Sunday, December 27, 2015

Reflections on a Year of Writing

Well, December has arrived once again so it is time to prepare my works for the archive once again.  Each year I amass all the papers surrounding my writing together with a CD of my writing files containing all the drafts and stories, regardless of whether they've sold or not.  There's a LOT of unpublished stories in those files, some good, most bad, although to be honest some of the latter category eventually moved into the sold column - go figure.

Engaging in this preparation forces me to review the past year and assess my progress.  The statistics get messy because a story sold this year might not appear until next, just as those sold in 2014 didn't get published until this year.  Also, how do I account for those Schrodinger drafts in circulation, who might be sold or not, but are as yet undetermined?

Here are the statistics as I count them.  I wrote about a jillion words, counting revisions, and sold just ten short stories, only four of which have been published so far.  At the same time, two stories and an article that were sold in 2014 finally saw print.  Still on my workbench are four novels; two at the 90% point (I hope), one languishing in first-draft, another completed and looking for reviewers, and six short stories varying from three to twenty thousand words, or I should say planned to be that length or maybe they'll turn out that way despite my best intentions. Like the Schrodinger cats in circulation the rest of my workbench is in a perpetual state of disordered foam from which (p)articles appear from time to time. Such as my recently published novel: DISTANT SEAS.

So why do I feel so dissatisfied with my writing? Is all of this effort merely to salve my ego? I certainly don't think I continually hit on some social theme or pound on a political message, but that's up to the critics to remark upon after I am long gone.  It surely isn't the money or acclimation for I get damned little of either in return for the effort.

So, at the end of the year I am at the same place as last - frustrated at my failures and deathly afraid that someone will realize how great an imposter I've become.


Saturday, December 12, 2015

Finishing Up

As the end of the year approaches I'm struggling to meet my self-imposed deadlines.  With only three plus weeks remaining and Christmas coming the time is so short I despair of meeting them all.

I did finish one of the short stories as planned two weeks ago and another this week.  Both have been sent it off, leaving about four unfinished shorts on the workbench, but they are not scheduled until next year, which is only a few weeks away, alas.  I did vow to get one of the three WIP novels to a point where it could be reviewed and am pretty close to finish, that is, if there ever is such a thing as "finish" in a writer's lexicon.

Paul Levinson once remarked that novels are more frequently abandoned rather than finished and I now understand what he meant.  I am so sick of one of the one I've nicknamed "Plotland" that I just want to put an end to it. I've tried but then realized that some of the tangled threads needed resolution and had to deal with those, only to find that action introduced further complications, and...  You get the picture - Chinese boxes all the way down.

So in the next three weeks I have to bring another of the novels to a close. Write the final chapter, discover the conclusion to the plot, and resolve the as-yet unresolved subplots. Where did all this complication come from? I set out to write this as a short story, only to find that my muse, that interfering bitch, wanted more, and yet more and I've had no choice but to satisfy her insane desires.
How will I ever get everything done?

I still do not know if this was a good year professionally or not. The middle of December is when I start pulling together material for my archive deposit at NIU and looking at the royalty statements and checks to see if I earned enough at writing during this year.

Maybe enough to order extra fries.


Sunday, December 6, 2015

Backstory Issues

In the latest revision of the draft novel I needed to  give the reader a lot of history to explain the importance of a fifteenth century artifact and the forces surrounding its possession through the years until the present day. At first I thought this would be a simple matter, a couple of flashbacks here and there.

In the first draft I put a long explanatory section at the beginning as prelude.  Later, I had to inject yet another bit of history, but rather longer. Then there was the third.... Well, you can see where this is going.

In the second draft I pulled all of the flashback material out and to my amazement discovered that it was a bit over ten thousand words in toto.  That's a big lump of backstory that has to go somewhere, and rather too much to be handled as footnotes.

For the next revision I tried putting little snippets between certain chapters, originally thinking I could make them all less than a thousand words but only later to see that that limit would split the more interesting parts strangely. For continuity some of these intermediaries would be well over the thousand word limit while others would fall woefully short.

I even considered putting the whole backstory in an appendix, but worried that would remove the facts from their relevance. I even considered putting superscripts here and there and keying them to an enumerated appendix, but dismissed that as too confusing for the reader.

So the question that remains is this: Is there a good way to present a lot of backstory that doesn't bore the reader and take them out of the story? Is there a rule I could follow?

And after writing for twenty-five years, this writing business never fails to present new problems. When will I ever learn to do it well?


Monday, November 30, 2015

Flashback Issues

My Works in Process do not usually unfold in a straightforward manner where one scene follows another  in a lock-step, chronological  manner.   Instead a character sometimes reflects on something that happened in his or her past, recalls a characteristic they have struggled with, or notes the resemblance of a new acquaintance to another. These are a type of flashback that briefly flashes into being and can be handled by a single phrase or sentence.

A few stories ago I had a long scene flashback that actually depicted a recollection in detail. I injected this to highlight an aspect of the story and illuminate the plot point.  I debated putting this reflective discourse at the beginning, along with all the other flashbacks in an orderly time sequence but decided that this approach would make no sense to the reader,since it would be a hodge-podge with little immediate relevance.

The problem I've always had with this latter type of flashback is that they can go on for too long or become non sequiturs that have nothing to do with the main plot.  Sometimes theses take on a life of their own, such as details about the workings of a fictional gadget that does little to illuminate the motivations of the principal characters. Yet, when the reader needs to understand said gadget, it is necessary to supply sufficient context complete enough to prepare the reader for the scene.

A worse case is where my flashback requires yet another flashback and I find myself pursuing matryoshka dolls of exposition that draws the reader further and further from the progression of revelations.

One way I could have avoided flashbacks was to inject reams of explanatory exposition rather than take the viewpoint to an earlier time to do this. Exposition is great, but IMHO, too much of it bores the hell out of readers.  I've always thought that it is better to take the viewpoint character to that earlier time so the reader can experience the unfolding event itself rather than be lectured on it.

So the question facing me now is the question of when to use a fuller flashback as opposed to a long exposition. My first drafts usually contain lots of flashbacks, most of which are edited into other scenes that appear elsewhere in the later drafts.  I always fear that using too many may be my subconscious telling me to start earlier instead of where I've chosen to begin.

This might not be a big problem for other writers but it is one that bothers me a lot in writing a short story where there isn't much room for either digression or reflection.


Saturday, November 21, 2015

Plotland's False Promise

Sad to say but believing I had achieved the Plotland peak turned out to be a misinterpretation for, when I looked around, I found there was more of a climb than I ever knew.

In the last two weeks I've managed to add another fifteen thousand words to the novel I thought was "finished" just a short while ago.  I still haven't reached the "end" of my Plotland journey, which is where I can have some certainty that all the threads have finally been tied off, although my life seldom has any threads that can be knotted; many come unraveled and push that narrative further.

I didn't set out to resolve all the plot lines, nor did I anticipate how many there would be. Neither did I imagine that a single, small detail would loom so large at what i thought was the end and require addressing explicitly.

Honestly, I set out to write a short story, that turned into a novella, and then into a small (unfinished) novel, each agonizing step of the Plotland saga described earlier on these pages.

Now I am at a stage where resolving that tiny detail will require going back and "adjusting" the preceding eighteen chapters, changing some events, and introducing new pieces to explain the explanation that seems to have developed.  I seem to have fallen into an iterative loop where alteration of any detail is like stepping on a God-damned Jurassic butterfly.

This is not a new phenomenon for me; I often fiddle with short stories, moving the furniture around to get the right effect, or even introducing bits where  needed.  But doing with with something as long as a novel feels different: there are so many moving parts, so many actions and results, and too many characters mucking about instead of behaving properly.   If I hadn't written another short story this month I probably would have gone insane. But then, being alone in a dark room with only your imagination and muse as company does sort of put me in that category

Do all novelists go through this agony?

Sunday, November 8, 2015


And I'm not talking about well-formed sentences, grammer, speling. What I want to discuss is composing a story - how the draft scenes are rearranged to make the finished piece as powerful as it can be.

Certainly the first step in writing is establishing a theory of the story you wish to tell - the message, theme, or whatever. It is what the story will be about. Will it be a metaphor or an analogy?  Is its intent to amuse, befuddle, or inform?  Those might not be uppermost when trying to spell out the tale, but even if you aren't conscious of it, it will be sitting at the wheelhouse as the writing progresses to craft, often wth difficulty, plot, characters, and settings.

Eventually you will have a completed first draft on your hands - messy, rife with errors, poorly written in part, and probably confusing as characters' names change, settings become chaotic, and parts wander off into territory you hadn't intended, but were dictated by events or are the product of your inattention to the theme.

The second draft (at least for me) is where the composing the story comes in to play. Suppose your draft is chronologically sequential with each scene following a preceding one.  Where is the most powerful scene?  I doubt it will be at the beginning - that's where the sequential origin would logically be.  Should that be at the end?  What is the second most powerful scene - maybe you could begin there and move that origin scene(s) to be used to better effect as a flashback later in the story? Is the high point of the story buried at mid point?  Maybe that would work better as the epiphany, which means other parts can become flashbacks or forewarnings, it's up to you.

Those are just examples of what I go through on every damn draft, moving the virtual index cards around until the story has the shape and 'feel' that looks right. Sure, it's subjective, but then, isn't the entire story a matter of personal choice.


Saturday, October 31, 2015

Writing's a Dog's Life

While cleaning out my bookshelves I found Peter Mayle's two Provence books  (A Year in Provence, and Toujours Provence) and decided to reread them.  I found them as amusing as before but more importantly I found this remarkable statement*
 "There is the constant doubt that anyone will want to read what you're writing, panic at missing deadlines that  you have imposed on yourself, and the deflating realization that those deadlines couldn't matter less to the rest of the world."
And that is my thought on this beautiful fall day as I sit in my dark office trying to schedule the mess I have gotten myself into.  My usual evasion strategy is to start another project when I become stuck.  This has resulted in having several pieces within a few thousand words of completion and only two months left before my self-imposed deadlines: two new novels**, a novelette/novella, and a short story***

I can hear you scoff: "A thousand words is nothing" or "A day's work at most."  But to me these are very, very important thousand words that will reward the hours a reader will spend on the earlier parts.  This requires careful structure, inspired phrases, and the emotional appeal to the reader's sensitive nature that I constantly fear I cannot, will not, deliver.

Which is why I am going to weed the garden, shop, or play with the cats.  I am going to do this because I suddenly thought of another story I need to write and I need to drive that out of my mind because NaNoMoWri starts tomorrow.

*Remarkable only in that it didn't mean anything to me when I first read it.
**Well, they were new when I started
*** This one has a real deadline


Saturday, October 24, 2015


There is a curse among professionals of all sorts and it is called the imposter syndrome.  In its simplest form it is the mistaken belief that someday everyone will discover that you present a false exterior and when that occurs your career and reputation will be lost forever.  I've seen this fear among scientists, managers, and even proclaimed experts.  It is also a curse I have carried my entire professional life.

I recall with fondness the John Clease bit where he explains that incompetent people rarely realize their incompetence.  They do so not because they are stupid but because they fail to understand how superficial is their  depth of understanding. We've clearly see this in many debates and arguments where one party or the other has little appreciation of their opponent's expertise.

The reason for the impostor syndrome is that anyone who has attained a truly high level of competence finally understands how little they know.  The incompetent, on the other hand, believes their partial knowledge is complete and little else remains to be known.  Sometimes in an argument  it is the one with the most doubts about their own expertise who gives way to the intransigent, who often has an unshakable belief in their command of the subject. The incompetent rarely fell doubt about their own certainty.

But where does that leave us who only think they have the imposter syndrome when in fact they really might be imposters? Is there an imposter imposter syndrome as well, like the foolish kid who believes everyone is amused by his antics and doesn't understand the response he gets?

Could I have a double case of imposteritis?


Monday, October 19, 2015


I do love my cats - both of them. True, but they'd don't do a lot for me; perhaps one or the other will lay on my lap if none other is available or willing, neither do they enhance my writing by stepping on the keyboard or insisting I let them rub their heads on the corner of  my precariously balanced laptop. Still, that's marginally better than getting an  unexpected head bump while holding a hot cup of coffee or deciding to rub against my leg while I am stair-stepping.

They are in my office at the moment, one holding a paw over her eyes since I refuse to turn  off the desk light while the other lounges on the floor behind a chair rather than in the comfy cat bed I stumble over each morning in my pre-coffee confusion. Soon one of them will leap onto my lap to disrupt whatever chain of thought was inspiring me

I run the equations of our relationship as follows: I empty and clean their litter boxes, sweep  up the litter they insist on kicking out, feed them on a regular schedule, and manage to painfully press their unwilling bodies into the fearful carrying bag for periodic visits to the vet only to see them leap into said bag the instant they are released.  I also provide room and board, turning me into little more than their boarding house servant. In gratitude they ignore me and treat my wife as if she were their dear mother, for God's sake.

Now, let's look at the other side of the equation and what I get in return; they sleep twenty-six hours a day, insist that I get up at an ungodly dark-oh-thirty hour for no discernible reason, and yowl pitifully if I miss their meal times by more than twenty milli-seconds.  Their claws leave indecipherable  graffiti on our leather furniture and produce LOTS of hair, which I find in my food, clothes, and nose.  I often wonder how much cat  hair I will ingest over their lifetimes.

Yet they do offer companionship of a sort -alerting us to invading crickets, flies, and the presence of that damn chipmunk outside (they ignore the squirrels, which I suspect is a case of tail envy.)


Friday, October 9, 2015

Being the Scene's Hero

With CapClave imminent I  am preparing for the panels I will be on by sketching a few notes. I favor this literary convention because it is so kind to short story writers like me.  That's a big deal since I am seldom recognized at the big cons, not that I am besieged by groupies or anything at CapClave, but I do get to talk comfortably to my peers.

Someone recently interpreted one of my recent blogs to mean that I was becoming a novelist to the detriment of my short stories and implored me not to go that route.  I assume  he thought that there might be a magic switch that converted one's writing impulse from short- to long-form.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Actually it has taken an act of will to continue plugging away on the two novels I have almost finished ( where have you heard that before?) while demands for short stories land on my desk.  Rather than plunge into those semi-obligations I chose to give them an hour's thought, sketch out rough outlines, and identify where I need to do research before turning my attention back to the Plotland challenge I've been struggling with for the past year.

My take-away on the remark about my blog is that I have finally confirmed proof that I have a FAN!  Who would have guessed?  For years I've been plugging away under a cloud of anonymity, thinking that my editors, who occasionally buy a piece or two, were the only ones who judged my work, and managed to ignore the existence of the readership they served.

Not for me the GoH gigs, the book signings, the free drinks provided by editors and agents, or the coterie of young fans eager to have a morsel of wisdom from my lips.  I am ignored at conventions, have to introduce myself to the program committee, and usually sit alone in the bar to occasionally chat with some better known writer.

But the recent encounter made me realize that maybe most authors feel this way. Sitting alone in a dark room with nothing but a blank screen before you makes you feel that way.  Perhaps I only see the adulation of the moment for others and not the long stretches of disinterest between.  Perhaps we are doomed to "fret and strut our hour upon the stage and then be seen no more"  Such is fate.

But it's nice to know that someone actually likes my stories.


Thursday, October 1, 2015

Reaching the Plotland Pinnacle

I am not sure whether I should feel a sense of exuberance of finally reaching the goal of my Plotland adventure or deal with the exhaustion I feel after slogging through so many, many words. Even though the final version is modest in comparison to many novels (and meagre when compared to most epic fantasy tomes) it nevertheless feels like I've been transporting an enormous weight.

I estimate that I wrote at least four times as many words as made it into the (hopefully) final draft.  Many of these words were scenes later cut as unnecessary, or passages poorly written or plotted, but the majority of lost words were the result of changes wrought by rewriting, rephrasing, and otherwise manipulating the text until it satisfied my standards for what the finished story should look like.  Maintaining a certain style was an element as well, but mostly it was just endlessly dogged rewriting.

I am certain that my short story habits forced me to pay more attention to the impact of each sentence, each phrase, and each turn of the plot.   I am never one to apply needless descriptive ormolu to my passages, instead wishing only to provide the exposition as clearly as possible so that the reader's imagination can paint the picture they wish.  As a result, the completed novel looks pretty tight. 

Anyhow, the writing portion of the journey is now complete, at least for the moment. Now I must change gears, put on my mendicant's garb, and beg the attention of those who determine what gets into print.

I fear this next part of the journey will be the most difficult.


Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Anticipated Delays

I suddenly realized that I've been ignoring the production of short stories for the next year because of my preoccupation with a pair of very different novels. These still have to go through several revisions before they reach an editors desk - probably years, given the pace of publication. Self-publishing or Small Press might be quicker, but neither of those can give you the reach of a large publisher and their distribution chains.

This is one reason I try to maintain a steady stream of shorter works.  It doesn't earn as much, but it does keep one's name alive. But even short stories face delays.  The actual publication of a short story appears long after its creation, sometimes a year or more.  Thus unless I have finished a dozen by this time nothing of mine will appear until late 2016 at best and sometime in 2017 at worse.

The delay is due to a number of factors.  First, just getting a story finished, reviewed by a friend, and submitted often eats up an entire month. Even sending the story to the proper editor takes a long time.  Even my favorite editor takes nearly three months to let me know if my submission is accepted or not. If the latter, then I have to go with another editor who might take even longer to respond.  After acceptance there might be changes requested by the editor to make it more acceptable to his readership, dealing with the eagle-eyed copyeditor, and reviewing and correcting the galleys before the  magazine is printed and distributed.

Obviously if you pin your hopes on a single story it  might take years and years before it ever reaches a single (but hopefully more) reader.  The strategy is to maintain your production, turning around rejections as quickly as you can, and getting a steady stream of pieces going out.  Most of what you write will be rejected again and again until you either put it in the trunk or sell it to someone who does not value the worth of your words.

But a succession of short stories requires a refreshed mind and, after concentrating on the novels for nearly a  year, it is hard to get back into thinking in more abbreviated forms.  But a new copy of Discover has arrived simultaneously with Analog and Asimov's so I am hopeful that some inspiration will arrive shortly after.

And with it another short story or two.


Saturday, August 29, 2015

Plotland Journey nearly complete

Just as one is pleasantly tired at the end of a long hike or run, so too is the novelist when penning the final scene of a novel that has been labored over for too long.  Behind the valiant novelist lay the swamps on indecision, the tangled paths within the plotting wood, and being lost in the long barren deserts of resolution.  Throughout the journey the novelist has kept an eye on the end, ever seeking the distant mountains of completion where one can pause and look back on the path they have taken, recalling with bitterness the diversions that made the road so difficult to follow.  There on the mountain the novelist can at last breathe a sigh of relief.

But the intrepid novelist will discover that the mountains of completion are not forgiving.  They care little for your past stumbling, discordant steps, your endless frustrations and the malaise that infected you thorough the seventies. The mountains ask only that you scale the terrifying cliffs of penultimate draft review, clawing from one tenuous scene to another, avoiding the landslides of contradiction, trying to establish handholds where style alone will not overcome plotting or characterization mistakes, and getting a firm foothold on the sequential order of time, place, and character.

Finding ones way through the treacherous mountains is a daunting task, taking more than half the time it took to initially cross Plotlland's wastes.  But you somehow manage to fond our way without slipping and falling into the fearsome chasm of abandonment.  You surmount all the pitfalls to reach the foot of the final climb and there discover that you are still a long way from the peak.

Between you and that peak lies the fissure of completing final draft, the chasm of beta reviews, the shaking bridge of endless corrections, and the wayside inn of drinking and sobbing.  After that, after the absolutely final, --FINAL God damn it!-- draft you still must navigate the huge boulders of rejection impeding your work's ultimate success.

The long journey almost makes a novelist wish they hadn't started working on the next one.


Saturday, August 15, 2015

Speaking of Writing

Five months ago I felt a sudden, terrible pain in my shoulder that later turned out to be a torn rotator cuff.  X-rays and MRI showed that the rotator muscle had completely atrophied and, as a consequence, the humerus was now nearly touching my scapula. The only cure would be a shoulder replacement which I did not want to do so I've been in intensive therapy to strengthen the other shoulder muscles to compensate.

One of the consequences of this has been an inability to type for more than a brief period. After an hour or less the increasing ache becomes such a distraction that further concentration proves impossible. I thought I would experiment with the on-board dictation software, something I had previously ignored. Even though dictation would be slower than typing, the ability to throw down words for longer seemed an acceptable trade-off.

Te first thing I discovered was that dictation caused me to think before talking, a characteristic that I fail to mind on occasion.  Where before I often typed a sentence or two and then modified it, I now found that I had to compose each sentence in my head before speaking. I also learned that I had to speak more slowly and enunciate more clearly to overcome my mid-east-coast accent.

But those were just mechanical considerations. The more important thing that I learned was that dictating changed my style of writing, especially with dialogue. The dialogue I produced seem to resemble natural conversation, or at least the literary conventions about conversation (that in no way resembles reality.)

I also discovered that my sentences became shorter and have fewer subordinate clauses. My speaking vocabulary seems to be more meager then my typing or reading vocabulary. Nevertheless, the quality of prose produced* reads better than my usual material.  Of course, that is my subjective opinion of my own writing and not that of whatever editor reads the piece and renders an objective opinion. Whether these changes raise my hit rate above the pitifully low numbers (20%) I normally experience or not remains to be discovered.

One of the benefits of the experiment is that I am able to produce more words per session then I was doing by simply sitting in a dark room thinking, plotting, typing, and editing without speaking. The other benefit is that by doing this I am less tempted to spin off and read emails, scan the Internet, or do any of the hundreds of distracting efforts that impede my writing.

I do not think that dictation will ever replace the hard work of editing, correcting, and rearranging text into a finished peace. However, for initial conceptualization and just getting the story down in concrete form, dictation seems to be the best way to go.

Not to mention easier on the shoulder.
* Regrettably, the number of misspelled words has remained 
constant but now I can blame the software.

# SFWApro

Friday, August 7, 2015

Getting Off the Stage Gracefully

Eventually, after months of pounding out sporadic, confusing, and often contradictory chunks of writing, my mass of words has begun to coalesce into what looks like a  novel - sort of.  I've got the characters fairly well defined, the scenes have become consistent from one chapter to the next, and everyone's names have finally settled into their final forms (and spelling.) After arranging the various chunks into an order of presentation and plastering over the plot holes it appears that I have managed to compose a more or less complete story.

Or have I?

In the final part of this tale the protagonists, having achieved their goals, are standing around, shuffling their fictional feet, and making small talk and wondering what they are supposed to do now that they've strutted and fretted their hours upon the stage.  Do they simply shrug and exeunt stage right?  Do they perform a dance, recite the major events to remind the readers what a great time they had?  What to do? I don't have any horses on which they could ride into the sunset. What to do?

The novel can't just end abruptly and I refuse to use an afterword chapter to talk about what later happens to my characters since I'd feel as if I was letting the reader invade their (fictional) privacy. Characters deserve to live their own lives, you know.

I can't be the only writer with this problem of how to wrap things up gracefully, at once rewarding the reader with something they can savor and, at the same time, telling them that this bit of fiction is over, thank you, and please don't let the door hit your ass on the way out.  I'm starting to suspect many of those who write serials do so because they can't figure out how to prevent an awkward end that lets the characters get on with their (fictional) lives off stage and in private.

Plot resolution was easy, but crafting a proper ending is proving to be hard work.


Saturday, August 1, 2015

Signposts Along the Plotland Trail

The most recent issue of The SFWA Bulletin contained a Michael Bishop quote that I paraphrase here for emphasis. "...No one writes a novel, but instead writes segments of a novel that may eventually become the novel initially imagined..." He goes on to say that a writer should concentrate on writing good scenes that will be knitted together to comprise the work.   Others have told me that no writer ever understands what their novel is about until it is done.

I take this to heart as my struggles with the novels under development writhe and squirm under my fingers, the characters and plot struggling to wrest the story in directions known only to them.  Meanwhile, in my role as shepherd and breeder I attempt to steer them away from dangerous marshes of uncertainty where they may become eternally trapped.  Sometimes a character wanders far afield from where I intended to take them and I must send my sheep dog of editorship to bring him, her, or it, back to the fold.

That then is my failure.  I've attempted to take the story to a specific end instead of merely concentrating on achieving the next narrative quarter mile (0.402336 km) as Bishop states. Perhaps I should emulate Chaucer and his band of storytellers, revealing one interesting episode at a time while nevertheless continuing onward to the cathedral of completeness and see where that takes me.

Perhaps it will lead me to virgin country or, at least, as satisfactory conclusion.


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Me, Me. Me

All of us act as the principals in our own little life stories, ever seeking resolution and seldom finding it.  Life, I mean and, for the purposes of this blog - WRITING!

Sitting alone in our darkened rooms or isolated at some coffee shop we dream of fantasy realms or advanced civilizations, the far future, or an imagined alternate now steaming from a very different past.  We fly through clouds of imagination and soar above the mundane even as we wrestle with the dull mechanics of grammar and punctuation, of refining prose to razor sharpness, and turning the ordinary into the fantastic.  The pieces we create through our writing are unique to us; something the Universe  has never before beheld.  Each completed piece  is a shining achievement that we can treasure, at least for a moment before exposing it to the cold world.

That editors and publishers fail to appreciate the bits of genius we present, that they sully our dreams of perfection with petifulmonous quibbles and objections, is a mark of their ignorance.  Don't they realize the I-ness of each piece?  Don't they see that no one else matters, especially those whose skills at the word-smithing game are woefully deficient?  No, no, no.  They do not.

So how are we to deal with the mundane publishing world's ogres, of their refusals to acknowledge the wonderfulness of what we create?  Do we curse the darkness of their souls, inveigh against the debased values they place on the written word, or do we demand that they take note of our existence? The latter usually produces few to little results.

And so we scribble ever onward toward oblivion, unrecognized for the genius within us, our revealed souls torn from our fingers.  It is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing and when we are gone so too are all that we dreamt, all that we did, all that we said.  But the words live on.

At least the published ones do.


Sunday, July 5, 2015

Scouting Report from Plotland

Sorry I've been away so long but with the nebula 50th anniversary in closing out SFWA’s books for the year I've been too busy to update you on my continuing saga of exploring Plotland. On the plus side I've managed to get draft 3.5 of the novel completed so I only have to edit the piece two or three more times to find out were all the plot holes appear, correct misspellings, brush up the dialogue (a LOT!), research a few facts, and clean up the flow before I can ship it to some beta readers (any volunteers?)

Doing a much longer piece then my usual short stories has been an experience. I found it hard to concentrate on a single piece for months at a time so it has been tiring, mostly as a result of trying really, really hard NOT to work on the other stories languishing on my to-do pile. As a result 2015 will mark a new low for my usual output of twenty or more stories. On the plus side I managed to sell a bunch of pieces that I wrote in 2014 and see the publication of my make-up novel Distant Seas.

The biggest difficulty in writing this long piece has been trying to keep all of the subplots and characters in their proper places, figuring out who knows what and when they knew it. Giving the characters depth and personalities was more involved then I would normally do for a short story.  Without the help of Scrivener I would have been lost my way time and again. Scrivener made keeping track of scenes, vignettes, and research so much easier.   Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad to take some time away and work on... WHACK!  WHACK!  WHACK!

I'll never learn.


Monday, June 1, 2015

Nebula, Nebulas!

The Nebulas!

I said this a few weeks ago, but it bears repeating. The fiftieth anniversary of the Nebula awards, awards granted to writers BY writers for literary and genre excellence, starts just two days from now. Two days!  Holy crap, that means thee and me need to schlep to Chicago so we can watch the current and future famous congregate and try to figure out this new, NEW world of publication.  Should be interesting for fans, beginners, and established professionals alike to see people being handed large chunks of plastic, bronze, and paper in recognition of their efforts.

But I said that before at this piece on the Nebulas!


Friday, May 22, 2015


It's funny how the mind works.  After struggling with this short story that became a novelette, then a novella, and seems now doomed to wind up as a short novel for nearly a year, I can finally see the end.  Not the ending but the end of the struggle to escape the entangling plot threads that I'd wound into what appeared to be a Gordian knot.

Oh, I tried to engineer my way out of the problem(s) by plotting scene upon scene, layering details, and expanding explanatory material, throwing in flashbacks that later became explicit scenes, but appeared earlier in the story, and then just writing to be writing while hoping that I could weasel-word my way to a decent conclusion.

None of it worked and the more I attempted to extricate myself from the tangle, the tighter the  knot became. What to do, what to do, what the fuck to DO?

So I introduced a new character. Yeah, the dumbest thing I could do.  That introduction threw in several skeins of interactions, dialogue, and settings, that screwed up the plot even more.  Just what I needed was gathering more rope to tie around my hopelessly tangled plot. "Throw it away,"  I screamed and tried to convince myself to just give up and write something --anything-- else. This is my normal reaction to frustration and has resulted in a basketful of "something else's." Instead, I took a few days off to clear my mind, step back, and then look at the mess from a reader's perspective.

That's when something clicked.  Suddenly I saw how to untangle the knot that was holding me back, the critical knotted cord that tied everything else together.  If I tugged here, unwrapped that there, and combined those vagrant pieces of frayed rope, and then wrote another thousand word string on the nature of belief I could create something I could work with.  At this first draft stage a story doesn't have to be good, or even readable.

It just has to be done.


Sunday, May 10, 2015

Pantsing vs Plotting Redux

To be perfectly clear, the discussion on pantsing vs plotting has been ongoing since our first fateful discussion at Capclave.  Since then we’ve given several talks on our differences at various science fiction conventions. If you are at one of these you might drop into our panels to perhaps get a more detailed explanation of how we use our writing tools for pantsing and plotting  .

Jamie Todd took exception in his blog  at my characterization of his approach to writing and, like the typical pantser that he is, failed to appreciate the nuances of my objective assessment.  Case in point, he said:

When I try to plot out my stories, the result is stories that are too neatly plotted ….[these] stories I write organically, without planning every step of the way, have sold faster, and in general been more successful than those that I have carefully plotted out…… Would a music teacher say that it is a wasteful to practice your scales? Would a medical school professor tell students it is a waste of time and talent to intern?
The reason his attempts at plotting fail is that he takes things to extremes.  One does not lay out every mile of a road trip before leaving the driveway.  Instead one identifies the major landmarks, estimates the distances, and ensures that everything is properly packed in advance. The essence of plotting is to identify key scenes that lead the reader to a satisfactory conclusion.  He further accuses me of being one “who plot everything out ahead of time.”  Which is a gross mischaracterization: I merely plot the key points, identify the emotional highs and lows, where humor might play a part, and when bathos or pathos is useful.
He goes on to declare the inefficiency of pantsing, including articles to bolster his numbers instead of confining the argument to writing short stories.
I haven’t missed a day in 656 days now [and have] written 575,000 words ….prior to writing every day, I sold 1 story on average every 3 years. Since my writing streak started, I’ve sold one story or article every 45 days.
To counter that I would point out that Jamie started submitting stories in 1992, coincidentally the same year I began writing again after a fourteen- year hiatus.  Since then I’ve sold about four or five shorts, novelettes, or novellas each year plus produced several novels (some of which were actually published.)  Since I only sell about 20% of what I write I would argue that the two of us are equally productive*.
To be honest our differences are those of scale. While I like setting  up scenes in advance I never know what my muse wants to say until I reach the scene knowing only the character, setting, and the main thrust of what must take place.  Jamie says:
Plotting out things ahead of time has the same effect on me as talking about my stories: it spoils the excitement of the story.
In that sense I am a plotter only at the design stage of development and fall into pantser mode at the development level.  I usually return to plotting (as described in my Ten Stages of Story Development blog post and in a recent SFWA Bulletin article) after the first draft.  This most often involves rearranging scenes or parts of scenes and cutting, cutting, cutting precious words that do not inform the plot. Words are my children and I regret losing a one even though I often see the necessity of doing so.
In the end I must say that although we differ in doing our initial drafts we both use a mixture of plotting and pantsing where and when needed.  In that sense, we continually struggle with how to best harness our muse to do the difficult work of crafting a good story from the raw stuff of imagination and creativity.
We’re writers, damnit!
*I know that sort of spoils my efficiency argument.


Saturday, May 9, 2015

Pantsing vs Plotting

I'm sharing this blog with Jamie Todd Rubin who will probably rebutt my descriptions from his blog.

We will start as storytellers are wont to do by reciting a bit of history about ourselves and this discussion.  It started in a bar at Capclave when we were talking about how to write short stories and realized that we approached drafting our stories somewhat differently.  To put it simply, Jamie writes by the seat of his pants --which is akin to running with scissors IMHO-- while I choose the wiser and more prudent course of carefully plotting my works.

Jamie throws words down at a prodigious rate, striving to produce a MINIMUM of one thousand words a day.  This would give him three hard SF books a year or one and a half fantasy novel were those 365,000 words useful.  Instead, due to his hasty and impetuous headlong dash to finish something he has to throw out most of his words, edit with a chainsaw, and rewriting practically everything.  From this I draw the conclusion that writing by the seat of your pants is wasteful of time and talent.

I, on the other hand, take a more deliberate route to a conclusion that I know before the first letter of the first word on the first page appears on my screen.  I know in advance the scenes necessary to reach a foregone conclusion and am able to sketch in characters, settings, and times for each.  The work of then forging the story around the various elements becomes an exercise in creativity and planning.  My first draft is usually poorly organized but I can easily rearrange or edit the scenes to convey the sense of story I intend.  Sadly, the ending I know with such certainty at the outset rarely survives the first draft and sometimes is even changed on the galleys.

But that's writing.


Saturday, May 2, 2015


This is the 250th article in this blog stream, a number I never imagined achieving when I started a few years ago.  My original idea was to put down my thoughts on the process of writing in hopes that by doing so I could determine the science behind whatever I did when I write a story.  Little did I know that it would soon turn into a litany on the  misery of being a short fiction writer struggling to have a voice in the SF genre.  On that last point, I hope that by expressing my frustrations I gave voice to those of you facing similar struggles.

To this day I have not achieved my original purpose. Instead I've wandered all over the territory, talking about whatever came to mind as I struggled with one demon or another as I fought to put words to thought and thought to paper.  To this day I still do not have a clue.

In fact, I've come to realize that I've done more erasing than creating.  I am continually modifying a word, a phrase, a paragraph or a scene to express some element of an emerging plot.  Too often that plot morphs as the words tumble forth.  I've often said that I always set out knowing the end, but the ending is never what I intended at the outset.


Some articles have had huge responses and others that I thought significant passed without apparent impact.  Some have been banal, a few funny, and others dead serious but overall they have been an honest reflection of my thoughts.  For those of you who follow this blog I promise to continue in the same vein and for those occasional visitors I hope you enjoy paging through some of the most popular ones.


Monday, April 27, 2015

Evolution of an Idea

I just don't understand this writing business, the creativity part anyhow.  Here I had a well-planned short story, had my facts in line, had a scene by scene architecture, and some variations of flow, the two protagonists and a limit of 7,500 words or less.  "Piece of cake," I said ..... two years ago.

Then another couple of characters were needed to flesh out some plot details, which led to a few words about them, which meant less words for the flow.  Of course some backstory was needed and that gave me another character sketch.  The "science" part turned out to be really, really interesting so I admitted that this might be a novelette length work and proceeded apace.

Then two sub-plots emerged involving some of the secondary characters and suddenly I had four -FOUR!- protagonists to struggle with.  Oh yeah, and the antagonist that I hadn't yet made flesh - there goes another thousand words plus the final interaction that would press upon the edge of a novella at 17.5 K words.

I took a break to work on other things (don't worry, there's always lots of unfinished crap lying about to take me away from my problems.  Of course, those are also problems that generate more ideas that get added to the pile for later work.  And so it goes..

So, last week, I got back to the incipient novella and found that my muse had solved one of the stumbling blocks and also wanted me to introduce more backstory about the McGuffin - practically an entire short story in and of itself and pushes the piece well into novella territory.  

So be it.  I now have the scent in my nose and the taste on my tongue so there is nothing to do but forge ahead to see where this story is taking me.  At least I now feel that, somewhere down the line, lies resolution, finality, and a completion eagerly awaited.  It should top out around fifty thousand words, I imagined as I closed another scene.  That would surely be enough for a two-part serial or a chapbook.  At least that's what I promised myself as I prepared for bed on Thursday night.

Then, upon awakening to the dawn of a new day I found that my muse, that wickedly inventive, dastardly bitch, now insists I tell a story within the story about discovery that might take the conclusion in an entirely different direction.  How and where this latest bit came from I have no idea and now feat that this will take the tale into novel length.

Too late to turn back.


Monday, April 20, 2015

Thoughts On the Fiftieth Nebula Awards

Soon the tribe of misfits, dreamers, and outcasts will gather in Chicago for the 50th Annual Nebula Awards. Think about that for a moment - Fifty Fucking Years!  Lord-a-mercy, could Damon Knight have ever foreseen such an event when he passed the hat to create the Science Fiction Writers of America IN 1965?

 Since that time SFWA has progressed from a fan-boys club to a world-wide membership embracing all the colors, personalities, and genders of our diverse field.  More and more our members resemble the society from which we spring.  Similarly our once outcast genre is now increasingly mainstream, as represented by the variety of stories up for this years premier writing award.

This year's Nebula Award weekend will no doubt begin with exclamations of joy, hugs, kisses, handshakes, and respect when attendees meet one another in the lobby and then rapidly progress to smaller, random gatherings wherever two or more writers, agents, fans, editors, or publishers happen to gather.  The weekend is a combination business meeting and convention, a gathering of writers at all stages of their careers, and, of course, the announcement of the most outstanding of the best writing of the past year.

A lot of official SFWA business will conducted as Officers and Board members finally come face to face with the members they've only contacted electronically at a catered business meeting held for members.  Educational sessions will be held to inform attendees on the craft and art of the genre during the day.   On Saturday night the glitteratti of our community will flow into the banquet for the presentation of the beautiful lucite Nebula trophies to the top vote-getters in each award category; service awards to volunteers, and a moment's pause for all those who have left us in the past year.

It is a wonderful, inspirational, entertaining, and physically exhausting weekend that everyone hopes will never end.

But then, sadly, it will.

[For more thoughts from the Nebula blog tour go to: 

Saturday, April 18, 2015


Some authors say they write for the thrill of telling a tale well, or the "feel" of molding words into some final, perfect form.  Others are in it for adulation and income that derives from their luck, talent and/or skill.  Almost every writer would agree that the story-telling craft is an art form.

But what is the value of art if no one views it?  What is the value of an unread manuscript, an unfinished novella, or a stack of incomplete short stories (or infinitely rejected ones, for that matter?) Horrifyingly, this last category hosts an overwhelming majority of writers' efforts that dwarfs everything ever published.  Unseen art might have intrinsic value, but unless someone other than the author sees and is affected it has no objective value.  Writing into a vacuum contributes nothing to society or move private dreams into the consciousness of society.  For a story to penetrate another's mind it must be available, recognized, and accessed.

At one time there were a limited number of arbiters acting as guardians of access, a phalanx of agents, editors, and publishers who alone dictated what they deemed appropriate to be seen by the public.  But, today the means of telling a story to a large number of people are within the grasp of anyone with access to the global Internet and a modicum of sophistication in it's tools. In some random cases this can produce immortality*, fans, and infrequently, income.

While there is a monetary value to be achieved from writing well, success in writing is more than a matter of income.   Having work acknowledged by at least one other non-family member is gratifying.  Having something accepted by a reputable editor is even more so.   In both cases the  acknowledgement validates the ideas, sweat, and tears that went into the story's creation.

And isn't that what writers need; to have their voices heard?

*So long as the server survives, anyway


Saturday, April 11, 2015

Despoiling the Commons

We live in an interconnected world where peoples of diverse backgrounds, beliefs, and dispositions rub up against one another all of the time and, quite often, in uncomfortable ways.  Most develop an insulating layer about their own constellation of beliefs and understandings that enable them to live with, but not accept those who believe otherwise.  It's a large playing field and there is sufficient room for everyone.

But most of us realize at an early age that there is a social contract that allows for discord, a way of resolving issues without resorting to behaviors or actions that would destroy the precious bubble that allows us to co-exist.  There are laws to prevent the most harmful actions, a moral code that deals with things of lesser consequence, and common decency to keep everyone but sociopaths from needlessly bothering others.  The contract we all commit to when we become part of society both protects and supports us throughout our lives and helps preserve what we value most.

We jail or fine those who break laws, we confine and try to help those who are a danger to themselves or others, but we have only a few mechanisms to deal with those with little value for human decency; those who in a moment of pique would poison the well from which we all drink, pollute the food we consume, or tear down a shared fabric that provides delight and pleasure to everyone.

Destroying a work of art, a piece of literature, the commons, or a useful social construct are equally vile for doing so not only destroys the current culture's enjoyment, but also denies their appreciation from innumerable future generations.

Just saying.


Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Illusionary Goal of Satisfaction

If  you are wondering why so many writers complain about their lack of satisfaction, let me explain:  Most of us sweat and agonize about our first sale ever or the first sale to a reputable magazine. After that happens we worry about whether we can repeat our amazing success (after only the five gazillionth rejection) but, hey, now that we've done it once....

Only the next sale or lack thereof is worse because we now know that we actually wrote something someone was willing to pay us for, and we now have, you know, actual readers, for God's sake!  Only the rejections keep arriving, propelling us into ever deepening feelings of frustrated inadequacy.  It is disheartening to write brilliant (IMHO) pieces only to see them fail in the marketplace.

Any successive sales, coming fitfully if at all, only gives us hope that we can repeat our success. Each new sale however carries an additional weight of concern since we have acquired a following --fans, perhaps-- who might somehow recognize our name.  We can't disappoint them so we bear down harder, trying to force the market to bend to our will, to accept our genius for what it is, damn it!

But the rejections continue to arrive and, infrequently, some acceptances.  Our concern now is not why we can't sell our work, but why can't we sell more, more, MORE!  And more frequently. And to the markets we most desire to penetrate. And to get nominated for awards.  What is wrong with these people, we mutter as we pound another thousand hard-earned words into the aether?  Will all these become nothing more than parts of our posthumous collection?

What I mean to say is that it never gets better.  Once a writer starts selling regularly they begin to worry that their muse might disappear.  They nightly fret that the ideas aren't flowing as easily as they remember them doing while they were struggling to gain a foothold. They begin to worry that the genre has passed them by, that their voice is no longer relevant, and that they have become less than a footnote in history.

It never seems to end, this self-doubt, this feeling of being merely lucky instead of skilled and that someday, somewhere, someone will discover that we are little more than a hack, a fraud, and a near-plagarist as well.

In the words of the song "I can't get no satsifaction..."


Friday, March 27, 2015

Finally in Print!

Over a fourteen year period I wrote a five hard SF novelettes and novellas about sailing on various planets (Earth, Jupiter, and Mars.) Most were published in magazines, collections, and  as reprints and e-pubs. One story (Primrose and Thorn) became a Nebula finalist and later appeared in Gardner Dozois' Years Best.

Six months ago Ian Strock of  Fantastic Books asked me to publish a trade paperback collection where I could bring all my sailing tales together in a single volume.  Since all the stories were in the same universe and featured the same characters turning the stories into a novel was easy.  The completed work is mostly about the sheer joy of sailing as seen through the eyes of two principal characters and a few peripheral players.

Fantastic Books: $13.99 trade paper (216p)
 ISBN 978-1-62755-633-0
After considerable editing and proof-reading we corrected the most egregious errors in the original stories, cleaned up the flow a bit, rearranged a few scenes, and commissioned a beautiful cover by George Krauter that conveys the sense of wonder the stories were intended to generate.

During the editing process I was surprised to discover that the science used in the stories had withstood the test of time, as does the seamanship, which is not so surprising since we've been sailing boats for thousands of years and the songs of sailors, wind, and water have not changed.

You can find  Distant Seas on Amazon and at the  Fantastic Books  table at various conventions up and down the east coast. It will soon be available in eBook format.  

Glowing reviews of the  novel have already appeared in Publishers Weekly (a one-star review!), LibraryThing, and Goodreads.

The book launch will be at Ravencon in Richmond on April 24-27, 2014. Stop by and I'll sign a copy for you.


Saturday, March 21, 2015

What's a Meta For?

All writers have in the back of their minds a metaphor they use to describe the process of story making.

Many writers start with a basic concept and meticulously outline every part of their story before beginning to write a single word. Some put their ideas on post-its and measle their walls with notes that mark the progress of the story. Others might use different media to essentially serve the same purpose of visualizing the sweep of the story.

Others think of their story as an unrolling ribbon of thought, each sentence evoking the next as the tale evolves through some mysterious subconscious process as their muse somehow drives them ever forward, navigating the twists and turns of plot, although they may occasionally take a more deliberate control by stepping in occasionally to steer the sentences towards a vaguely perceived conclusion. Jamie Todd Rubin calls this process "Pantsing."

A more deliberative approach likens development to architecture.  An architect designs a project with an eye first to function, and only then determines the form that best unifies the overall structure.  In this the basic building blocks are scenes compacted from characters, settings, time, and events.  Once scenes have been built one can stack them into towering edifices, bridges, or even passageways.  A scene can be placed in its chronological sequence or used as foreshadowing or flashback, all depending on the writer/architect's choice.

In truth, no writer strictly adheres to either process, but uses them as arrows in their quiver, pulling one process or another into action as needed.  Of course, all of these have only to deal with the arrangements and not the plot itself.

Which might be another subject.


Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Source of the Nile

A much younger me daydreamed dramas endlessly, usually with myself as the principal actor and occasional hero, these usually spurred by a recent story.  But as I grew older such hyperactive self-aggrandizing seemed less interesting and, when I finally started writing, embarrassing.  I began looking for ideas that had deeper resonance, of issues that needed to be illustrated, and of things, people, situations that I thought had a bit of humor.

My first attempts were pathetic; sophomoric philosophizing or filled with the social concerns of the day.  Later I tried reprising some favorite tales or picking up an idea here, hearing something at a con, or just reading an interesting article. Each of these can be the seed that will blossom into narrative flowers.

  •  For example, the first Sam Boone story arose from a comment Stan Schmidt made at a convention and that led to four more sales featuring that character. 
  •  A David Nordley science article spun off a novelette and two novellas, one of which was a Nebula finalist. 
  •  A summer week's attendance at LunchPad in Wyoming produced three short stories. 

 Before I became an older me, I maintained a long list of story ideas.  I abandoned the list after a year or two when it grew too long and unwieldy, because most were never worth being fertilized to full flower.  Ideas are cheap and plentiful, you need only to open your eyes and mind.

An older me now recognizes that if a story idea is worth pursuing it will not go away.  Once it finds fertile ground in your mind it will establish itself forever, even though it may be momentarily forgotten.  Time and again this pesky weed will force itself into your consciousness, harrying you until you finally have no choice but to sit down and pound it into submission.

Or maybe that's just me.


Saturday, February 28, 2015

Another Damn Mountain to Cross

I continually wonder if something wonderful figuratively lies over the next river, on the other side of the ridge, beyond the mountains, or across the sea.  Rather than stay the course on developing a long novel I find that I have a thirst for the unique, the novel, the different in my stories.  This must be the same urge that drives me upon the near-completion of one story to immediately seek the beginnings of another.

The itch to set out on a new course usually manifests itself at the threshold of completing a story and builds until my obligation to that piece is finished and the story submitted.  As I've mentioned before, I always have that horrid post-submission feeling that if I had done just one more thing...  But that impulse to revisit soon passes, at least until the rejection arrives.

Any completed story leaves me with the abandoned (but only temporarily, you understand) unfinished short stories and novels doomed to never reach a conclusion.  I rummage through the midden and despair of finding their missing parts, whose missing-ness caused me to temporarily set them aside.  This makes me uneasy, fretful, and nervous.

So in this interregnum I flounder, desperate to find any spark that I can turn into an ember that might ignite the creative blaze.  I examine the ideas that always buzz through my mind and find that none have that magic spark that screams "This is the one, Bud.  Write like the wind, unfettered by convention, kicking aside the troupes and baggage to blaze a new trail across the genre."  At this point I worry that I have become a washed- up hack and only if I can find another mountain to cross I will be happy.  If I don't I'll become hyper-stimulated, doing everything and anything except sitting at the keyboard and writing something.

Like this article.