Saturday, December 28, 2013

Names, Names, Names

Early on I was advised that one should name the protagonist early in the draft stage and, if you wanted more color, to sketch a brief bio.  The name and background supposedly anchors your mind so the character will be consistent throughout the story. More importantly it forms a bond between you and the character to better understand motivations and behaviors.

But coming up with a name? Should the name mean something, be a reference to something, an allegorical figure, a metaphor, or just a random name picked from the phone book (if they still make them.) Unless you live in New York City the names are likely to be rather ordinary and collecting phone books from around the world would be rather tedious.

What if the story is set on another planet, or in some future milieu where national, cultural, and religious names abound everywhere?  Scrivener provides a nice name tool, but the languages provided are limited.  You can add your own lists, but it is cumbersome to do so and why should you do it for one story?

This was a problem I faced while doing the NaNoWriMo challenge last month where I had Portuguese, French, and German characters, along with a host of Martians.  I wanted to give each of these a national flavor through their names, but did not want something ordinary so I did what any writer would do and hit the web, eventually discovering sites e.g.2000-NAMES.COM that provided all of these and so much more!

There are some rules to naming names: Generally I use irst and last name for the principal characters, first OR last names for secondary characters, and nicknames or attributes for the rest e.g. "the peg legged sailor." Of course the principals have nicknames as well, but that's another subject.


Thursday, December 19, 2013


How long does it take before you stop feeling like a damn imposter?  I've been at this writing business for more than twenty-five years and still feel like the new kid on the block. This should not be startling to other writers as we all compete for the readers' eyespace and are ever striving to provide something just enough better than all the rest so the cold-hearted editors will select ours from the avalanche of submissions. That sense of improvement and friendly competition, together with rejection upon rejection, is what gives rise to this feeling of inadequacy.  When, I ask myself, when am I going to have stature enough to not be rejected every damn time (Well, it seems that way!)

Adding to the frustration is seeing other writers (People I never heard of, damn it) getting into magazines I'd pay to be part of. Worse, their stuff is often brilliant in concept and blazing in execution, quite unlike my pedestrian plots and plodding, overworked text.  How do they pull this off?  What is their secret? No wonder two-thirds of my submissions get rejected.

I look at the pile of incomplete manuscripts cluttering my file space, the pieces that started so well and fluttered into incoherence or worse, banality. I look at those I've completed and were rejected, rejected, rejected, and rejected by editor after editor. You'd think one of them would take pity and buy one of them just so it didn't come across their desk again.  But no: none are so gracious.  Easier to choose one of those nobodies just because its a better story or something, I'd guess.

I know I am not alone with these evil thoughts, that I'm not the only wallflower at the publishing dance.  I know there are other writers that feel this way.  Perhaps we should start a ten step program: "Hello, my name is Bud and I'm a writer."

Hmm, would that work?  Might even make for a nice panel at some pity con.


Friday, December 13, 2013


In my years of corporate experience, in life, and with my writing I  have always found it easier if I follow a routine.  At the simplest level this is always putting your keys in the same place so you need not search for them.  Maintaining a reminders list or calendar postings keeps life orderly and predictable, especially if you can allocate your hours and set priorities.

I find that similar practices of mind work for writing.  Setting objectives and sticking to them is important, as is finishing whatever you start.  Too many times it is easy to abandon a project when the  initial creative flush has faded and the dog work of development has to be accomplished.  Sometimes however one must step back to let ideas mature before resuming the effort.  Of course this requires that you must keep track of drafts, versions, and deadlines in some consistent way.

The most important practice for a writer, I have found, is that you must put your ass in a chair and be writing regardless of how you feel and to do this day after day after day.  It is so easy to put things off, to delay, to find other interesting time-consuming things to occupy your time and attention. It is just as easy to neglect reading to expose your mind to other styles or modes of expression, but never at the price of missing a daily application of tail in chair, fingers on keyboard or scribbling with pen or pencil.

The most important thing is to persist, struggle, and keep writing.


Friday, December 6, 2013


I think my imagine gland has been overused to the point that it lies limp as a wrung-out dishrag at the side of my wordsmithing anvil.  Attempts at new work, editing of drafts, and even trying to write a letter (yes, I still write letters!) seems nearly impossible. The words I produce seem leaden, the phrasing awkward, poor, and downright pedestrian. I struggle, I type, I try to THINK and what comes out is a pathetic dribble, as if my creative prostate has swollen to the size of Texas.  Drip, drip, drip come the words, slow and difficult despite the tremendous pressure I must apply to force them out.

That's how I felt for three days, worried that I'd worn out my creative machine in that imposing and demanding NaNoWriMo challenge last month.  Did I use the energy that might have given birth to a hundred decent ideas in the process?  Had I wasted the psychic energy on a rambling draft of no particular interest to anyone?

Worse, my conservation bug-a-bear, my do-not-waste-your-words ethic impels me to finish the NaNoWriMo thing regardless of its value. "Do the research" my brain says. "Patch up the plot gaps" my editor brain tells me. "Work out the plot to a sensible conclusion" my perfectionist nature insists. "Finish what you start" and "You can't get up from the table until you clean your plate!"  wage war with my demanding ADD side.  Damn my depression era parents for cursing me with their frugality and Protestant ethic and all those nanny teachers who made me this way!

Fifty thousand words sit on my desktop and scream for editing. The task is daunting; an immense mountain of words that is not reasonable to attempt.  But do I have a choice? Did I ever have a choice?

Instead I finished a couple of short stories and started a new one while I think about it.


Saturday, November 30, 2013

Reflections on NaNoWriMo

The day is done, the race is run and my NaNoWriMo sprint has been satisfactorily completed,even though I had to stop with 500 words to go last night so I could finish this morning. Now it is time for reflection on the experience.

What I learned
 One of the take-aways from this one-month excursion into creative writing was that writing the long form seems easier than for short stories.  I enjoyed being able to ignore the boundaries of brevity and  precision that are required in writing shorts.  Being able to divert from the plot to explore the by-ways of exposition without concern for length provide a freedom I did not otherwise enjoy.

I found that my style, my voice, did not change. Sentence lengths and paragraph constructions remained as always for one of my first drafts. I did have to restrain myself from editing and not going back to change this or that scene to keep the whole piece coherent.  The objective was to complete a 50k draft, not to have it perfect (or even complete!)

I also realized that writing without a road map is dangerous and can lead you into blind alleys, unresolved puzzles, and characters whose behaviors vary unrealistically.  One must maintain some idea of the goal of the entire piece, the major arc from which all subplots and narrative expositions dangle like ornaments on a Christmas tree.

What I vow to do next
Now that I have some assurance that word production is not a problem and that the pace can be sustained over a long period,  I might consider writing in the long form to actually produce a novel but only if I also promise to:
1. Establish a clear objective/end state before starting.
2. Perform some research in advance in sufficient detail that major errors are avoided.
3. Block out at least two subplots, but not in detail.
4. Give the main characters NAMES and histories at the beginning.
5. Give myself permission to ignore the previous four items.
6. Vow to finish within a reasonable period of time.


Thursday, November 28, 2013

Crossing the Ridge on Thanksgiving Morn

I usually go for hour-long walks each morning.  The territory around here is hilly, not mountainous but neither do I live on a flat plain. The walks therefore consist of uphill, downhill and level sections all of which I try to take at a consistent pace.  My progress through the month's NaNoWriMo challenge has been a lot like those walks.  I started out full of confidence that my brain needed no prior planning to produce a mere thousand or so words a day to reach the fifty thousand word objective and knew that if I maintained a steady pace I should easily make the finish.

The first week or so I breezed along, believing that the level path I was on would continue with little change. Writing the allocation did not seem that hard and allowed me to do some other, more serious work of editing, creating, and planning after I'd dispensed with my daily obligation.  In fact, the challenge was sort of fun as new characters, settings, and scenes rolled into being without forethought.

Then I hit the first uphill portion; when the lack of a plot began to manifest itself. I found myself needing, inventing reasons for the characters to act as they did.  I needed some sort of narrative thread that drove the story along. I needed drama, action, suspense, and lots of other stuff instead of just ambling down the path describing settings and holding pointless conversations.  Suddenly maintaining the pace became more difficult to the point where I began floundering.  My writer's mind had finally asserted itself and demanded that I produce a STORY, damn it!

I fell behind, terribly behind as I fretted about the story, unable to make my quota, worried that I was not going to accomplish the full fifty thousand words.  I felt terrible. What to write, what to write, what to write drummed endlessly in my head.

And then, as quickly as that, I somehow surmounted the ridge of difficulty and found myself on the downhill leg, picking up speed. Words poured out so quickly that I caught up with the quota and managed to get three full days ahead.

I have no idea of how this happened or why a story suddenly became so clear.  Had my subconscious been scheming to bring all of the disparate elements I'd created into a unified whole? Perhaps, but I won't know that until I finish the piece somewhere far beyond the fifty thousand limit. I don't care. I am ahead of the pace. I will make my goal.

Two more days!


Friday, November 22, 2013

The NaNoWriMo Marathon

There's a warning experienced marathon runners give to those about to run the race for the first time. It's called "The Wall" and it occurs for most runners at different distances, but most often a bit beyond the halfway mark. At this point your legs are in continuous pain, bordering on cramping, every labored breath you take is like inhaling molten iron into your lungs, and your stomach hurts so much that you want to retch. Catherine wheels spin before your eyes within the narrow focus on a spot ten paces ahead that you fervently pray that you can reach without collapsing and, when you manage to reach it, you pick another spot and go for that. But that's all just long-distance running.  "The Wall" is reached when every bit of strength you brought to the race has been spent, every erg of energy has been expended, and your tank of confidence is completely, utterly EMPTY  and you feel like you can.. not...

My personal NaNoWriMo Wall has manifested itself slightly over the three quarter word marker.  Up to this point I thought I was doing fine, pegging better than the allotted amount each day and gradually getting further ahead of the pace.  When I passed the halfway date I was almost three days ahead of the alloted pace, and then I was barely two days ahead, which turned into parity, and now I've found myself lagging behind the pack.

My writer's brain, which had so effortlessly produced material for twenty-two days has suddenly and without warning decided to stop running. The clear path of a steadily unfolding plot has suddenly become hidden, providing me a glimpse of only the next sentence but no hint of where I might go afterwards. Suddenly I have to face the fact that I must actually contrive a plot, conceive a solid objective,  or develop reasons for my characters to have been behaving as they have. Somewhere deep in my unconscious lay the story, not one I had deliberately planned but one that arose naturally from the intersection of character, situation, and setting - the big three - and was now lost, leaving me bereft, breathless, foundering and looking for that gasp of air that might take me another day closer.

I know that my personal race continues and the finish line lies just ahead, almost within reach. All I have to do is dig deep to find that last vestige of creativity that will let me stagger over the finish line of fifty thousand words.  Instead of pushing the story further I find myself dithering with names of characters, places, and cultural artifacts - time wasting fluff for the most part.

So here I sit, writing another God-damned pity piece.  At least I'm writing, but that's scant comfort and does absolutely nothing  to help me accomplish my personal objective.  I just have to put my ass in the chair and keep going.



Friday, November 15, 2013


Every morning I take an early hour's walk before settling down to do my daily duties. The other day they had predicted snow and rain but when I checked at 0630 it was still clear so I dressed warmly and set out to put in the time.  The breeze grew brisk as the cold front was passing through, driving cardboard boxes, papers, and endless drifts of leaves before it and impeding my headway as I set out.

As I was returning I spotted a dark shape rising over the tree line between me and the South River, soaring toward my position.  It appeared to be a turkey buzzard, quite common hereabouts, taking advantage of the stiff wind. His route was toward me but varied as the wind quartered, drifting effortlessly to this side or another, only to return to his main course.  At times, when the breeze was right, he would hover motionless, suspended fifty or more meters above the ground, with only his pinions adjusting his flight. When the wind lessened the buzzard swooped to the side, diving to build speed then rising again to catch the wind from another direction.  I admired the ease with which he followed his search for his meal, the delicate control over elevation and attitude with tail and wing.
Eventually he passed over me and disappeared to the north, disappearing behind a row of houses; gone, but not forgotten.

My current experience with NaNoWriMo is similar to that buzzard's flight.  The wind of plot forces my direction, ever forward and never looking back to find that morsel that will feed the story.  Just like the buzzard, my story diverts on occasion, but always, always returns to the main thread.  Sometimes the emotional feeling of the story rises and falls, the characters grow more complex, or the situations simply arise from the activities they are performing.  I know that somewhere ahead lies resolution of one or more of the subarcs, but its shape and size are as yet unknown.  The NaNoWriMo wind is at my face, ever pushing to complete my task, to build the story, to achieve something I have, before now, thought impossible.

It is wonderful to feel that wind beneath my wings.


Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Game's Afoot

Last week I despaired of participating in the annual NaNoWriMo debacle, wherein writers are forced to face the limits to their physical and mental capabilities by attempting to write a minimum of fifty thousand words in a single month.  To understand how daunting this is you must know that I am a deliberating short story writer who plans every step while trying to define the shape and size of a story at the outset before deliberately filling the empty pages with words, words, words, I thought the idea of attempting, e.g planning, something so long as a foolish venture.

[Flashback] At this year's CapClave Jamie Todd Rubin and I presented two approaches to writing.  My approach consisted of plans and careful plotting while Jamie's Pantser approach was flying by the seat of his pants.  Although there was a certain similarity in the tools we used, the philosophical approaches we chose were quite apart.[/ Flashback]

Frustrated (as usual) by my incomplete novels, the recent impossible demands for editorial revisions ("... but not just now, please") and having made yet another contribution to the collaboration, I decided to throw caution to the wind and just let the words come out as they would.  Perhaps that would clear the mind and allow me to find out what this "pantser" crap was all about while climbing the NaNoWriMo mountain to see how far it might take me. If nothing else it would give me an excuse not to actually work at writing something "good."

I was already three days behind when I made this decision so my hopes were not high that I could eke out more than a page or two - three at the outside - with nothing more than a skimpy outline of a thirty-five scene progression I'd put together years ago when my dreams were larger than my talent. I had no idea of plot, of setting, or background as I read the first scene, which was, in its entirety: "Introduce the characters and give them a purpose."

Thus I began writing a rollicking fantasy quest that soon seemed to be taking place on a distant planet and with steam technology, alien ruins, and ...  I really don't know what comes next because the rest of the progression is replete with non-specific titles e.g. "First conflict" or "New character introduced."  Within two days I'd caught up to the demanding word count and, much to my surprise, was actually having fun as the story told itself to me without forethought.

Which makes me ask myself; have I been a closet pantser all this time?


Saturday, November 2, 2013

The NaNoWriMo Worm

The NaNoWriMo month has come again, like Jason knocking on the door with a creative chainsaw in hand, demanding another fifty fucking thousand words of tribute - OR ELSE! The last thing I need at this time of year is this annual dollop of writerly guilt added to the angst-ridden heap already cluttering my virtual desk.

It isn't as if I haven't been productive. I just wrote a humorous short story while struggling with a collaboration and cranking a dozen new sentences into a revision requested by an editor, as well as going over galleys until my eyes began to boil.  These things take time and each carries a time-bound load of obligation to be discharged. Yeah, that and the random rantings I commit that add to the unfinished draft pile-o'-guilt.

Each year at this time I have a moment of cold reflection and wonder whether I have the fortitude, courage, or willingness to embark on developing more of the fledgling novel I attempted last year (and the year before, to be honest.)  Write, write, write the NaNoWriMo cries while my own worm of time eats at my temporal gut: would the level of risk in expending a month of time and effort on a single novel really worth it?  What is the value of risking that my fifty or a hundred thousand burst of words may never be read by another soul?  

Consider the economics of the situation: would the same amount of time and creative energy be better be spent writing short stories, one or two of which might eventually see publication?  At Rio Hondo Paolo Bacigalupi observed that unless your joy comes from the writing of a long work you should not consider doing it.  But to me, at least the prospect of spending a month writing something that may never touch someone's heart appears pointless.  I have no illusions that any draft I may create during the NaNoWriMo period will be in any way superior to another's or even that it might convey some unique insight on the human condition. Contrariwise, I have more than a reasonable expectation that my quota of fifty thousand words might be more elegantly employed in writing (and editing) short, incisive works.

So, at this point of my life I face a choice: to continue to write short stories in hopes that a few might eventually find market, or to spend my remaining time writing, marketing, and promoting a longer work.  There are not years enough for both so I must choose, and soon.  NaNoWriMo has started and I am already three thousand words behind.

The worm of time consumes the moments remaining and I must use them wisely.


Sunday, October 27, 2013

Population Growth

Where do these people come from?  I start off with a simple story about one (1) named character and set my protagonist off to perform a role, which brings the protag into contact with another, who must naturally be given a name as well - if only so they can have a conversation.  But there are consequences to having a secondary character as either protagonist or antagonist.  These newly introduced characters evoke their own back stories, which give rise to even more characters, more names, more interactions and then they, cascading is a chain reaction, explode into universes and societies, fabled reputations, lies and unpleasant truths, conflicts and peaceable reconciliations.

The simple tale has unleashed a tsunami of consequences.

Yet one must deal with this emerging fictional population. The most economical way some writers deal with it is by assigning names in relation to that player's impact on the tale.  Protagonists always have full names and carry fully detailed descriptions, secondary characters may get first or last names, and sometimes switch between these modes while getting short shrift on the descriptive element.  Characters of minor importance are graced with a single name, nickname, or only an insignificant descriptive passage e.g. "...a gray clad figure, casually glanced."  These nominal clues inform the reader in subtle ways, such as realizing that a fully named character in chapter one must be important even though that person may not appear until much later in the book.

These secondary, tertiary, and other characters often proliferate, scurrying across the pages, exposing themselves briefly before disappearing. Who knows their origins?  Did they emerge spontaneously from the Planck layer of a writer's subconsciousness or are they simply ornaments that decorate the plot? Regardless, they flit around the pages like silverfish in an old pulp mag, bothering the hell out of the curious reader and leaving only the chewed and ragged edges of their impressions behind.

And sometimes, to the dismay of the author, they rebel, grow, and make the story their own.


Saturday, October 19, 2013


Autumn has arrived and with it my annual bout of guilt regarding NaNoWriMo, wherein one promises publicly that they will write at least fifty thousand words in a month. This is supposed to simultaneously   spark one's creativity and eliminate one's internal editor from restricting the flow of words.  Perhaps some who engage in this masturbatory bout of self-abasement manage to create the beginnings of a novel or even finish one.  However, for many, the results are to fall far short of the goal, only to look back and wonder what they were thinking to produce such a stream of drivel that now must be edited again and again before it even achieves mediocracy, much less literary acceptance. I annually fall into this category.

For me NaNoWriMo is an annual call to return to that long novel I have been "writing" for three years. The work now stands at just over 50k edited words with but one third of the story told.  The remaining two thirds of the tale exists as a detailed outline,research material, character sketches and miscellaneous plans for the unfolding of the longer, tripartite epic.  It is daunting to look at the work and feel guilty that I have not fulfilled the promise of that piece but have written an equal amount of other words and even sold some of them.

What holds me back from completing the novel is that I am, at base, an impatient short story writer (who also suffers from PSS.)   I am constantly aware that fifty thousand words is equal to the amount needed to draft  ten short stories, six novelettes, or six novellas - all of which scream to be written NOW and not when the arduous work of writing the novel's middle sections will stretch my patience to its limits.

I always yearn to be finished.   Every time I start writing on the novel other ideas pop into my head - scenes, snatches of dialogue, plots, and even settings, although that is not my long suit.  Humor also raises its ugly head at inappropriate times, drains the drama, and is usually is too funny to ignore.

So I set my loins, determined to write the novel, maybe dash off a short story or two when I need  a break, and, when the New Year dawns I will still be staring at my unfinished novel.  At that point, if history is any guide, I will vow to finish the damned thing -  that is, unless a few short story ideas pop up to distract me.



Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Processes and Methods

I'm coordinating this blog post with Jamie Todd Rubin's so people would get a better perspective.  Last week at CapClave we gave a little (about 90 minutes!) presentation on On Line Writing Tools to illustrate how he, as a seat of the pants guy e.g. Pantser used his tools and I, a dull methodical planner e.g. Plotter, used mine.  Jamie has put part of his Evernote section in his weekly blog, which might explain how those first twenty some slides of the presentation actually looked when presented.

Both of emphasized at the outset that the audience was not to focus on the specific tools we used but rather to look beyond them to the general principles that drove our use. In the presentation we spoke a great deal of our development methods that employed the various tools and the processes we followed from conception of a story to it's publication and resale.  As I said in my Tools blog post, the most important element in both method and process was the creative mind.

What should have also been evident was that both of us, Pantser and Plotter, were both adherents of keeping accurate and timely records as we developed and marketed our short stories, even though our methods of doing so were very different.   Jamie Todd works almost entirely in Evernote while I use databases and diagraming tools - legacy of my consulting work - but both of us finish in Scrivener, perhaps the best writing program ever!

There are dozens of free and not-so-free writing tools out there to help almost any writer, but each has to find the tools that work for them, that free them of the burden and let them concentrate on the most important aspect, which is to write, write, and write!


Monday, October 14, 2013

Pushing Boundaries

There comes a time in every writer's life where they reflect on their work and often wonder what they might have produced had they gone a different way or tried a different technique. This inevitably leads one to wonder if they had become stale and predictable - basically repeating the same old formulaic material time after time.  This then leads to drinking, socializing, and spending time with the family - all to the detriment of their writing career.

Self reflection is often a good thing, something too many fail to put serious effort into.   Pushing the envelope containing your oeuvre is difficult, especially when one has a modicum of recognition in the genre.  It is easy to continue to crank out material based on all you have written before. In fact, mining one's rejected material and failed drafts is an honored practice among writers - where else could you find such gems? But the recycling of tired tropes grants no one grace and can make writing a chore rather than the unalloyed joy it should bestow.

The first time a writer bravely steps out of their comfort zone and attempts to craft something new it is met with failure i.e rejections.  But so was a writer's first submissions.  Better to try a second, third, or even a fortieth time if the goal is to establish a new writing niche.  Perhaps you will discover depths hitherto unknown, a new style, a new approach to developing ideas, or perhaps you will strike the gold of acceptance by appreciative readers.

One can always hope.


Sunday, October 6, 2013

Writing Tools

In the good old days, sonny, long before we  had these new-fangled things like pens and paper we authors would just sit around the fire and tell our stories, or repeat some favorite told by others and usually with some slight modifications to improve rhyme or meter.  The only tools we needed back then were a good memory and a lack of shame.

Things change and now we have keyboards and screens, software and hardware, and the intellectual wealth of humanity at our fingertips. Any one of us could scribe a tale or repeat (albeit in different words) many-told stories. Whether we are successful at this or not depends largely on our level of story-telling skills and our tools - and our lack of shame, of course.

Whoa: TOOLS? What does an author need save some place to record thoughts and dreams aside from the writing tools themselves - keyboards, blank screens, and software (and yes, there is still a place for pen and paper, kids)?  The answer depends on how hard a writer wants to work and the process they use to build the tale.

The finest tool at any writer's disposal is  the ability to plot - to lay out a story in a continuous thread that's easily followed by readers to a conclusion of some sort. Whether you build the plot as an outline, draw a network diagram, create a complex spreadsheet/database, or simply sketch it out on a page or two is a matter or personal choice. There are many free and costly software tools that facilitate doing each these tasks and each requires some degree of familiarity and skill before producing the best results.

Just as a chisel will not turn you into a sculptor, a paint brush an artist, neither will any writing tool somehow grant you magical powers of story creation.

That comes only from your imagination and intelligence.


Saturday, September 28, 2013


So, after a few days of suffering the Between Times, I went back to working on a novel (or at least  a novella)  that I had cast aside for months when the words, scenes, characters, and enough red herrings to stock a fish market, amassed to the point that I found myself as confused as the improbable future reader would be.  The story's chronology jumped around as events unfolded, one scene followed another sequentially when it should have preceded it and flashbacks happened BEFORE the events they described. Characters mentioned events that had not occurred or were not mentioned earlier.  In other words, the manuscript structure was a terrible mess.

I've used mostly databases and spreadsheets to help me plot stories recently, but these seemed of little help to taming this particular ms.  Years ago I often used diagraming to clarify the flow of a story so I thought I'd give it a try.   Visualizing  all the scenes and/or plot points on a single white board, sheet of paper, or computer screen made it easier to discover relationships.  Initially I used PowerPoint and drawing packages until I stumbled on Inspiration,which greatly facilitated both the drawing and arranging aspects.

I took apart the messy WIP and, after I broke out the major scenes and/or plot points, I started arranging them sequentially along an arbitrary time line.  The first thing this did was to illuminate the before and after questions. The other thing was that I could see the relationships between scenes and plots.  Further examination of the diagram indicated what scenes were missing and how I should link them within the story's sequence.  In the diagram below, the color coding of the main arc is yellow, the subplots green and blue, and the material to be written is in pink.

The story is by no means finished, but for the moment I am happy that I have untangled the knot of poor plotting and can now go on to (hopefully) complete the story.


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Between Times

I hate this time, this purgatory of between-ness when my latest (and always greatest) story has been submitted and before the next-great-story-idea impels me to write .  In these periods when my brain is not consumed with a single idea, I cast about, unsure of what to do.

My writer's workbench is covered with incomplete projects, stories that have not yet found a home, and those that just don't seem to work properly.  There are the great  unfinished novels lying about in their not-quite-finished state, waiting for only a kind hand to guide the last 10, 25, or 75 percent of the remainder.  I page through the unfinished drafts, pecking a word, a sentence, a paragraph or scene or two before abandoning the effort and take a stab at another, hoping all the while that lightning will strike, the heavens part, and the great illumination would suffuse the work.

Alas, that never happens and I plod along, pecking, pecking, pecking at dull, lifeless prose, resigned to having the piece achieve high mediocracy at best.

Somehow pieces do get finished, at least finished enough that I can start editing, which is my absolutely favorite part of writing. I love polishing the words, brutally cutting swathes of text or moving them about to more interesting territory, expanding parts where something must be explained and slicing the obvious, banal, or clich├ęd phrases so that the story reads as fresh as if it had emerged fully formed in a conversation. Then I add a few more touches to ensure it is in order and off it goes - another submission launched into editorial review space.

And, at that point, I am once again in the between times purgatory.


Friday, September 13, 2013

Gentleman Broncos (not a review)

Gentleman Bronchos was recommended by a friend, who chuckled as he did so.

I was captivated by the opening credits, something I usually ignore, because they depicted in background the covers of science fiction tales from the 50's and 60's, many of them creations of Kelly Freas and all of whom were viewed again to elicit fond memories. Gods, I even recall some of the stories these covers depicted. Many were covers of Astounding, now Analog, magazine, but there were other covers I recognized as well.  I "rewound" the CD to run through the opening credits two more times, just for sheer enjoyment of seeing those images and still, ignored the credits themselves.

Alas, the movie did not live up to its proud, promising opening.  This movie is about writing and imagining bad SF. It is excruciatingly campy for the most part, especially the movie-within-the-movie scenes.  Even the non-campy parts are cringe-worthy.

My favorite character was the famous writer (Chevalier, played by Jemaine Clement) who is so awesomely full of himself that he is blind to any other talents save his own.  Come on, we all know a few writers (no names, no names!!) like this; pretentious assholes for the most part, preening peacocks who fret and strut, etc. and think their methods, their approaches are beyond reproach.  Chevalier typifies this type.

Was this why he'd chuckled?  I hope not.

There is a rather contrived redemption at the movie's end, but when it failed to explicate the Chevalier's fate satisfactorily I rolled back the opening credits, occasionally stopping at a cover of particularly fond memory, and wishing Kelly were still with us.


Saturday, September 7, 2013


My blog's traffic history is replete with spikes of activity that I suspect do not reflect people who actually read the posts.  Having the map of Russia light up frequently indicates that many of the hits are spambots or worse.

So how can one judge readership?

Comments are one reliable way, followers are another (ten for the first and eight for the latter).  If I assume that only 1% of readers would bother to comment, that leaves me with eighty people who read my weekly posts. Sometimes I'll write something that undeniably appeals to a larger group, such as worrying about  submitting too early, or the Ten Stages of Story Development  I also got a big hit after I appeared at ReaderCon a month ago.

Why should I care about the traffic numbers?  No reason, except to give mean excuse to write this post for my (few) stalwards to read.  But mostly I write these blog posts to please myself, imagining some aspiring writer in a cold garrett seeking consolation that at least one other writer is equally as miserable, but willing to admit it.

But misery should not the predominate force in a writer's life. Instead there should be a passion for words, for the rhythm of sentences, the pace of paragraphs, and the smooth arc of a well-crafted plot.  The true writer is ever in pursuit of the perfect line that says exactly what they want, in an elegant manner, and with an economy of words.  Such a goal is seldom achieved, yet striving for that line, that perfect phrase, that simple yet significant turn of phrase is what impels us to create, to write, and to endlessly submit so that we can reach to another soul and so inform them of life and its joys.

But sometimes, just getting the damn thing done is enough.


Saturday, August 31, 2013


The price of admission to most conventions is sitting on panels to discuss various aspects of the genre. Sometimes these are on a subject you know and have an interest in discussing at length.  Oftimes it is otherwise and you must struggle to utter a single relevant comment. Worse is the situation where you are completely at sea, having no idea of what the other panelists are talking about,  and could care less.

There is a rush when you find yourself before a packed room of fans and beside some of our genre's notables and find that people are actually interested in what you have to say.  Well, at least appear to be interested. I always make a few notes, but thoughts and ideas bubble up during the discussion, which incidentally, often veers away from the stated subject and descends through a virtual rabbit hole into fantastic territory, especially when the panelists themselves get into it.

These ofttimes are the best remembered by panelists and audience alike.

The one thing that I try to hold in mind is that everyone in the room has paid to be there; not only in entrance fees, but for transportation, lodging, food, and a loss of time they could otherwise spend working or doing other things.  More importantly, that they chose to come to this panel over the others in hopes of illumination or simply to watch we trained monkeys perform.  Whatever the reason I always try to respect the audience and give them value for their investments.

Some panelists use the panel to hawk their books, announce new stories, or otherwise promote themselves, but this is the normal quid pro quo between readers and writers.

And one more reason to continue.


Saturday, August 24, 2013

Halfway Through

Elmore Leonard, the novelist who recently died, once admitted something about his writing that shocked me to my core:   "I never know," he'd said, "what the story is about until I'm halfway through."

Wow! And all this time I thought I had a problem about this

The process of discovery, of seeking a path from the initial setup to the epiphany is one of the daunting joys of writing.  Was Leonard talking about where his tale was taking him or was he talking about discovering that the story had already been written in his mind and waited only to be typed into being?  Was his comment a case of the muse --a fickle creature that eludes our most ardent pursuit -- appearing to momentarily grant clarity, precision, and insight OR was it the aggregation of accumulating facts piling up in his mind to reach a fissionable mass?

In my own case I can only compose a story by mounting the menacing production monster and applying fingers to keyboard, sweating words onto the page, and toiling for hours to produce a block of type that might charitably be called a draft.  The production of pedestrian flashbacks, complicated action scenes, and boring exposition is dull and unimaginative until I somehow strike a seam of narrative gold. This discovery provides a thrill like no other, second only to finding that absolutely perfect denouement to close the tale. But my muse provides such grace rarely and leaves me alone to deal with the toil of editing, revising, and rewriting to make the story appear as if it had been produced effortlessly.

So, yes!  I guess that I too occasionally have had that moment of discovery "halfway through."


Monday, August 19, 2013


One cannot live life in a dark room, writing, writing, and writing forever and so, one must occasionally venture out to the gatherings of the clan at a genre convention.

I have to admit that I am not completely comfortable at conventions. Mostly this stems from my dislike of crowds, the noise, and the clamor.  Worse is the smell of desperation given off by my fellow writers who are desperate to sell copies of their latest novel, are seeking an agent, or trying to convince a publisher that their next book will be better than the last, despite what the critics might be saying. The short fiction writers mostly hang around the edges, ignored by all.

Equally distasteful is the conviviality of the typical con party where one must put on a happy face and listen to the most inane pronouncements of the garrulous crowd surrounding the free food and drink. I dislike party rooms packed thirty deep by fans who cage snacks wherever they can.  Give me quiet conversations at the bar or in some quiet nook instead.

Worse still is the dealers' room packed with unread books by writers I've never heard of, all of which beckon tantalizingly on table after table, providing an overwhelming feast of potential reads that I know I will never be able to consume.  Worse, with so many good writers producing novels in endless profusion, what chance have I of reading them all, much less selling one of my own?  I usually leave the room with less than I want, poorer in pocketbook, and depressed in spirit.

So why do I go to a convention if it is so uncomfortable?  I go because it gives me a chance to meet my fellow writer face to face and chat about the business. It gives me a chance to meet new writers or those who I have always wanted to meet and whose conversations always exposes me to new ideas and opportunities.

Better, it makes me feel like a god-damned WRITER!


Saturday, August 17, 2013

My WorldCon Schedule

Because there is so much SFWA work and meetings to be accomplished in San Antonio I have signed up for a relatively light panel schedule.

Wednesday August 28: Arrival
Thursday, August 29,  0900-1700:  SFWA Board meeting
Friday, August 30, 1100:  SIGMA panel
Friday, August 30, 1400:  Accessible Hard SF
Friday, August 30, 1700: Kaffeklatch
Saturday, August 31, 1000 - 1200: SFWA Business meeting
Sunday, September 1, 1130: Reading

If you will be at any of these, or run into me elsewhere, be sure to say hello.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Process, process, process

I usually follow a rather structured process to develop a story once I get an idea in my head (which only happens three or four times a day, usually someplace where I can't write it down, and frequently having nothing to do with whatever is happening at that moment.)  Sometimes I can retain the idea long enough to write it down and, if it works, expand it a little.

Once I decide to work with an idea I'll write a page or two to expand the thought and then think about where that thought leads me.  Then I write some more, sometimes chronologically, sometimes just exposition, rarely an ending, or describe a setting. The result is that after a few hours I get a thousand words (more or less) of rather messy text.

My next step is to put the text into Scrivener and break it up into scenes.  I then add notes about the missing elements in each scene: character(s), setting, and/or time stamp and maybe expand those notes into narrative.  Then I look at what I've got, figure out what's missing and populate those scenes with a sentence or two.  I repeat this as many times as I need.  Sometimes I build a scene just to complete an arcs or add emotional complexity. All the time I am fiddling, moving the cards around to get the optimal pattern for the story.

When I am satisfied with the structure I begin writing each scene in detail until all the cards are filled with narrative, dialogue, or exposition.  Usually this process generates more scenes or breaks an existing one into smaller parts. The point is always, as I said in my blog on Scene Theory, to confine each scene to a few characters, a definite setting, and at a specific time.

I usually go through three to five drafts, occasionally on paper, before I send it to an editor.

I've discussed process with other writers who use very different approaches. Many sketch out some text and build it brick by brick, unsure of where the story is going and then, when they reach an end, go back and write it correctly.  Others write unimpeded by consideration and type whatever comes into their silly little heads for hours on end.  Some like to compose the entire story in their head before committing fingers to keyboard.  A few anal retentive types prepare detailed outlines, going so far as to delimit each entry to represent a paragraph of the final story.

And a few liars swear that their stories emerge fully formed in the first draft and need no editing whatsoever.


Saturday, August 3, 2013

Writing Advice

This entry marks my one hundred and sixty posts since I started this blog!  When I started writing this string of rambling prose I never imagined that I could be this garrulous.

The blog began with a promise to myself that I would post something every single week, but not spend more than ninety minutes on it and not a nanosecond more. As Lord Kelvin once said in response to a criticism , "Speed of attack preserves one from errors that arise from excessive contemplation." So too with me: I would rather be called out for a mistake made in haste than confirming that I am an idiot. Now I spend less than half that amount of time.

My original intent was to use this blog to explain, mostly to myself,  how and why I do this strange writing thing in my dark and lonely room  and thereby expiate some of the mixed emotions that accompany creating and delivering a decent story.   Later I thought that, along with this process of sometimes excruciating self examination, I'd pass along a few helpful hints based on my own idiosyncratic experiences. To my utter surprise I found an audience eager to get an insight into my [miserable] writer's life. What's more I learned that my concerns were more common than I imagined.

Aside from my blogs about the self-doubt that always surrounds me when I write, the most popular blog for a long time was my Ten Stages of Story Development that I later modified with Step Eleven of the Ten Step Process when I discovered ten steps were never enough to finish a story. I also documented going through the process in my January and February 2011 blogs just to show that the process I outlined could be followed to produce a salable story (it did!)

I've also mused about the joys of story acceptances and the pain of rejections, rejections, rejections. I've talked about plotting, submitting too early, and all the little demons that afflict all writers regardless of experience (What! You thought you were the only one who had these problems?)

All things considered maintaining the weekly blog has been a healthful and satisfying endeavor for these hundred and sixty blog posts.  I hope you  found them helpful, if only to know that there is someone out there equally suffering from the writing affliction.


Saturday, July 27, 2013

Response Times

A writing acquaintance recently complained that an editor who normally responded in days was taking an excessive amount of time to get back to her on a submission.

This might seem a casual remark on the face of it, but it speaks to a more fundamental issue between we writers and the editors who hold the power of life and death over our fragile prose.  To the writer suffering under a slow response from one editor means that the next editor on the submission list must wait even longer to read the priceless words forged with sweat and tears on the anvil of the writer's desk. That delay propagates  down the list  until it finally, blessedly reaches a receptive audience and, hopefully, produces a check at best and copies at worst.

For years I have tracked the response times of editors so that I can predict when to expect a response to a submission.  I hear from some within a few days of the predicted time. Others are less predictable and some, sad to say, simply don't bother to respond at all -ever! These last heartless bastards populate the absolute bottom of my list and are given an arbitrary sixty day turn around time.  If they fail to respond on a later submission, they get a "forget it and fuck you" message. Well, that last bit is a lie - one must always stay professional, even to the assholes.

Rejections are a fact of life for short fiction writers.  The output of most of us far exceeds the capacity of the market to absorb.  All but raw beginning writers understand that rejection is no verdict of unworthiness but that that particular piece was not meeting the needs of the editor at that time

I would not be surprised to find that the balance weighed heavily in the hundreds to one ratio of rejections to acceptances.  There is a vast reservoir of unpublished stories by well known writers that will never be read by their fans simply because of "not right for us" evaluations.  This treasure will fade in time as if the words were never written.

The problem with a delay in response sometimes gives rise to the hope that the story might be "under consideration" which is the best scenario but agonizing for the writer, who then feels like a fool when the rejection arrives somewhat beyond the window of expectation. It doesn't matter how many sales a writer has made, how many times this particular editor has said something encouraging, the rejection when it finally comes, is devastating.  Worse, there's nothing a writer can do about it.  We all understand that reading through hundreds of submissions takes time and editors often have other matters to distract them.

But a little consideration of the writer's business might help.


Saturday, July 20, 2013

Literary Merit, Altruism, and Friendship

The fast approaching close of the Hugo ballot marks the end of the speculative fiction awards season after recently passed the Seiun and Nebula ballots, not to mention the other seven major awards.  It is no surprise that the lists of finalists include many of the same works.  It is an honor to be on any of these ballots and and achievement to be a finalist.

It is no small feat to keep up with the genre, not when hundreds of new books are produced each year, print magazines arrive daily, and the e-publications proliferate like a viral plague. There are only so many hours in the day and, for the working writer, time taken to read anything detracts from their writing time. One must ignore the cries of children and abandoned friends if they are ever to make even a small dent in their pile of books to be read.  Worse, all your writer friends send you books, lovingly autographed (which makes them unacceptable as donations to the local library) which accrue to the already unread pile.  Even with the best of intentions no one can encompass or even come close to reading the entire output.

As an eligible and reasonably conscientious voter my aim is always to select the best work of genre fiction based on literary merit, inventiveness, and that nebulous "sens-a-wunda" that imbue the finest speculative fiction. Knowing how difficult it is to create stories my admiration for a skillfully produced work demands recognition.

I read what I can, finish a few books a month, and strive to stay current on magazines, but it's a losing battle. As a result, when the ballots arrive, I look at the finalists and try to find something I might have read and frequently find one or two.  This induced guilt sets up a frantic effort to read all of the finalists before the ballot closes, searching through the pile to find those that appeared in yet unread magazine and lacking that, obtaining copies elsewhere. The novels are daunting to complete so I usually attempt to read at least a quarter of the way each through before moving to the next, promising myself I will later return to finish that book, which results in so many books with slips of paper marking my place.

Comes the time to vote and I find myself in a quandary.  Clearly some of the works are better than others but is literary merit enough?  What if two of the candidates are people who have helped me along the way or are good friends? Should I vote to support my friends or give yet another award to someone who  has already received an earlier one? Should I select a new writer who might need a boost in their career or throw a vote to the grizzled veteran who deserves something, for God's sake?

My final decision only easy when the work itself is of such outstanding merit that no other choice is possible, but that rarely happens given the quality of most of the finalists.  In the end, the ballot choices I make are erratic, sometimes choosing for this reason and sometimes another.  I am human and I vote both rationally and emotionally. I think I am not alone in this.

Which is why the ballots are not so much a competition as a compromise of principles.


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

ReaderCon Impressions

I was absolutely thrilled when I got an invitation to ReaderCon 2013 and considered it a mark that finally, at long last, somebody knew that I was a writer - Wow! It was enough to convince me that it might be worth driving the nine exhausting hours to get to Burlington and ReaderCon.

I usually go to the Nebulas and WorldCon as well as local conventions within reasonable driving distance,  such as Confluence, CapClave, Balticon, and Ravencon. There the audiences are modest and mixed in terms of ages, sex, and fannish intensity.  For some insane reason I expected the ReaderCon crowd to be much the same.

Was I ever wrong!  First, the numbers of people attending the panels were much larger, attendees filling all the seats while others stood around the edges.  I have never felt myself under such intense focus as I did on my few panels.  Like a rabbit encountering a fox, I became nervous by the laser-like stares of the audience and their terribly intense INTEREST. At most cons people are just listening to their favorite author's voices and waiting for an opportunity to have a few words, ask a question, or obtain an autograph.  Not so at this one where the audience poured toward the panelists like a surging tsunami of queries.

I was only a panelist on a few sessions and had a hard time deciding which of the others to attend. All were above average in content and focus.  I also learned that I am not alone in bewailing the vows of poverty that we writers must take for our art and the loneliness of working alone in a darkened room.  This is a solitary occupation, let there be no doubt. Adulation and rewards are far too few, it seems.

What was more interesting was that everyone seemed to be people of the book and voracious consumers of the written word in both print and electronic form. From the number of ReaderCon attendees taking copious notes and the quality of questions being asked I suspect there was a high density of English majors.  Surprisingly for me, the sessions seldom (and thankfully briefly) veered off into media territory.

And the writers!! OMG, I spoke to all my heroes and met most that I knew only by their names and stories.  Writers I knew but had not yet met seemed to know who I was (always a surprise) and some of the fans even mentioned stories I once wrote.  These little things might not seem like much, but I was fucking THRILLED!

It was well worth the drive.


Saturday, July 13, 2013


Collaborations are works writers create when they either feel they need to learn something new or just wish to provide a richer narraritive that would otherwise be possible should they do it alone.. It simuiltaneously exposes your working methods yet opens you to new possiblities.
 My first collaboration did not turn out very well, as Jeff Kooistra and I began battling over characters, plots, and scenes by trading drafts over eMail.   After a while, and 90,000 words later, we decided the plot had become so convoluted that it couldn’t be resolved.   We abandoned the effort with no hard feelings since our objective was for me to learn to write better dialogue and Jeff to improve his exposition. 
My second collaboration, with Sarah Zettel, produced a story that got on the final Nebula ballot even though she dropped out of the work soon after the work began, but after we had developed the characters in some detail.
Cat Ranbo and I are now are working on a fusion piece titled "Haunted," which looks as though it might turn out to be a novella or novel, given the amount of material in hand and the depth of the story we've outlined.  

 We’ve been working on a Scrivener project in DropBox.  We first sketched out an outline, changed that into a semi-narrative Story Line, modified that with a few more ideas, and then turned each micro-scene  into corkboard cards* and began inserting words on our chosen cards/scenes.  Currently I am driving Cat batshit with my endless tinkering with the meta-story, structure, metaphoric parallelism, and chronology**. When I get back from Readercon it will be her turn to drive me crazy. 

 I tend to plot a story in fair detail and then try to write scenes in sequence while Cat more or less writes in huge, messy, and random blobs that she can later mold into smooth text. Currently neither one of us is looking carefully*** at what the other is doing since we want to get as many ideas written down as we can.  In addition, both of us are trying to match the other’s process to achieve some measure of synchronicity and, as far as I'm concerned, working outside of the structure seems to be working for me.  At the moment we have a mess of roughly sixteen thousand words and have only half the cards filled out!  Both of us also have stuff written off-line that will eventually get pasted into the cards.  

At some point a few weeks down the road we will call quits to this first round pre-draft foreplay and begin arranging the material in a sensible order (we’ve laid out the cards in chronological order, but that may/might/will change when we start pounding out a first draft.  

After that we’ll really start writing the story.

* We color the cards to show who did what.
**I’ll admit I’m a bit anal, controlling, and impatient, but that’s no reason to think I’m hard to work with.
***This probably seems insane unless you know us.


Friday, July 5, 2013

Convention Boobs

I have deliberately restricted my posts on this blog to the agony and ecstasy of writing as a way of life and steered clear of the swirling controversy surrounding the science fiction "community."

Today, I read a post by Mahenia Delvenni that seemed to conflate SFWA with offensive convention behaviors and obliquely reflected on several parallel discussions with the SFWA community.  I am not defending any point of view but I think the air needs to be cleared a bit for those new to the writing community and/or conventions.

Let's be perfectly clear:  The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) holds only one (1) convention per year and that is the annual Nebula weekend during which we honor the best and brightest writing in our genre.  The Nebula Weekend is the ONLY SFWA-sponsored event that fans can attend.

All, and I repeat ALL other science fiction conventions held around the world are organized, managed, and conducted by groups of dedicated fans.  SFWA members may attend these as guest panelists, to sign autographs, or just schmooz with their fans.  This may give the appearance to the uninformed that SFWA as an organization is somehow involved in the convention. In actuality, SFWA has nothing to do with the way any convention, up to and including WorldCon, is run nor does the organization have any authority over the bad behavior of attendees at these conventions.

Do not distain SFWA for the behavior of a few ignorant boobs.

Those wanting to have a career in the genre would be doing themselves a disservice should they choose not to join SFWA and avail themselves of the many relationships that can be forged there.  The community has a long history of paying-forward by veterans to new writers.  They will also learn that the organization is not an "old-boys club" as some have inaccurately termed it; we have four women and one senior citizen on the SFWA Board of Directors, the Nebula ballot this year was packed with female writers as well as those in non-traditional relationships, of different national origin, and religious dispositions.   SFWA members are a multihued and varied group who are expanding the boundaries of the genre with every word they write. As an often contentious group the members nevertheless talk out their issues, ask the Board to make a decision when they can't, and abide by the results.  SFWA sometimes makes mistakes but when it does, more often than not, we work hard to repair the damage.

That's what a professional organization does.