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.

Post-Game: Apex Magazine’s 15-Minute Writing Workshop

Apex Magazine is back from hiatus! One of my favorite short fiction magazines for years, Apex has consistently had fantastic stories, as shown by the many (many) awardsthey’ve won or been nominated for over the years.

I’m reading through their first new issue now. I’ll post a full review later, but I can already tell they’ve retained the high bar for quality they’ve always had. The very first story, out of the gate, left me devastated, in a good way: just profoundly moving.

So when they announced they were doing a 15-minute online writing workshop with author Tim Waggoner, I leaped to sign up.

Sure, I had some skepticism. Most of the past workshops I’ve been to have been at least an hour, and even that felt short. How much could we cover in just fifteen minutes?

It turns out you can cover basically everything you need to cover, to dissect why a piece of short fiction isn’t working.

I sent in the first six pages of a horror story I have that I like, that I’ve edited multiple times, but that also keeps getting rejected. I assumed it was a problem with the story, but I was having trouble seeing it.

Tim had no such problems. In just fifteen minutes over voice chat, he went right to the heart of the problem with my story: the motivation for my protagonist is too impersonal. Then he broke down some issues with my style — too many short paragraphs, too much exposition up front — that I realized are habits I need to break, because other readers have mentioned them before for other pieces (different readers saw different issues. Tim saw them all).

I wasn’t all criticism, though. He also gave me techniques to use to prevent making these same mistakes again. Such as keeping a separate document open for exposition, writing it there and only there during the first draft, and then coming back and pulling from that doc while editing, inserting only what the reader has to know, and then only when they need to know it. Or combining the first few pages into a single paragraph, then breaking it up during a read-through, to end up with more natural-feeling paragraphs.

He was spot on, in everything he said. I already started re-drafting the story based on his feedback. Not only that, but I’m also editing a second story with his feedback in mind; when re-reading it after the workshop, several of those same problems leaped out at me.

Many thanks to Apex Magazine for organizing the workshop, and to Tim Waggoner for running it! I learned a lot in a short amount of time, and I’m very grateful.

Keeping Score: October 16, 2020

Did I say five new flash stories last week?

At my current pace, I’ll be lucky to finish one.

Apparently, I forgot how hard a first draft can be.

I am working on one, though. It’s a sweet little story about a group of kids who turn cannibal.

…did I not mention it was horror?

I’m sketching it out, 100 words at a time. I say sketching because I’m writing it in patches, jumping from place to place in the narrative instead of writing it straight through. It’s a way for me to get past any block I have writing a certain section. I can skip ahead, or go back to a previous scene, and come back to the part that’s giving me trouble later.

It’s working, because I’m already eight hundred words in. That also means this is likely not going to be a flash piece, unless I trim it way down after. Which is fine, but once again shows I’m not a great judge of how big the story will be based on the idea I have. Maybe that’s something that will develop over time, as I write more pieces of various sizes?

Meanwhile, the novel’s heading out to beta readers. And I’ve got some time now to pay attention to where my short stories are going, and start submitting them again.

Which means I’ll start getting rejections rolling in again. Each one still stings, but…really, there’s no other choice. Write, Finish, Submit: The last step there is as crucial as the others.

Hope where-ever you are, you’re able to keep writing, eight months into this pandemic. Using whatever tricks you can to keep your creativity alive.

Keeping Score: August 7, 2020

I need to get back to working on the novel.

I’ve let it sit these past few weeks, untouched, while I finished getting one short story into shape and started plotting a new one.

But if I’m going to meet my personal deadline of having the novel ready to submit to agents by December 1st, I’m going to need to edit this second draft.

To be honest, I’m intimidated. I’ve never edited anything this long before.

How do I even do it? Read it all through, and then go back and edit passages? That sounds…like it’ll take forever.

Or do I work chapter by chapter, editing each one until it’s done, and then moving on? That sounds like an easy way to lose sight of inconsistencies (or to having to go back and edit previous chapters anyway, as inconsistencies show up).

I think what I’m going to do is a series of editing passes. Pick one thing to look for — like the consistency of a single character’s dialog — and edit all instances of that. Then pick something else — the descriptions of a ship, say — and edit all of those.

I’m hoping this will give me a structure in which to do multiple reads over the book, without getting lost in the weeds of any individual chapter. And it should broaden my perspective so I can stitch the book together, so to speak, with these edits. Make it more coherent, more whole.

But what do I do with the short story I’ve been outlining? I don’t want to lose momentum on that. And I worry that the novel, once I start editing it, will take up all the room in my brain for narrative.

I want to work on both. Use the story as a break from the novel, and use the novel as a break from the story. They’re different enough — one’s near-future sci-fi, the other is early modern period fantasy — that I should be able to keep them separate in my head. And editing is different enough from drafting that I’ll be exercising different writing muscles with each.

What about you? What do you do, when you’ve got a longer piece to edit and a shorter one to draft? Do you alternate working days? Finish the shorter piece before editing the longer? How do you handle two stories that both need your attention?

Keeping Score: July 31, 2020

I feel like I’m telling this story to myself, over and over again, with each outline. New details get filled in, new connections appear, with each telling.

And each day I get up and tell it to myself another time, adding more pieces.

I so much want to just write, just set the words down on the page and let them fall where they may.

But then I’ll be plotting out the second third of the story, and I’ll have an idea that ripples all the way back to the beginning. And it makes me glad I haven’t started writing anything more than snippets of dialog just yet. Because all of those snippets will likely need to change.

This story…It’s more complicated than other short stories I’ve written. Less straightforward.

It’s a five-part structure. One part setup, followed by three parts flashbacks (taking place over years and across continents), followed by a climax. And it all needs to hang together like a coherent whole, present flowing to flashbacks and then returning to the present.

I’m not sure I can pull it off, to be honest. I’ll have to do a good bit of research for each flashback, just to ground them in reality. Then there’s the problem of each flashback needing to be its own story, complete with character arc, while feeding into the larger narrative.

It’s like writing four stories at once, really, with them nested inside each other.

Will it all make sense, in the end? Will the flashbacks prove to be too long, and need culling? Will my framing device be so transparent that it’s boring? Will the conclusion be a big enough payoff?

Who knows?

All I can do is tell myself the story, piece by piece, over and over again, until I can see it all clearly.

Keeping Score: July 24, 2020

I’ve never written a short-story this way before.

I’m coming at it more like a novel. I’m outlining, then researching things like character names and historical towns to model the setting off of, then revising the outline, rinse, repeat.

So I’ve written very little of it, so far. And what I have written — snippets of dialog and description — might get thrown out later, as the outline changes.

I’m not sure it’s better, this way. I feel frustrated at times, like I want to just write the thing and get it over with.

But I know — well, I feel — that that will result in a story that’s not as good as it could have been. Like eating grapes before they’ve ripened on the vine.

And I do keep coming up with more connections between the various pieces of the story, more ways to tie it all together. Each one is an improvement. Each one makes the story stronger.

Perhaps that’s how I’ll know when to stop outlining, and start writing? When I literally can’t think of any way to make the story itself better?

How about you? How do you know when it’s time to write a story, and when it needs to sit in your mind a little while longer?

Keeping Score: July 17, 2020

Started drafting a new short story this week.

I’m taking a different approach, this time. For short stories, I usually just sit down and write it out, all in one go. At least for the first draft.

For this story, I’m doing a mix of outlining and writing. I jot down lines of dialog as they come to me, or — in one case — the whole opening scene came in flash, so I typed it up.

But the majority of the story is still vague to me, so I’m trying to fill it in via brainstorming and daydreaming. Sketching a map of where it’s taking place, thinking through why the town it’s set in exists, what it’s known for. Drafting histories for the main characters.

It’s fun, so it’s also hard to convince myself that it’s work. Necessary work, at that.

Because my guilty writer conscience wants to see words on the page. No matter that I’m not ready, the ideas only half-formed. For it, it’s sentences or nothing.

So I’m pushing back by reading a book specifically about short story techniques, using the authority of another writer to argue (with my guilt) that it’s okay to pause and think. That progress can mean no words save a character bio. That every story needs a good foundation, and that’s what I’m trying to build.

It’s working, so far. My guilt does listen, just not always to me.

What about you? How do you balance the need to feel productive with the background work that every story requires?

Keeping Score: May 15, 2020

Current writing streak: 64 days.

Finally reached the part of the novel where I’m back to editing, instead of writing new chapters. It’s made things easier going, on that front. Less intimidating to sit down with words already on the page, and know I’ve just got to make them consistent with everything else.

There’s a few chapters at the very end where I’ll need to be drafting from scratch again, but for now, at least, it’s smoother sailing.

Of course, this won’t be the end of my editing passes. I’ll need to do at least one more of what I’m thinking of as “consistency passes” to check all the new material against what’s already there. Then I’m planning on doing a dialog pass for each main character, to ensure they speak consistently throughout. Finally I’ll do a phrase and copy-editing pass, looking for awkward wording or cliché description.

So still plenty to do.

I’ve also continued to work on the short story on alternate days this week. I wasn’t sure I was ready to start writing the new section of that work, to be honest, but by focusing on just one little detail at a time — Anne Lamott’s one-inch frame technique — I’ve managed to add ~1,000 words to the draft. If I keep this up, I might actually have the draft done (and ready to set aside, for later editing) next week.

Which would be…amazing. I wasn’t sure I could ever get back to some sort of functioning writing schedule during the pandemic. Or get back to writing more than just a sentence or two a day. But something’s happened recently, like a mental fog has lifted. I’m able to brainstorm again, and hold both of these storylines (the story and the novel) in my head again, and write a page a day again.

It may not last. I’m going to appreciate it while it does, though. I know not everyone has been as relatively fortunate as I have through this pandemic.

So I’m grateful, for the work I can do, while I can do it.

How about you? Have you felt like you’ve turned a corner lately? Or are things still too much in the air for your writing brain to settle into some kind of routine?

First Story Published in Latest Galaxy’s Edge Magazine!

It’s here! The new issue of Galaxy’s Edge is out, and along with stories by Joe Halderman and Robert J Sawyer, it has my very first short story sale: “Wishr”!

It’s been a long road for this story. I wrote the first draft in September of 2016 (!). Since then it’s been through five major revisions, and multiple edits on top of that.

Several of those were prompted by early rejections. I’d submit it, get a rejection, revise the story, get beta reader feedback, and send it back out. Over and over and over again.

A slow process, but a necessary one. I’m proud of the story that’s resulted, and very proud to be a part of Galaxy’s Edge magazine, which was edited by Mike Resnick until his passing early this year.

Many thanks and congratulations to both the editor, Lezli Robyn, and the publisher, Shahid Mahmud, for keeping the magazine going, and his legacy alive.

So check out the new issue, and let me know what you think of the story!