Saturday, December 31, 2011

Letting Go of Perfect: The Skinny on Writing a Rough Draft and Finishing It

A few years ago I was working at a TV station. One day another employee stopped me in the hallway and the following conversation ensued.

DUDE: Hey. I saw you the other day while you were at a red light. I waved and yelled at you but you didn't answer.

ME: Really? Where?

DUDE: Down on Main Street. By the Mexican food place.

ME: Oh. Sorry. When I'm driving I tend to be... ignorant.

Needless to say, that was not the word I was looking for. I meant oblivious. So, I just turned red and hurried off to do something else as soon as I realized I sounded like an idiot. (Ignorant, indeed.) That's the problem with talking to people – you only get one chance to find the right word.

When you're writing, it's a whole different story. And here's where we get to the point of today's post.

Rough drafts or, as some prefer to call them, first drafts are no good at all if you don't finish them. I can't tell you how many unfinished first drafts I have lodge in my virtual trunk. (Actually a computer folder labeled “Shyte”.) There they sit, lovely beginnings that serve me no purpose because in order to do anything further they must first be FINISHED.

Learning to finish a draft is hard. Here's how I handle the ingrained writer's instinct to make every word perfect the first time through. (An admirable goal, I might add, but usually counter-productive.)

First, I recite the following mantra.

Some words are better than no words.
A bad word is better than no words.
A simple word is better than an incorrect fancy word.
Poorly structured words are better than no words.

Then I write.
When I find myself searching for an obscure synonym for “black” I repeat line three of the mantra, type in “black” and keep going.
When I start analyzing whether I really want to use a gerund or should I change the sentence structure to improve flow I repeat line four of the mantra, type my gerund riddled sentence and keep going.
When I start wondering if I've gotten any email/if there's fresh coffee/whether this story sucks, I repeat line one, turn off the internet connection, promise myself a cup of coffee after I reach the end, clonk my inner critic over the head and keep going. (Are you seeing a pattern here, yet?)
When I write “he ran” and realize that's totally not the right word for the situation, I repeat line two of the mantra, tell myself “I'll fix it in post” and keep going.

What about plot holes?” you say. “What if I decide I want my story to take place in Rwanda instead of Scotland? What if I don't know the scientific term for iron?”

I have a nifty system for that too.
For anything plot related I use these [ ] brackets. [I write a note, right in the middle of the story with a summary of a scene I'm not ready to write yet, a note to move the location of the story, or even just a note that says FIX THIS LATER! and put the square brackets around it for easy reference.] (One writer I know changes the font color on sections he thinks need work as he's writing to make them easy to spot during editing.)
For anything research related I use these < > brackets. Usually things like <Insert proper scientific term here> or <Find street name>.
Then I keep going.

It is a difficult skill to learn, letting your mistakes lie there until it's time to edit. But in the end, one of the most common differences between “aspiring” authors and published authors is the ability to FINISH A STORY.

When you write a rough draft it is okay for it to be utter crap. That's why we call them “rough” drafts. They can be awkward and have pieces missing and subplots dangling and poorly researched settings. Because all of that can be fixed during editing. But if the story ain't done, you won't have anything to edit.

So, repeat after me.

Some words are better than no words.
A bad word is better than no words.
A simple word is better than an incorrect fancy word.
Poorly structured words are better than no words.

Now. What have you written today?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Basics: Story Structure - Beginning

You may have heard that a novel is not subject to the guidelines of the three act structure because “it isn't a play”. I could go into a long explanation about the development of three act structure prior to the printing press and if books had been in mass production at the time it might be called something different. But I think it's best to keep it simple.

The foundation of three act structure is this: every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. In fact, if any story that doesn't have a beginning, middle and end is probably not a story at all but a different type of prose I like to call “unfinished”. That, I think, should be an argument for another day.

Much of the confusion surrounding three act structure comes from a lack of understanding about what exactly a “beginning”, “middle” or “end” looks like. So, lets break it down, starting with: The Beginning.

It is easy to assume that the beginning of a story is also the beginning of the main character's life. Or, at the very least, the moment they wake up on the day you decide to start chronicling his/her life. In a few cases this might be true.

More accurately, the beginning of a story is the point at which (or immediately before) the main character encounters a challenge that cannot be ignored but must be resolved – either through overcoming the challenge or succumbing to it. This is commonly termed the “inciting incident”. Some stories require you to provide context for the inciting incident, but in general you want to start as close to the moment the MC's life changes forever as you possibly can.

In some cases the “challenge” may be presented as a goal which the MC must achieve by overcoming obstacles. It must still be something that cannot be ignored. In other words, the challenge or goal must be something that has a direct impact on the MC's life.

A few common inciting incidents:
Boy meets girl/girl meets boy and falls in love but the girl/boy is out of his/her league or engaged to someone else or going out of the country the following day.
Something goes terribly wrong – this covers just about any story about alien invasions, horror, mystery, natural disaster.
An average Joe stumbles onto a conspiracy/learns that magic is real/learns the world isn't real/etc.
Someone is killed as payback and the Main Character swears revenge.

Notice how most inciting incidents also give us an idea of where the plot leads? Remember, a good inciting incident is a challenge that cannot be ignored but must be resolved. It is a goal that drives the story. (And yes, this is still true even for character driven stories.)

In general, the beginning of the story should present the reader with your Main Character. It should give us some insight into his/her current circumstance. It should introduce a challenge or goal for him/her to overcome/achieve.

If your beginning includes those basic elements, you are well on your way to finishing a good story.

So, what have you written today?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Rejections: Form VS Personal

Most of the rejections you receive will be form letters. It is important to remember that just because a rejection is a “form” it doesn't mean your story is bad. Nor does it mean the editor is a heartless meanie who can't be bothered to send you a personal note. Form rejections are a necessary part of the business.

Sometimes you'll be fortunate enough to get a personal rejection. These usually offer specific reasons on why a story wasn't accepted and, on occasion, may offer advice about how to improve the story. But, although personal rejections may be more encouraging than form rejections, in the end they both mean no.

The worst thing you can do is let rejections of any kind discourage you from continuing to seek publication.

So, what have you submitted today?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Rejections: The Skinny on How to Handle the Inevitable

If you're seeking publication, at some point you will have to deal with rejections. And no matter how much you do to prepare for a rejection, some of them will hurt. Maybe because it was a publication you really wanted to be part of. Or maybe you thought a particular was a perfect match for an anthology. Or maybe because you feel like you're running out of good markets to try. Or you just had a bad day.

Any number of things can make a rejection hit a nerve, but there are steps you can take to dull the sting.

  1. Have a Plan – before I send a story to a first market I like to have the second (and usually the third, fourth and fifth) market lined up. This keeps me focused on the business at hand – selling a story, instead of bogging down in doubt over whether a story is any good or overanalyzing if it's a good fit for a particular publication.
  2. Don't Take It Personally – I know it's difficult, but there is nothing to be gained by getting bent over a rejection. There are plenty of novice writers who like to think editors are evil dream-crushers, but that's just silly. Badmouthing an editor who sent a form rejection (or even a personal one) only makes you look like an asshat. And even if you keep your ill-will to yourself, fuming over a rejection is just a waste of time. Time that would be better spent resubbing the rejected story and working on new ones.
  3. Keep it in Perspective – this is hard until you make your first sale or have your first acceptance, but I find it's easier to keep going if I keep the rejections in perspective. While it's true that the number of rejections you receive is NOT predictive, I like to count how many rejections I have in relation to acceptances. Although the ratio is nothing more than one number compared to another, it helps keep everything in perspective.
  4. Take a Break – no matter how much I try to stay focused on the idea that writing is work and rejections are a part of that work, I still get bummed out sometimes. That's okay. Usually when I start feeling overwhelmed by the rejections popping up in my email-box, I take a break for a day. I read a good book or chill out listening to a favorite album or cook a special dinner. Even when you don't take rejections personally, they get discouraging. It's important to remember to do things that keep you in a positive frame of mind.

No matter how long you've been writing and seeking publication, rejections still suck. But after a while they start to be just another part of the job.

So, what have you submitted today?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Rejections: The Skinny on When to Edit/Revise

One cool thing about improving as a writer is that you'll start getting personal rejections instead of form letters. But personal rejections are more likely to give you a specific reason why an editor (or slush reader) rejected a story. Some times that can be a good thing. Other times you may find yourself falling into the “edit/revise” trap.

Any time a story is rejected it's always tempting to take another swing at it with the editing machete or send it to a different beta reader in hopes of finding something that needs “fixing.” The best piece of advice I can give on the matter is: DON'T.

This isn't to say that I've not gone back over stories after getting several rejections and tweaked or rewritten sections in order to improve them. Sometimes after you gain a little distance from a particular piece of work you do realize it could use a little more polishing. But you should never EVER think that just because something has been rejected that it's not good enough. Especially if it's the first rejection. Or the second. Probably not even the fifth.

Here's why. We all know that luck plays a huge role in getting an acceptance – that perfect timing that gets your story in front of the right editor on the right day – and just because one editor decides they don't want a story, doesn't mean the next guy (or gal) won't want either. Even when the first editor tells you exactly why they didn't want it. If you had enough confidence in your story to send it out to the first market, then send it to the second. And the third. And the fourth.

Back in the spring I wrote a short story called Insomnia. I sent it to a market I thought would be a great fit. After a while I got a rejection. A personal rejection that explained that while they liked the idea they felt there was no conflict in the first 2/3s of the story and it read like the beginning of a longer story rather than an actual story. I will admit I was tempted to try and rework it, add more conflict to the front half. But when I thought about it, I already believed the front half had enough conflict and it was a complete story. That's why I'd sent it out in the first place.

So, I sent it to Daily Science Fiction. And they bought it.

A rejection – form or personal – is NOT the best indicator of when to revise a story. YOU ARE. If you think it needs more work, then work on it. If you think it's good, then keep submitting it.

I've pulled stories out of rotation to try and clean them up further and some of them have been vastly improved. Others were just a waste of my time because they DIDN'T NEED FIXING.

Sure, we writerly folk can be a little delusional some times, but we are still the best judge of when our stories are as good as they can be. There's nothing wrong with reworking something, but don't waste time adding or removing commas or subplots or a half-scene that adds a little humor to an otherwise bloody story just because you got a rejection or six.

So, what have you written today?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Cover Letters : Short Story Market

A cover letter should not be confused with a query letter. And, while most short story markets DO NOT require a query letter, they do like to have a brief cover letter. Fortunately, cover letters are one of the easiest parts of the submission “extras” to write.

Here are the basics.

Your letter should begin with Dear [Editor]. Find the name of the editor of the publication you're submitting to. It is usually available in the “About Us” info on the magazine's website. If it's a large publication there may be separate editors for different departments. i.e. Fantasy stories may go to one editor while sci-fi goes to someone else. If this is the case, make sure you get the correct name. Even if a publication doesn't have different editors for different departments, chances are they do have more than one editor. The general rule of thumb is to address the letter to the Grand High Poohbah A.K.A: the senior editor.

Next should be a sentence that looks something like this: Attached is my short story (The Weather is Always Fine in Paradise) of approximately 7000 words. It is important to note that most publications DO NOT want a logline, summary or synopsis (however brief) of your short story. In fact, many submission guidelines specify the story should be able to stand on it's own and they will find out what it's about when they read it. The only thing they want to know is the title of the story and how long it is. If you're dealing with publications that do take simultaneous submissions, this is also the place to say if a particular story is being subbed elsewhere.

Thirdly, unless specified in the submission guidelines you DO NOT need to provide an author's bio in your cover letter. You can provide a few details about your writing history such as: I have a B.A. in Creative Writing/English/Speculative Fiction/Whatever. My stories have been published online/in print with Magazine X, Anthology Y and Publication Z. My rule of thumb is to mention whatever publication credits you have, up to three or four. Once you have more than that, mention the most recent/relevant.

You DON'T need to state you've been writing since the age of seven or that storytelling is your passion. The first is irrelevant, the second is usually a given.

If, however, you've met the editor before and been encouraged to submit you might put in a line reminding them of that meeting. Or if you've submitted to the publication before and been rejected but encouraged to submit something else, you can say that too. But keep it brief and business-like.

This is also the place to put down any “special circumstances” that apply to the story you are submitting. This could be: My high school paper published this story 14 years ago. Or: I spent two years working as a crew member on a sailing ship/zeppelin/velocipede team. DO NOT say something like: I saw an episode of Nova on PBS and was inspired to write about black holes.

If you haven't been published before and/or don't have any background writing fiction THAT IS OKAY. Everyone starts somewhere. But (BUT!) don't put that in the cover letter. Just skip this paragraph and head straight for the last section.

Fourthly, a brief line thanking the editor is always nice. I usually say: Thank you for your time and consideration.

Lastly, put your name.

Simple, yes?

The only remaining question is: is a cover letter necessary?

Some publications not only don't require one, but even say NOT to include one unless there is something specific (not covered in the other parts of the submission form) that needs to be brought to the editors attention. (Daily Science Fiction and Strange Horizons both politely discourage cover letters unless absolutely necessary.) And, while there are some publications that DO require a cover letter, many fall in the middle ground, neither requiring nor discouraging them.

Here's my two cents. If you have ANY publication credits (whether pro- semi- or otherwise) it never hurts to mention them. (This is assuming they are relevant credits. Non-fiction sales will mean little to fantasy magazine.) And, in my mind, it never hurts to show a little extra effort in the submission process by actually thanking the editor (or slush-reader) for their time. This is the handshake at the end of the job interview. By itself it won't make a difference between “Yes, we want it” and “No, thanks”. But it can show you are serious about what you are doing.

So, what have you submitted today?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Outlines: The Skinny on Why an Outline Can Help You (And When They Might Not)

When it comes to writing, organization can mean the difference between success and failure. And when it comes to organization, an outline is an important tool.

Before we go any further let me stop to say this: it is a rookie mistake to think that the use of an outline has anything to do with a writer's skill level. Let me say that again.

Outlines are not indicative of writing skill or lack thereof. They are not a crutch. They are not something only a beginner needs. You may have heard differently. You may be under the impression that if you are a “proper” writer you won't need to use an outline. This is not true.

An outline is a tool to help you organize the information you want to share with your readers. End of story. This is true whether you outline a story before you write it or use an outline to analyze a rough draft prior to revision. An outline is an organizational tool.

Whether this particular tool is right for you is something only you can judge.

Here's how an outline can help you writing a rough draft.

  1. The Big Picture – it's easy to get lost when dealing with 80k words or more. An outline keeps the whole of the story in view even when the subplots are especially twisty or a slow spot is threatening to drag the whole project under.
  2. The Road Map – getting from point A to point Z is not always as simple as it sounds. Sometimes just getting to point B is a challenge. An outline gives you a chance to connect the dots before you're facing the additional challenge of writing.
  3. The Progress Chart – while this can be a double-edged sword, an outline shows you how much progress you're making toward the end of the story. (Or, how much progress you aren't making, but either way you know how far you've gotten.)
  4. I'm Bored – if you're like me you might find that writing from beginning to end is sometimes... boring. With an outline you can skip around, writing the parts that seem interesting to you on any given day and still keep the whole thing on track. (More or less.)

Here's how an outline can help you edit your novel.

  1. All of the Above – editing is a frequently dreaded step of the writing process. And, given that the novel is just as many words to edit as it was to write in the first place, all of the reasons an outline can help during the rough draft apply to the editing process as well.
  2. What The Hell Is This? - if you've never gone back to look at the first draft of a novel and thought “What the heck did I write?”, never fear – that moment will come. (Sooner or later.) Creating a new outline (based on what you actually wrote and not just what you intended to write) is the first step to evaluating what should be kept, what needs serious revisions and what should be cut out entirely.

“But what if I don't want to use an outline?” you say.

Well, an outline is a tool and, like any other tool, not everyone will get the same productivity out of it. I, personally, find outlines to be enormously helpful, but not everyone has my brain so not everyone will get the same results.

Here's why an outline might not be right for you.

  1. My Hands are Tied – although it isn't true that an outline is binding, some people find the idea of plotting a story before they are writing the actual story to be restrictive. Or they find that the creativity seems to shut down once the story is laid out in black and white bullet points.
  2. The Outline That Ate Chicago – believe it or not, sometimes you can get so caught up in writing the outline you never actually get around to writing the story. If you find you've spent three years on the outline (or even three months) you might consider that it's time to move on to the next step – writing. If the problem persists, outlines may be more of a hindrance than a help.

The most important thing to remember is that not every novel is the same. It doesn't matter if you use an outline or not. What matters is that you are using every available tool to help you write more productively. Sometimes that means winging it. Other times you may need more organization. Whether you need to pick up an outline or put it away, remember: an outline is a tool, not an indication of skill (or lack thereof).

So, what have you written today?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Writing Fiction From Scratch

A lot of people dream of being published authors.
Some of us want to be the next JK Rowling, Wally Lamb, Stephen King or <insert your favorite author here>.
Some of us want to write because it's our passion and we have stories we want to share with the world.
And that's great. Wonderful. Amazing and fantastic, even. (Even for those of us, like me, who are in it for the money.)

The million dollar question is, what have you done today to make that dream happen?

Did you read a good book?
Spend an hour searching for potential representation?
Browse your favorite online writers forum?
Did you catch up on the dozens of blogs by other writers, publishers and agents that you find inspiring?
Find a few new blogs to read?
Take a walk?
Listen to music?
Browse through photos or newspaper headlines looking for inspiration?
Did you exchange emails with a writing partner or that friend who's always cheering you on?
Tweet a few dozen times about how hard it is to get published/quotes by famous authors/the link to the latest bad/good news in the publishing world?
Browse Facebook searching for new writers to connect with?
Look for how-to articles on writing?

Did you write?

There is nothing wrong with searching for inspiration or researching new markets. Networking with other writers and learning your craft is rarely a bad idea. BUT. Nothing will make you a better writer more than writing. And I mean nothing.

Writing fiction from scratch is hard.
It takes work.
Not surfing the web looking for yet another article debating the pros and cons of First Person vs. Third Person.
It takes work.
Not meandering around Facebook looking for more writers to friend.
It takes work.

That means sitting down every day and writing something. Even if it's one sentence. Even if you know it sucks. Even if it takes an hour to get one paragraph finished. Sit down and write. Because nothing will help your chances for success more than actually writing.

So, what have you written today?