Saturday, February 22, 2014

Forcing the story

I've been working on a short story for weeks, rewriting, restructuring, and rephrasing  to get it "right."  Nothing seemed to work. I kept having a problem with resolution and the characters' motivations. Or maybe  it's the dialogue, or the setting, or the asides, or the ....  Too much, too much! It seems that everything's a mess and when I smack one problem down another rises to confound me.

I keep asking myself at what point do I stop trying to force a frustrating story to behave and toss it in the trash. It's never been a yes/no decision: nothing ever is.  Instead there are always shades of gray, stages through which a story must pass before it reaches its final (and probably unfinished) form.

I frequently abandon the first draft resulting from my enormous enthusiasm for an idea. Seized by the concept I write like a fiend until... I can't think of what might come next.  Usually, I put the draft aside and move on to something else for diversion, promising myself to return later, after my mind clears.  For days I toy with the idea of just hitting the delete key to send the draft to oblivion and give me headroom to write something else.  Except there's already too many "something else's" on the desktop.

A few days ago, I realized that  this particular story was NEVER going to go as planned!  No matter how long I would try to pound it into shape it would never, ever end. I could write a weak,  facile ending, but then the story wouldn't be worth the time already invested.  What to do, what to do?  Should I cut my losses and dump it or do something else?

In a sudden fit of self-examination I realized that I'd been trying to force the story to a predefined conclusion instead of letting it tell itself.  I was letting let my desire for structural control to overcome whatever natural story telling inclinations I might have. Did the story want to be a tragedy or a comedy?  Was I allowing my characters to act honestly or was I making them march lockstep to a predetermined destiny?

I decided at that point to let the story grow naturally from its beginning and let the characters' actions and conversations take me where they wanted to go.  In doing so, in releasing the tight controls, each character became their own creation and together, they led me to a place, a time, and an emotional resolution that I never envisioned at the outset.

Last night the story became itself.


Thursday, February 13, 2014


A rather short collaborative novella is in the wild at present, the result of a six month collaboration between Cat Rambo and myself.  Cat recently commented on collaboration in general and our attempt in particular. This was my third attempt at collaboration:  Jeff Kooistra and I attempted a novel when were raw novices at this game and I later did an experimental flash-ish story with Ramona Wheeler.  Those early attempt taught me dialogue from Jeff and brevity from Ramona.

Cat and I decided on doing HAUNTED on a whim at last year's Nebula award ceremony. The ground rules were that we would use Scrivener in a shared DropBox folder and take turns working on successive drafts.   We'd periodically archive each draft that encompassed a complete story as a Word file, but continue to work on the draft within Scrivener.

At first the two of us wrote scenes without consulting about where the story was going, letting our words speak of the concepts and directions.   I tend to write fast when the muse sits on my shoulders and found it extremely frustrating to have to wait (and wait, and wait, and wait) for Cat to finish so I could get my hands back on the controls.   I have to admit that I cheated on her by sometime writing scenes while I waited and then sneaking them into my next draft.  Neither of us made this collaboration our main focus and continued with other projects as we worked so delays were inevitable.

Cat contemplating the arrangement
 By using Scrivener we were allowed to move scenes about and independently insert new text or reference material.  We met at WorldCon after we archived version 1.0 and physically moved the printed scene cards about the table top to get our story's structure "right."  This was the first time we could discuss whether the story should unfold to the reader sequentially or in time-shifted vignettes.

With two active imaginations at work it was inevitable that our original short story idea would morph into a virtually unsaleable thirty thousand word novella.  Eventually common sense prevailed and we whittled this overwritten monster down to less than 20K words.

On balance I thought the effort was well worth it.  I learned a lot about Cat's style (and more about my control issues than I cared to know.)  I hope my writing has improved as a result.

And gaining a new friendship ain't bad either.


Saturday, February 8, 2014


Someone commented on how I seem to be depicting only the miseries of being a short fiction writer instead of describing the rewards that naturally flow from the effort.

I apologize for dwelling on the bad aspects of trying to write something I think as worthwhile (and, less frequently, salable.)  Yes, there are bitter disappointments - fewer now than when I was learning the craft. Back then I expected the setbacks of any beginner.  Even after I'd achieved a measure of writerly skill I began to realize that I frequently failed to communicate with the editor and/or their potential readers:  Facile writing must be paired with an interesting vision/concept if it is to be published.  Having a plot or at least an objective, as I've learned, helps a lot.

The practice of actively creating, the process of putting down the words to say something, has its own pleasures. Getting the daily allocation completed gives me a sense of accomplishment, even if the work is incomplete.

I have fifteen or sixteen drafts open at present and about thirty pieces that I think are worth publishing, despite every freaking editor in the world saying otherwise.  Each of these started with a spark of an idea, was brought to flame in an initial burst of creativity (and not a lot of forethought in some cases) and then became smothered by the weight of successive drafts before it was left to smolder on the desktop. Someday, one of these embers might be brought to flame with a breath of inspiration, which is why I occasionally play with them and, once in the while, slog along to bring it to the point where I'm not embarrassed to submit it. Until that time each one screams daily for attention and prays that I might be blessed with the talent to bring it to full flame.

Eventually, despite the procrastination, the disappointment of successive drafts, and self-doubts enough to sink a battleship, the hard work of producing a decent manuscript gets completed.  When that happens I sit back with satisfaction and bask in the wonder of having created it.

And with that feeling of accomplishment, I feel joy.


Saturday, February 1, 2014


Throughout the development of this blog stream I've agonized and complained about my rejections, my miserable depression with every setback, the loneliness of being a writer, and my inability to achieve the level of success of my peers. While schadenfreude might have been entertaining, airing my agony on this blog stream has not relieved these feelings (well, a few pieces did, but not all.)  At times I've wondered if I was clinically depressed or simply have such low self-esteem about my writing ability that I am unable to take joy in my few successes.

Then I discovered an article that appeared in Slate about the friendship paradox and it became clear that I could blame my feelings of inadequacy on other writers. It's their fault that I feel so badly!

It is all in the way we (and here I mean "I") perceive others' efforts.  I am We are not usually privy to other writers' rejections, failed drafts, or abandoned stories.  Very few writers of my acquaintance openly publicize these things, much less talk about them. They no doubt think (as do I) that by resubmitting endlessly, keeping the unfinished drafts on their desktops, or holding onto fragments they keep hope alive that these will eventually reach completion and that some day, an kindly editor will tire of seeing the story reappearing in their slush pile and offer a few cents out of mercy* just to take it out of circulation. We (and here I mean "I") hope so.

Or maybe I should just get some new friends?

*If such editors exist, please let me know because I've got a boatload of stinkers to send them.