Keeping Score: March 12, 2021

I don’t think I’m good at coming up with story titles. Mine tend to end up either very much on the nose — my first published story, “Wishr,” is named for the company at which it takes place — or become horrible puns, like “There Will Be Bugs” (I know).

So in trying to come up with a new title for the story I’ve been editing, I wanted to branch out from my usual process. Started brainstorming, just listing out things as they came into my head.

At first, most of them were more of the same (I really am fond of puns). But then I thought back to short stories I’ve read and liked recently, and their titles, and realized: The ones I liked the best (titles, not stories) were ones that fit the story, but where I didn’t understand how they fit until after I finished reading the piece.

So I shifted my brainstorm, away from trying to convince a reader to read the story (by telling them what’s inside it) and towards giving readers a new insight into the story after it’s been read. And voilà! I found my new title.

I’ve got some beta reader feedback to process (on the story as a whole) this weekend, and then the story will be ready for submission, shiny title and all.

Meanwhile, I keep moving ahead with the novel, which is sitting at 35,380 words. I’m past the big climactic scene, and into the aftermath, where the consequences of the protagonist’s actions come due, and her life changes forever.

This part introduces a new character who becomes a major part of the protag’s life. So after filling in the rest of the climactic scene, I’m back to sketching what comes next, setting down fragments of conversation and description as they come to me.

I’m trying to consciously develop a different voice for this character, a distinct way of looking at the world, so it’s obvious she comes from a different part of it than the protagonist. Which means I’m focusing on dialog first, nailing down the back-and-forth between her and the protag before handling any action.

I’m also getting close to the end of this section of the book. 21,000 words and counting to cover just a few days in the protagonist’s life. Important days, to be sure: You only get one first encounter with a dragon! Even once I read the end of this section, though, I’ve still got some gaps left in the earlier parts of it that I’ll need to close, stitching everything together.

And once that’s done? On to the next big section, which will leap years ahead in time, and thousands of miles across the Earth’s surface. Let’s hope I don’t get lost along the way!

Keeping Score: March 5, 2021

Novel’s still chugging along, currently at 33,884 words. I’ve pushed through the first big scene, and am well into the second.

There’s…well, there’s individual pieces of the sequence that are still missing, some connective tissue that I have yet to write. The technique I’ve been using, of skipping around to write those scenes (or sometimes fragments of scenes) that I feel like adding, has a that cost. Eventually I have to go back and write in everything I skipped.

But for now, it’s all big scene all the time, and no connective tissue…yet.

However, the big news this week is that I’ve finally cracked open a story I’ve been working on for nearly four years now. That one started out as just a character and a situation, a piece of backstory for the novel I wanted to write. But it never worked quite as well as I wanted it to, so I’ve kept tinkering with it (and submitting it while tinkering with it, which is a habit I need to break).

Tim Waggoner, during his 15-minute (!) workshop back in January, pointed me to the central problem that was holding up everything else: the motivation for my main character wasn’t strong enough. So on weekends I’ve been brainstorming different ways to go, different versions of the character that would have a stronger push for their actions.

I finally hit on one this weekend that I liked, and in the process of editing the story to match, everything fell into place. I ended up cutting away about half of the story’s word-count, focusing in on just three scenes. But in those scenes I not only lay out the main character’s motivation, I fill in the secondary characters, giving them more life and depth. And I shifted the ending, so it’s now both more complete (in the sense that the current narrative arc ends) and more open-ended (in that the world’s evolution past the story is implied).

I’m going to do one more editing pass this weekend, to clean up language and make sure it all fits together properly. I’d like to have it ready to submit in time for Nightmare Magazine re-opening to submissions later this month.

I need a new title, though; the old one doesn’t fit anymore. Anyone have any tips or tricks for choosing a title you can share in the comments?

Keeping Score: February 5, 2021

I’m not sure I could keep doing this writing thing, without the support of my friends.

Just this week, one of them pinged me, to ask if I’d heard anything back about a short story he’d recently beta-read for me. And I felt a prick of shame, because I hadn’t submitted the story, even after incorporating his feedback, and declaring that was my intent.

But that shame is becoming action. I’ve promised to send it off this weekend, and asked him to penalize me (via drinks owed) if I don’t.

The funny thing is, I love the short story in question. I think it’s the best thing I’ve written to date. But it’s already been rejected, in previous draft form, by half a dozen different magazines. So I’m terrified of submitting it again, and having it rejected again…and then discovering later that there’s one small thing missing that makes it perfect.

Because I only get one shot at each magazine for this story. They all have policies in place that won’t let you re-submit a story, even after editing. Which is their right, of course; they get inundated with submissions as it is. But it raises the stakes for me. Makes me hesitate to send the story in. Because being told “this isn’t good enough” is fine with me. It’s not being able to fix it and then try again.

In an odd way, I feel like I’m failing the story when it gets rejected. Like it’s my job to make it the best it can be, and then go find it a home. And when I edit after getting rejections, and those edits make the story shine brighter, I feel like I let the story down by sending it out too soon.

And yet, how would I know to keep editing, without those rejections?

All of which is to say: I’ve got another short story I’m sending out this weekend. And another friend to feel thankful for.

Keeping Score: January 29, 2021

‘Tis the season of the writer’s conference.

Had the Apex Magazine 15-minute workshop on Monday, which may have permanently changed the way I approach my writing. I’m on the alert now for some of my bad writing habits, and am currently going through two different stories to eliminate them.

Today, I’m attending Clarion West’s workshop on How to Write Science Fiction in a Post-Colonial World, part of their series of single-day online workshops. Similar to the Apex one, I’m not sure what to expect. I hope it’ll help me with the novel I’m writing right now (and future works), where one of my main characters is from the steppes of Central Asia. I don’t want to appropriate anyone’s culture, but I do want to showcase the diversity of the world, particularly in the time period I’m setting this story (the 18th century), which American writers tend to whitewash.

And I’m considering signing up for the Southern California Writers Conference, which is in two weeks (and also online). It was the first writers conference I attended, back when we could safely congregate inside. I got a lot out of it: I wrote two stories, got tips on plot structure, and met some great people. And now one of my fellow Writers Coffeehouse alumni (Dennis K Crosby) is one of the special guest speakers! I could use that kind of shot in the arm again (vaccine connotation very much intended).

Not that I’m currently having trouble producing, thank goodness. Novel’s at 26,099 words. I’ve patched up the seams in the scenes I’ve written so far, and moved on to the “meat” of the chapter: the POV character’s close encounter with a dragon.

I’m still writing it in bits and pieces, moving up and down the page as ideas come to me and I figure things out. It keeps me from getting hung up on any one part of the book, or worry too much about how I’m going to get from Point A to Point B. I can always make something up 🙂

And after the Apex workshop, and re-examining some of my past short stories, I’m starting to think about the connective tissue between scenes differently. As in, maybe I don’t need it, after all.

That’s not quite right. I think I, the writer, need it. I need to have written it, in order to fully understand my story. But I don’t necessarily need to show that to the reader.

Same thing with exposition. I need to know everything about my world. I need to know what the sunlight looks like in springtime. I need to know how the birds sound in the morning. I need to know which cars are driving by at the end of the day (if this world has cars). So these are all things I need to set down, to fix in my mind by fixing them in text. But I don’t need to relay those details to the reader, unless something stands out to the POV character, and affects their decisions.

It’s advice I’ve heard before, but not really felt in my bones until now. I’d always assumed my readers were lost unless I held their hand, and relied on my brevity to make the explanations palatable.

I think now I can trust the reader more. I still plan to write all the exposition, so I have it straight in my own head. But when editing I’m going to start taking it all out, and only putting things back in if a beta reader complains of being lost. Otherwise, I’m going to lean on actions and dialog to convey everything.

What about you? Is there a piece of classic writing advice that took you a while to fully understand?

Keeping Score: October 9, 2020

It’s done! The edits are done!

Well, this round of edits, anyway…There’ll be more, down the line.

But the third draft of the novel is finished!

This is the first draft that I feel can be seen, so I’m sending it out to beta readers, hoping to get some good (meaning: useful and thorough, not merely positive) feedback.

I’ll also need to send it to sensitivity readers, because some of the characters are from ethnic groups outside my own. I think I’ve done them justice, but I know I’m not the best judge of that. So I’ll ask some friends of mine to be additional readers, letting me know if I’ve messed anything up.

While I wait (and lean into my reading, to unwind a bit), I’m going to work on a short story or three.

Or five.

I found a horror anthology that’s accepting flash fiction on five different subjects through December. The topics are broad enough that I’ve brainstormed a few different story ideas for each.

Since they’re flash pieces, I thought I’d write one up for each topic, and submit them all (which they allow). Five little stories for my brain to chew on while I take a break between editing passes.

What about you? What do you do, between revisions of a longer work? Or do you take any sort of breathing room between them, at all?

Keeping Score: October 2, 2020

I’ve been having incredibly vivid dreams.

Dreams that fade from memory when I wake up.

Parts of them linger, though. An accusation that was hurled at me. A song someone else was singing.

I think it means my unconscious mind is…bored? I haven’t worked on anything new in a while, since I decided to focus on the novel edits. And as I near the end of the novel, those edits are becoming more re-phrasing and less re-writing. Less work for my imagination to do.

So I wonder if that’s why my dreams have suddenly become full-color 3D rousing soundtrack level productions. It’s my unconscious saying “give me something new to work on!” while I keep saying “not yet.”

Because I do lean on my unconscious mind a lot when writing. Drafting or outlining, I’ll often hit a wall, a place in the story where I’m not sure where to go, and I’ll stop there for the day. Literally sleep on the problem, and come back the next day.

Usually, by the time I return to the work, I’ve got a solution. My unconscious has chewed on the problem all night, and delivers it up to me when I need it.

After…well, years…of working together like that, I’m wondering if my unconscious misses it. Even in the midst of a pandemic, even when I think (consciously) that I can’t work on two things at once, it’s saying “let’s give it a shot.”

So I guess I will! I’ll pick up the new story again, wrap up its outline, and start drafting.

Or maybe even just dive into the drafting part, who knows? The outline’s mostly done, and it’s the writing itself that works out my unconscious the most.

What about you? Do you rely on your unconscious mind for help in your writing? Has it ever sent you a message, like it seems to be doing to me?

Keeping Score: September 25, 2020

I can’t believe Breonna Taylor’s killers are going to walk free.

I mean, I can believe it, in the sense that racism is real and cops are killers and they’re killers because they kill and get away with it in this country.

But it’s just…hard to grasp that after all we’ve been through, these United States, in 2020, a group of people could decide it’s just fine to charge into the home of one of their fellow citizens and murder them, so long as the murderers are wearing badges.

It’s also hard for me to wrap my head around the President of the United States saying for months that the only election he could lose is a fraudulent one, and there’s no howls of indignation from his side of the aisle. No Senators lining up to condemn his words and ask that the House open a new impeachment investigation.

Nothing. Not a fucking peep.

Meanwhile in my state, in supposedly progressive California, we still use inmates as firefighters, paying them perhaps a dollar a day, which is slave labor by any other name. And once they’ve served their time, if they happened to have been born somewhere else, we hand them over to ICE for deportation.

Oh, and there’s still a pandemic on, so walking around outside to enjoy the air newly-cleared of smoke and ash means constantly dodging people who aren’t wearing masks.

So it’s all I can do right now, when I’m not doomscrolling, to keep editing the novel. One chapter at a time.

I feel like I should be making more progress. Editing more than one chapter a day. Maybe even racing to the finish line.

Or picking up the story I was outlining a few months ago, and starting to actually put words to paper.

But I can’t.

I just…can’t.

The writing spirit is very willing, but the writing flesh, the meaty brain and hands that would summon words from the void, are quite busy right now.

So I press on, one chapter at a time. I’m not stopping, but I’m not able to move any faster right now.

Because this book’s become even more important to me, lately.

It’s about prisons. It’s about all the different kinds of people that get locked up, and why. It’s about exploitation, and greed, and how it’s all kept going by the people that look the other way. The ones that hold their noses so they can benefit.

It’s also about forgiveness, and change. About making yourself vulnerable again, after holding onto a hurt for so long.

I want to finish it. I need to finish, to have this story told. To share it.

There’s not much else I can do, so I’m doing this.

Voting. Donating. Speaking up.

And writing.

Keeping Score: September 18, 2020

I’m turning the editing corner, into the final third of the book.

I’m a little nervous about this section. The middle edits were smooth sailing, but the closer I get to the end, the more things need to line up perfectly. I need to make sure threads are getting wrapped up, that I haven’t skipped any scenes, that everything makes sense.

I need to keep the whole novel in my head at this point, basically, in order to keep it all consistent through the end.

And the end, of course, is the most complicated part of the book. It’s where the main conflict gets resolved, via multiple timelines and a perspective shift.

I hope it works. I hope I can hold it all together.

Because if I can, if I do, then this round of edits will be finished. And I can start sending it out to beta readers, to finally get feedback from another pair of eyeballs than mine.

And maybe, just maybe, have their reviews back in time to make final adjustments, and have it ready to send to agents by the end of the year.

It is…a tight deadline. But we live in hope, don’t we?

Keeping Score: September 11, 2020

It struck me this morning that the pace at which I come up with new story ideas has slowed down.

Time was I couldn’t go a day without being struck by some story idea, and having to write it down.

These days, I feel like all of my ideas are about the book or the story I’m currently working on. Nothing new, no bolts of lightning, just new ways of looking at the characters or the situation I’m already creating.

And that made me nervous. Like, what if the well’s run dry? What if once I finish these stories, that’s it? Nothing else comes?

To banish those thoughts, I remind myself of two things.

First, it’s a pandemic. Not to mention my state is currently on fire (the evidence of which is clearly visible in the sky outside my window). I’m allowed to feel a bit more stressed, and that means my brain isn’t functioning at 100%.

Second, it’s okay to not be constantly throwing out new ideas. In fact, it’s a good thing. Plowing my creative energy into what I’m working on, rather than dreaming up new work to take on, is exactly what I should be doing. The fact that my brain doesn’t feel the need to go wandering for a new story to work on means this story’s interesting and deep enough to keep it occupied.

It’s a positive sign, not a negative one. And it should be embraced.

As for the novel itself, work continues. I’m still going through a chapter a day, giving myself the time to really look at each scene and fix the things that need fixing. A line of dialog that doesn’t work. Some blocking that no longer makes sense.

Okay, not everything. Some things I’m leaving for another pass.

Like in the last chapter I edited, there’s a shift in one character’s dialog. They go from speaking somewhat formal English to a less-formal syntax. It’s subtle, and it still sounds like the character, but it’s there.

I like the shift, and I think it’s appropriate for the situation in that chapter. But in order to keep it, I need to go through and make sure that shift happens every time that situation comes up, so it feels deliberate, and not like a mistake.

Alternatively, I could go through and make the character’s dialog pattern the same everywhere. That might be easier, but I think there’s something that will be lost if I do that. There’s information encoded in the way they shift their speech according to who they’re speaking to, and I’d hate to lose that.

So yes, even as I go through this pass, I know I’m going to need to do another. But that next pass will be more focused, and thus faster, than this one. At least, that’s the intent.

What about you? When you do your editing, do you tackle everything in each pass? Or do you break it up into different read-throughs?

Keeping Score: September 4, 2020

Is it bad to enjoy reading your own book?

I’m still working on the novel, still plugging away at editing one chapter a day. It’s about all I can do, given my schedule constraints.

And so far, it’s…not that bad?

I mean, I’m probably filling in gaps that are there because I know the characters, I know the setting. But I was trying to write the equivalent of an action movie, and while I think I failed at that (there’s not nearly enough stunts or fights in it to qualify), I think I did manage to produce a fast-paced, sci-fi, thriller.

Each of the chapters are short — the longest is maybe ten pages — which makes them easier to edit, but also easier to read.

And I’ve kept the language pretty tight, as well. Not always tight enough, hence the need for edits. And sometimes I wander off into describing a character’s thoughts from the outside, inside of rendering them from the inside (it’s a shift in point of view that I’m still learning how to handle properly). But overall, each scene starts, flows, and then ends without a lot of fat to trim.

Which worries me, of course. What am I missing? What am I not seeing, that I need to fix?

It reminds me of something the write C Robert Cargill tweets about a lot: That when you look at your work, and hate it, part of it is because of the difference between your skills and your taste. Your taste is likely far more sophisticated than your skills, starting out. You enjoy reading writers far better than you. And that’s good! Your sophisticated taste is what lets you see the problems in your own work, which you can then fix.

So I have to wonder: Has my taste declined? Have I been slacking in feeding it new works, so I can be critical of my own?

Or am I just still too close to this book?

Either way, I’m not upset at these chapters. They’re not so horrible that I wouldn’t want to show them to someone else.

Which perhaps is good? And maybe the point of doing all these editing passes and rewrites. To get the book to a point where I think it’s ready to be seen by other people.

Flawed still, probably, yes. But good enough to go out to beta readers, and eventually (after more edits) agents. That should be the goal, right?

And if I’m getting there, I should feel good about it. Not dread.

Note to self: Stop feeling dread.