic? This randomness is one of the charms, especially when the panelists are seasoned pros and know how to frame their points of view. Sometimes arguments erupt, panelist correct one another, or (and this is my favorite bit) try to top each others outrageous statements.

Autographs? Lines form to the right, thank you please and no more than three (3) pieces at a time.  The worse part is sitting at the table and watching your neighbor's line reach beyond infinity whilst you have a pathetic few standing before you because you are only a short story writer.

Hearing the words streaming from the author's mouth at a short, half-hour reading, is wonderful, since they place the emphasis and intonations where they intended, not where your tiny reader's minds thought they should go.  This produces some surprises, a few disappointments, and always a pleasure.

Ah, the parties after the day's panels are done where you squeeze into incredibly crowded hotel rooms and move more by osmotic pressure than deliberate progress. In a moment you might be speaking to a physicist, an IT expert, a well-known writer or editor, or simply someone who loves the same thing as you. What conversations emerge are short, sometimes challenging, and always interesting. Breast surfing is allowed since badges hang low and the print is usually so tiny that you need to get close to read them.

The most wonderful thing is having a fan talk to you about something you've written. Such remarks are usually insightful, occasionally rewarding, and, having someone say that a story changed something in their life, is a blessing beyond anything you could have imagined when you wrote it.

But interaction with fans and other writers is not all social.  Deals are being made as expected whenever writers, agents, and editors crowd together.  For the professionals WorldCon is a business meeting as well as a promotional event. 

In summary: WorldCon is exciting, exhausting, draining, fun, interesting, challenging, and rewarding.  It is like nothing else in the world and, thankfully, only occurs once a year. 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

It's a lonely job . . .

..but somebody's got to do it.

My writer's lonely life is full of self-inflicted misery.  I set arbitrary deadlines and worry constantly that I won't meet them. I worry that my production word rate is too low. I worry that all the other writers out there are spilling out volumes to my paltry few pages. I worry that what I write won't ever sell! I worry that my ideas have dried up. I worry that I won't get to all the ideas that pour into my mind.  I worry about ...well, damn near everything.

All of the above is done in a semi-darkened room as I fill the blank screen with words, words, words, and more words.  My eyes glaze over as I read the same line for the hundredth time (and still miss the obvious typo my editor will immediately spot.)  I look at each tiny check and wonder why it is so small in comparison with the effort expended.  I swear a half dozen times a year that I will give this up and quit, that the world already has too damn many writers and all of them are after MY markets!

But when the words I've crafted appear in some professional setting, when someone comes up to me and says they enjoyed the piece, or when I get an acceptance from the editor, all that angst disappears, at least for a moment.

I doubt that I am the only one beset with these internal conflicts, who curse their writer's affliction but cannot stop. Neither can I suggest any remedy to the problem.  For those trying to support themselves on their writing this must be hell.  For those of us to whom writing is a hobby, the hell is only of a lesser degree.

So for all my suffering comrades who are afflicted by the writing curse, who can't stop the flow of ideas or the doubts, those who  appreciate the well-turned phrase, and suffer in silence, know this:  The fears, doubts, and misery will never stop, not even if you write ten million stories.  It is the price of being what we are. It is the price of being a writer.

Friday, August 5, 2011

It's in the Air

We have an oak dining table, not one of the sandwich things made of particle board and a coating of oak veneer, but a solid slab of English oak, heavy, unyielding, and hard.  Last year, at Launchpad - that intensive astronomy course for writers in Laramie WY run by Mike Brotherton, posed the question about the source of my table's hard, heavy wood.  Was it made of dirt sucked from the bones of the earth by the Oak's deep roots, dust transported to deposit on the leaves from distant realms, or something else?

The answer, of course, is that only some of the above comes from the earth: the oak table is mostly carbon that its leaves extracted from the carbon dioxide of the air and stored, atom by atom, molecule on molecule in the tree's heartwood, transforming a gas into something solid and real.

The writer's research is often thought to be at the center of building a good story: Getting the facts as right as rain; getting the pace and timbre of dialogue to ring true; and getting the sense of place and time properly set.  Talent, that indescribable something that differentiates a writer from a journalist or casual diarist, provides the art for a good story, but training and experience also play a part. Sheer perseverance can also produce something worth reading.  How this is accomplished is explained elsewhere in great detail, supported by pages upon pages of explanation.  All of these contain biases and suppositions that support their particular theory of what makes a story a story.  And all of them have some validity, varied only by the methodology espoused, but don't mention the one key fact behind all writing.

We're not talking about the content of a story, nor even its structure, plot line, or anything that appears on the page.  This is about the story's essence, the idea behind the idea. A writer takes it in with every breath of air, every sound, and everything they eat/read/touch/smell. It's the heartbeat of life, the love of family and friends that infuse and illuminates every word put on the page, that helps frame the sentences, and informs the plots.  It is all about life, all of the time.

It's in the air.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Revising the Ten Stage Process

Last year, with unwarranted confidence, I wrote knowingly about the ten stages of story development and then, in a fit of hubris, decided to bare my soul by documenting what happened as I followed the process while developing a story from scratch, which means at the outset I knew little to nothing about the universe to which I was supposed to contribute  (My struggles were documented in subsequent blogs.)

The effort was not pretty, but I persevered and managed to stagger to the tenth stage, which, I realized, wasn't the last stage at all.  More needed to be done and,  as beta readers, editors, copy editors, etc, etc, etc became involved, successive stages had to be completed before the final version is released to the wild where it will live or die on its merits.

What I didn't realize was how much that exercise clarified my thoughts on this somewhat ugly business of actually creating and crafting a story.  Since then I've expounded my views on con panels and in a couple of interviews where, I'm afraid, I too often sound like an egotist and an idiot - one of which I am not (I hope.)

Those reflections and thoughts have also improved my dialogue with other writers, many of whom share the same self-doubts, frustrations, and developmental challenges and welcome any discussion of same. This was brought out at Confluence last weekend where the hallway conversations were equally as intellectually as stimulating as most of the panel discussions.  The unintended consequence was that the panelists became excessively self- referential, as in "As I was saying to Rob Sawyer earlier today ...."  I'll admit to doing that myself.  It works at a literary con like Confluence where everybody seems to know everyone else (and embraces the printed word!)

So, to clarify my own thoughts I am going to revise the screed and come up with some way to codify exactly what it is that I do when I try to write (and finish!) something new.  Stay tuned as this may take some time.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Joys of Acceptance

Just as a rejection might send you into fits of depression, anger, or despair, the arrival of an acceptance notification generates a degree of bliss not to be matched.  You might smile, dance a jig, hoot and holler, mention it (aka "bragging") to a friend, or fire off one or more social blasts to let the world know that; YES, YES, YES; you are a writer and an editor actually likes your work. Soon the entire world will see what you have produced.  Your joy is unbounded.

But publication is never immediate so there comes the impatient wait for publication, an agonizing delay of weeks or months - even years for novelists - as the manuscript is turned into whatever mode the publication needs.  The days drag by, you nervously fret that they've somehow screwed things up, the editor's had second thoughts, or that the publication will fold, dooming your story to the trash can.  Even the galley review hasn't curbed your impatience.  When is the damn thing going to appear, you ask?

Then the fateful day arrives. Once again you flood your social medium with links and beg your friends to glance at it.  If it is a print publication your cherish your precious author's copies, place them on your brag shelf, or maybe even read your words once more, savoring each exquisitely turn of phrase.  You might go to the local bookstand and hang out by the display, waiting for someone to pick up the magazine and wondering if you will be brazen enough to say "Hey, I've got a story in there.  Want me to autograph it?"  This thought fades after a few unproductive hours of waiting and getting suspicious glances from the security guard and a few young mothers who worry about you are standing so close to the teen magazines.

Finally, as all writers must, you return to your wordsmithing anvil to forge yet another tale, a few more pages of the novel, or improve a passage in something you have in seemingly perpetual draft.  The acceptance lies now in your past; an acknowledgement that you had accomplished something wonderful or, if you are more modest, acceptable.

You now know that you are a writer.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Truth about Rejections

They'll tell you that a rejection isn't personal, that the editor is only rejecting the story, not you.

But deep inside your writerly core, the secret place that contains your hopes and dreams, you know that is untrue.  Any rejection feels like an arrow piecing your heart, its barbs inflicting deep wounds that will leave tender scars  on your psyche. A rejection is a personal affront, it's saying that you are not worthy of being published and all of the hours you sweated to polish that story to perfection are as nothing. In a word, rejection feels like failure.

So, what can you do? You can bite your lip, bitch and moan about the unfairness of it all to anyone nearby, curse the editor as a philistine, and even decide to never, ever submit to them again (a promise I've never been able to keep.) you can even mumble "I'll show that %^$# editor," as you submit it elsewhere and continue to create.

Doing any or all of that is fine, but it doesn't change the fact that you have been cast aside.

Rejection hurts!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Quitting at Last

This is what bothers me:  After nearly twenty years of writing short stories and occasionally selling one or two, I have to face the prospect that perhaps I've overstayed my welcome, that perhaps my talent has at last played out, that my race is run, the tide is going out, the dark night approaches and all of those other literary allusions that are trite and boring when endlessly repeated redundantly over and over ... well, you get the idea.

The bitter fact that writers have limited periods of productivity, that they eventually outlive their fan base or face a dearth of ideas, which is a particularly horrid fate for the short story writer who depends on expressing ideas engagingly as opposed to story, came to my mind as I read a pair of related blogs by Sarah Hoyt and Kay Kenyon dealing with similar issues. Apparently I am not the only one who is bothered by these inner voices of doubt and fear of failure.

This is not the first time I've dealt with the problem of writerly mortality.  In fact, I think of this at least three times a week, more often when the brain stutters and spits, seeking a word that will just not materialize to complete the sentence or when the plot wanders aimlessly off the reservation into areas I hadn't intended or when a character suddenly changes from a brilliant puppet into a wooden soldier who is unable to squeeze a single emotion from his all too solid frame. Yeah, that's when the doubts arise.  
So I ask myself when might be a good time to call it quits, to fold the tent and ... no, no, no - I won't go there again or we'll all die of metaphoric or analogical metastasis. 

I honestly don't know when you can tell that it's a good time to quit - after a year of no sales, after the four hundredth rejection, or after the ideas stop exciting you awake in the night? What are the signs that you are finished? Can you tell? Will anyone whisper it to you at some obscure little con - the only ones that seem to welcome you?  Is there a right time, a good time, a proper time to vacate the stage for those pesky young upstarts? 

I think the time might be right, but before quitting I have a few things to finish, such as the novel that I've nearly finished rewriting, the one I have half done and the other one sadly left in outline, not to mention the sixteen short stories in various draft stages, the ones in eternal circulation hell, and the nifty Sam Boone idea I sketched out this morning after coffee and ..... Crap, looks like I'll have to resign myself to keep pecking away at the keys until those few things are completed, that is, if something else doesn't come up.

And maybe not having "something else" is the sign when I'll know for certain that it's time to quit.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Intrusive Muse

After a two week hiatus from writing I sat down to continue the slogging, tedious process of revising/rewriting/editing my novel - a task involving rephrasing about one sentence out of ten and changing the novel's singular point of view to the more reader-friendly third person.  As I said; tedious, but necessary: I do want to finish this piece once and for all.

So, after getting through another ten or twenty pages, a little idea for a story that had occurred to me while enjoying my breakfast coffee with a blueberry muffin in frigid Portland bubbled to the surface of my mind and demanded that I pay attention.  It was a mosquito bite of irritation; a gnat's itch that would not cease as I struggled to concentrate on the work at hand.  It was an insistent, demanding irritation that intruded into every thought.  I've know this itch before and what it portended.

In a recent interview Stephen King mentioned that he never wrote down his story ideas.  If an idea has merit,  he contended, it will rise for attention when needed.   Itch, itch, itch the little story idea continued to plague me for another page where I finally yielded.  I put the novel aside, brought up a blank screen with the idea of writing an outline, scene sketches as it were that I would put aside for later, after finishing the novel.

Blocking the scenes came so easily that I knew my muse must have been working at the plot, the emotional levels, and the settings without informing the my conscious mind.  That she was active while I was preoccupied became evident as the words, the descriptions, the incidents, people, dialogue, and characterizations rolled so effortlessly onto the screen.  Usually I struggle with plot and wrestle each paragraph to submission before endlessly editing and rewriting until I finally abandon the entire effort to submission.  Only on rare occasions does my muse allow me to write so flawlessly.  

Four hours later I had the entire story mapped out in ten scenes and had written three thousand words leading up to the key scene, where I stopped.  The flow of the narrative and evocation of scenes had been so painless that I could have continued to the end, but I wanted - needed - to do THAT scene with fresh eyes and a clear mind.

Ask me how this happened and I reply that the words flowed like liquid gold, pouring into the plot as the characters, dialogues, scenes, and incidents grew in cascading profusion and without effort.  It was as if someone apart was dictating to give birth to this story.  It is a process I cannot understand, feel exceptionally blessed when it happens, and wish I could evoke every time I sit down to write.

This story will probably be finished by this evening I'm sure and then it is back to the workbench to pound out another few pages, edit unfinished materials that are trying to get my attention, and do the mundane things life demands of us so I can continue to follow my bliss and write.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Dry Spell

There are times when the writing becomes tiresome, when the events of the day or of life in general become so wearing that the last thing you want to do it sit down and try to eke out a few words worth reading.

This is one of those times.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Master Class

Writing is a lonely business where each writer sits and tries to fill the screen with something worth saying. We each deal with our muse idiosyncratically, relying on our imaginations, education, and references to craft unique works. We labor like journeyman artisans prior to the industrial revolution, before knowledge of their master's methods became widespread. We are anchorites by nature and vocation, rarely meeting with others of our tribe, usually for critique sessions.

I've been in a critique group for several years whose members are professional writers of varying accomplishment. Although I'd enjoyed our sessions, in which we read and criticize our most current material, I began to feel that somehow we were missing something; that all this picking at one another's scribblings wasn't accomplishing any improvement in our craftsmanship but merely polishing the finish, as it were, on pieces that had already been forged.

What would happen, I wonder, if we talked instead of techniques, methods, processes, and the other writer's tools that line the backboards of our wordsmithing workbenches? Would we discover preferred ways of plot development or found that sorts of hooks work best? Would we explore the byways of flashbacks or realized where foreshadowing could be used most effectively? Would we agree on those elements that constitute an ideal scene? The list of possible discussions and discoveries goes on, ranging from "what works best for me?" to, simply, what works.

Would my dream assembly of accomplished writers form a master-level seminar where we could meaningfully discuss the how's and why's of the writing craft, without getting into the niggling trivia of a specific story, page, scene, or line of prose? What sort of dialogue would produce the best results? Which subjects would spark the most interest; perhaps development of the protagonist or would it be the meanderings of plot? How much discussion could there be about the traditional triad of character, setting, and time and whether writers necessarily need to appeal to sight, sound, smell, and the kinesthetic aspects in detail? So many questions, so much to be covered. The pressures of imagination and production probably mandate that there would never be enough time, people, and interest to hold such a discussion.

But I can dream.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sources of the Nile

Some of the great explorations of history, such as those of Speake and Burton, were determining the sources of the Nile. Was it a spring bubbling in the Mountains of the Moon, perhaps it flowed from Lake Victoria in Kenya. or even in some hidden glen deep in the Nyungwe Forest in Rwanda?  Eventually it was determined that there was no single, definitive source, but that the Nile was the result of outpourings from smaller waterways spread over one and a quarter million miles or more of collection basin throughout central Africa.

I often wonder where my own ideas came from when I complete a story, or sometimes, even a single scene or passage.  Was it spurred by something I'd read in my earlier years, an event in my life, something mentioned in a casual conversation, or even something once read and then forgotten, only to emerge years later clothed in different expression?  There are a few stories that I can point to and say "Yes, this is where I got the idea," but truthfully that might only address the macguffin, the punch line, the setting, or the character's makeup, not all the other stuff that fills the pages - all the little ornamentation, snippets of conversation, and observations that well up unbidden and pour onto the page without my conscious control. 

In the end I ask myself where does the Muse, who inhabits me when I get into the fugue writing state, find these things, all these niggling details, all this color and sound and smell and action?  How does it happen?

An example:  In my story "Primrose & Thorn" the Jupiter sailboat and its environment came from careful research and the story's plot was carefully contrived in advance, but nowhere in my mind had the characters of Louella, the lusty, direct, and black female protagonist and Pascal, her french companion been formed.  As I was writing my Muse gave Louella birth and let her rise entire, like the Botticelli Venus, from the sea of unconsciousness and step into the story.  For certain her character and behavior grew out of the necessities of the story, obstensably a vehicle used to put my feelings about sailing in  a way the reader would enjoy, but she had her own personality formed from the type of challenges she'd faced.  I am certain that I've never known anyone like either Louella or Pascal, nor are they amalgamations of people I've met. So where did they come from?   

Perhaps, like the sources of the Nile, the content of my writing drains from the broad timescape of a lifetime of reading, experiencing, and discovering my world.  Perhaps it is something best not explored to discover the source, but only to marvel that it is there for the Muse to use.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

"Short" People

Several years ago, after I had a few stories published and wrote my first Nebula finalist (Primrose & Thorn), I was invited to dinner by four accomplished novelists. I listened with rapt attention as they spoke knowingly of agents and contracts, of royalties and galleys, and talked with the ease of experience about book launches, autographing, and the other things that seldom impact a short story writer's life.  This was heady stuff and I reveled in being graced to be among their number.

Yet, as the evening wore on, I began to wonder why I had been invited to sit among this prestigious group since not only had I not written a novel, but the possibility of embarking on the long and arduous task of writing long had not yet crossed my mind.  Were they going to give me the secret of writing huge works?  Were they about to give me the keys to novelist heaven?  Were they going to impart the secrets of the book?  I waited, growing more concerned and anxious as the evening wore on through salad, entree, desert, coffee, and finally drinks.

Finally the leader of this pack of wolves turned to the lamb among them and said: "Bud, how do you manage to sell to Analog?  What's the secret of writing short?"

I forget what I said, but most likely it was "Huh?"  That was my first glimpse of something that I have debated ever since that night: why can some people produce novels with seemingly little effort while others struggle to produce more than a few thousand words at a time? What quirk of mind causes a novelist to spend fifty pages on an action that a short story writer dismisses in a sentence?  Why does no one go to the bathroom in a shorter work while novel characters detail every aspect of their daily ablutions?  And why in the world does the novelist allow dozens of characters to creep into their story, diverting the plot this way and that, pestering the protagonist with niggling, bothersome trivia that prevents resolution of the central issue chapter after chapter?  Why do they insist on burying the core of the story with excessive detail and descriptions?

Why can't they just say what they mean and get off the stage? 

Short story writers don''t feel the need for glittering ornamentation or writing casts of characters that are not directly related to the central thesis of the story.  A short story's protagonist is never diverted for long from their path, not with the premise's tease far behind and the end of the story looming just a few thousand words ahead.  No, the short story writer's brain focuses on the immediate, the important, and nothing that does not support the central thesis is allowed to intrude on making a clear and utterly unambiguous end.  The short story always has a point, damn it!

Perhaps that is the central difference between the novelist and short story writer: While the novelist cannot resist the call of complexity, the short story writer cannot resist the need for simplicity. 

But I fear that is too much of a simplification since many novelists write short stories and some short story writers manage to eke out a novel or two.  The answer might be the simple economic reality that you can't make money writing short so most novelists chose not to.   That also is a simplification that begs the question I was asked at that long-ago dinner and today, after all those years since, I am left not knowing the answer.  I do know that I write short because I couldn't do otherwise.  I feel impelled to reach a conclusion quickly, to make my point, tell my tale, and start on the next, and the one after that, and on and on.

And maybe novelists feel the same impulse to expand, expostulate, and discourse because they cannot do otherwise.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Unspoken Things

We've all heard the gripes and complaints about the writing game - the difficulties completing the first draft, the pain of editing and revising, revising, revising and the further indignities of yet another god-damned edit and revision before casting the piece adrift, only to see it flounder on the shoals of editorial whims.  Yes, and then, when it does sell, seeing the niggling copyedits, the galley mistakes, and finally, seeing a botched print job, poor cover art or illustration or all three, and usually at once.  We've all heard the litany of missing manuscripts, computer failures, files forever lost or worse, unreadable. Then there are unsympathetic agents, penny-pinching editors, illiterate copyeditors, and other hated minions who dislike your work.

On and on, the writers complain at the cons, on facebook, twitter, myspace, and a thousand other channels of the bitter hand fate has dealt them by cursing them with the writing compulsion. They say a better income could be realized flipping burgers, a better marriage if only they didn't waste time at the desk, happier kids if they took the time to be with them instead of cursing and slaving at the word-smithing anvil they've chained themselves to.  Yeah, all that.

But the thing they're reluctant to tell you, the precious secret that they all hold in the deepest recesses of their being is the absolute joy they experience while writing.  They rarely mention the high they achieve by crafting the perfect phrase, choosing the precise word, or arranging the well-crafted scene.  Joseph Campbell said to "follow your bliss ..." will lead you to a life of happiness. You may not be wealthy, healthy, or respected as a result of writing, but you will be happy.  

In writing as well and over time one gets more pleasure as their skill in the craft improves.  Just as a marathon runner experiences a high after they hit the wall, so too does a writer feel a jolt of exhilaration when that penultimate revision recedes into memory and only the final editorial gloss remains.  Acceptance provides satisfaction for a time, publication gives a temporary glow, and the income a certain feeling of accomplishment, but the true writer's joy comes from none of those - it comes from simply knowing that you have created a well-structured and carefully edited story.

And that, more than anything, is the meaning of joy.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

It's Not a Contest.

For two years people in the field and journalists have been less than cautious in their terminology regarding the Nebula Award.  The Nebula, a handsome tower of acrylic and stone, is awarded to stories in each of four categories; short fiction (<7500 words), novelette (7,500 - 17,500 words), novella (17,500-40,000 words) and novel (>40,000 words).  Every member of SFWA is eligible to vote on a preliminary list and for each of the top selectees.  The nomination and selection processes are embedded in a set of iron-clad and objective rules.

The Nebula is awarded for literary excellence alone.  This means that the top story demonstrates that the author has mastered the craft of writing, has developed the chops to tell a compelling story, and has proved that they have mastered the genre sufficiently to rise above all other nominees.  Although it seems trite, being among the final selectees really is as much an honor as getting the award itself.  I defy anyone to deny that the final list of Nebula nominees contains a single case where the quality of the work is less than superior and should not stand as an exemplar of its category.

Nevertheless, in our sports-crazed culture there exists this concept of winners and losers and that sort of language creeps over into the Nebula.  Let me be perfectly clear; the Nebula selection process is not a contest among writers, for such implies that one story is "better" than others.  The final selection is based more on the voters' individual tastes and preferences than against an objective standard save literary value.  Language such as winners and losers should never be used in articles, speeches, or even (Ha, like I could make this stick) on an individual's web site.  I recently wrote admonishing letters to newspapers about using terms such as winnerwon, etc and begged them to amend their style guides for reporting professional awards.

The other mistake often made is to suggest that one category is more important than the others.  I have know Hugo and Nebula Awardees for the novel that could not write a short story if they wanted. Conversely, many short story writers find the prospect of writing in the long form unattractive.  From my own experience it takes as much creative and artistic craft to write shorter as it does to stretch out the word count.  A Nebula nominated novella is not superior to the short story candidate, neither does the novel list represent works more prestigious than the novelettes.   To state otherwise is disrespectful to the authors and the field.

 My plea to you is to mind your words so as not to disrespect those hard working authors who fail to possess the acrylic tower.