Back To It

Oct. 13th, 2010 04:50 pm
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I've been busy with music/Hypnos, my dad's visit to Portland, writing, and all the rest of life. Funny, when I blog regularly I find it easy to keep on blogging regularly, and once I stop it's very easy to STAY stopped. So many things are like this, especially exercise and creative activities. Running every single day is easy. Taking a week off running, and then starting to run again that first time is much harder.

I still write six days a week, exercise six days a week, work my day job five days a week, listen to tons of music, watch lots of movies with my wife, and don't get enough sleep.

Lately I'm working on a lot of stories simultaneously, even more than usual for me, and the stories are all over the map. I'm writing an SF story about a group of robotic domestic helpers left behind by their humans on an Earth-like colony, a horror-tinged SF story about some weird stuff lurking in the bottom of a deep mine (not started in response to the major news story about miners in Chile), finishing up a dark fantasy or horror bit about a family vacationing at a lake house and coming under the influence of some local entities. I have another odd, dark bit about a married couple who retreat to a cabin out in the wilderness near Mt. Hood and begin to lose all connection to the world they left behind.

I'm also continuing heavy cuts on my two "salvage project" stories I mentioned before... mega-long stories that needed to lose 2/3 of their length before I could even assess how to turn them into something interesting. They're down from 14,000 words to 5,500 and from 11,000 words to 5,300 so they're getting close to where I can see what they need to be. This has been a really useful and interesting test or experiment, but I don't know that I'd do it again. I could have easily rewritten these stories from scratch in less time, and with better result, but then again that wasn't really the point.

I've got the same nine final drafts still circulating among various markets. My two longest-pending submissions are both Writers of the Future, for 2010-q3 (June-ending quarter) and q4 (Sept-ending). Jeez, sending those guys a story means keeping it from other markets for about six months, it appears. I realize they get a lot of submissions but it seems they could finish one quarter's reading before opening it up to the next quarter... and then the one after that. They just announced q2 results, and they're reading stories for q3, q4, and 2011 q1 (quarter ending December) all at once. Sheesh, talk about slush pile.

Reading notes...

I'm still reading Laird Barron's Occultation, an absolutely top-notch collection. Seriously, some of the best strange/dark short fiction I can remember reading, not just recently, but ever. When I get through that last story and a half (I'm reading other stuff in parallel so it's taking a while) I'll write a real review.

Just finished The City & The City by China Mieville, and I'm very impressed. I knew it would be good, based on all the reviews and awards, and interviews I've read with the author. I can tell he's just a super-sharp guy and I've owned copies of several of his books for a while and intended to get to them... but finally dived into one of his newest. Before I move on to Kraken I'll probably jump back to Perdido Street Station since that's been on the "must read soon" list since, you know, a really long time ago.

Lessee, I think I mentioned finishing Old Man's War, which was really good, and not as lightweight or pastiche-y as I expected. I'm on to Charles Stross's Singularity Sky, which is fully of SF-nal goodness, and pretty well written, though at times a little too heavy on the political & military detail. I'm not far into it so I'll reserve judgement.

I did mean to blog a bit more about the HP Lovecraft Film Festival, which was a lot of fun and quite memorable. But this is a "rust buster" blog so I'll wrap it up, and leave stuff to blog about later this week.
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In my last post I mentioned I've been working harder than ever on writing fiction.

When I first picked up writing again last year, I really only dabbled a few hours occasionally on the weekend. Then late in 2009 I got more serious, and added one or two more weeknight sessions, maybe an hour or two after work.

This summer I stepped it up. I now get up at 5:30 every morning, which gives me almost 90 minutes to write, five days a week, before I have to get ready for work. Three or four times a week, after work and exercise, I might squeeze in another hour. On the weekend I write all day Sunday (8-12 hours), and often an hour or two on Saturday.

This may not be "full time" but it's a huge improvement over what I was doing just six months ago, and it means much of my time not spent at work, or commuting, exercising or eating, is spent writing.

I've often seen established writers offer the straightforward advice, "write more," and I really believe that's the best prescription. As far as I'm concerned, it's not only spending more hours per week, but also making the sessions more frequent and consistent, that makes the difference. When I was writing a couple times per week, every time I sat down I had to re-acquaint myself with where I left off. Now, the moment I sit down at the computer I know exactly what I want to work on, and where I stand with regard to that piece. For this reason, if I had the choice between two hour writing sessions six times a week, or a single twelve-hour marathon, I'd choose the near-daily consistency.

Because of this effect, I'm now writing many more hours per week, and each hour is more productive now than before. Effectively I feel I'm accomplishing ten times as much per week as I did a year ago. It's exciting to finish new stories at an increased rate, and feel I've been able to give them all the care and attention they needed.
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All "R" posts, all the time here. I'd like to touch on something I'm doing recently: Radical Revisions. I mean, taking a story that's so far removed from what it needs to be that I ended up abandoning or back-burner-ing it... and then scrapping most, and completely remodeling the rest of it. I've previously mentioned in this blog my intention to write more careful initial drafts, in the hope of requiring fewer subsequent revisions, and this would seem to contradict that plan. With my newly drafted stories, I'm still following that.

What's the point, then, of reworking an old story by a method that takes much longer than just rewriting from scratch? I have a few reasons for trying this.

First, some of those old ideas still seem appealing and I'd like to finally see them realized as finished stories that hold together.

Second, it's a useful editorial challenge to diagnose and fix the most extremely "broken" stories. It's a sort of self-workshopping test to figure out what's wrong with these pieces, and what they need added, changed, and removed. Mostly removed.

Third, my goal mindset for first draft composition is to totally trust my "editor brain" to fix any problems later. The more confidence you have in your ability to set things right in future drafts, the more you can cut loose and run. So, part of the point of this editorial challenge is what it will give me in terms of first draft freedom.

This project has me working on some very different material from what I'm accustomed to. I've got these:

Code name: Succubus
Originally 14,000 words in 22 scenes, dark fantasy with horror/erotic elements. I've cut 7,000 words and most of the scenes, and I'm working toward a 4,500 word finished story, with nine scenes, each of which actually, you know, accomplish something.

Code name: Pornography
Originally 11,000 words in 13 scenes, also dark fantasy with horror elements, not as racy as the above, nor as drastic a cut-job. Down to about 7,500 words and the goal is 4,000 words, nine scenes, of which two are very short transitions.

Code name: Ash Dream
This wasn't too long, and it's in my usual SF realm (though with a significant horror element, mostly off-camera), so not as drastic as the above. Completely re-writing for POV and voice, resequencing all scenes so much of the story is told out of chronological order. Almost half the story is now in the form of summary or recap through dialogue. Interested to see if this works, but it'll end up being under 3,000 words, five scenes. Oh, and a totally different ending, centering on the actions of a character who didn't exist in the prior version.

To me this is sort of like turning an old, rotting, falling-down firehouse into a new, remodeled residence with concrete and big windows and cool art on the walls. It's hard work, and it seems like a ridiculous impossibility along the way, but it will be so great when it's done.
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I usually keep my music stuff and my writing stuff completely separate. Hypnos Recordings and ambient music on the left, weird stories on the right. One side of my face is M. Griffin and the opposite is Michael Griffin, like those white-black split guys on the original Star Trek.

Sometimes, though, I think what I've learned by running a moderately successful ambient music record label for the past 13-ish years actually has given me some insights I can carry over into the fiction thing. Particularly useful is the ability to see the acceptance/rejection process, in which eager young artist tries to gain the approval of the gatekeeper (editor, agent, label head). Having participated in this process from one side for so long, having rejected all kinds of work for all kinds of reasons, helps me understand what it means when I get a story back in the mail (or more often lately, receiving a "sorry, no" email). Also, what it doesn't mean.

In the realm of music, sometimes I've received a demo when I really don't have any more capacity to release new music, regardless of quality. That artist gets a rejection no matter what. More often, the backlog isn't quite so distressingly full, but there is a great imbalance between the number of people seeking to have their creative work released into the world, and the number of slots available. This means that lots of great work gets rejected because it's too much like something else we're already doing, or it's perfectly competent but not distinctive enough. Maybe it's pure genius, but slightly out of bounds with regard to genre or style.

I wrote once before about Degrees of Rejection, and because of my work with Hypnos, I know one thing for sure. Now, I've talked to writers who believe that a rejection is a rejection, and trying to argue that not all are equal amounts to self-delusion. The thing is, having sat on the opposite side of the desk taught me something. A huge difference exists between someone who is doing professional-level work, but missing certain details, or not quite a perfect fit, and someone who is falling far short. It doesn't surprise me to read that editors reject certain stories on page one. I've rejected some demos less than a minute into the first track. Hell, some demos you can reject based on the dipshit cover letter, without having heard a single note, or based on the shirtless, Fabio-esque picture the guy enclosed. There is a great difference in how I respond to different categories of inquiries or demos, and I believe editors are no different.

The first thing an unpublished writer (or other artist) should seek to do, an interim goal they can strive for even before they actually break through, is to reach a level of competence and artistic potency such that their work is at least in the realm of serious consideration, even when it is not accepted. At that point, the gatekeeper listens to the whole demo (or reads the entire manuscript), possibly sticks it in the "maybe" pile, checks out the artist/writer's web site, and replies with a personal note.

Of course, this all amounts to guessing and divination, trying to understand intention behind a rejection letter, which doesn't really get you anything. That's the kind of thing we grab hold of, though, while waiting.
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Yeah, I know writing is all about The Art, and worrying about goals and milestones is all beside the point. Lately, though, I've been focusing on some objective goals, rather than the vague stuff.

I think it's a waste of time to set goals that I can't directly effect. For example, "I want to get published soon" is perfectly fine as something to hope for, but as a goal, how do you make that happen? You can't make it happen, because it involves decisions that are out of your hands. All you can do it create a situation that makes it more likely to occur than otherwise, such as writing more stories, improving those stories via revisions, sending them out to editors, and resubmitting them as soon as they come back.

So, it's these last things I can focus on. I can set a goal of writing a certain number of days per week, or a certain number of words per day. I can set a goal of starting one new story every three weeks, and it's not up to anybody but me whether or not that happens. I can make sure my finished works are circulating among editors who may be interested in them, and I can set the goal of resubmitting any rejected story within a short time, like a day or two.

I was already tracking most of this stuff, like which stories were sent to which markets at what time, plus which stories are pending resubmission at any given moment. This is the kind of thing I'm talking about:

2009-12... 1 submission
2010-01... 1 submission (2 total)
2010-02... 2 submissions (4 total)
2010-03... 3 submissions (7 total)
2010-04... 10 submissions (17 total)
2010-05... 1 submission (18 total)
2010-06... 7 submissions (25 total)
2010-07... 2 submissions (27 total)
2010-08... 11 submissions (38 total)

This makes it look a bit like I've wavered between hyperactivity and heel-dragging, but some markets reject your story right away, while others sit on them for weeks or even months.

In April 2010 I submitted ten times, but at the time I only had five finished stories in submission, so that means I probably hit several of the faster markets (F&SF, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed) more than once, in order to average two submissions per finished story that month.

Conversely in July 2010 I only submitted two stories, but that doesn't mean I was letting rejected stories rest. It was just a time when certain markets were holding onto stuff for longer periods, so there was nothing to send back out.

Because of what happened in July, I can't really set a goal as to how many submissions I'll make per month. What if I don't get any stories rejected in September? In that case, the only stories I could submit during September would be any new stories I finish. I do try to make sure I finish roughly one new story every month, but not on a strict schedule. I don't want to get into rushing a story out before it's really done.

Periodically I'll report numbers like this, in case anyone's interested. Right now, the rejection count stands at 31 (that is, the 38 submissions, less the 7 stories currently under consideration), still a very small number compared to many other writers. That number will curve upward faster and faster as I complete more stories, and diligently keep them out there in front of editors' eyeballs. A little quick math tells me by the end of 2011 I'll have over 150 rejections if I continue at the same pace of finishing stories and submitting them to similar markets. That sounds like a lot, but I can see how a lot of writers end up with hundreds of rejections before they get their first publication.
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I wrote once before about how I use my iPad as a tool to aid my writing. If the subject interests you, you can find that earlier post here.

Last time I covered this subject, I was using the iPad as a supporting tool for note-making and information-gathering, but not really writing anything on it longer than an outline or synopsis. At that time I was using Evernote for almost everything, and that's still true. The reason for this is that Evernote, while not a word processor or even really a text editor, is great at organizing, sorting and tagging small bits of text. Also with versions for iPad/iPhone, for Mac OS and for Windows, it covered pretty much all my technology bases. Now I'm using a Droid phone and there's an Evernote version for Droid, as well. So with this free account, I can create notes (including photo or audio notes), or edit, tag/sort, or delete existing notes, wherever I am.

If you're a writer type, you may be saying "That sucks, give me a word processor," and I hear what you're saying. But while Apple Pages is a decent enough word processor in some ways, and only $9.99, it lacks the ability to easily get your work on and off the iPad so you can work on your files with other computers. You can open a text document out of your Dropbox in Pages but when you're done working, you can't put the saved changes back into Dropbox. You have to wait until the next time you're ready to sync your iPad, and that sucks. Maybe Apple will fix that in the next Pages rev. If so, they'd also better add a word counter while they're at it.

So that's why I don't bother using my iPad for serious writing, and nobody else really does either, unless they're using ONLY the iPad, and just synchronizing up once or twice a week to move materials off for printing and archiving.

Today I was inspired to cover this subject again because a new application just came out called Elements which runs on iPad and iPhone. It's $4.99 and it allows you to sync files through your Dropbox (if you haven't figured it out yet, people who use more than one computer absolutely NEED Dropbox), so you can start a file in Elements, save it, and open it later for formatting and printing on your Mac or PC... or open your works-in-progress in Elements for a little tweaking while you're on vacation or on the subway.

I haven't even downloaded Elements yet but I can see from looking at the web site that it's just what i need. It even has word count!

An iPad with Elements, plus a bluetooth keyboard, would make a pretty nice mobile writing setup. Even though I already have a great Macbook Pro, and I love the giant 17" screen, there are times I'd like to tinker with a work-in-progress on my Ipad.
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Following on from minutes-ago post about going from Stephen King's Dreamcatcher to Cormac McCarthy's The Road...

A reasonable first reaction would be to say that these two are about as far apart as two writers could be. The sun-bleached lines of McCarthy, which manage to be terse even when they are poetic, stand in dramatic contrast to the casual, slang-filled conversational style of King. One is less, one is more-more-more.

On the other hand, both are quirky with punctuation, and both frequently construct sentences to feel like internal stream-of-consciousness.

Beyond that, there's another similarity I would like to discuss. Both have written genre fiction (McCarthy dabbling in SF or apocalyptic horror this once, King obviously working in horror most of the time) that appeals widely to readers outside those genres. This ability is rare enough -- and make no mistake, most genre writers very much want their work to appeal to readers outside the genre ghetto -- to bear consideration. Why is Stephen King's work so popular among readers who never read horror except King's work, and more often read mainstream books or thrillers? Why do critics treat The Road with the same respect they give All the Pretty Horses or Blood Meridian, rather than saying "I'll pass on this one -- he's just writing end-of-the-world shit?"

Despite the stylistic gap between these two writers, I think the explanation for trans-genre appeal is the same in both cases, and also explains writers like Vonnegut, Palahniuk, Atwood, and even Tolkien reaching way beyond the usual genre boundaries (in some cases to the point they are no longer considered genre writers even when what they're doing plainly uses all the tropes). That is, the placement of the characters' emotional drama at the forefront of the story in such a way that we are tangled in their experience. We experience their fears and hopes, and directly project ourselves into their place.

This seems a simple matter -- all writers know they're supposed to engage the reader on an emotional level -- yet very rarely does that engagement occur in such an intimate way as with these writers. It's about putting the "people stuff" ahead of the "trans-warp tachyon drive" or "vampire/zombie plague" or "Venusian cloud colony" bullshit. Most genre writers think they're doing this, but they're not. That's because most genre writers get their start out of a love for the tropes and McGuffins, and not out of pure storytelling. They may try to figure out how to write relationships and emotions, but it's not what drives them.

I haven't read enough about McCarthy to know if this is true, but from reading him I'd say he's strongly influenced by Hemingway and Faulkner (which probably says a lot about why I'm so smitten with him, because those are two of my favorites). Obviously King has more roots within horror than without, but I think it's telling that his favorite writer is Elmore Leonard, and not Lovecraft or Machen or Blackwood or Shirley Jackson. Leonard is another writer whose primary focus is individual fears and desires. It's incidental that his characters are murderers and thieves, con artists and detectives.

Sometimes a genre writer wants to break out, give themselves a shot at appealing to a broader readership, outside their own genre. Sometimes they try a different style to which they're not really suited , such as Greg Bear writing an awful supernatural thriller with minimal SF content, Dead Lines. I think a better idea would be to focus on writing stuff with a more human appeal.

Lots of people love Friday Night Lights who don't care about high school football. Normally I don't like Westerns, yet I loved Deadwood crazy-much, because the characters and conflicts were so compelling. To my mind, the foremost goal of any writer should be to make their work appeal to people who normally dislike the subject matter or genre.
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Right over here (in the comments to the Livejournal version of this blog), Obadiah and I got to talking about something I'd been meaning to riff on a little bit, so here's an opportunity.

The question is about the value and importance of outlining (or at least advance planning) when writing fiction.

Those in favor of outlining feel it's too easy (without an outline) to meander around aimlessly, and follow digressions that seem appealing to the writer in some way. One minute you're writing a story about a character who was headed somewhere, and eventually you realize the guy has been pursuing something tangential for 1,200 words. Some of the words may have been fun to write, but in the best case you'll cut them (thus wasting a lot of work) and in the worst case you'll leave them in there because you love them (thus putting the reader to sleep for those 3-4 pages).

Those against, also known as "freestylers," argue that the fun in the creative process derives from exploration, and if you're following a pre-Mapquested route, it becomes boring and it's hard to get motivated to keep going. Also, some argue their subconscious will come up with interesting new twists they might never have discovered had they remained bound to an outline.

I used to be a freestyler, and now I'm an outliner. As I've mentioned numerous times before in this blog, my early writing involved too much wank. That is, I spent too much of my writing time just doing what felt good -- fun, banter-y dialogue, cool people, inventive locales. The problem is, the stories usually amounted to little more than mood pieces. They had no cumulative impact.

Writers who can sit down and freestyle, who intuitively spin compelling plots, and whose stories end up in a place that makes perfect sense once you look back at the setup and the character in the beginning, are lucky writers indeed. I don't doubt such creatures exist, but I ain't them.

In my opinion, the trick (which I'm still trying to perfect myself) is to outline and plan in advance just enough to keep the writer on track. I want to give myself just enough of a hint of a destination off on the horizon that I can make my way, not wander too far off course, and yet "freestyle" a bit en route. I love the little details of discovery a writer makes when they come to a "what next?" moment in the story, when the subconscious scrambles to fill in a blank and comes up with something much more compelling, on the fly, than anything that could've been outlined in advance of wading into the scene.

Another way of putting it would be, you should know some important things about your characters before you start, have a general idea of where the plot will end up, then let yourself freestyle from point to point until you get to that ending, and be as inventive and crazy as you can along the way. Pack in as many outside-the-lines details as you can, like a jazz improviser who can go wild even though he knows he has to join back up with the rest of the group after the solo.

Keep it fun, but don't waste time and effort going too far down blind alleys. Remember the need to make sense of it all by the end.

These are the tricks I'm working toward.
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I came back to Portland yesterday from the Writers Weekend in Moclips, Washington, and my wife returned from Indiana, so life is familiar again now.

I had a great time up in Moclips at the Ocean Crest Resort, and will blog in more detail about the experience of the Writers Weekend. Took part in workshops, socialized a bit, went for walks and runs on the beach, and even got to see Hell's Belles (all-girl AC/DC cover band) at the nearby casino. The most fun, probably, was meeting and talking to a great variety of cool, fun and interesting writers of fiction.

The "writer gurus," Jay Lake and David Levine both did a great job as critique group leaders, and David performed double-duty with a series of three presentations, including his "Mission to Mars" (see a more hurried version of an earlier presentation on YouTube here). Big thanks to Jay and David for their efforts, and also to Karen Junker who not only organized the event, but put up with a writer swarm filling her cabin for most of the long weekend.

I'll say more in a subsequent blog post about some of the people I met, and specific things we did. The biggest surprise, to me at least, was the overall very high quality of the critiques given. I figured a lot of people would give other people's stories a shallow reading and a careless critique, but everyone seemed to dig in, read the stories closely and think about them carefully, and make a sincere, good-faith effort to help each other improve the work. I look forward to staying in touch with many of the writers I met. Overall it was great fun, both stimulating and challenging, and something I'd recommend. So if you missed out on going to this year's Writers Weekend and you're considering going next year, I'd say it's definitely worthwhile.
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I don't have any one subject I want to focus on here at the moment, but a few things are going on.

My wife is out of town this week, and I'm not with her. This situation is common for lots of married folk, but we almost never travel separately, so it feels weird, and I don't like it!

Here in Portland we finally broke free of over a month of rotten, lousy un-summer-like weather and for a few weeks now it's actually been sunny and warm. This would not normally be considered "news," but this summer at least, the sun coming out has allowed some fun stuff like hiking and trail running and even just lying out in the back yard with a book.

This coming weekend I'll be traveling to the "Writers Weekend" event in Moclips Washington, which I believe I mentioned here around the time I signed up. I've been reading the stories of other participants and making notes, getting ready. It's something I'm looking forward to, but this week has been such a strange one (see above story of wife-lessness) that it doesn't seem quite real. Still, I'll have more to say about that just before, or during, or after, or maybe some combination thereof.

My own writing has been going well, too. I've tried some new things recently, including another effort at a story that can only be called horror. The biggest thing here is that I find the one thing I miss now that I write SF almost exclusively is writing about this world. Not that I'm considering a big shift of emphasis, more like something I'll dip into a few times per year as a change of pace. I can write all kinds of horror-like or at least horrific stuff within SF, so the only real reason to break off and write a "real world, present day" story is that it's fun to write about a people and places, for a change, closer to the people and places I see day to day.

Other than that, I've pulled back two of my short stories that I had previously been sending around, having decided they weren't quite up to the standard of my more recent stories. Very often I find that if I'm not careful, my stories default to a sort of introspective, low-energy grasping at poetics and philosophy, short on plot and conflict. I've been working to address that in my more recent stories, but sometimes I crack open one of these earlier ones and say "gosh, the first scene doesn't accomplish anything, the story doesn't really start until page two or three, and the ending just trails off." So back to the drawing board with these two (one of them is almost completely reworked with a much more compelling and satisfying turn of events at the end, not a twist, but certainly a kick to the protagonist's groin, figuratively).

At the moment my "now reading" and "now listening" are Forever War by Joe Haldeman and Dreamcatcher by Stephen King, respectively. I went through a month-long stretch of listening to book-related podcasts rather than actual audiobooks (really enjoyed Jonathan Strahan's podcasts particularly) but I felt like listening to a good, old-fashioned "grabber" of a story.

Stephen King is great for listening while driving. His voice is so informal and conversational (talking about writer's voice here, not the speaking voice of the guy reading the audiobook) that it's like having friends in the car telling me the story.

Forever War is just fantastic as well, though it's taking me longer than usual as my reading time has been short recently. Technically, I suppose, this is considered Military SF, but it just doesn't have that feel. It's much more restrained and literary in feel, like a quiet, regretful cousin of Heinlein's Starship Troopers. Really a very fine book, and it makes me want to read more Haldeman though it doesn't seem people really talk about any of his books other than this and Forever Peace. I'll have to do some research on this guy. I do know he just won a Grand Master award at the last Nebulas, so he's got that going for him, which is nice. Of course, Gene Wolfe doesn't have a Grand Master award, so what the hell?

I'm also starting to re-read Again, Dangerous Visions in little bits. I had forgotten just how much I love Ellison's introductions and little lead-in essays for each story. Is it just me, or are there more people in this book whose careers never really went anywhere, than there are established writers with significant careers?

It's fun sometimes to just blog about a few random little tidbits. I suppose I could Twitter this stuff, but for some reason I'm still using Twitter more to quickly check up on a number of people I'm interested in, than for something to broadcast my own particular brand of whatever. In other words, consuming rather than producing, Twitter-wise. At least I'm blogging relatively consistently. Yeah, I know you're thrilled! More soon.
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It's unlikely anyone reading this hasn't seen or heard about the Apple iPad, which seems to have taken over the technology world this past few months. The device is portable and easy to operate, and uses a touchscreen interface so intuitive I've yet to find anybody who can't figure the thing out immediately.

Much has been made in reviews of the device being better suited for consumption of media (listening to music, reading email, blogs and ebooks, or watching videos) than for producing it, but the iPad occupies an important place in my writing workflow. Most of my "real" writing happens in Scrivener, which is a Mac application with no iPad equivalent. But leading up to the actual drafting and editing in Scrivener, I do a lot of note-making, gathering and combining the various seeds and ideas that grow into the beginnings of a story. I keep all my notes centralized in Evernote, an application that I keep on all my Macs, Pcs and my iPad, but which I use most often on my iPad for the actual capture of ideas. During the drafting and revision of a story I often get ideas that I intend to apply to the story in progress, and these go into Evernote with a tag appropriate for the story. When I'm ready to work on a given story, I first check Evernote for any ideas tagged with that story's title, and it brings together every scrap or idea or name-change I may have come up with since I last worked on it. Once a note has been incorporated into the story (or discarded), I delete the note from Evernote.

There does not yet exist for iPad a word processor or text editor application without a lot of flaws. Apple Pages is a pretty nice program and only costs $10 but there are some serious weaknesses regarding how you get your work into and out of Pages, so I don't use that program at this time. If I wanted to draft a story scene, I'd fire up my bluetooth keyboard (the onscreen keyboard works fine for shorter bits of typing but I wouldn't to type hundreds or thousands of words with the thing, unless I had to) and type the text into Evernote. Then next time I was at a "real" computer I could collect any such scenes, again using Evernote's tagging feature to designate written drafts to be incorporated into Scrivener, Word, or whatever application you use to write your storise or novels.

I love my Macbook Pro and if I were to travel for any length of time with the intention of doing real writing, I would probably take that along. But for a short trip, I could definitely imagine taking just the iPad and getting all kinds of work done. I've always believed a lot of the work of writing isn't just writing drafts, but creating notes, sorting through them, combining ideas into an interesting brew and then starting to outline, sketch characters, and brainstorm. All this kind of activity is perfect for the iPad, and Evernote is an absolutely essential tool for this.
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Even people who aren't themselves writers are familiar with the idea that writers just starting out encounter lots of rejection, over and over, before they ever get anywhere with their work. We've all heard the stories of Stephen King getting hundreds of rejection slips before he became, you know, Stephen King. It's not too different from aspiring actors going to a thousand auditions before they get their first gig, or a garage band playing all kinds of small gigs before they get a shot at a record deal.

In all these legends of paying your dues until you finally make it, the implication seems to be that you toil away without of a sense whether you're getting closer to the goal or not, until WHAM -- all at once, you've made it.

What I'm finding with my own writing is that although I haven't yet had any stories accepted for publication, I've noticed a change in the quality of many of the rejections that leads me to believe I must be getting closer.

Non-writers may not know this, but most of the time rejection comes as a form note (more often a half-sheet than a full letter) that says nothing more than, "Sorry, we can't use this, good luck to you placing this elsewhere." I've received plenty of this, and I don't let it bother me. It's silly to think it's some kind of slap in the face, when almost everyone is getting this same bulk rejection treatment. Editors have a ridiculous number of terrible-bad manuscripts to sort through, and they can't take the time to offer coaching or suggestions or (usually) even specific reasons why they don't want the story.

Several of my latest rejections, though, have included more encouraging language. Compared to a flatly generic "Sorry, no," getting a rejection that says something more specific like, "Very nicely written and I like much of it, but didn't grab me quite enough for a buy," is more like rejection LITE. After getting a few such notes this month, I feel like I'm getting closer to the goal. Maybe I'm crazy-delusional, but I think this is a good sign.
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I've always considered myself a tough, even ruthless editor when it comes to evaluating what needs to be removed from my own writing. Even so, it can be really tough when you've worked on a story for over a year, written at least fifteen drafts, and already begun sending it around to magazines, only to finally realize you need to scrap big chunks of the thing.

One of my stories, very possibly the story of which I'm most proud overall, has problems. The last three editors who have sent it back have included fairly positive notes, along the lines of "interesting stuff you're doing here, but it's not quite completely successful." Normally a handful of rejections wouldn't cause me to re-think a story and throw lots of it out, but the editors' notes just confirmed what I think I already knew.

And when I mentioned to my wife (who is a major cheerleader for my work, even at the same time she's a helpful critic) that I was considering pulling this story off the market for a major rework to include a new beginning and a completely new ending, she agreed it was a good idea.

Sometimes it's tempting to avoid such a major overhaul simply because of the work involved. Also, there's the writer's attachment to the words they've created, a reflexive resistance to cutting away some of those beautiful sentences. Another factor is that I've set myself certain goals for how many stories I'd like to complete and send out this year, and taking a story from the "finished" category and moving it back to the "working" category seems like a step back. It is a step back. Nevertheless it's important to when the story needs a different approach, and to be willing to do that work.

That's why this week I've taken a story I thought was final and cut it into little chunks, shuffled them around and removed some, and made a new outline including synopsis of two entirely new scenes. It will be better when I'm done but right now this feels like difficult work.
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I do seem to run hot and cold when it comes to updating this blog. Just like the last time I took a long break from posting here, the explanation is "been busy writing lots of stories."

I've been working hard to shape up a new-ish space exploration novelette, vaguely space-opera-ish, to enter in this quarter's Writers of the Future contest. I made a large number of changes, additions and deletions based on a very useful long discussion I had with my wife Lena during one of our mega-hikes, this time up at Trillium Lake, on Mt. Hood. That story's just about done, but I had to set that aside.

In a recent post, I mentioned a Writers Weekend I'll be attending in July, up in Moclips, Washington. For the workshop that weekend, I could have submitted one of my earlier, finished stories but I wanted to write something new. I decided to push through to completion the recently-begun story I mentioned in a few of my most recent blog posts, trying new methods & tools for writing... remember? This is the one I started out writing longhand, and finished drafting in Scrivener, where I've completed all the revisions. It ended up needing very substantial changes, including at least 6-7 drafts so far, and a completely new framing intro and beginning added in the past week. Managed to chop it down from 8,000 words to about 4,500 despite adding a whole new beginning and end, and it's much leaner and meaner now.

Sometimes all a story needs is sifting with an increasingly fine screen until it's done, but this one needed a radical re-think, a bunch of new stuff added, and really quite a different emphasis from where it started. It's called "The Long Tightrope," and normally I'd send this one out at this stage, but I'm ready to hand it over to other readers in this group and take their suggestions. It'll be a good learning experience.

Just coincidentally this new story is in the same "universe" as the novelette mentioned earlier. I don't usually do that, work on a whole string of related stories one after the other, in fact I started several other stories between the novelette and the new one.

Things have been especially busy -- extra efforts required at the day job, various weekend outings including a family beach trip, and the usual real life -- but I've been writing steadily, lots of new words, many newly-planned stories, and keeping the finished stories in submission.

Some upcoming blog plans:

1. A mini-review of Metatropolis, an interesting audiobook project (now out in good old fashioned printed paper format) by five authors working in a connected world.

2. Another discussion of the idea of rejection (from a writer's point of view), specifically the idea of different kinds or degrees of rejection... even "good" rejection.

3. More about this upcoming Writers Weekend

4. More book & audiobook reviews, mini and otherwise

That's all for now. I hope to be back soon, and more regularly this next month or two.
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In my years of fiction writing I've tried many different methods for coming up words and making a record of them, everything from writing in pencil on legal pads, to writing with a fountain pen on plain white paper, to some old Atari ST word processor, to Wordperfect for DOS, to Word for Windows, then Word for Mac, WriteRoom and assorted other minimal text editors, and finally Scrivener.

I'm actually quite happy working in Scrivener, which is an integrated outlining, organizing, composing and editing application for Mac OSX, in case you haven't heard of it. Find out more here, at the Scrivener page on the Literature and Latte developer page. But even though I feel as comfortable with Scrivener as with anything else I've ever used, I've been toying with the idea of trying to dictate some first drafts sections as a way of capturing a different sort of voice (in the writing voice sense, not the spoken voice).

This made me think about all the different possibilities for writing methods and tools, and I decided to undertake a sort of game or experiment. I have several short story ideas pending, ready to draft fairly soon, and ordinarily I'd draft a new one approximately every month, which is about the rate I finalize stories and send them out. I decided I'm going to try to draft one new story per week this month, using a different method and different tools for each.

The four plans are:

1. longhand on plain paper, working from a normal (for me) moderately-developed outline and basic character sketches

2. voice dictation only, working from an extra-detailed outline -- more of a move-by-move synopsis, halfway to story form really

3. draft in Writeroom, a distraction free text editor, in case you didn't know -- web site here -- using a normal outline and character plan

4. create a story using my usual workflow in Scrivener, using corkboard planning layout, outlining, character notes, and drafting each scene in a separate file

Saturday I began round one and started drafting using a regular old pen and clipboard and paper, just like the old times. Everything went very well at first, when I was full of energy and knew exactly where I was going. I wrote about 2500 words in just a few hours, which is pretty good for me.

I encountered a problem when I began to doubt my outline, and wanted to take the story in a slightly different direction. For some reason, faced with nothing but blank pages ahead of me, I had an unusual sense of uncertainty about forging off in a new direction. It was difficult to sort back through the handwritten scribbles on a dozen or so sheets of paper, enough to get a good sense that I was really correct about my intuition. In other words, I began to doubt myself, to freeze up and have a difficult time figuring out which road to take. It's possible this reflects a weakness in my outline or the story concept, but I don't think so. I think the truth is that the breezy confidence I usually feel when I'm laying out a first draft depends to a large degree on the markers I've layed out for myself, not only showing the way ahead but also letting me figure out, at a quick backward glance where I've just come from.

So, I'm about 2/3 of the way through this story after a few hours work on Saturday and another frustrating hour's stab at it on Sunday and again this morning, and I've already decided round one has taught me all I need to know. I typed in my fifteen longhand pages earlier, and as soon as I finish this blog post, I'm going to create a new Scrivener document and finish this story in there.

When that's through, I'll continue with rounds two, three and four, but at this point what I've learned is that writing longhand makes me feel adrift, and lost without any point of reference. It's weird, because I've written thousands of pages of first draft that way in my twenties, but that's where I am now. I'll retreat to Scrivener, break this baby into scene bits and re-assess whether one bit of bad news happens to character A mid-way, or at the very beginning, and that will determine how character A and character B treat each other up to that point.

Fun stuff, actually. I'll report back later one once I've had a chance to try some other tricks.


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[ GriffinWords ]

August 2013

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