Tuesday, January 31, 2012


My plot is a muddied mess, the words are leaden, and the less we say about grammar and spelling the better. Such is the state of the current draft, an ill-conceived porridge of random thoughts strung together in a rambling, unfocused, stew of half-considered ideas concerning something I promised to think about later, after I finish this current scene, that is. Some time, anyhow.

Facebook beckons during a lull in brain function and I see that two of my fellow writers have stories coming out in the next month and one of them reports casually that she is writing another complex novel that might take her an incredible three months to finish due to the book tours, GOH appearances, and lunches with her editor and agent.  Were that I was half so successful.  This makes me consider an early morning trip  to the liquor cabinet, but I put a CD movie on instead and forget the blow to my ego for a few hours.

I've always felt like an impostor as I struggle with this word-smithing business.  I find myself lathering excessive attention to words that should come, were I a real professional, so easily. I sweat over the simplest of sentences and marvel at the facile strings of phrases that others produce.  I struggle with plotting, labor at syntax, am unable to assemble a believable scene, and am crushed by emotive writing of any sort.  I know that my few sales have been more the result of dogged determination (and a lot of luck) than any native talent and wish with all my heart that I could match the ease with which others produce their stories.

Did I mention the fear that lurks at my side, that clenches my typing fingers in its cold grasp, that whispers in my inner ear that one day soon I will be found out and unclothed as the fraud I am?  This phantom anti-muse suggests that the editors who see my submissions secretly chortle at my typos and giggle at my infantile attempts at exposition.  This unfriendly Auntie Muse instills within my heart the absolutely certain knowledge that I will never, ever be as good as practically everyone else who gets published. It tells me that I am a fraud, and impostor, and destined to remain a failure.

I try not to show this inner doubt as I show my public face at conventions. I fight to appear competent, fearing exposure the whole time, and seek the company of other writers for comfort, thinking that perhaps a little of their obvious literary capability will magically cling to me.  It is a futile hope.

It is only later, when I talk to other writers in the dim, dark afterglow of a day's round of fora and discussions and in the fading glow of, camaraderie, we speak of what it means to be a writer and what it takes to live that sort of solitary life that we reveal our inner selves.  In the midst of our talk of philosophy, of markets, of ideas I discover that they have heard their own Auntie Muses and honestly, sincerely believe that they are the only ones who have to work their ass off and all, every single one, believes in their innermost heart that it is they who is the impostor.

"The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else's highlight reel" -- Steven Furtick

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


I have few pretensions about being well-known, although I have achieved a slight measure of recognition by selling a few stories here and there.  I even get invited to the occasional convention as a panelist, although I doubt it is because of my sex appeal or sparkling repartee but rather because I usually show up on time, have never tried to kill another panelist or audience member ( and believe me, I have been SORELY tempted) or dominated the discussion.  Maybe they just ask me because I don't cost much, don't smell, and don't pester the con committee.

I've been writing in my spare time for almost twenty years for various magazines and anthologies; I've even completed a couple of novels and put together some POD and Kindle collections.  Yet, in all that time, with all that I've had published, I've gotten only minimal, nearly insignificant, feedback from anyone other than editors.   I also get faint praise from other writers and have the courtesy not to ask which story of mine they've actually read so as not to embarrass them, just as I appreciate not having to lie in return.  But hearing from editors doesn't count as meaningful feedback in my mind, especially when it takes the form of "Thanks, but we can't use this one," which is less than encouraging.

But from the readers I get nothing, unless it is someone complaining about a tenth decimal place inaccuracy of some obscure science fact, which usually makes me want to start writing fantasy or horror instead of hard SF.  In twenty years I've received three (3) letters saying they liked my story and perhaps fewer eMails with similar words.  Three!  Over a twenty year period!

Other writers might perform well in isolation, anchorites all who need not hie to the popular taste, but I want to know what my readers think - did they enjoy this or that, was it worth their while, what could I have done differently, how did I fail to gain their interest, and what would  they like to see improved?  These are important questions for me --hell, for any writer--  and without input I can only continue throwing literary darts in the dark, hoping to hit a target I can neither see nor understand.

It is so frustrating!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Talent or Doggedness?

Years ago I had a discussion with Mike Resnick about the role talent plays in writing. His contention was that anyone could produce a work of salable prose with enough dedication and effort but that it took real talent for writing to consistently do this time and again. What differentiates the talented amateur from the professional writer is the ability to consistently produce acceptable works on demand.

I seem to fall into the talented amateur camp myself, although I have produced stories on demand a few times in my career.  Mostly, though, I nibble away at an idea, draft a few pages, ponder for a period, then either abandon the effort or continue on until I become bored or run out of ideas about where to go next.  This pattern of behavior results in my always having a dozen and a half partial drafts lying about that I return to when some fragment of an idea for moving it forward occurs to me.  Sometimes, bored with whatever I happen to be working on, I will pick up one of these drafts and edit it a bit more,  Sometimes when I do this I get a sudden burst of intellectual energy and am able to move the piece further toward completion. This is not behaving like a professional writer. There is no consistency to my production.  I could set up a schedule, but having tried that in the past it simply doesn't work for me unless there is an actual deadline facing me.

When there is no deadline (usually for a rewrite request) I find that I can manage no more than a couple of thousand words a day of finished prose.  When I am aflame with a new idea I can crank out more than that as rough draft.  I can cover a lot more words when editing although, truth be told, it's usually more cutting than adding new material.  In general, though, I usually just doggedly plug along - good days and bad.

This lack of discipline has consequences.  If I apply magazine word rates (A remarkable rate of $0.06 per word on average) my productivity rate might generate about $140 an day, which is not bad if I sold everything I wrote.  However, my sale rate (mentioned here a few weeks ago) has been a disappointing 19:1 ratio, which turns my selling rate into $3.60/hour - an amount most sweat shops would be embarrassed to offer.

So why do I have this doggedness despite my minimal talent?  Part of the answer is that a simple acceptance notification provides a greater thrill for me than the tiny check that usually follows, often months later.  I doggedly continue to write because I get a bang out of creating stories and refining my rough drafts into something acceptable. It is the golden promise that I can always write something better that drives my dogged determination.

And maybe that is my talent.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Story - More Thoughts

I just completed a novella that started out as a short story, grew because it needed better definition and detail, compressed because I consolidated some characters to make the relationships less confusing, and then expanded again as I inserted internal and external dialogue, after which I used a editing machete to hack away irrelevant portions, rearrange scenes, and polish to a fine (to me) finish.

Throughout the process I had a single goal in mind, a decent outline to follow, and engaging (to me, anyway) characters. The entire time I was drafting I believed I was explicating the plot in my head. I adhered to my original outline, even thought I was continually chopping portions off, shifting parts of scenes back and forth, and trying to keep things in temporal order (for once, no backstory!)  The story was to be straightforward, simple, and explicit.  No hidden meanings, no agenda, and no social or political viewpoint I wanted to push: My idea was to just write a simple adventure story appropriate to my audience.

But only after I put it aside for a week and re-read it did I understand what the story was really about - not the actions nor the world in which my characters inhabited, but the overriding sensibility, theme, or whatever you call that which permeates the text like a ghostly shroud and influences every phrase and word choice.  I discovered that I had apparently created rather more than intended.

Nancy Kress in her wonderful book Beginnings, Middles, and Ends stated that only when you are finished writing can you really understand what your story is about.  The writer's task, she then advises, is to then imbue the text with appropriate metaphor and symbology to reflect your new understanding.

With this admonition in mind I reviewed the story and discovered that I had not been consistent with my new understanding and, as a result, I might have a better story if I insert or nuanced key parts of the text before submitting this particular piece to the discerning eyes of editorial review.  In the end I was well-satisfied with what I had done and proudly sent it forth to sink or swim in editorial waters.

I think I should include a write-up of this process as Step Twelve of my mistakenly and hasty blog: Ten Stages of Story Development.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Story - a Crafty Sequel

I started this blog as an effort to explain writing to myself - it was to be a journey of discovery and, like all journeys, I've occasionally wandered off the intended path. It has produced a number of interesting conversations and the discovery that other writers share my confusion.  On the other hand, I have learned that there is a level below which I lack even the faintest glimmer of understanding and when I try to grasp the answer I find my hand full of mist.  Is there something about writing that can be quantified or is there really magic in what we writers do?

A couple of weeks ago I spoke about the role of story in writing and said "... telling a good tale isn't about simply writing properly; it's being able to craft a story."   That comment, in turn, started me thinking in  about what I meant by craft.

The obvious first step in crafting a story is to have a plot - an engine that moves the reader from point A to point B and eventually to the ending.  Crafting that plot means deciding on some overriding purpose - that which motivates the characters or causes the story's wheels to keep turning. The craft of composing the plot is to divide the story into intervals - building a series of scenes that comprise an arc.  These scenes do not necessarily need to be contiguous or continual but should in some way support the overall arc.  Some writers get away with digressing from the action but it is generally not a good idea, especially in short stories.

Crafting the right details for the story is also important.  A writer should provide sufficient sensual detail (sight, smell, sounds tastes, etc.)  to allow the reader's suspension of belief, but not go so far as to challenge their sensibilities. Less is often better than more.  This not only applies to what is physically happening in the tale, but also should be applied to whatever imagery or metaphors that might come into play.

But the bare bones of plot, characters, actions, and all do not a story make.  Quite apart from the driving purpose of the story a writer usually has a different purpose in mind when crafting the story, perhaps to make a political, social, or scientific point.  Often as not, the writer's purpose is never explicitly stated but comes across in their word choices.  The placement of trigger words in the text often betrays the writer's intent.

I doubt that I've accomplished what I set out to do in this short essay to explain the craft of story telling.  Maybe I'll come back to it some day in the future after some of these thoughts coalesce.  Until then, I have to get some writing done.