Saturday, December 15, 2012

Mementoes and Memories

Each year as the holidays are upon us and too-much-to-do  rums smack into not-enough-time  we begin to decorate the house for the arrival of holiday guests.   This effort involves turning our otherwise contemporary setting into something outrageously rococo.  Minimalistic sensibilities are abandoned in a overly enthusiastic  attempt to make our surroundings "gay and festive."  Bright ribbons, festive wreaths, and dozens of wildly colorful seasonal decorations are set upon every available horizontal surface.  

But the overwhelming cascade of seasonal adornments pales before what is to come.  The pinnacle of decoration is to build our holiday tree.  We first place the bare tree in its place of honor, then bring the storage boxes from the attic and begin to adorn the branches with large and small decorations both bright and gaudy.

Decorating the tree is a process without a distinct objective.  There is no specific plan to be followed, but rather a successive layering of artifacts. The ornaments are an eclectic collection of cheap jewelry, small treasures, expensive glassware, artfully crafted metal and wood creatures, and religious items from a half dozen cultures, all collected over our years from places we've either lived or travelled First the lights are tested, then strung in a rough pattern to ensure that the tree has no places lacking colored illumination.  Small and large balls are hung wherever there seems to be an empty branch. This is easy at first but becomes increasingly challenging as the festooning progresses.  When the entire store of balls is exhausted we then place larger items among, between, next to, and behind the ornaments and earlier objects.  That done, we affix strings of beads and ribbons, and drape colored cords in spirals around the tree.  As a finishing touch, an old bedraggled and beloved angel acquired years before is affixed to the tree's peak where it leans leftward, as always.

After hours of work the tree has been transformed into a thing of unbelievable layered, multifaceted complexity.  There are so many objects chock-a-block that it would be impossible to derive a unifying theme or even to see the tree beneath. Consequently, hardly anyone looks too closely, save to search for some favorite item. It is something to be admired as a whole.

So why, you may ask, do we take so much time each year to build this overwrought objet d'art?  Why do we expend so much time administering to its details?

The answer to that question is not simple since the effort, the process of decorating the tree is a labor of love and remembrance.  Every single item placed on the tree evokes a memory of the time and place it was acquired.  Some items are treasured gifts from people we've known.  The bright globes are from France, Germany, Italy, as well as the United States.  The small golden owls are from a temple in Burma, the multicolored tassels from a market in Seoul, the glass spheres from a trip to Austria. Other decorations were from Spain, the Netherlands, England, and Scotland.  We have small pottery animals from Japan, straw figures from Mexico, and garlands from all over.  Each item has its tale, each its own memory of its place, and each is a marker in the history that we are writing with out lives each holiday season.  The tree is a symbol of who we were and who we are, but that is not the reason for doing so much work in erecting it.  That process, the decoration of the tree, is an annual celebration of seasons past and, if there is still an empty place we can find, a place for more to come.

So, in the end, each year's construction of the tree means much more than building a bright seasonal decoration. It is renewing and reliving a warm, glowing symbol of our family's history.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Shout Out Redux

A while back I asked Jamie Todd Rubin why he read my blog to which he replied that he got some satisfaction knowing that he was not the only writer beset by the devils of self-doubt, remorse, elation, and disappointment.  It seems we all ride the same roller coaster of emotions and agonies as our WIP ever falters on the brink of failure.  I suspect the same is true of you out there who read this blog, who find yourself filled with doubt, wondering if you can get one more story published, one more draft successfully completed, one more scene working just right; that you can finally find precisely the right word on the tenth revision and know that something is finally working right. On the one hand I hope reading these posts lets you know you are not alone and, on the other, I despair that there should be so much misery about something at once creative and revelatory.

Mid year I wrote Shout Out to note where my blogspot map lit up each week.  Since then I've seen more places light up, indicating that there is at least one writer in each distant country reading about my agonies and ecstasies.  Do you distant readers endure these same, terrible writer's afflictions?  Are there really that many of you writers in Russia, Japan, Venezuela, India, Bahamas, Germany, Iceland, South Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Latvia, Poland, Ukraine, Canada, and the United States who feel the same?

Let me know by a comment now and then, just to let me know I'm not being hit by spambots instead of actual living, breathing people.

By the way, I've made my numbers for this year - six stories placed so far.

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Golden Moment

After wallowing in self-absorbed misery over my lack of progress a bright moment finally happened like the summer's sun rising in the east, illuminating what earlier had been obscured, revealing so much that I gasped in wonder at this magical awakening to the single arc that united all these disparate parts of my draft into a unified whole. This new insight tells me what dross to cut and where new material must be added.  The hitherto dark way is now clear, the plot is certain, and the story finally has taken on its own form.

There always is a point in the development of a story where I want to give up, give in, go for long walks, or take up something that doesn't demand so much hard work.  Stories that started off with such promise from a brilliant (so I thought) idea rapidly built into pages upon pages of rambling prose.  The  ideas for scenes came so fast I can barely type fast enough. And then, it happens.  I realize that there are...gaps...plot holes, mischaracterizations, and just silly stuff, of which we will never speak again,  Not bad, think I, and proceed patching here and there, adding a bit of structure, painting over a misstep, pounding some overwrought passage into submission.  I struggle on, trying to wrench plot from the dreck, cutting here and there, letting some parts run on and on and on until fatigue overtakes me.

When I return to my writing anvil I realize that the story isn't very good. In fact, it is horrible, beyond recovery, an absolute travesty that would forever besmirch whatever is left of my good name.  I've wasted hours, days, weeks on something so unworthy that I am ashamed.  There is nothing I can do that can save this piece. Nothing.  I move on to something else, swearing never to return to this time-wasting crap.

That is when the magic happens and the story becomes infused with the light of understanding, of seeing the whole buried within and where it needs to go.  When it happens i go forward with renewed confidence,  seize the draft, and begin writing the story that wanted to be told and not necessarily what I set out to write.

It would be a blessing if this were this to happen only occasionally, but, truth to tell, it happens every damn time I get into a new project.  The longer they are, the worse the depths of my frustration and pain.  It is a sinusoidal wave form of enthusiastic peaks of creativity, the declining slope of struggling to wrest meaning from tedious prose, and finally reaching the depths of despair from which only the golden moments let me rise to the peak satisfaction of a decent, submission-ready manuscript.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Agony of Slogging Along

Another day, another thousand words while dealing with feelings of incompetence as I struggle with the work in process.  Why am I putting myself through this?  Why do I slog daily through words, words, words, fighting the impulse to add ever more to what I've already done even as I scribble out words that only yesterday were golden but today seem utter dross? The story that began with such promise has devolved into a messy assortment of ideas that do not quite jell.  In fact, the scenes have become so disparate that it's hard to believe they are parts of the same plot and why the hell did that character's name change from Jean to Gene while his/her gender remained unchanged but the clothes did not?  Moving scenes around doesn't help; it just makes the damage look that much worse.

God in heaven, I feel I will never, ever get this story done, but I blunder on, believing that there might be a solution somewhere ahead if only I continue to work on this phrasing, this paragraph, this scene, this whole fucking story!  Maybe I should stop rereading and just move on until this twisted tale reaches some sort of conclusion, epiphany, or simply dies unresolved.  Yeah, that makes sense. Or does it?

Is this what my life has become - struggling to make sense, to smooth the words into a coherent story, fighting the urges to move on to something -anything!- else just so I don't have to deal with what I've already driven into incomprehensible ramblings?

What twisted aspect of personality drives me, an otherwise sane person, to sit before a computer for hours, days, weeks at a time scribbling words that might never be read by another human being?  Isn't it presumptuous to think that my words, my concepts, ideas or phrasing merits any more praise than another's?  But questions like this, the nagging doubts, the painful realization of insufficiency, of mortality, and human frailty fail to dissuade me as I slog through the working part of writing - battling the devils that harry me as I proceed along the exhausting long march that will hopefully, prayerfully develop into something somewhat readable.

Is this agony the common lot of a writer?

Saturday, November 17, 2012


I've spent a few days cleaning out my file cabinets, sorting through old, outdated paperwork, tossing away product handbooks for items I no longer possessed, and, in general, doing what I should have been doing routinely.  In the end I'd reduced five packed file cabinet drawers to four loosely filled ones and filled two huge bags with waste paper.  It was the detritus of fifteen years, at least.

I loaded the bags in the car, along with miscellaneous electronics - mostly chargers whose original purpose was long forgotten, and drove a few miles down the road to the county recycling yard where  large bins with prominent labels await each type of recyclable material.  The site is a marvel of efficiency, all cheerfully administered by smiling staff.  Over where the big trucks dump their non-recyclables a million and one seagulls cover the hillsides and hover over newly arrived garbage trucks with squalling anticipation.  Recycling, even through the internal processes of birds is a wonderful thing.

Lest you be wondering, none of my writing stuff followed the recycling route. Instead I carefully package each year's electronic and paper files and work papers for my archivist so that some future researcher can discover and, hopefully, enjoy them. I often fear I am so desperate that even the hope of a pathetic bit of posthumous attention seems appealing. I hesitate to apply the term "re-cycling" when most of this stuff has yet to be "-cycled."

But back to recycling,  During my writing career I've completed perhaps five hundred stories and sold only twenty percent. A lot more unfinished pieces await my renewed interest.  I've kept all of my stories in the hopes that some day I might be struck with some wonderful illumination that might raise a weak plot into something of substance, a phrase that would brighten a scene, or a concept that would resolve a difficult plot turn.  I frequently activate one of these chestnuts and play with it for a while, too often sending it back into semi-recumbancy because the idea still hasn't gelled.  The good ones (IMHO) get sent out to once more make the editorial rounds, a practice that makes me ever  hopeful.

Since a good story is never finished but only abandoned, I persevere in recycling my old material, not willing to see any effort go to waste.  I have some pieces I've been fitfully working on for ten or more years.  Others I turn to are quickly abandoned back to my midden to await another day.  On rare occasions I've managed to turn a failed manuscript into a published story.  It doesn't happen often, but enough that encourages me to keep recycling.

Saturday, November 10, 2012


Last week I was so depressed over a couple of routine rejections that I felt that expending any more energy on writing was futile, even as I sent both pieces forward to the next editor on this list [ yeah, I maintain a list so I know who to torture and curse next.]

Then I had an idea:  Hoping that writing something easy would clear the mental cobwebs and dispel the aura of gloom that had enfolded me, I proceeded to through together an "outline" and then write a page for each of its ten lines. There are some stories I can write almost without thinking. The words, the scenes just roll out, one after the other.  I manage to sell some of these for some strange reason, but that's by the wayside. The problem was that some of the outlined scenes became multiple pages and, by the end of the third session (I tend to write in four hour sessions each day) I had over seven thousand words, some of which (I say modestly) was pretty damn good.

As I did this the issues with the other WIP became clearer, their paths to completion  open, and concerns about their probable sale diminished.  The diversion seemed to be well worth it so I continued my usual rearranging of the chairs, putting the scenes in an interesting sequence, trimming a bit  here and there, moving snippets about so the reader didn't get lost, and in general touching up the language to improve the literary aspect.

Finally, four days in, I had a well organized tale and could begin turning it into  a story.  Although this was an exercise to clear the cobwebs it turned out to produce a half-decent short story, which was an added benefit.  The takeaway on this is to remind myself to stay creative, even if it means heading off in a completely different direction.

To add to my pleasure, I also received a contract for another piece.

Saturday, November 3, 2012


Two rejections so far this week.  After being in this writing business for so long these rejections shouldn't bother me - part of the game, says I.  Yet, despite the agonizing frequency of such, each rejection feels like a dagger plunged into my heart.  A simple rejection shouldn't make me feel that I've failed, shouldn't make me think I've wasted hours, days, weeks, or months of agonizing over a word, a phrase, a passage, and shouldn't make me doubt my skills.  I know it's a simple statement of editorial preference, nothing more, so it shouldn't hurt, but it does.

Damn, you'd think after all these years I'd have built up some scar tissue to insulate me from the realities of spec writing, but I haven't.  Thanks to today's e-submission and response system I don't even have a letter I can tear up in frustration.  The boundless enthusiasm I have for writing instantly dissipates with each ever-so-neutral "thank-you-very-much- but..." rejection and, for moments after, I feel that all that effort and time put into that piece was wasted.

Two rejections in as many days tells me that finishing any of the WIP --three novels plus a dozen short stories in varying levels of draft-- and selling them is vanishingly small.

Time for assessment of my WIP, says I: Is this what it comes down to in the end; the realization that fighting to get your stories published in a dwindling market os a futile effort, to swim against the shifting tides of editorial preferences, or fight against the fall of dark night from which no one can turn?  What the shit?  Why should I put so much time and attention, my heart and should, into writing only to see my stories rejected and rejected and rejected until I feel like screaming. Why do I put myself through this? Why? Why? Why? Give me a single reason not to turn off the damn computer and walk away from this madness  Maybe it's just not worth it any more.

But then I think: Maybe the next editor won't reject these and there's the new short and that pile of WIP to finish.....

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Short Life

I know more than a few novelists, some of whom have a decent income and a depressingly smaller number who have a fabulous income.  Good for them say I; they should garner rewards for their specical gift of being dedicated to the long form and being rather prolix. Would that my own efforts were among them, but I do not envy their success (well, maybe a little).  I am reconciled to the fact that I am a short fiction writer.

Writing short fiction has proven to be a labor of love and dedication that produces scant rewards that involves beating your fingers (f not your head) against the keyboard in hopes of producing a  quickly forgotten, ephemeral product. It is also learning to deal with more rejection and finding the fortitude to resubmit again and again.  A short fiction writer spends years recycling rejected stories through ever less-rewarding markets, e-magazines, and, finally and distressingly, into freebie anthologies in the hope that someone, somewhere will hear your voice. Sadly many of stores never manage to find a home and must languish forever unread in the writer's midden.

As if rejection were not bad enough, the short fiction writer must fight back a rising tide of the aspiring writers, all anxious to make their mark, and all of whom are competing for the limited attention of the few remaining professional-level short fiction editors, and, finally and distressingly, into freebie anthologies in the hope that someone, somewhere will hear your voice.

The financial rewards of a short fiction career are dismal.  Let us assume that a writer can sell a minimum of ten thousand salable words per month and can maintain at that pace for a full year.  To achieve that many sales the writer has to complete many un-salable pieces just to sell just ten thousand words.  Moreover, a short fiction writer must count the words in their successive drafts, editor's suggested changes and, galleys, not to mention checking writerly business matters.

Let's make a modest estimate that our short fiction writer is a word-crunching machine who can produce thirty thousand finished (i.e. fully edited) words per month. That's three hundred and sixty thousand words per year - the length of a short fantasy novel!  For this Herculean effort the fantastically productive writer sells just ten thousand words a month at an average rate of $0.05 per word.  That means that pounding out short stories for a full year will produce only six thousand dollars.

That meagre income is quickly consumed if the writer has to occasionally travel to a con, spend a night or two in a hotel, and eat out instead of maintaining their writing pace.  A writer can get a free pass at the cons if they are successful, but only if they are willing to publicly bullshit for an hour or two on forums.  This is always in the hope that their presence might attract a new reader or two.  Maybe, if a writer has a lot of published stories, have wheedled themself into enough anthologies, and gotten an award or two, they might, just might, occasionally get a request for an autograph.  As I said at the outset: Writing short fiction is a labor of love.

Just don't do it for the money.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Writing and Editing

Writing isn't that hard; it's just stringing words along and throwing in the occasional punctuation mark so the reader can take a breath.  All you have to do to tell a story is come up with an idea, say something about it, and then get off the stage.  It's a conversation with a reader, a proposition or challenge, nothing more.

Editing, on the other hand is a bitch!  The real  business of writing begins when you have to take that stream of words you wrote and mold it into something that makes sense, that flows well, that is logically complete, evokes a mental image in the mind of the reader, and doesn't violate the dictates of  sensibility.

Editing is not nearly as clean and simple as the original scribbling. The editing path is full of traps for the unwary, of byways that lead nowhere, of vacuous potholes where entire plots may flounder, and vast mountains of facts that must be mastered.  Editing can make you wander far afield, leading you into a wilderness so inpenetrable that you must take a literary machete to hack away the untidy growths of false leads, bad facts, and poor dialogue.  During the editing process characters can  appear and disappear, personalities can merge or disjoin, scenes can change at a thought, and always, always the path to the end seems beyond reach.  Eventually the editing reaches a point where you realize that you must abandon the effort, call the story complete, and send it on its way to certain rejection...

... so you can begin the next.

Saturday, October 13, 2012


A decade ago I built a wall-sized bookshelf, floor to ceiling, of twenty-five shelves, upon which I
placed books I treasured: college textbooks from my undergraduate days and those from my Master's program - all lovingly marked and tabbed. Another shelf was reserved for the books on writing, dictionaries, thesauri, and references.  On the top shelves I have books lovingly inscribed by fellow authors and, below that, my brag shelves with all the publications I've appeared in (except the e-format ones, of course which are there, I suppose, virtually.) I have a set of books on sailing, on humor, gardening, birds, trees, and wildflowers, and another on wine.  On one bottom shelf I  have the printed drafts of my five or six (unsold and therefore unpublished) novels.  Worse, two shelves contain the books I have not yet read, magazines awaiting exploration, guides for future hikes and travels, and obscure references.  There are a lot of books despite the fact that I get rid of books once read - the library is very gracious about my contributions.

But the shelves also contain the sorts of things one accumulates over the years; souvenirs of trips, gifts from friends and family, small statuettes, an earth globe acquired for a story, framed pictures and awards, and a stereo I have not played for at least a year.  Of the books I could say the same. There are only one or two that I refer to when I have a plot problem, the thesaurus, and occasionally, the big book of quotations.  For the rest, they are merely decoration.  The internet has replaced most of the reference material, the reference books are mostly out of date, and the college texts have languished untouched for years and the decorations serve no useful purpose. The entire wall is superfluous to any rational analysis.

Yet, there is a great comfort as I write in knowing that material is sitting there, close at hand for the marginally small possibility that I might someday need to find a bit of material for a story, a character, or a setting.

It is reassuring.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

More About Structure

A few weeks back I mentioned the classic short story structure of set up, exposition, epiphany, and denouement in my blog on Fundamentals.  This was a simple, straightforward form that let's you build a technically straightforward, but simple story.

While all stories  have the four elements mention earlier they do not necessarily need to be in the same sequence.  One could start with parts of the exposition and then move into the set up of the problem.  Starting with an action scene to grab the reader's attention is the most familiar form of this approach and, if you are like me, you always fall for it.  That dramatic, ass-clenching, gut-wrenching, curiosity-rousing beginning shouldn't delay getting to the set up for long because it will overpower the set up and you don't want to do that because it is the set-up that frames the arc of the story and gives the reader a foundation for understanding.

That said, exposition can take a variety of forms chronologically, physically, or even stylistically, such as framing differing narratives in distinct "voices."  You can play with flashback and flash forward, jump between settings or doing both at the same time. In fact, there is nothing that you can't do in this element so long as you don't lose the reader and keep moving toward that dynamite epiphany.

The final rule and that is that you can do whatever you want between the goalposts of set up and epiphany but after you pass that you need to get off the stage as quickly and graciously as possible.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Paper Cuts

I must admit that in addition to my severe case of PSS (Premature Submission Syndrome) I also suffer from Teflonitis.  This latter disability prevents me from seeing the less than obvious mistakes in my on-screen drafts. The obvious are easy, grammar and spell-checking take care of the simple mistakes, I am able to catch a few misspellings the checker misses, remove a bit of unnecessary alliteration, correct punctuation errors (mostly commas that breed like flies), random repetitions that pop up seemingly independent of my finger's fumbling strokes, and glaring grammatical errors.  Successive edits are successful in removing the last of these to produce, at long last, a perfectly written final draft.

Or so I usually think.

So what is the problem?  Well, after I've reviewed and edited/corrected a passage seven or eighteen times, when I know every word by heart, when I've sweated blood to perfect each deliciously wrought sentence, I begin to see an ideal, a perfect vision that in no way resembles the reality before my eyes:  I see what I want to see as my eyes slide unhindered across the passages.  It is as if the words were teflon, impervious to change.

I've discovered too many submissions soiled  by stupid mistakes. There have been so many that I've become wary of relying solely on what I see on the screen.  Sometimes I cast the draft in a different format or convert it to ebook format just so it can be read differently.  Sadly, this helps only occasionally - how many times can you reread the same words?  The "read aloud" features on most computers can help, but that is more to do with pacing than achieving the correct presentation.

What does work for me is printing what I thought was the final, final draft onto paper and then sitting down with red pen and painfully reading every syllable of text, editing where necessary, and writing marginal notes regarding necessary rearrangements.  Sometimes I jumble the pages so I can read the words without getting caught  up in the progression of the story.  In nearly every instance I've done this and regardless of how absolutely PERFECT I thought the draft had looked on the screen, I invariably find stupid errors on every page.  Usually, the result is that I end up with my printed draft awash in a red tide that represents the final, final, God-damn-it final draft.

Editing a printed draft is slow, painful and humbling, but a necessary experience.

Friday, September 21, 2012


The thing that always strikes me when I read any decently written complex novel, is the number of times the reader is reminded by a remark or observation of something mentioned earlier in the story.  This something could be something that is important to know at this point, but whose details were probably buried among the detritus the wordy writers spreads with a trowel over her/his pages.

Usually these reminders speak to a seemingly trivial attribute, a peculiar manner of speech, a way of dressing, or perhaps a facial tic.  It could remind the reader of an event barely mentioned one hundred pages earlier, or a remark about a trip mentioned in a conversation. Whatever that reminder might be, it bears on what is described on this page, at his plot point, or during this event.

There's a reason to remind the reader.  The writer cannot, at first mention of one of these important details, say "Look here, this is really important for you to keep in mind" since sic a remark would pull the reader out of the story and probably be irritating as hell.  Since novels contain a dozen or more of important details, it is no wonder the writers feels that hand-holding is necessary!

Short fiction, on the other hand, rarely needs these crutches to memory. Stories in this category are generally brief enough that even small, unnoticed details tend to stick in the reader's mind, and are easily recalled when needed.  Even if the reader misses the original detail because of poor short term memory, they can easily reread the story to discover what they missed ( Hey, its only a few pages!)

One added advantage for writers is that removing the need for reminders and relying on the reader's persistence of memory usually makes a short story's prose crisp and clean.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Naming of Names

A writer sometimes must assume the role of a minor god and name the creatures and things of his or her creation. While a general fiction writer faces little problem in this beyond selecting an appropriate name for the characters and locations, the challenges posed to the writers of speculative fiction are more interesting.

Some speculative stories are grounded in popular tropes where the backgrounds and activities have already been so well established that the writer faces little challenge.  In these cases they are in the same situation as the general fiction writer and have little need for naming creativity. Likewise for shared universes or continuations of established series.

But where SpecFic breaks new ground, creates innovative environments, or invents alien beings, the selection of names becomes more interesting.  On a new planet (no problem naming these) strange life forms evolve and with them, behaviors.  Should the writer call these alien animals, plants, and other creatures by some invented name, vary a similar Earth animal's name, or simply call them by a more familiar name, leaving it to the reader to understand that the "horse" of the story is actually a green-scaled beast? What about intelligent races?  They have names as well, names dictated by their vocal range, environment, history, society, and god-know-what-else  - just like us.  How do we treat their names?  Grzzzbyx might be what they call themselves, but such a weird grouping of letters breaks the flow of the story as the reader struggles with their pronunciation problems.  A better choice might be call it "Grizzbik" or just "Joe." Keep alien names simple and pronounceable is the safer choice.

Putting alien star systems and their populations aside, what about the story's human names? Selection of these is not always easy.  Does the writer select from the smorgasbord of international names to depict an egalitarian future or steadfastly stick to familiar European names or be daring and attempt Asian ones?  Each choice of a character's names has connotations, assumptions, and premises that might bring unwanted associations to the reader's mind. Stereotyping characters unconsciously is fraught with as many dangers as those deliberately stated so, whatever the source selected, the writer should always be aware of the implications of naming names.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Character and Change

Character is what illuminates the story, engages the reader in the situation, and, hopefully, allows them to identify with the protagonist.  Right now, I'm having a problem with character; not simply the character himself but where he is going and why.

Character development is the focus of much literary advice and most of that advice is that the main character should develop and grow as the story progresses, arriving in a different physical or mental place at the end of his or her arc. IMHO, this type of story frankly sucks because it too often has an artificial epiphany or revelation that segues into a smug and too often preachy denouement.

While it is true that most of my characters undergo some sea change in the stories I have written ones where the lead character actively resisted change - holding fast to his concepts to the bitter end, like Tam, the captain in my VIXEN novel. Others dither about in states of confusion, never resolving their inner lives - Sam Boone is an outstanding example.  Then there are the tragic characters of my Shardie cycle, ever doomed to a bitter end.

Would that life were like that but, unfortunately, the majority of our lives aren't. We seldom experience flashing insights that change our lives or minds, we never encounter abrupt alterations of our lifetime trajectory, nor do we change that much at the end of each "adventure."  Any serious changes take place slowly and often with great resistance as we fight the inevitable with rationalizations, excuses, and delays that enable what needs changing to persist.

And maybe that's where my current issue is taking me - not to resolution, but an acceptance of changes inevitable arrival.

Saturday, September 1, 2012


Writing this post while waiting for another exciting day to begin here in Chicago at the World SF Convention.  I though it might be a good time for a little self-promotion.

For the past year I've been modestly publishing in eBook format collections of my published works and a few otherwise unpublished novels.  Of the latter, I despaired of ever seeing them emerge from the piles of slush that must overwhelm the shelves of traditional publishing houses.  I've had some languishing for literally years with neither response or even acknowledgement of the submission.  This is scant reward for months, sometimes years, of effort.

My most recent adventure was to put out a hitherto unpublished Sam Boone novelette to see what would happen.  In addition I have a host of short stories, novellas, and novels that have not seen print that I may, if time allows, put through the Smashwords grinder and thus into the world of eReading.

Thus far I  have six collections in Kindle and three self-published novels in the eBook universe, none of which I have promoted through social networks save an occasional reference on Facebook and here. In a show of blatant self-promotion I now present a partial list for your amusement and, hopefully, purchase:


I also have some collections of my published stories and other works at Amazon Books

Wish me luck.

Saturday, August 25, 2012


Is there a conspiracy by the dairy industry to ignore the woes of the lactose intolerant population?  Why, with more that 80% of the world's population lactose intolerant, isn't there more availability of lactose-free products?  Is it a production bottleneck or is there simply not enough interest in raising goats on an industrial scale?

I have been seriously lactose intolerant for years to the point I can't even tolerate soy products.  This has resulted in many unfortunate confrontations at restaurants where a cream sauce might not appear on a menu item, or they do not offer a butter alternative, and a request for a non-dairy creamer is responded to with a sneer.  I've also discovered that almost everything delicious in restaurants has some form of cheese - a cheap and simple texture enhancer.  Prepackaged meals are no better.  Worse, most people with a slight loss of the ability to produce the proper enzymes do not attribute gassiness to lactose products.  The sheer ubiquity of lactose containing products is mind-blowing but, for most people, completely unnoticed.

I wonder why, with more that 80% of the world's population lactose intolerant, there isn't more availability of goat's milk products.  Is this a conspiracy by the diary industry or is there simply not enough interest in raising goats on an industrial scale?

I've experimented with Lactaid in pill and liquid forms, unsuccessfully downed sheep, almond, soy, and other faux milk without success.  Worse, for most of my life I was an avowed chocoholic until I discovered that most chocolate produces contain milk.  I also find that nearly every dessert on any menu consists largely, if not exclusively of CHOCOLATE!

I thought I was doomed to live a life of privation while exposed on every front by the foods I loved until, in a blinding revelation, I discovered that I could tolerate goat's milk!  This discovery opened up vistas heretofore forbidden; I found goat ice creams and most wonderful of all - an entire universe of cheeses.  Varieties like creamy Gouda, veinous blues like Humbolt Fog and Verde Carpa, as well as a host of  cheddars, and mozzarella's introduced themselves and when I discovered the mushroomy delights of Triple Cream Goat Brie I was ecstatic. Then there were spreadable flavored and plain soft cheeses in their creamy packs for my bagels and crackers.  The only thing lacking so far is the discovery somewhere of goat Parmisian so can once again taste a decent pizza.

Life is good again. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Birth of a story

I wanted to write a specific short story and expressed the idea to an editor. When the editor accepted the possibility I immediately started writing a draft outline - you know, blocking the scenes, building the characters and environs, etc. What I lacked was the detailed knowledge of the technology involved, hence, Research!

It was fascinating as I uncovered  things I did not know, developments I was previously unaware of, and features that I hadn't thought of in the first blush of concept.  As each new piece of information was discovered I added a few lines of exposition to the developing outline. The more facts I acquired the more explanation was needed, it seemed.  But it was all so interesting.

After two weeks I had several thousand words of exposition and far fewer of dialogue and action. Worse, the new knowledge destroyed much of the original plot/concept so how was I to make use of all that information and still avoid excessive exposition?

Too much explanation takes the reader out of the story and destroys the thrust of the plot.  This isn't a new problem. One of the key issues with the SF genre is the need to frame a story properly so the reader is taken into the universe where the action takes place. In general fiction you can say "New York" and create an instant mental framework in the reader's mind. But if you say "L'teria, the faerie realm" you have to do a bit more work. The same thing applies to stories involving future societies or technologies.

After two weeks I had several thousand words of exposition and far fewer of dialogue and action. Worse, the new knowledge destroyed much of the original plot/concept so how to make use of all that information and still avoid excessive exposition?

Not wanting to remove out any hard-won facts (it was invested time, after all), I injected some dialogue or action to keep the reader involved with the emerging plot wherever a block of narrative ran for more than a page (about 350 words). The trick was to sequence the actions so the descriptive facts were relevant while maintaining a continuous plot line.

As expected, the piece ballooned beyond the limits I promised so some cutting and compression was needed, but that's the subject of a different post.

Friday, August 10, 2012


I've been meaning to complete this piece for months but, well, you know how it goes:  first there was that story that needed something I just couldn't put my finger on, so I put it aside for a moment and began to do some editing on another piece that was almost ready to go in the hopes diverting my attention momentarily would break something loose, except that the cats needed to be taken to the vet for shots, which led to getting the car gassed up on the way, where I thought of a new story idea as the dollars rolled by but, by the time I'd returned home, I could not remember what it had been.  Then it was lunch time and I had to do a bit a reading to keep up with the genre.  I'd hardly finished when I had to get the mail, which included some new magazines with really, really interesting lead articles and a few links to more interesting sites I could research, said research eventually led, as "research"always must, to watching a japanese cat in a box video.

By dinnertime I was so exhausted from writing that I had to stop for the day.  I don't know why I procrastinate.  I kid myself into thinking that I am "taking a breather" while my subconscious works through an issue, even though that fickle part of my mind always seems more interested in developing new material instead of solving the proximate problem.  Do I put things off because they are difficult or boring?  Maybe it's because of my self-doubts about my ability to forge anything worth reading?  Maybe it's because I'm unwilling to work hard at my craft?  Character flaws, all and all equally insolvable except with a personality transplant.

This habit of putting things off seems to be a dangerous affliction when all I want is to get my creations out there to be read.  Nevertheless this is something with which I have always been cursed. Despite my best efforts I can't seem to break the cycle of jumping away from things when I should be pushing ahead, of always choosing the road not taken.  I admire fellow writers who persevere, who seem never in doubt as they turn out words at prodigious rates, and who amass an endless stream of completed stories. They are heroes, praiseworthy beings I hold in highest regard.

But how do they do it?  Is it because I'm merely a hobbyist and am not dependent on writing to survive that permits me to jump away from things?  Is the difference between a hobbyist and a professional the fact that the latter's very existence hangs on their writerly income?  Do they persevere because they cannot afford the luxurious pleasure of leaving something undone?  Would that I had a similarly important goad to keep me pounding away at word-smithing at the anvil of my keyboard.

Like this post, which I started last April and managed to get done after diversion through a novel revision, five (incomplete) stories, two sales, and watching a LOT of cat videos!

Saturday, August 4, 2012


One problem new writers ask experienced professionals is how to tell a story. They have a great (to them at least) idea, have (hopefully) done their research, and (supposedly) possess basic skills in the English language or at least know how to use spell and grammar checkers. What they don't have is the  experience necessary to compose the story. A lot of the good experience comes from a lot of really bad experience that is a necessary part of growth.  Each time you try you learn a little more and, eventually you build up some successful structures in your mind, and it is these successful structures that let you get on with the story telling instead of worrying about which goes where.

Before starting to compose the story a writer should have a basic structure in mind.  Sure, you need characters, settings, some proposition or problem, and a solution or resolution.  Helps to throw in a bit of humor, maybe a few asides, and even some bit of knowledge or opinion you want to share.  If you only have those elements and nothing else you do not have a story.

Early in my writing journey I stumbled across Algis Budrys' explanation that a good short story was structured just like a joke.  I though that was a superficial observation but after reflection I realized that it was on target and, for a number of years I used that as the starting point.

Any joke begins with a setup in which you lay out a proposition that will eventually reach the punch line and should somehow tie to that line.  Good joke tellers do not give away the punch line at the outset, or at least do not make what is to come obvious.  This opening sets up the reader's mind to the joke's environment.

The next bit of stage business is to expand on the various story elements - all that research, characters, etc that I mentioned earlier.  This exposition explains the set up in more detail.  This part can contain flashbacks, flash forwards, exhausting narrative explication, and damn near anything you want. It's free form for the creative and the story can wander as far afield as the writers imagination, available space, and how quickly the deadline is approaching.  Eventually, the exposition part MUST eventually get to the.....

Epiphany! (You knew I was going to say that, didn't you?)  Of course, the epiphany is where the point of the set up is suddenly revealed, where all the blinders fall from  the reader's eyes, and where the true nature of the tale is almost, but not quite revealed.  This is the straight line that brings on the ....

Denoument, which is the punch line that crystalizes the entire dialogue. This part should be mentally as close to the opening setup as possible so that the reader's mind immediately bridges the gap, realizes that they have been missing the obvious, and, hopefully, feel that the effort of slogging through all those words has been worth it.

So there you have it:  A good short story (joke) is composed of just four elements; the setup, exposition, epiphany, and denouement. Use that framework and you'll have a decent story.

Of course, you still have to write the words.

Friday, July 27, 2012


At a recent writers' meeting I was asked how many stories I'd written.  Since the questioner was a novelist I assumed that he wanted to know the total number so I said, "Just under five hundred, but only five of those were novels."  I was startled by his gasp of astonishment and quickly amended what I said and tried to explain.

You see, a writer writes, and writes, and writes.  Much of a writer's production is cast aside as the idea fails to coalese into a story or, if it survives the initial blush of creativity, then during the long editing process.  For each five thousand word short story perhaps ten or twelve thousand words have been considered, tried, written, found wanting, and cut out.  A writer should not count those words any more than a woodworker should consider their shavings or a mason the shards of brick left behind.

Which leaves us with those works that reach what the writer considers completion.  Only a few of the completed stories are ever accepted and published, the rest doomed for the trunk or to cycle through editorial in boxes forever.
Conversations with other known writers indicate that any lifetime sales ratio above 0.25 should be considered a raving success!  My own ratio is much lover than that (0.20) as indicated in the first paragraph: of the five hundred I've sold only one hundred.

Except that number's misleading as well since any published (and retained rights) story can be resold by the writer to other markets such as foreign and domestic press, audio books, podcasts, etc.  Today, a writer can even put their works out in eBook form and produce a modest, but continuing income.

So the proper question that should have been asked is: "Of all the stories how many saw first publication?"  Which would also produce a misleading answer since writers sometimes selll stories that never see print.

But that's the subject of another blog.

Saturday, July 21, 2012


Oh brave new world of writing where experiments in bridging the gap from writer to reader proliferate. Before us lies the writers' hundred-fold path to the future. Will we emulate photons and chose which slit to enter or do we, wave-like, follow multiple paths to the goal? Which of the many options will succeed? Which will lead to the best outcome? Is there a "best" path to produce income, another path to follow for critical acclaim, or a broad highway  to expanded readership?

So far the paths seem to be strewn with false leads. Traditional publishers, who must focus on massive sales recover their massive overhead costs from print operations, no longer seems a viable option. Publishing giants are so invested in their complex infrastructure that the chance of decent returns to support their enterprise for the vast majority of writers to  is not high enough to chance. Instead they plan their future on the hope that traditional books are not likely to disappear and trim costs to weather the transition.

 The shame surrounding self-publishing is rapidly disappearing as well-known authors push their backlist into eBook formats and sometimes venture new works as well. Some might employ copy editors to clean up the text and hope that the income from sales will be sufficient to cover that cost.
Income from personal publishing is marginal at best.  The primary problem is enticing readers to discover your works. The best strategy is to publish on as many platforms as possible and employ the time-consuming method of using social networks to get the word out.  Since this so easy any individual's attempt is drowned out by the noise of competing enticements.

A more time consuming path is to have a professional epublisher handle your work, relieving you of the effort to edit it into final form, obtain cover art, translate it into marketable form and provide it with the imprinure of a professional effort.

Putting a work out for "free"  is another option that produces modest results.  Donations are an immediate form of feedback and the lack of them can guide the writer away from failed experiments.  Placing a work on the web for "free" and asking readers for a donation revives the practice of patronage. Although many will take advantage of this others feel an obligation to throw a dollar or two your way.  Donations can vary widely as readers express the value they place on the work.  Others may simply donate as a way to encourage you to produce even more.

A combination of epublishing and print-on-demand can reach both those preferring traditional books and the readers of electronic versions. The advantage of following this path is that an ereaders' words of mouth recommendations to their unenlightened brethren might promote sales of the print on demand editions.  This might be a reciprocal arrangement, but there is little evidence of it.

Another path is for writers to turn themselves into a miocrocasm of the industry by becoming writer, editor, publisher, and publicist. This path is steep, requiring the writer to spend time mastering unfamiliar skills, all of which detract from time available for writing and productivity suffers.  On the positive side, none of the resulting proceeds need be shared.

So how does the writer place  his or her bet?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Third and Fourth Walls of Writing

Way back in my early writing days (1994) I had fun composing a little story that depended not only on some characters and a classic SF situation but also was about the editing process, uses of font and formatting, and poking a little fun at conventions.  I should mention that is also tears down the third and fourth walls of writing.

The responses I got to this --when I got anything more than a form rejection from magazine editors-- included "formatting this would drive my typesetter insane" and "we don't like experimental fiction." Only one editor liked it, but not enough to publish it.

But that was when print magazines ruled the world.  Then the Internet became ubiquitous and the possibilities (of which I will say more in the next blog post) opened a new route to publication.

At a writers' meeting a few weeks ago I mentioned the difficult formatting issue and Paul Legasse of Channel 37 said "We could format that any way we want on the web," which led to a beer-fueled discussion at our m monthly writers'  craft meeting, and, finally, we've got the "experimental" story on the web, unshackled by the restrictions of print formatting, and capable of being read for absolutely nothing (unless you want to throw a buck or two into my donate button.)

I hope you enjoy Quoth I

Friday, July 13, 2012

Is it "Done" yet?

A question that keeps me awake at nights is that there never seems to be a finish in writing. Always there is something more that needs to be said, or a better, more precise phrasing, perhaps a more vibrant description, a more compelling scenario, or yet another bit of colorful detail that I hope will enhance the reader experience.

There's always something, damn it!

Sleeping on it after I think it's finished is a good idea.  A better one is leaving a completed story alone for a few weeks before submitting. This latter strategy does little to avert my nagging desire to improve this story but it does provide an excuse to submit it.

When the rejection arrives, as it surely will most of the time, the question rises again to haunt me - should I simply send it out again as is or make a few adjustments?  Perhaps a little tweak here or there wouldn't hurt and ....    No, no, no; I've too many other stories under weigh.  I shouldn't waste even more time than I already have so I must send it out and let the dice fall where they may.

Is a story ever completed or is this continual embellishment of a tale driven by the storyteller gene that infects all writers and commits us to a life of endless doubt?  I've been told innumerable times that a story is never finished; it is only abandoned. If true, that means my writer's past is strewn with aborted stories that never had the chance to be "finished."  Then there were the miscarriages when a plot or character failed to achieve resolution.  Or the defectives, spoiled from the outset.  Only very rarely is there something that has a spark that can be cherished to completion.

But then the doubts begin: will excessive attention smother the spirit of the piece?  Would any additions be mere ormolu, burying a wonderful idea  under layers of adornment that add nothing of value?

These are the questions I ponder as yet another piece approaches its finish and it becomes time to take a few out of their hold status for submission, or should I deal with (i.e. "improve") the current rejections? Do I or don't I?

Perhaps I should sleep on it.

Friday, July 6, 2012


As you may know I got hit by the derecho last week which sort of messed up the eastern seaboard of the US with massive power and communications outages that we have yet to recover from. Coupled with the extremes of temperatures (90+ degrees most days and a few over 100!) it has been miserable.
But now I am back on line and able to pick up the threads of my rambling dialogue, that is, once I manage to clear the backlog of other things that keep me from my writing.

That's an interesting turn of phrase: "keeping me from my writing" as if life was going to put itself on hold while I share my fantasies with the keyboard.  But "life" always interferes, there's always shopping to be done, car repairs that demand attention, washing to be done, meals to be prepared, and, oh my God, you have to get out of bed and get dressed EVERY morning!

All this stuff leaves me hardly enough time for dealing with the business side of writing - like keeping my work in circulation in the hope that it finds a buyer, keeping records of writing expenses, and ensuring that the family doesn't starve of become homeless.

Worse, it barely leaves any time at all for writing, that is, if I don't give up reading the paper, the latest book, watching television, listening to the radio, talking to friends and family, and being otherwise a member of society.

It's a wonder that i get any writing done at all!

Friday, June 29, 2012


It's taken me a long time to realize that writing fiction, that is, composing a readable work of fiction is similar to writing a song.  From all I can gather songwriters either come up with the lyrics and then try to find the tune embedded in the words or first compose the music and then find the words that fit the music. In fiction there are the lyrical components as well - the words, and the musical score, which is the structure of the story.

In my writing career I have been trying to do both simultaneously; letting the story evolve on its own and then rearranging, rewriting, and editing the structure into something worth reading. Only of late did I make the musical epiphany and decide that I've probably been doing it wrong, or at least wasting valuable time.  Now I see that the structure of a composition is a thing apart from the story being told.

The top level organization of a classic short story is: Introduction, Exposition, Epiphany, and Denouement.  The Introduction sets up the story's problem that will eventually be "solved" at the end.  Along the route to the Denouement there should be no more than three challenges to success, with the final challenge leading to the Epiphany or realization of the solution. There should be high and low points. Throughout the presentation there should be a bass line to set the tone of the piece. What's left is to sprinkle the composition with a few bright notes of brilliance, a not-too-long stretch of expositions, and maintain a consistent refrain for each character. Pull all those elements together and you have built a perfect structure for the story.

All you have to do then is add the words.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Shout Out

The web is a wonderful thing, connecting people around the world who never might have otherwise met. When I post  a new blog it is interesting to see how the different countries "light up" on my blog map. Apparently this blog is being read by not only people in the US and Canada but also struggling writers (which is probably redundant phrasing) in India, China, Russia, Germany, France, England, Scotland, Brazil, Argentina, and South Africa. I am suitably impressed to say the least.

I have no way of knowing who you might be or what perverse pleasure you might get out of my masochistic musings, but I want to thank you for your continued interest in my struggles to understand this impulse that drives me to write. It is somehow reassuring to know that others may be as beset with what appear to be everlasting personal and professional doubts as I.  Welcome, fellow sufferers.

For my own part, if nothing else, I hope that at least one of you is encouraged by the news that they are not alone in dealing with their writing demons. I hope that someone will someday find a bit of my advice that actually helps move their work forward or at least gives them encouragement to continue.  The world needs stories, your stories, and failing to provide them would be a sin.

I will keep posting to this stream of consciousness as long as new devils beset me. I hope that some day I will experience a writer's epiphany that leads to the denouement of happiness and will be able to share that as well.  Until then, I hope you continue to read and enjoy these posts.

By the way, it wouldn't hurt to comment now and then.

Friday, June 15, 2012

A Reason to Write

A well-published novelist told me recently that a writer should enjoy the building of a novel regardless of whether it ever sees "print" or not.  A writer's joy should come from the mental effort of producing a satisfactory cogent and compelling story.  Advances, royalties, and other rewards are nice, but they are a thing apart from the writing itself.

I have found this true for short stories, as witness my dismal 1:5 sales ratio. But then, I write what I damn well please to exorcize my personal demons and if a story sells, so much the better. I take no offense at rejection (well, maybe a little.) The process of creating worlds, populating them with curious creatures, and putting them in complicated situations lets me feel like a minor old testament god. It is very satisfying.

Nobody knows where the impulse to create comes from or where lies the source of the spring that waters a writer's imagination.  Yet writers seem impelled to create and put their creations into a reasonable form so that others might enjoy the result.  Some might think this a form of exhibitionism, of an ego-driven need to assert their vision on the world.

There might be a touch of this, but for the most part writers care less about acclaim than they do about the pleasure they get from a well-turned phrase, of choosing the perfect word, of crafting a well-defined character with depth and an emotional range.  There is a surge of almost orgasmic pleasure at putting the final bit of polish on a completed work.  This pleasure is rarely mentioned at conventions when being bright and amiable seems the better choice of presenting oneself and selling whatever books are waiting to be sold or signed than sharing ones innermost thoughts.

Joseph Campbell advised people to follow their joy to attain happiness.  This is true in writing as in everything else:  A writer should follow the joy of writing for its own sake. 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Blog Post 100

It seems somehow apt that this one hundredth blog post should mark my return from the breathtaking Rio Hondo week-long critique-fest in the mountains of New Mexico.

Typical critique session
Typical critique session
I spent last week high (9,700 feet) above Taos with a group of eminent genre writers who came together for mutual criticism and to discuss the markets, the writing life, and drink. Each of the ten writers brought an early draft of something they felt needed improvement and which they  hoped could benefit from examination by other professional writers.

Each draft was read multiple times and, in a joint session, each person provided an intense, three-minute expression of viewpoints, sometimes helpful suggestions, and penetrating observations about the sample provided.  At the end of each round of comments there were sometimes lengthy discussions among the group on writerly points of style, phrasing, and pace. More detailed observations were scribbled on the manuscripts and returned to the author.

Any writer worth their salt requires a substantial ego to weather the fickle genre fiction markets and this group was no exception.  Despite their strong egos, there was no animosity, no wails of injustice, nor hurt feelings evident despite sometimes searing criticism over some flaw apparent to all but the author him/herself.  Often I felt that my critiques were a young pony in a draught horse show, underweight and overwhelmed.  Nevertheless, I learned a little about going beyond the obvious surface of words and plot to examine the underlying structure of the piece to discover how to convey understanding to the reader.

My piece was neither more nor less criticized than any other and now I have to sort through the notes and written comments/corrections resulting. That everyone read so carefully and multiple times assured me that little was untouched. Strangely, everyone grokked on a subplot throwaway that I  paid scant attention to and which would take the novel in a completely different direction that I was not contemplating (and may not follow.)

I came away both exhausted and refreshed. The knowledge of the field gained far exceeded any costs I may have incurred. I just hope that that knowledge improves whatever I choose to write.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


This week I am among a group of professional genre writers in Taos NM for a one-week mutual critiquing session.  My intent on attending was to see if I could glean a hint or two about writing as I peruse their drafts and chat endlessly about the craft of writing in general. It is interesting to see other's unfinished drafts, hear the comments and observations and discuss their unique processes in drafting.

When I set out to write I seldom have a sense of length, unless it has been commissioned, and that usually comes with a defined subject.  What I think will be short stories because of the modest concept sometimes turn out to be novelettes or novellas (my natural length.)  The first draft of most are piles of random scenes, snippets of conversations, research notes, and scribbled ideas that pop up at random and usually have nothing to do with the work in progress - AT THAT TIME.  Yeah, the first draft is an exercise in discovery, flipping over the mental rocks to find what lurks beneath.

Second draft is more deliberative as I assemble the mess into a more or less comprehensible form, grouping things into defined scenes, making the characters recognizable and consistent, and figuring out how to dress the stage to give a sense of place. Chronology also needs attention, but not always.  Mostly the second draft tells me the length the story wants to be and informs the shape of the ...

Third draft, which I always hope is the penultimate draft. This is where I get serious about the actual words being used, the parsing of sentences, and the patterns of paragraphs that make for easy reading and more understandable pacing.  This is where the characters achieve nuance, tics, and distinguishing characteristics.  Perhaps I dress them handsomely or not at all. Sometimes they even don alien skins and behaviors. Finishing the third draft always leaves me feeling good and ready to cast it adrift on the tide of editorial whimsy.  But...

After letting the supposedly finished draft sit in a virtual pie cabinet for a week or more, I can read it with fresh eyes and realize all the flaws, the things that remain to be explained, the little ornaments that would improve a character or setting, and where the wording can be sharpened to a fine point. When this is done the work finally goes out, no longer a draft but a finished story, for if I kept it a day longer I would be impelled to fiddle more in an endless quest for impossible perfection.

In the last draft it is you who tells the story if it is long enough.

Thursday, May 24, 2012


Every time I take on a project I am beset with doubts as to my ability to write a competent sentence, to catch all of the errors in the piece, to craft the work into something that will not be rejected out of hand. "Is this worth selling?" is a constant refrain that runs through my head and, on occasion, drowning out the more important "Is this worth writing." Fortunately, the latter usually dominates.

One of the NPR programs I follow mentioned that the problem with incompetent people is that they are so poorly schooled in whatever they do that they cannot --not "will not" but "CANNOT"-- see their own inadequacy.  The inarticulate feel that their language skills are equal to any other and the poor golfer usually blames their equipment, the weather, or "having a bad day."  Those who populate the thickest part of editors' slush piles are probably under the illusion that they have penned masterpieces.  Some of these same self-deluded fools (who do not see themselves as either deluded or as fools) foist jillions of poorly written, often rejected, and pathetically edited eBooks on everyone who wishes to get books for low cost or, better yet, free! Some succeed.

"Is this well done?" is the melody that plays against "How would I know?" on a daily basis as I toil to wordsmith text on my writer's anvil.  In the back of my mind are always the frustrating and exhausting doubts and misgivings as to word choice, phrasing, and succinctness.

The impostor syndrome weighs heavily on the mind of every professional, the fear that they will eventually be found out for the fraud they are, that they will be discovered to be not as skilled or intelligent or learned as everyone believes them to be. This feeling is the stuff of three 'clock awakenings in the chill grip of fear and failure, when every mistake is remembered and embarrassment rides high.  Although these waking nightmares can be suppressed the next morning, the thought that you are always one small step from the abyss of disaster never strays far from mind.

Tie all of these themes together and you enter my world of speculative short fiction where the future is ever uncertain, where I never know if the current piece will ever appeal to an editor or even be acceptable by the day's literary standards, much less marketplace.  Every rejection calls the impostor or incompetence question to mind, every acceptance makes me question whether I could have done better, and everything that reaches print makes me worry about it's meaning to the readers.   But none of these doubts and fears stops the writing.

It just makes me work the harder.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Nebula Weekend

The gods convene this weekend to anoint those considered to have produced the "best" fiction in the previous year and give them a heavy hunk of lucite. Mostly the weekend is a chance for the luminaries of the genre to mingle, chat, and drink without fans hanging around or having to race off to this forum or that. I've written elsewhere on my impressions and opinions so I will not repeat them here. So this is my apology for not writing longer as I head off to add my bit to the festivities.

And in so saying I decided to simply add to the post with my impressions of this year's affair.

Fabulous, awesome. entertaining, and exhausting are the keywords.  We had an astronaut and rock star attending along with a galaxy of writers old and young, veterans and novitiates, agents and editors - the wonderful variety that form SFWA and infuse it with wonderfulness. Mike Fincke, our astronaut captive for the weekend, regaled the crowd with stories of being in space and telling many that he actually read their stories WHILE IN ORBIT!! How freaking cool is that?  What we quickly fell into was a mutual squee-fest where he was thrilled to be among writers and we, the poor ground hugging subspecies worshiped someone who had fucking LIVED our dreams.  How cool is that?

Maybe I should stop saying it and just go on with HCIT from now on because the whole weekend was HCIT from beginning to end.

And, by the way, we gave out some awards.

Saturday, May 12, 2012


It is always humbling to hear or see one's interview and have all the warts and blemishes of speech patterns, head movements, and awkward pauses that populate our discourse.  Few people recognize recordings of their own voices, so unlike those they hear resonated in their heads and most are embarrassed at their poor appearance in pictures that are strangely at odds with the one they see in the mirror each day.

Dreams of Earth
 I was recently interviewed as a genre writer by the Maryland Writers Association in relation to an article they were to run in their quarterly magazine.  The interview was wide ranging, touching on the personal, professional, and philosophical aspects of being not only a hard science fiction writer, but a short sf writer at that! I fear I waxed long on some questions, providing more information than asked, and frequently misspoke (and later corrected the errors of fact.) We touched briefly on recent works, such as the eNovel and short stories in magazines and anthologies but mostly spoke of more general subjects.

The entire two hour interview was videoed to ease transcription.  Extracts of key portions were put on line so that those who will not see the article may hear what I had to say.  A lot of this repeats things I've said at various conventions and other venues (One does eventually run out of original things to say, you know.)

All in all, I am quite pleased that I did not make a fool of myself and even managed to speak in complete sentences instead of the usual grunts and "Uh's." You can see me and  hear my voice at:

There may be further segments added later, I'm told.  

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Exploring the New World

There is a revolution in progress and it is probably as significant as Gutenberg's magic press. If you are among the hundreds of writers who are exploring and experimenting in this new world you are already attuned to this.  The problem currently is that no one knows the territory or even where the best paths may lie.  We are all explorers of this new world, it seems.

Historically writers wrote, editors edited, publishers produced, and booksellers sold.  Each of these was a link in a long chain that stretched from writer to bookseller.  That chain defined the industry for years.  Each link depended on the next one on the chain and ceded control to the next link.  Occasionally, some of the links of he chain profited.

Enter the electronic age, the ubiquity of the internet, and the development of cheap, efficient tools for producing reams of electronic text. Suddenly any writer - ANY WRITER!! - can write and compile an electronic version of their work and, what's more, throw it out on any number of outlets for the world to see and, hopefully, purchase. Nirvana, many think, writers are free of the publishing industry at last.  Writers are finally, completely free of the industry chains!

Well, writers might be free, but free do do whatever marketing is required to bring eyeballs and wallets to their work. They are free to have their work copy edited, to have someone design and compose a cover page, to have some soul edit their work if they are not capable of the necessary detachment and objectivity. They are free to decide on layout, font, format, and the crap that is bread to the book's meat - end pages, ToCs, Title pages, and copyright, ISBN, and author information.  They are free to put the work in one of the many distribution chains.  They are free to live or die on the marketability of their words.

Publicity is another issue and not that different from print publication. To bring eyeballs to their electronic offerings writers need to become a media darling - public appearances, hawking their wares on street corners, being charming in interviews, and continually stroking the flames of fandom. Like it or not, people will come because of a writer's interview or appearance for their first taste then, if they like the writing, might buy more. Writers can't sit in dark rooms and write.  Like it or not, we all have to be of the world now,.

Marketability?  Did I mention that writers in this new world also need to make decisions on pricing?  A low price might guarantee a large volume of sales, but would it generate enough income to cover the cost? Conversely, a higher price might be more appropriate, but only if the lower volume is sufficient to cover the cost.  Somewhere between bookstore trade paperback prices and $0.99 specials is the right price - but nobody seems to know what it might be. An excellent presentation from Smashwords describes the pricing strategies and data-driven results at:

An alternative is to provide work for free and depend on patronage through donations.  I recently did that with a novelette and got lots of readers but little money.   Depending on donations is not a very lucrative business model.

So this new world of publishing provides lots of choices that were previously unavailable. Choices that extend the reach of a writer's ideas, that enable more people to read their words.  The choices are seemingly endless and exquisitely nuanced. Choices that eat up time and precious resources.

And every choice steals precious moments from actually writing.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Through Line

Recently I was discussing writing mechanics with some other authors and the discussion turned to the through line concept, an item that I had not consciously considered, probably owing to my lack of formal writing education. The through line, they explained, is that concept/idea/view/attitude that pervades a piece of work and imparts the overall meaning to the tale.

"The plot?" I responded to gales of laughter (well, perhaps a snicker or two) before being corrected. It seems that the plot is the sequence of actions that tie the beginning to the end and allows the reader to navigate the story.  The plot is mediated by the through line, even if that line is never explicitly expressed.
When you bridge a chasm the first action is to cast a stringer line across.  This is the thread that allows the heavy cables, which support the girders, that allow the paving that forms the final bridge.  The through line is that stringer, a line that guides the cables of plot and supports the structure of scene, setting, and characters to trace the story.

You won't see the stringer in the final story, but it is there and as essential as all the other material.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Talking vs Dialogue

Why are we so forgiving of bad language use in conversation and so upset when we see it in print? Is there some part of the human brain that subconsciously translates halting, error filled, and staccato conversational bursts into proper meaning?

We hear real conversations all the time.  Their sentences are punctuated by "uhs" and "ahs" throat clearing, coughs, and disconnected diversions that  usually start with a "by the way" or "hey, do you remember" expressions that signal a shift of focus.  Bursts of speech are seldom structured nicely, parsed into well-formed diagrams, or even grammatical.  No, instead the ways we talk are idiosyncratic, messy, untamed, gabble that would drive our poor English teachers around the bend.

Dare I mention inappropriate or misguided word choice? Or how about the awkward pause when the word you want is there, just on the tip of your tongue but you cannot bring it to mind and stand agape, mouth hanging open as your brain concentrates on the WORD instead of productively working on the idea you were trying to get across. Of course the word eventually arrives, but usually far too late to be effective.

Then there are the jack rabbits; those whose conversational veers take the exchange to ever-new subject areas and seldom loop back to the original conversational thread.  You might start talking about the latest novel by ". oh, and did you know that so-and-so broke up with... she's the one who... you do remember him, don't you, the one with that book whose title I can't recall, but it was like the big one that won the award in Chicago, which is really interesting because when I was visiting Sheldon - you do remember him, don't you, the guy....."  On and on it goes, leaving we more pedestrian speakers with brain fatigue from struggling to chase the meandering quarry and wrest comprehension from its grasp.

But the world of novels and short stories do not recognize any of these human communications modalities.  Instead literature's dialogue is usually grammatically correct, properly structured, and always uses the right word at the proper time.  People in stories rarely digress, interrupt, or even mess up their language unless their writer deliberately and with malice aforethought chooses to savage them to establish a plot point.  Even those who dally with dialect do so in short spurts and "normalize" the dialogue after the character's linguistic foibles have been established in the reader's mind, This latter is done because digression from proper speech always rankles the reader and abruptly pulls them out of the story.

Why do we tolerate so much misuse of language in our daily life yet expect perfection in our stories?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Another Rant

oblivoids |əˈblivoyds|Noun: Person who is not aware of or concerned about what is happening around them:  Origin late American English: from Latin obliviosus, fromoblivio(n-).
You see them everywhere: the driver who dawdles at the light, the person who ignores the turn lane only to dart in front of you at the last moment, the woman who waits until her groceries are rung up before searching for her wallet, checkbook, or whatever, the bank patron who has a lengthy conversation with the teller despite the growing line behind them, the ....

Why go on. We all see them.  We all swim downstream of their inconsiderate effluvia.  We find precious moments of our too short lives wasted as others blithely dawdle in their own ignorance. Who are these people, these time thieves, these inconsiderate bozos who pollute the social accord?

An interesting theory is that, in general, the number of idiots and assholes are pretty evenly distributed in the general population (but apparently not at political rallies or conventions.) If that is true then, if there seem to be more around you than normal, you are probably one of them. Contrariwise, if there are fewer than normal, you are probably one as well. Generally, if you become only occasionally miffed, you are probably not an oblivoid.

But be careful, the opportunity is always there for  you to join their tribe.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Restoring My Metaphoric Draft

They never talk about this at the boat show, that bright moment when you stood on the deck of a glistening wonder of marine engineering, imagining how it would feel to have a brisk and steady wind striking the sail to propel you forward, always forward as  the boat heels to port, and the tiller vibrates under your hand as the rudder cuts a fine line  through the water.  At the boat show you touched the pristine decking, stroked with loving hands the rails, smelled the slight chemical aroma,  and ignored the sounds of money flowing from your bank account as you lusted to possess this wonder.

Your mind casts back to those thoughts years later as each winter's thaw drives you back to dry storage where your boat has sat neglected for long, cold months.  Then there's that stark moment of dread when you see it covered with dust and grime from the winter's storms and fierce winds and realize how much needs to be done to restore your boat to what you saw in that glorious boat show dream.

Reality bites as you start to remove the grit and grime with your wet, cold hands to expose the toll the weather, and the previous year's voyages, has taken on the bottom.  You scrape the barnacles and other growth the boat acquired and sand the hull down to its essentials, patching and filling where necessary before you begin the slow, miserable job of sanding. This is like editing a first draft; just identifying those parts that need work.

If you thought the long and dirty job of scraping and filling was hard it holds nothing to the pains accompanying applying very expensive paint while upside down with a roller that seems as intent on spraying your face as putting a smooth coating on the hull.  This is similar to the successive editing of drafts, working and reworking a section until it flows smoothly.Nevertheless you persevere until the draft and boat bottom are finished.  As you admire your work you realize that all the effort you put forth will be invisible once the boat is launched.

Bottom work completed, you begin the arm-wrenching, tiresome work of compounding the hull to restore luster, polishing to bring out the shine, and waxing to put a protective coat against sun and storm.  When this is done, when the only thing remaining is to launch the boat, you stand back and see that your love is once again, for a few brief moments, that lovely, wonderful object you fell in love with at the boat show.

And ready to sail once again.