Keeping Score: June 11, 2021

Got another short story rejection today. This one was personal, at least; not a form letter, but a description of an historical error that threw the editor out of the story.

It hurts a little less, I guess? To know I got close enough to being accepted that the magazine’s editor read the story, and rejected it themselves. But it’s also frustrating, to have such high hopes for a story, only to see it constantly fail to get published.

And now, of course, I’m diving into more historical research, and thinking of ways to fix the error they called out, while keeping the heart of the story intact. Yet another revision to make before sending it back out.

Or perhaps it’s time to let this one go. Sometimes I think I need to take these rejections less personally. To treat them as less of a challenge, and more like little slips of paper slipped under my door while I’m working. So long as I’m producing more stories to send out, does it matter that much if one of them doesn’t work as well as I’d like? Or to flip it around: If I’m happy with a story, does it matter so much that any particular editor isn’t?

Of course I’m never completely happy with a story. There’s always something to change, some phrase to tweak or scene to re-think.

That’s the thing: I’m always ready to revise. I crave feedback, and once I get it I honor it by making changes. But is that the best way to improve as a writer? Am I making things better, or just delaying working on something new, something to which I can apply all of my lessons learned afresh?

What about you? When you get a rejection, does it spur you to keeping editing? Or do you march on to the next project?

Keeping Score: May 28, 2021

So I didn’t quit. Not this week, at least 🙂

Only 686 words written so far, though, so I’ll need to play catch-up today and tomorrow, once again. I seem to end up skipping my writing for the day at least once a week, so a Friday writing marathon might end up being a regular habit. Which is fine with me, actually…wrapping up my writing in a final burst feels like a good way to roll into the weekend.

And I’ve finally got enough distance from the horror story I drafted — about two weeks — that I can go back and start revising it now. Which’ll be a nice break from the novel (again), because ye gods I’m tired of the section I’ve been working on. Writing in skip-around mode works for getting me past blockages, but makes sewing up all those missing parts kind of a drag. And it makes that connecting process a skip-around of its own, but an involuntary one, so just as I get in the flow for one area, I hit the words I’ve already written, and need to skip ahead to the next missing piece.

It’s tedious, and tedium makes it hard to push myself to get the writing done. Because it needs to be done, those missing pieces need to be filled in, lest I end up with something of a half-told story.

But it’s not very fun. The fun parts I’ve already written! That was the good thing about skipping around. Now I’m in the bad part, which is…well, something I’ve got to grit my teeth and get through.

On the other side of the tunnel of tedium is the next chapter though, where I’ve got to write about bodily trauma and some inner psychological horror as changes take hold in the point-of-view character. That’ll be fun…so long as I can convince myself I know what I’m doing when writing about this kind of physical trauma 😬 I might want to set aside a day or two for some research…

Keeping Score: May 14, 2021

I finished the rough draft of the short story!

It topped out at 5,157 words, which is a little longer than I’d like. Most of the markets I want to try to sell into have a cap of around 5k. But I should be able to trim it down enough during editing that it’ll squeeze under the limit.

So I’m setting that aside for a couple of weeks, to get some distance on the story before I try to revise it. I’m picking the novel back up, meanwhile, trying to finish the same interminable section i was working on when I pivoted to the short story.

I say interminable because it seems I keep finding gaps in the story that I have to fill in now. I’ll be scrolling along, watching a continuous flow of words, when there’s a break in the narrative. And I have to stop, scroll back up, get back into the “mood” of the particular scene, and then spin a bridge across to the next one.

It’s a little tedious, but only in the sense that I can’t believe I left so many holes in the story. I’m filling them just fine, the words are flowing, thank goodness. But I’m already judging past me: Why didn’t you just keep writing the story? Did you really need to skip over writing these three paragraphs that I just put down?

The answer, of course, is that yes, I did need to skip them. At the time, I needed to leap over them in order to discover my destination. But that still means poor present-day me has to trundle along behind, paving over the potholes in the semi-paved story road.

What about you? Ever make a judgement call during drafting that you later regret, either in the same draft or later?

Keeping Score: May 7, 2021

In the spirit of being more flexible, I decided to take a break from the novel this week. Instead, I’ve been putting my word count towards the short story, pushing to get a first draft done before the week is out.

And so far, so good! I’ve written 1,076 words of my 1,250 word goal (so I’ve got to do a session today to finish out strong), and I’m currently writing the last scene in the story.

It’s a horror story, so I’m trying to use all the techniques I’ve been learning about from Writing in the Dark and all the horror novels I’ve been bingeing. Focusing on the character’s reactions to events, rather than relying on the events themselves. Sticking close to one character’s point of view, to pull the reader into the situation. Using more senses than just sight and hearing to convey the world.

And I’m leaning on the drafting techniques I’ve picked up while writing the novel. Like jotting down dialog first, or skipping around in a scene to work around a temporary block. Or working on a scene in layers, doing multiple passes to put in all the elements I want to have in a scene (dialog, thoughts, physical blocking, environment).

I feel like it’s producing a stronger first draft. One I’ll have an easier time revising later on. Not that I’m trying to be super-careful about word choice — it’s a trash draft after all — but I think the bones of the story will hold up more, when it comes time to edit. So hopefully I’ll be able to focus more on language and less on “do I need to completely rewrite this to make it more interesting?”

What about you? Do you feel like your first drafts have gotten better over time? Or have you found better ways to revise? Maybe both?

Keeping Score: April 2, 2021

I feel like I’ve been to a horror workshop this past week.

It started with reading Tim Waggoner’s Writing in the Dark, effectively a textbook (complete with exercises!) for writing better horror stories. He breaks down the different sub-genres, he explores what distinguishes horror from other types of fiction, and he pulls back the curtain on different techniques to use in horror to produce different effects.

I’ve read other writing books before — and will read more, I’ll take advice wherever I can find it — and always come away with at least one or two changes to make to the way I write. Writing in the Dark was no different in that respect, but it went one step further: It changed the way I read.

Shortly after finishing it, I picked up a copy of Salem’s Lot. I realized I haven’t been reading much horror lately, so I thought going back to one of the classics would be a good way to dive in.

And I was right, but not in the way I’d intended. Because instead of just noticing things like the parallels in the story to the original Dracula, or getting sucked into the story — both of which happened, it’s still a damn fine book — I started noticing things about the way King wrote it. Places where he was writing in a more literary voice, versus genre. Places where he slowed time down by writing everything out in minute detail, to ramp up tension. Places where he shifted point of view. How in the more “horror” chapters, he wrote in a perspective that clung tightly to one character’s train of thought, to show their reactions to what was happening, which is where dread lives. Often those chapters had very little happen in them at all, but the characters reacted to them as if they were scared out of their wits, and thus carried the reader with them.

It was like Waggoner was standing over my shoulder as I read, pointing to passages and remarking on the techniques being used in each. I could still appreciate the story King was telling, still feel the chill of being hunted by an ancient vampire in a New England fall. But I could also see how he was telling the story, and think about how I could use those techniques in my own fiction.

Next I read Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians, a horror novel which came out just last year. I had the same experience with it, though — at least for me — the seams were less visible in this one. That is, it was harder for me to pull myself out of it, and see how it was built. But it was still possible, and I noticed both some of the same techniques King used and others being brought to bear, techniques more commonly used for monster books, which Jones’ is (and King’s wasn’t).

I’m now reading Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame, and having much the same experience. Loving the story, falling into the book, but on the way, paying attention to the way she’s telling the tale, from sentence length to parenthetical remarks to event ordering (no spoilers, you’ll need to pick up a copy and read it). It’s another finely constructed book, and I feel I’m appreciating it on a whole different level (and learning from it).

All of which is to say: I’ve started drafting a new horror story (finally).

It’s the one I’ve been outlining forever, afraid to commit it to (electronic) paper. This week I took the plunge, working on it after my words for the novel were done for the day. I’m drafting it in much the same way as the novel, working scatter-shot, drawing up bits of dialog before anything else, and then stitching it all together.

But this time, I’m consciously thinking about the different horror techniques I’ve seen, and looking for ways to apply them. So after finishing the dialog and blocking for one section, I went back and added in the main character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions, to pull the perspective tighter in on them. I’m also not shying away from characters in conflict, or physically fighting; taking the time to block the sequences in my head and then setting them down. Because in this story, at least, there will be pain, and there will be blood. And if my protagonist is not going to flinch, neither can I.

It’s still the first draft, so it’s going to need a lot of editing, but I’m already feeling better about it. More confident. Like I’m writing in a more deliberate mode, more aware of what I’m doing, and why. Here’s hoping my confidence is justified, once it’s done.

Keeping Score: March 19, 2021

Ye gods, the Daylight Savings Time switch walloped me this week. It’s like I was finally adapting to 2021 — working on the novel, editing short stories, plotting out a new story — and then DST yanks an hour out from under me, robbing me of just enough energy that I’ve been struggling just to hit my daily word count.

I’ve basically been slow-motion jet-lagged all week. I really wish we would stop doing this to ourselves.

The good news is that (thanks to beta readers) I now have not one, but two stories under submission. Just waiting for their little pink slips of rejection to come back 😅

I kid, but really, it feels good to have them out there. Statistically, they will get rejected from each magazine I send them to, which is how I steel myself for it. But I like these stories. I believe in these stories. There’s a market for them, somewhere, and the only way I can find it is by sending them out.

Meanwhile, the novel’s climbed to 36,789 words. I’m starting to connect up the snippets of dialog I’ve written for the ending scenes of this section, which means I’m having to actually worry about things like “How would they have treated this wound in this time period?” and “How badly injured is the protagonist, anyway?”

I am definitely getting some of these details wrong. I do not know enough about wounds, or medical care on the Central Asian steppe in the 18th century, or early modern firearms, or…really, so much. But I know enough to write something down, something I can come back and fix later, so that’s what I’m doing.

It helps for me to think of this not as the first draft, but as the trash draft. The draft I know I’m going to mess up on, and revise extensively later. No one’s going to see this draft but me. I’m going to finish it, and then do the research needed to get each section right. Hell, some of these scenes I’m flubbing might not even be needed, and so they’ll get cut. Which would make taking the time to get them exactly right now a waste.

So it’s onward! Screwing up as I go, laying down the raw material I’ll shape into something better via editing.

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.

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.