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.