Monday, April 24, 2017

That Damn Dark Presence

I must have hit a nerve: three separate conventions have placed me on an Imposter Panel.  I guess they want to exhibit me as a sample case since my self-esteem, as far as writing ability, is so pathetically low.*

For those of you who have not experienced this affliction, let me explain. Imposter Syndrome is a curse that, in its simplest form, is the belief that everyone will eventually discover that you are not that deserving of whatever status you've earned.  You daily fear that when (not if) you are eventually exposed your reputation will be destroyed forever.  They do not see the panic, sweat, concerns, and mistakes that haunt your early drafts and that it is only through sheer luck you are finally able to produce a readable page.  Every completed submission is followed by days, weeks, and months of nibbling doubt. Even after something is accepted you fear the copy editor's blue pencil for it is they who clearly see how poor are your compositional skills.

The imposter syndrome is always present, a looming menacing presence standing behind you as you struggle with your muse, It is a presence that soundlessly screams that if only you had a modicum of appreciation for English you would not produce the dribble of meaningless crud that only wastes electrons. "You will never be able to improve this draft" the presence shouts as you struggle with each hard-fought sentence. straining for a better way of expressing it.

The imposter syndrome is also present when you meet a writer appears to effortlessly spin gold from dross, never choosing the wrong word or composing a bad sentence, never struggling with the effort to bring life to cold words.  They often declare that everything they produce is perfect on the first draft.  But if you get real close you will recognize the dark presence lurking over their shoulder and the fear that their failure may too be eventually discovered.

Imposter Syndrome is what drives us to continually improve and grow.

*I may have mentioned 
this a time or two


Sunday, April 16, 2017

Writing as a Career Choice

Last year I was on a "So you want to be a Writer" panel.  Most of the large audience indicated that they aspired to become published writers. Among them were a few bright young things who declared that they wanted to support themselves by writing full time. This is a nice dream and one that an infinitesimally small percentage of writers achieve, and usually only after years of struggle to develop the necessary skills.*

So the panelists gave them the practical advice that it would not be a good idea to plan on a lucrativ writing career.  The economics of a writing life are brutal:  If you want to earn enough to get out of poverty (i.e. At least $24,950) so you can get out of the basement** you have to write a lot of words!  The market for short stories (100-40,000 words) pays nothing at all to a magnificent $0.08/word in genre magazines. You would have to sell (there's the rub) 300,000 words each year. Given that the average magazine short story is around 5,000 words, you'd have to write and sell sixty-five stories, enough to fill seven paying magazines! The chances of editors accepting that many from a single writer are negligible so you will be doomed to stay obscenely productive in the basement or, alternatively, trying to make your spouse understand that you have no time to clean the house, fix dinner, or have kids.

So, instead of struggling with the workload of short story production, what if you wrote enough novels to stay above the poverty line? The average published novel is about 100,000 words. If you are an exceptional writer you might get by with only writing three drafts or 300,000 words - which is equivalent to sixty-five short stories (see above.)  That novel will sell (HA!) for perhaps $12.00 a copy for which you will get about $1.50,  This means that the novel must sell over seventeen thousand copies for you to reach the poverty level. Further, to maintain that minimum income you must produce a novel year over year without fail and to a major publisher.  Don't even consider self publishing via ebooks or small press; their royalties might be better, but their sales numbers are worse. You might do better than average if you have a large family but otherwise it's a crap shoot to reach that minimum of seventeen thousand copies sold.

Regardless of distribution methods you must understand that all seventeen thousand copies won't sell immediately.  This means that you'd better produce a string of novels whose total sales are at least seventeen thousand copies a year. Not impossible, but definitely a low probability outcome for the amount of work involved.

The advice I gave the I-want-to- be-a- writer audience was this: Get a decent day job that pays the bills you'll have after moving out of the basement, find someone who loves you despite your compulsive addiction to the written word, and set aside a time and place for your writing.  It's a big exciting world.

There are better things to do.

*Also living in their parent's basement 
**Definitely NOT a metaphor                                         


Monday, March 27, 2017

Lessons Learned

Nothing humbles me more than  editing a piece long laid aside and discovering all the mistakes that went unnoticed.  Now, I'm not talking about spelling or grammar, plot sequencing, or sentence constructions. All of those were* corrected in the fifth or sixth draft and verified in the final pre-submission  read-through, you know, when optimism rides high and I have not yet realized I have not done that final change that I think of seconds after hitting the submit button. C'est la vie I happily shrug; I can correct that in the galleys, that is, if and when they arrive.**

What humbles me is the discovery that the very sequencing of sentences, their style and length is often wrong.  For example, my action scenes should not contain lengthy descriptions or flowery adjectives. Reflections on previous actions, the dialectic of political differences, or the philosophy of western vs eastern  moral consequences somewhat detracts from whether the antagonist is going to chop my protagonist's damn head off with his sword.  The action scene should contain short, descriptive bursts of language that encapsulate the events underway. At the same time a series of short sentences can become tiresome so I have to throw in a few longer ones to break the flow. I think of it as taking a breath before plunging ahead, sort of like a mental comma.

On the other hand I discover that long descriptions of settings helps draw the reader into the story while short, abrupt sentences cheat the reader's imagination (and probably make them suspect my world-building skills) while longer, more carefully drawn descriptions might feed their hunger.

So I chop away at the dreary text, cut narrative to the essentials, and lovingly touch on the stage settings and interesting backdrop, all with an eye to improving the story for another submission

**and I remember 


Monday, March 20, 2017


I listen to Freakonomics on NPR and am never disappointed. This week they spoke about perceptions of one's situation and how we too often complain about the headwinds and seldom consider the wind behind our back (or beneath our wings as it were.)

I've complained bitterly in this blog about the miserable the life of the short fiction writer, the lack of income, the delay in seeing print, and the difficulty of creating yet another masterpiece* I've also railed about how trying it is to change my style, and always failing.  It seems that in this field there is a constant wind ever resisting my progress.

But then I look on what I have managed to accomplish over the years, the few stories that managed to  rise about my ability and actually touch someone.  I think about the editors who helped along the way, the rich environment in which I chose to participate, and the wonderful advent of electronic tools for creation, submission, and [tbd].

This is a wonderful playground for writers, filled with those willing to extend a helping hand, welcoming newcomers into conversations, and freely giving information that facilitate reaching an editor, a market segment, or a new venue.  Attendees at conventions are wonderful, filling the chairs at panels, providing feedback, and letting writers talk about whatever they damn well please despite the subject. These ate the sustaining winds ever at my back; stronger winds than ever held me back.

And for that I am eternally grateful.


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Long Wait

I don't understand how novelists do it. Imagine taking a few YEARS to write something, hone it to near perfection, and producing a finished draft to be submitted to an editor.  Short story writers differ from novelist only by word count and disposition. The pace of their submissions must be greater and they face the inevitable self-doubt of speed.  You* usually wish you could retract it one microsecond after it leaves your desk because there is always something that MUST be changed. But it is too late.  You can only wait until the rejection comes.

So you wait.

 Editors get  LOT of submissions from agents and random unknowns like you.  Although most of these pitiful pieces are unsuitable, unwanted, or just crap, they still must be read enough to justify a discard.  That takes time and, if you aren't a current darling, it might take months for the editor to get to your gem.

So you wait.

 And wait some more because your submission is the 1,256th piece the editor has to look at this month. You wait for the editor to quickly work their way through the poorly written and infantile plots of the pieces preceding your submission.

So you wait as the date of the expected rejection passes.

Could the delay mean an acceptance is forthcoming?  What if your submission has been set aside pending something better?  OMG, what if it has been lost?  Perhaps waiting a bit more might resolve the issue.

Months pass and the damn cat is still in the submission box.

Meanwhile you produce yet another piece or two realizing that you are no more than a field hand being paid by the bagful for the fruits of your labor.

Whether the metaphoric cat is dead or alive matters not. Waiting is part of a writer's life.  Regardless of whether you write long or short, there is little that you can do until the cat leaps out or the box begins to smell.

You write!

*And by this I mean I.


Monday, March 6, 2017

Euphoria......and then

There is a certain sense of exhilaration  that comes from correcting the last mistake, dotting the final period, or changing "just a little bit of...." and shoving the piece out the (virtual) door.  Doing so rings a note of finality that, despite all odds, setbacks, trials, and tribulations you have finally completed the Herculean task of writing the complete, perfect story.  The stable is now clean.  It is a wonderful time.

Regardless of whether it is a short story or a bloated novel the accomplishment is something to be celebrated.  Now, you swear, you can get onto something else and, by damn, you WILL NOT make the same stupid mistakes that made you do all those rewrites, edits, and changes as you did on the just completed manuscript. Bravely you go forward, writing like a fiend, piling up pages of creative narrative that will not doubt achieve Nebula status and.....

Oh crap!  I discover that you've written myself into a corner, but maybe if you make a tiny change back there on paragraph three... But that means  have to rewrite pages 5-10 and probably change the focus or....Why did I start THERE?  No, no, the story actually starts on page six, which means you need to throw out the first five pages and..  Gott in Himmel, that changes the entire story arc, but no problem..

And so it goes, one manuscript after another. You suddenly feel that you  may never learn from your mastakes. You are doomed to haunt the halls of futility heavily bearing the chain of inadequacy on your shoulders while ever searching for the perfect word, the perfect sentence, and the cogent paragraph and correcting spelling, punctuation, and grammar along the way.  But maybe this time, on the tenth edit this one might eventually be finished.

Or abandoned.


Monday, February 13, 2017

Novels vs Short Stories

I' may be a strategic plotter but I am a tactical pantser; that is, I generally lay out a general idea of how a story should evolve and then, working at scene level, just blast out whatever the muse demands, knowing that any errors will be caught in subsequent painstaking rewrites/edits.  I edit at the strategic level, moving whole scenes about or alerting the plot in non-significant ways (this ofter requires even more tactical adjustments at the scene level.)  I rewrite at the scene level, usually by line edits where the turn of word dominates.  That all sounds so clinical and cold but I can assure you that the execution is emotional and messy as hell.

Writing is always a struggle to find the right word, sentence, or scene.  I usually have to fight my way through mistakes, wrong turns, and confusion.  Throughout the process I am beset with disappointment, frustration, always filled with self-doubt, and continually worryring if the damned muse will suddenly, in the middle of something critical, decide to take a vacation. Nevertheless I plough ahead, often turning over the plot to see what might emerge from the seeds I strategically planted and if they produce a harvest worth the effort.

I often wonder if there might be a single meta-form from which any novel may be generated.  It would have to start by introducing the situation and character, introduce some difficulty that fails to be reconciled, posit possible actions, only to have those fail; one after another. Developing a way to overcome opposition follows, which leads to the actual execution/solution, and dribbles off into a satisfying denouement. Emotional peaks should occur at regular intervals, as does bathos and pathos. Stitching the novel together are the principal characters wandering among interesting scenery with their spear carriers, foibles, biases, and problems.  Emotional/action high points should be punctuated by adjacent calming sections .

Sure, easy to do. Nothing to it; that is if you can come  up with the driving plot, intriguing characters, enticing settings, and enough material to make the entire thing INTERESTING.  Piece of cake.

Which is  why I write short stories.


Sunday, February 5, 2017

Editorial Priviledge

How far should a writer allow their editor to dictate how the final product should appear?  Nothing a writer produces is done without considerable thought and deliberation and, when finished, satisfies the writer that it is complete: The plot is correctly presented, all the principals are as imagined, the settings are appropriate, and the message - the underlying meta story - is clear.

Word choices and sentence structure, not to mention grammar, can always be improved or, if not, modified to meet the market demands that the editor must serve.  Length is optional and can be expanded or reduced to fit the space available.  Plots may be rearranged to improve the story, for dramatic effect, or ease of understanding. The editor might suggest better word choices or delete objectionable items that might affect the story's reception.

Only the most egotistical writer refuses to budge on these necessary technical changes to their work.

Where the relationship between author and editor runs afoul is when the editor insists on altering the plot, changing a character's personality, inserting a message not originally intended, or twist the plot away from the initial concept.  When the editor oversteps their bounds is where the writer must stand their ground, regardless of how desperately they want the tale to be published. To do otherwise is to stifle creativity and violate intellectual integrity.

The negotiation between editor and author tests bounds as the tale goes through the stages of development toward a satisfactory result. There are inevitable conflicts, disagreements, and compromise along the way since egos and professional judgements are involved.  The author might walk away or decide the effort it not worth the hassle.  The editor may similarly quit or simply give up and allow the writer to have their way, regardless of how poor their choice.  But, in more cases than not, the editor and writer compromise, make the necessary changes, and move forward.

This relationship between editor and author is worst is when they are the same person.


Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Organic Tale

A writer is always searching for an organic tale that is complete in itself, compels the writer to spin it as finely as they can, and which, on completion, requires nothing more to be said. The organic tale's narrative grasps the writers imagination and will not release it until the tale has been written.

The best organic tale is a narrative in which neither character, setting, nor plot can be altered without destroying the story.  It is a tale of change that progresses from a state of disequilibrium that suggest possibilities that evolve through elimination into probabilities that eventually yields a resolution revealing how the protagonist or situation has changed. Throughout, the reader (and admittedly, the writer) is ever eager at every stage to discover what happens next.

While the fervor of writing the organic tale is often high at the outset this feeling diminishes as the writing progresses and the possibilities offered dwindle into mere probabilities as choices narrow.  Only when the resolution finally comes into sight does the writer's enthusiasm return.  It is the dreaded middle is where most writers falter, stumble, change their mind, or quit, sometimes for a brief while and worst, forever.  The middle is where doubt creeps in with its tiny claws, or imagination fails, or hours of staring at a demanding screen frustrates any attempt to lay down sentences that make sense.  Only the strongest or most stubborn continues to the bitter end. But mere persistence does not guarantee success.  More often than not persistence simply perpetuates a failed concept beyond the writers ability to handle.

But when the proper narrative presents itself a writer must apply their mind to the task.  The writer may fail on the initial attempt simply because they lack the experience or skill at that time.  Later, after gaining more of each they may return to recast it with a better narrative.

Such is the dream when one starts any narrative.


Saturday, January 14, 2017


One of the things I've noticed at conventions is how writers, reclusive and introverted troglodytes  by nature and choice, suddenly blossom into affable, garrulous speakers, at ease with voicing their uninhibited thoughts before crowds of strangers. I suspect that their smiles and easy social interactions are masking their inner doubts, their uneasiness, and their burning desire to be back in their cosy cave, slaving at an unforgiving anvil, pounding words into proper form, and cursing their elusive and flighty muse.

Or perhaps the boisterous enthusiasm these reclusive writers exhibit on panels is analogous to a diver's decompression, where freedom from the weighty anvil of creation liberates their inner selves  to range freely.  While participating on a panel, a writer faces no deadlines save the panel's fiftieth minute, nor will their words raise the ire of an eagle-eyed copy editor, and whose spoken words are as ephemeral as the words they write.  Here, they can assert doubtful facts, spin tall tales of their literary prowess, and highlight their recent success without fear of immediate contradiction (of course I am not talking about myself.*)  Panels thus become fora for debate, sounding boards for ideas, and platforms of ego that sometimes reveal more about the speaker than they intend, much to the entertainment of the audience.

In private conversations I've learned that many other writers don a mask to be other than they are by nature, donning socially acceptable (by con standards) dress, and forcing themselves to plunge cheerfully into the chaos of panels, readings, signings, and the inevitable hallway/bar conversations.  At the same time they are ever searching for opportunities, discoveries of a new market, or validation of their worth, ever wary for that bit of idle conversation which might, at some future date, be useful in an as yet unwritten tale.

Writers have little choice but to attend conventions when asked and willingly pay the price of a mask in order to engage in intelligent dialogues with fans and other writers.

*Of course not!


Friday, January 6, 2017

Evolution of an Idea

After a hiatus of holiday confusion replete with self-doubts about my ability to write I have finally returned to my writing forge to hammer out some incomplete short stories on the desktop and perhaps work on adding another few words to one of the incomplete novels.

That is, if nothing distracts me.

Usually I  have a more-or-less, vague idea for a story before I type the first word.  Sometimes it is an opening and on other occasions it is an ending. Regardless the final opening or closing changes, influenced by whatever took place between the two. Despite my claims that I am a Plotter I frequently fall into Pantser mode to generate copy.   The two types I mentioned above are the easy stories to write. It is the majority of other story's evolution that bedevil me.

Let me use, as an example, my July1998 Analog story, THE ICE DRAGON'S SONG, which started out as a fanciful recasting of HANS BRINKER AND THE SILVER SKATES, but taking place on Europa - one of Jupiter's moons. That conceit lasted for a few thousand words of an early draft but were mostly rewritten when another possibility intruded because of the nature of Europa and the influence of several of my Jupiter stories that preceded it.  Then the story changed again to the conflicted nature of the teen-aged protagonist's mind when Gene Wolfe asked me a question about the sub-text of the first "dragon" when he heard me reading a partial draft in the hotel lobby.  As a result Freudian symbolism became a central feature of the story's resolution.

That came back to me as I worked on one of my current projects; a story whose premise has changed with each completed scene. Each  change rippled back over new and previous scenes until I had a piss-pot of seemingly unrelated 7,000 words.  While winnowing scenes down to those that appeared to hang together some more possibilities came to mind and... Well, you get the drift.

Further efforts for resolution only invoked more confusion and, finally, I glimpsed a clearer idea of the point I wanted to make. The only problem was that none of the candidate scenes I'd selected could get me there but some of the discarded scenes perhaps could.  Luckily I use Scrivener and still retained those parts so retrieving/reinserting them in the draft was no problem.  Those alterations have taken me to 3,500 words of early draft that I now have to wrestle into something under 7,500 words.  That is, unless my fickle muse presents me with further possibilities and outcomes.

I go through this agonizing process so much that I wonder about how other writer's stories evolve? Are they as tortured with doubt and indecision as they cast words onto the screen?  Do they edit and revise entire chunks of text as they develop their stories, casting aside perfectly good narrative just because it doesn't fit the current project?*  Or do they, like I, modestly protest that I produce final drafts with little effort?

If all fiction writing is this messy and undisciplined it is no wonder so many abandon it rather than perfect their craft, leaving only the persistent and those who do not recognize their own limitations as they fill the slush piles.

*I doubt anything a writer conceives is ever cast aside but is repurposed 
in some other piece further down the line, even if they are unaware of it.