Sunday, December 13, 2009

Notes on editing from Ann Wilkes

Ann Wilkes, a fellow SF writer and author of Awesome Lavratt, graciously agreed to do a guest blog post and share her thoughts on writing. Welcome, Ann! Here is her take on editing:

One of my favorite topics is word economy. It's something I practice almost every day. I enjoy the challenge of chopping sentences and paragraphs down to size. I work for a trade journal to pay the bills. One of the features I write is an excellent exercise in word economy and being concise. I have to distill a press release down to just two or three sentences.

On the weekends, when I'm editing my science fiction, I go through my first and second drafts looking for unnecessary padding that weakens the sentence and thereby the thought, bogs the story down or makes the true meaning unclear.

I write flash fiction. For those who are unfamiliar with my new love, it's a complete story composed in (usually) under 1K words. Sometimes it's under 500. Writing flash has helped my other writing because every word has to count when you only get a thousand of them to work with.

Last weekend, I hacked a 5100 word story down to under 4000 to fit the requirements of the next venue I was sending it to. I'm glad of the requirement, because losing those 1100 words made the story stronger. I only removed one scene – and with it one POV. The rest was pointless filler, indirect sentences and unnecessary details.

I have a tendency to start a story as though it’s a novel, including more characters and POVs than the shorter work can comfortably support. One easy fix is to look for the characters that don't help advance the story. Which ones will not be missed? Do they only do one or two things that are crucial to the story or to the other characters? Can another character perform those actions, or is there another way to accomplish the same objective? That's the first place I start when I'm going back to tighten things up.

Next, I look for scenes that might be descriptive, moving or clever, but do nothing to advance the story or develop the characters. This is where that old "kill your darlings" adage comes in. Of course, some of those scenes are neither moving nor clever and the choice is clear. If they're not even descriptive, shame on me.

Then I get out my scalpel for the paragraphs and sentences. Sometimes it's like solving a puzzle, finding a more direct way to say something.

Here are some examples of how I cut my 5100 word story by 1100 words, along with explanations where necessary.

In this example Jeffrey is in a school bus rolling down a hill.

Before: He watched in horror as his schoolmates were thrown ...
After: He watched his schoolmates bounce ...

His horror is evident and "were thrown" is passive.

I deleted this whole sentence: Only seconds passed before the bus slid into the water.

If I'm moving the story along, I don't need to comment on the passage of time. I later had the bus sliding into the water in the midst of immediate action, so this was completely unnecessary.

Also deleted: His ski gloves were clipped to his blue jacket.

This was a minor character with a micro part. Who cares about the gloves, let alone what color his jacket is? And "were clipped" is, that's right, passive voice.

Jeffrey didn't hear what they said about the kids whose bodies were never recovered.
The above sentence was followed by: He couldn't. He'd been in a trance. A grief-induced, mind-numbing fog.
After: He was in a mind-numbing fog.

None of that other stuff made a bit of difference. It was as though I thought my reader needed to be beat over the head with more words to get what I'm saying. Of course it's from the grief!

No one could know. No one who hadn't experienced it, too. That's why he so desperately wanted Lisa to share the experience with him. He had no one else to tell.

I deleted the last sentence above because it's obvious. The reader knows that they both experienced the same accident and that Jeffrey suspects that she is having similar after-effects.

Before: A teenager with a pimply face and greased back, mousy brown hair approached the table and asked, "What can I get for you?"
After: A pimply-faced teenager with mousy brown hair approached the table. "What can I get for you?"

My husband said I should lose the waiter entirely. I still might. But he certainly didn't warrant the previous number of descriptors. Also, if you have the speaker doing something in a previous sentence, the reader knows who says the dialog that follows in the next sentence in the same paragraph without the need for a dialog tag.

Another good way to practice word economy and being uber precise is poetry. If flash fiction isn't your thing, try writing some poems. Then apply that lean, mean approach to prose to your other writing.

You can read two of my flash pieces for free right now. In fact, the editor at Rose City Sisters is running a contest for the best flash fiction story of 2009. "Your Smiling Face," is a bitter-sweet romance with a speculative fiction bent. I get a vote as soon as you view the page. That probably speaks more to my networking ability if I win than the quality of my story, but I'd still like to win. The prize is a beautiful necklace. Not to mention the bragging rights.

In "Grey Drive ," you'll glimpse one possible direction that media storage could take in the future. This one was actually described as "cute," which is very funny to me since I don't usually do cute. My fiction tends more towards tragic and dark.

Ann runs the very informative Science Fiction and Other Oddyseys blog and has a growing collection of big-name interviews with some of the giants in our genre to her credit. You can catch more of her work at www.annwilkes.com.



Thursday, December 3, 2009

Fantasy as therapy

My story "Kraken's Honor" was published today by Beneath Ceaseless Skies, a wonderful and really high quality ezine (of course, they bought my story, didn't they?) :). I am especially happy to see this one out in the world, because it helped me through a bad patch several years ago. It was written just a few days after my father's funeral, when all I could do was stare blindly at my monitor at work and try not to cry. Writing it at least got my mind focused on something else during the process, and I consider the story a real gift from my muse.

It touches on complicated themes of death and life and gods and you name it. It was kinda free-ranging, but all wrapped into very high fantasy. So I wonder, given the true escapist nature of fantasy fiction, how much we who write it turn to it to save our own sanity? I love creating new worlds and populating them with people I have not met and never will. But they are very real, doing things that are all-important to them, as our lives are to us. Life and death and love and hate weave through the pages in more dramatic fashion than in much of mainstream fiction, which is usually focused on the ordinary rather than on saving the planet. It is really cathartic, on days when the world seems just a bit too much, to be able to stick a sword in a hero's hand and let him start swinging in defense of all he holds dear.

It kinda makes up for having to let go of things we personally hold dear.

I wish my dad could have read this story. I wish he could know I am finally making that concerted effort (which is, I might add, starting to succeed, like he told me it would) to get published, do the thing I love, and get paid for it. Imagine that. Fathers really do know best.

Love you, Dad. Wish you were still here.

Sue

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Musings on Heroes

The "hero" is the underpinning of genre fiction. Fantasy can't live without the heroic guy or gal thrust into the soup and forced to rise to the occasion. The type of hero doesn't matter: the noble prince, the humble farmboy, the good witch, the barbarian warrior princess. We want to identify with the good guys (usually) so we can cheer their success. We like it when they attain glory and bask in the reflected glow. But pursuit of glory wasn't what hooked us. Just the opposite.

What makes a hero a hero? It can't just be about stepping in and saving the world. It can't just be about having the right gifts to apply at the right time, be they courage or awesome magic. I've been mulling this since critting a friend's manuscript, and I finally put my finger on something that's perhaps blindingly obvious to everyone else but nevertheless something I am finally arriving at consciously, after applying it subconsciously to every book I've ever written. The heroes we remember are the ones who had something to lose beyond just their lives.

I begin to see why some of my short stories, especially some of the more hurried SSIAW ones, don't stick even in my own mind. In them, the hero has nothing much to lose. In my books, the hero always has something to lose. Something huge. Something underpinning his or her whole life. Without that most basic requirement, heroism is just another act in a normal day. Otherwise society would give medals to every firefighter who ever set foot in a burning building. Sure, they all have life and limb at risk. But what defines a heroic act over the commonplace?

Cops, firefighters, and soldiers risk their lives daily in the course of the jobs they get paid to do. They volunteered for this; nobody pressed them into service. We mourn when they die, but not everybody gets a medal for doing the job they agreed to do. The extraordinary act comes when "maybe I'll get hurt" turns to "it's almost certain I'll get hurt." This is why I take such vehement exception to the media trend since 9/11 to overuse the word "hero," cheapening it to just another valueless bit of hype. Everybody's a hero to our bored and increasingly facile and shallow crop of journalists, from the guy who catches a stray dog to the man who throws himself in front of a train to save a stranger.

The acceptance of risk above and beyond what is expected is the essence of heroism, but it doesn't need to be life or death. Heroes can risk other things of equal value: personal reputation, relationships, social standing, wealth, honor, children--the list is infinite. I loved the ending of The Crucible, when honor and a good name became more important than life. Living with a falsehood was more intolerable than death. Thus is a hero born. Better yet, a memorable hero.

My point is that when writing, make sure your hero, even if thrust into the action like Frodo being chased by Black Riders, has a painful and powerful choice to make in pursuit of the quest. Frodo has his peaceful, contented life in the Shire--and the Shire itself--to lose. He saves one but loses the other as he is irrevocably changed by the quest. Yet he does not turn aside from struggling toward the aptly-named Mt. Doom.

A character acting heroically without something potentially life-changing hovering over his head is pretty blah. Answer yourself these questions when pondering the whys and wherefores of your plot:
  • Who or what is left behind to follow the quest?
  • What will happen to the character's life, moral character, or outlook if these things are lost?
  • Why is the quest more important than these other things?
  • What gives your character the strength to turn his/her back on them? Is it strength or cowardice?
  • Is the quest an escape or a dreaded duty?
All of these things will define the emotional impact of that all-important decision to leave those precious things behind, and with it, the level of impact on the reader. We want to cry fully as much as we want to cheer. Whatever your character stands to gain must be equally balanced by whatever it is he or she has to lose.

Just sayin'.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Report from World Fantasy Con

Oh, dear, it's been way too long since I had time to blog. Partly that comes from earning a living; partly I was trying to get ready to go to the World Fantasy Convention in San Jose, which was held over this past Halloween weekend.

I had no idea what to expect from WFC, having only been to two small conventions previously. They were the dress-up-in-costume type; WFC is all business. The very first thing that was different was the swag. Oh, my gosh. There I was worrying about what to read on the plane home, and the first thing they did when I checked in at registration was hand me this enormous tote bag full of books! Boy am I glad I took the suitcase I did, because otherwise I would have had to leave most of them behind. I now have about a year's worth of reading, including a bunch of magazines I want to submit to and many collections of short stories that will help me assess what's getting published. I need to boost my writing up a notch and seeing the competition helps me do that. So right on, WFC! That membership got me more than some new friends.

The next thing that happened was that I got snagged to dinner by the one person I knew, and ended up with 18 more bodies at a great Italian restaurant. Andrea Howe of Blue Falcon Editing and Josh Langston, co-author of "Druids," sat at the end of the table and had a very merry conversation about researching historical novels, the perils of trying to find publishers, the difficulties of long-distance collaboration (Josh's writing partner lives in Edmondton, Alberta; he lives in Atlanta, GA), and many other things. Andrea is always fun to talk to because she works on the other side of the sheet, editing what we writers produce. She sees all sorts of books in all stages of readiness, and she's really good at what she does. Josh introduced me to his editor at Edge Books and I will be following up with him.

Friday I sat in on some good panel discussions and got to be part of one myself, a chance for which I was really grateful. Every panel was well attended; the ones with the big name authors were standing-room only. Since those were big meeting rooms, it was a little bit intimidating, knowing that if you put your foot in your mouth many, many people are going to witness it. My panel was about "The Last Resort," exploring the use of violence as a plot device and what makes it realistic when authors do use it. My fellow panelists included Joan Saberhagen, wife of Fred Saberhagen, Mark Van Name, Peter Brett, and Alan DeNiro. Mark has a personal history of violence from both the giving and receiving ends so he had some great insights and, as the moderator, he asked some really good and thought-provoking questions. I assume I did not stumble too badly over my answers since several people sought me out afterward over the next couple of days to tell me what a great panel that was.

And it was. The discussion ranged from Joan's reminder that most societies create people who will do violence for them: police, soldiers, and the like to Mark's "threshold moment": the one where a person decides to take violent action for whatever reason, and his take on what is happening in your head while the action is going on (not much but focusing on getting through it). Someone in the audience wanted to know the bad guys' motivations, and someone else wanted to know how we make different characters react to the use of violence. It was a thoroughly interesting discussion and I'm glad I got to be part of it.

Since WFC is all about books, it is only fitting that the dealers' room is mostly booksellers, with the biggest array of new and used genre fiction ever. I was browsing a table, minding my own business, only to discover I was standing next to David Drake, who was busy signing some books for the dealer. I held a signed copy of one of Lovecraft's books (worth $9000 dollars) and a signed copy of "A Canticle for Liebowitz" (worth $4000) and made very sure to set them down gently. On Sunday morning the pool directly over the ballrooms cracked and poured water down into the hall, but fortunately missed the dealers' room. What a disaster that would have been.

The small presses were well represented. Edge Books shared a table with Dragon Moon and a couple of others, and their books are just as interesting and varied as the big publishers' lists. So many books--so little time. I wish I had time to read for about 2 years straight just to catch up on all the wonderful-looking titles. But that would avail me nothing, as there would just be two more years' worth of wonderful titles to catch up on. I feel like even if I get any or all of my books into print, it will be like casting pearls into the sea.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, was terrific, from the two old guys from San Jose who escorted me on the public transportation system from the airport to my hotel, to my fellow writers and the attending agents and editors. Everyone is there to meet everyone else, so even the big names who have seen it all before a hundred times are very gracious, very patient with the people running around gawking at them. You are really not allowed to sit and vegetate alone. Someone will sit down at the next table or chair and strike up a conversation. And that's all good. Anyone who is shy or hesitant to go out and mingle will find plenty of people willing and eager to sit down with strangers.

I have to say that Locus throws a great party. Tor's was more staid. I can't remember who had the balloon cake, but it was great. The hotel overflowed with chocolate. How much better does it get than that?

Congratulations to Kij Johnson, who won the World Fantasy Award for her story "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss." I didn’t get to stay for the banquet but I saw her announcement on Facebook. Congrats to Kij and all the other winners. The full list is here.

That’s about it, except that I am so glad I went.

Monday, September 7, 2009

On Reviews

I came away from SpoCon determined not to read reviews of my stuff, since the horror stories were so . . . horrific. But, alas, getting reviewed is part of the marketing process, necessary to getting the word out about your work, so I have been on the lookout. "Who Mourns for the Hangman?" came out on September 1 from Damnation Books, and I sent the story to a couple of review sites, The Horror Press and Rites of Romance (which seems to review anything it likes), both of which came back positive. Then I Googled Science Fiction Trails #4 to see if it had been reviewed, and got a pleasant surprise with "Message in the Dust", which Tangent Online really liked. So far so good with regard to reviews of my work, but it is early days.

It's lovely when reviewers agree with you that your stuff is just grand. But I've been keeping up with my fellow Damnation Books authors' reviews and some of them are all over the map. How useful are reviews of any sort, really, for books, movies, or anything else, when it is so much a matter of taste on the part of the reviewer? How much influence do reviews have on the buying public? Some of the worst-reviewed movies are blockbusters. Some of the best-reviewed books are so awful only the reviewers seem to read them. How useful is the whole system?

I don't actually know, but until someone can tell me, I suppose I will keep playing the game, hoping that positive reviews generate sales and any negative ones don't hurt.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

On Rewriting

Oh, how I hate it. Time was, I wrote a story or a book, stuck it in the drawer and forgot about it. I had indulged my pleasures by writing it; it was my thing, like other people play hockey or go to the lake. I love to write. The creation was the best part. Now that I've gone all commercial, it means dragging that stuff out and attempting to make it marketable.

There's another word I hate. Mar-ket-ing. Bleaaaahh. The stories I write satisfy something deep in me. When I workshop them and discover a disconnect between my muse and my audience, it comes down to the old, icky decision of "Do I change it or do I leave it alone?" Is it truly impossible to sell a story that says profound things you want to say but has a main character nobody likes? It is especially hard to decide when the protag is that way for a reason--not necessarily unsympathetic, but nobody wants to relate to that person. Nobody wants to live inside the skin of a coward for 200 pages, but on the other hands, cowards can really be interesting. Or funny. Or pitiable. They make us think about our own limitations, which is why no one wants to inhabit the guy's head for any length of time.

I suppose I should spend more time reading "great literature" like Lolita to discover how to make a pedophile worth reading about. Or maybe just hunt hard for an editor who looks beyond the gut reaction to the truth in the story.

Okay. Back to my difficult rewrite of a story I like very much, but even I agree the protag needs work. (And no, she's not a coward. Just terminally naive.)

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Marketing Blues

Heh. SpoCon was a week ago in Spokane, Washington. It was fun, even if this year's organizing committee was not quite as--how shall I say this?--organized as last year. My friend Ann Wilkes (author of Awesome Lavratt, a very funny SF book), flew up from California and stayed with me for the duration. We teamed up with Maggie Bonham, author of many fantasy books, and Andrea Howe, freelance owner of Blue Falcon Editing, and laughed and laughed and laughed. I had the great honor of sitting on a couple of panels with L. E. Modesitt and chatting with him afterward. He is a gentleman, and after glancing through a couple of his books, I am officially jealous of his talent. I figured out after the con why I had never picked up one of his books--the covers. I just really don't like covers done by that particular artist....

The panel about using social networking for marketing your work hit home for several reasons--mostly because I have done so little of it. Yet it is the wave of the future and I need to hop on my cyber surfboard and get ahead of the curve. Hence, I have made a resolve to keep up with this blog. Yo ho. We'll see how that lasts. I also created a FaceBook page for Sue Bolich, and I have had a Twitter account for a while that I never use, not being glued to a cell phone all day. That one is suebthewriter. Not that even I can remember that!

Mostly of late I have spent some time putting together a video trailer for my upcoming short story, Who Mourns for the Hangman? It will be out as an ebook from Damnation Books September 1. I like Flash, and while I originally created it to post to YouTube and Facebook, I haven't do so yet. It's full high def at high res, so it takes a few seconds to load up, but I had fun.

Marketing is something none of us writers can ignore, unfortunately, so here's to forming a game plan and sticking to it. Wish me luck.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Right Story, Right Market

I've been quiet way too long, I see. After spending April biting my nails wondering if anyone was ever going to give me a contract again, the flood gates opened in May and this week was the first breather I've had since. Sheesh. It's true that it never rains but it pours. Ahh, the life of a freelancer.

I have not sent anything out the door since the end of April, barring a novel to someone I hope will become my agent. However, replies on shorts sent out before that continue to trickle in, including an acceptance from Third Order Magazine for my short story, "4000 Roads to Hell." I knew when I wrote it that there would be a limited market for it. Not only is it a weird Western, written with a strong dialect, which many editors dislike, it also has a strongly Christian message, which, sadly, would bar it from many markets. I am so happy Third Order took it. It absolutely suits their editoral slant, and that is the point of this post (aside from a little marketing pitch there. Watch for their June issue!)

Everyone wants to sell to the big markets, and that is where most people send their stuff first. Unfortunately, too many people send their stories to the "pros" regardless of whether the pro market would be interested in their story's slant at all. They just start at the top and work down. I believe in sending the story to the right market, regardless of the pay scale. While I have twice that I know of unintentionally screwed up and sent a story to a place that did not want anything remotely like it, I do try hard to match the sub to the market to avoid wasting everyone's time. People who load up editors' slush piles with junk in no way suitable for that market just make it harder for everyone else.

Genre markets are not all the same, even though some authors treat them as such. They send SF to fantasy mags and vice versa, or horror to places that state right in their guidelines they don't want anything dark. Why do people assume their deathless prose will be so great it will just break down any editorial prejudice? Guess what? The editor personally may love it, but their audience won't. And since the magazine is targeted to a particular group of readers who expect certain types of stories, the editor who disappoints them soon has no job, or no magazine.

I personally would love to get a story into Analog or Asimov's or SF&F. Hopefully some day I will. Until then, I'll keep trying to match stories to markets, and keep racking up sales.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

There's nothing like motivation

I don't know about you guys, but revising a long novel is a--ahem, not fun. Especially not when you've been tearing your hair out over the first five chapters forever. I can't count the number of revisions on this particular beast, and finally I stalled out altogether. But, being at a particularly low point here a couple of months ago vis-a-vis making a living at fiction, I gritted my teeth, hauled it out, and had a brainstorm that sort of broke the logjam. So I redid the opening, retitled the thing, rewrote my cover letter, and sent it out. Presto! Somebody asked for the manuscript. So, oh my, did that ever give me motivation to overhaul the rest double quick. For the first time, I actually feel like this novel might be done, readable, marketable, maybe even attractive to a publisher (oh, please God). I really love the trilogy (I write fantasy, so is there anything that doesn't evolve into a series?), and I really, really want to see these books in print. Somewhere besides Lulu, that is!

Keep your fingers crossed. The lesson here, I guess, is that sometimes it pays to go bass-ackwards at a problem. In my case, I tossed the query out before the thing was 100% ready to go, knowing that likely I would either not get a bite at all, or one so delayed I had to work on it. The bite came faster than expected, but it was all good, because geez, did it ever give me focus. I work especially well under the gun, for some reason. I created my own de-blocker and motivator, and I feel really good whether or not this particular agent will sign me on, which I hope, because it's a great agency. The book looks good (to me) in its current form, and I am celebrating a bit today because now I can move on to revising other stuff in the drawer and quit feeling bad that this one is still moldering in there.

When in doubt, go for it. Really, what have you got to lose?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Damnation Press Debuting with My Story

I'm quite tickled to be helping to launch a new market. Damnation Books is beginning publication in September as an e-book publisher. They are starting with 25 titles, and my dark fantasy short story "Who Mourns for the Hangman?" is one of them. I'm delighted to have another sale on the year, and wish Damnation Press every success, of course.

That's a nice way to end the week!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Clients from Hell and Other Wonders

Boy, it's been waaaay too long since I paused for breath, so I'm ditching a boatload of assignments to take five minutes and post. Something strange and wonderful occurred to me a couple of minutes ago--I am a writer! I've always thought of myself as a writer, but for the past few months I have been earning my living exclusively, 100%, from the fruits of my words, drawn from my little brain--from thin air. I am freelancing full-time, currently buried in work (hooray!), and managing to keep my head above water. As of this writing I'm a long way from being J.K. Rowling comfy on the financial front, but I have only just begun.

I just have to take a moment to savor the feeling. I am not getting up at ungodly hours to travel ungodly distances to chain myself to someone else's desk. I am free to knock off when I please, write with my cat in my lap, or go ride my horse when I need to breathe. I am neither rich nor (yet) horribly poor, but I am free. Halleluiah!

Having said that, part of the price of freedom is doing contract work, but even that I can mostly pick and choose. The drawback is occasionally running into a client who is, how shall I say this, less than fun to work with. I now understand why so many agents and editors, when asked the major drawback to the job, instantly list the client from hell. I recently encountered one of this species, and my sympathies are with the people who have to deal with said creature full time. Yeesh.

For good or ill, rich or poor, I am where I have always wanted to be: doing what I most love, nurturing the one true talent I have. Keep your fingers crossed. And if you're feeling kindly, whisper a little prayer that it remains so, for me and for all of us who are stubbornly chasing our dreams.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Are the stars in alignment?

Good grief. Last week, due to the stock market, my broker's mistake, and execrable timing, proved to be a new financial low for me despite the sustained rally. I don't wanna think about my short-lived retirement no more. I am now freelancing fulltime and sort of wedging my fiction in around the edges like always.

With that said, however, this week started with a bang and just keeps getting better. TWO sales out of the blue, including one where the editor, bless his heart, tracked me down to give me the good news after his emails repeatedly bounced back. Kudos to Scott Andrews at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, which took my story "Kraken's Honor" for publication this fall. I also want to thank Anne Niven at Pangaia for accepting my story "Master of the Bones." I've been on one of my periodic "why do I bother?" kicks of late, despite being in the throes of the March Short Story in a Week challenges at Other Worlds Writers' Workshop. Sales certainly do make life look better!

Speaking of the SSIAW, I have four stories in thus far and I'm midway through a fifth. I like the first two I posted a lot. They have stepped out of my usual comfort zone--a long, long way out, and feel much more mature to me, as though I've finally stopped being afraid to speak my mind. There is so much that is beautiful in the world, and so much that makes me angry. I am always pleased when I can rail beautifully.

So to speak.

Go check out a funny little pub called Science Fiction Trails. Yes, this is a shameless plug, as one of my stories just came out in it. You can purchase the magazine here.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Great Short Story Experiment

Twice a year, Other Worlds Writers' Workshop, where I am one of the moderators, hosts a series of Short Story in a Week challenges, which are an absolute hoot. The members submit their favorite words, I use a Javascript random generator to pick five, and post the list. Challengers have one week to use all five in a coherent short story, in intelligent ways, not just stuck in at random. The variety of resulting stories is invariably fascinating.

I like doing the challenges (they run through March, and then again all through September), because they give me a chance to experiment a lot. It's not like a novel where you have to stick with a character for 100,000 words. A short is something where, when you reach the end, you can walk away from a failed experiment without a great deal of time and anguish invested. By experiment, I mean exploring characters I would not want to use in a novel, or situations I don't much want to write about but are cool to look at once in a while, or settings that don't involve reams of worldbuilding. An SSIAW story is, of necessity, written at full speed, and I try to get in two or three in a week, so go figure on the quality of the finished product. Some of them haven't been bad, though. "An Infinity of Moments," which recently sold to On Spec, was the product of an SSIAW. So was "Message in the Dust," which will appear soon in Science Fiction Trails. But anyone going in who just can't conceive the notion of sharing a rough draft, warts-and-all story with the world is not cut out for SSIAW.

The point is to write. Just get in and write. Finish something. Meet a deadline. It's an exercise in discipline as much as it is in writing, so people who pooh-pooh the notion of trying to churn out anything of value in a week should consider that angle. There are many writers who sit around and imagine their stories to death without ever writing a word; there are others who actually get it on paper, then tinker and tweak and fuss and fiddle with it ad infinitum, never actually subbing it anywhere, either for critique or for publication. These are not real writers. These are people who call themselves writers but don't actually try to make the leap into being recognized as such by anyone but their loving kinfolk.

Back to experimenting. I am a novelist at heart. I suppose that's why I can toss of 20,000 words worth of short stories in a week and leave them moldering in the drawer for years. Only the really good ones grab me enough to want to devote the considerable time required to workshop them, polish them, and shop them around. Short story rejections break your heart fully as much as novel rejections; worse, they come back faster and generally more often. Seven times the misery. Heh. However, they are an excellent venue for trying things out: stories from the antagonist's viewpoint, stories with unsympathetic protags, stories with ultra-weird protags, stories with fantastical settings. I intent to use the March SSIAW coming up at OWWW to explore a little more than I usually do, praying all the while the word lists give my muse a creative jolt in the right direction. If not, I suppose I will settle for writing anything, as usual. But I hope for originality.

Don't we all?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Show vs Tell . . . in critiques

I've been a moderator at Other Worlds Writers Workshop (also found on Yahoo Groups) for over ten years now. I've seen a lot of eager newbies, and a lot of critiques--and critters. Too often, people on both ends of the crit scratch their heads over the problems being pointed out because, in many cases, neither one is exactly sure what the problem actually is, only that there is one. The beginner is too new at the craft to know how to pick up on the flaws in his/her writing style. The critter is often unable to articulate how to fix it. The ubiquitous "this is too passive" or "you spend a lot of time telling instead of showing" crit is perfectly useless to the writer receiving one. When asked, many critters spouting these platitudes can't actually even demonstrate the difference between a Show and a Tell. They know it when they see it, but they can't (or won't take the time) to articulate it in ways that help the poor newbie fix the problem.

So what makes for a great critique? One that is on point, encouraging, and instructive all at once. Many people like to score points on fellow writers by being snarky, hiding their own deficiencies by ragging on someone's work. Others settle in to lecture, drowning the author in do's and don'ts gleaned from the innumerable how-to-write books they've read while not actually writing anything of their own. OWWW chucks out the professional critters right along with the lurkers who never participate at all. Critting should not be about demonstrating how much you know, or think you know, or about destroying some poor guy's ego, but about honestly analyzing a piece to help the writer fulfill his vision for it.

How to do that? Ah, there's the rub. It's easy to fall into the trap of trying to rewrite the piece to what you think it should be. Sometimes critiquing is a matter of telling your own instincts to get back in their cage and stretching to try and understand what the author is trying to accomplish. If you can't control your editorial urge to complete rewrite it, you should walk away and crit something else, or stick to the mechanics of "needs trimming" and "writing is really passive."

HOWEVER. . . (she said), you need to SHOW the writer what you mean when you toss around terms like trimming and passive and Tell. A really good crit takes some time and committment. It takes picking out specific examples of the writing and editing them to show where the excess verbiage lies. It means demonstrating the correct way to punctuate dialogue when the writer consistently does stuff like "I can't go out tonight." Mary said. It means showing the newbie what passive means by practical demonstration:

"Joe was walking down the street. He had just gotten off the bus, and it was raining. He had started that morning in Oklahoma, after Mary threw him out. It had been a long time coming; he had cheated on her once too often. They had been together ten years. Didn't that count? But she had said to get out and not come back. Now here he was, walking in the rain in a town he couldn't even name."

Not only does this story start in the wrong place (in my opinion), it distances the reader from the precipitating event that places the POV character where he is, losing all its emotional punch. It uses that deadly "had" to look back at the dramatic events of the morning, not to mention the "was-ing" going on everywhere, that horrible hallmark of passive writing. The reader is being Told what happened to Joe, instead of living it with him.

Now, the writer may have some perfectly valid reason for starting the story in the new town, and the critter should respect that while pointing up that perhaps it would be better started earlier. Regardless of who is right on that point, the critter can still try to help with the passive and boring opening. To demonstrate active writing and drive home the point about starting the story sooner, the critter could offer an alternative opening:

"Get out, you lying sack of scum!"

"Jesus, Mary!" Joe only just dodged the vase his housemate threw at him, the ugly one his sister had given them when they moved in together, he noted as it whizzed past his ear. It shattered against the wall a foot from his head, peppering him with splinters like shrapnel. "Ow!"

He pawed at a stinging spot on his cheekbone and brought his hand away red. "I'm bleeding!"

"Good!" Mary reached for more ammunition. "Get out, now, before I hunt up the shotgun! Go back to your barfly!"

Joe winced, ten hours later and two hundred miles away. She wasn't a barfly, he thought sadly as the bus's brakes hissed and the Greyhound rocked to a stop. But I guess Mary had a point.

Rain streaked the windows and pounded off the pavement outside. He stood up and shrugged into his coat, shuffled down the aisle between mostly-empty seats and out into the rain. End of the line. This was as far as the money in his pockets took him. A new place. A new start. What the hell was the name of this place again?

The rain beat down on his head. Maybe I shoulda married her, he thought as the bus pulled away, starting a small tidal wave up over the curb to soak his shoes. Then he grinned. She always did hate that vase.

Which version engages the senses, uses active verbs, establishes a mood, puts the reader into the action instead of looking back at it? Which establishes characterization and a sense of how the protag thinks? Which gives you a mental picture?

Of course, simpler methods exist for getting the point across: "It was raining" becomes "Rain poured from the sky as though God had upended a bucket, sluicing down the street in a solid sheet." Or even: "Joe flipped the collar of his coat up against the water dripping from his hair down his neck and ducked his head against the downpour." Guess what? We know it's raining, but we never once mentioned the word.

Pointing out every example of bad writing in a crit would be exhausting, of course, and above and beyond the duties of critters. One good example should be sufficient, with an admonition to the writer to find all the rest. Pointing out two examples of overused words should be followed by "It might be instructive to you to run a find and replace in your document on 'was'. You might be shocked by how many times you fall into the passive construction." It is not up to the critter to serve as a free editorial service for a lazy writer. If they want to learn, point out the path and step out of the way.

How do you avoid putting your stamp on someone's work, imposing your personal rules on someone's chosen style? I have received crits that were one long grammatical lesson, trying to impose "correct" Chicago style on my creative piece. Hmm. Not that helpful, all in all. A good crit should look at the story, not just the mechanics. If the plot is lame, the passives may not matter, but you should still point them out so the writer can continue to improve. Knowing the writer's skill level, self-assessed or otherwise, is a good starting point. Respecting a writer's request that you proffer no line crits, or to please focus on the characterization as a known weak spot, will always get you points, and force you to stretch out of your own critting comfort zone. It is, or should be, easy to tell the beginners from those who have mastered the basics of active writing and storytelling. The one-size-fits-all crit is just as bad as the "too much passive voice" crit.

A lot of people join workshops intending to jump right in, only to be intimidated by the thought of offering an opinion about someone else's work, especially if the writing is fairly good. I always try to remind newbies that every reader is entitled to an opinion. You are, after all, the one who is or is not going to plunk money down on a book. You will react in some way to the writing, good or bad. It is fair to tell a writer that the opening did not grab you or that you couldn't follow the wandering plot, or that Character X just didn't seem believable. You should always try, however, to point out some specific example where X was doing something you found unrealistic, or to pinpoint the exact moment at which your attention started to wander. Even if you don't quite know how to fix these problems yourself, you can still provide valuable feedback--if you Show and don't simply Tell the writer where he went wrong. In your opinion.

Good critters are generally made, not born. They evolve as they grow more proficient in their own writing. My advice to both writers and critters is to embrace the Show vs Tell rule, learn it, understand it down to their bones. Once it becomes part of your writing DNA, a good many other problems will disappear almost effortlessly. And that includes weak and fuzzy crits.

There. Those are my words pulled from thin air for the day. Make of them what you will.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Woohoo for me--I think

I have to confess I'm really tired of being a bridesmaid. Today I got a lovely certificate from Writers of the Future for my story "Eternity's Child", which is better than a rejection letter, I admit. My last story there got to the quarterfinals before collecting a rejection letter. No certificate for that one. Certificates are cool, but not as much as actually winning the dratted contest.

Ah, well, it's a lovely day, it's not snowing, there is hope of spring, and it really is a pretty certificate!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Rising stars and wannabes

I've been trying to catch up on new voices in SF and fantasy of late. One I encountered over Christmas was Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind. I really liked this book, even though I felt it took way too long to cut to the actual story. His style is fluid as well as beautiful, and I love a character that can laugh at himself. Oh, my. The scene where the hero trustingly steps off the roof is priceless.

What I did not like was the fact that at least one editor at Daw seems unable to master the proper usage of "led, lead, lie, lay" or the mysteries of apostrophes. Repeated references to "my parent's wagon," when the hero has two living parents and the wagon belongs to both of them, set my teeth on edge. Like most writers, I have my pet peeves, and the rapid demise of English grammar is one of them. One has hopes that editors and journalists live in the last bastion of proper use of the English language, but the more I read "professionally edited" material the more I have to wonder if anyone in the industry knows what this anymore.

Don't get me wrong. In general I like the books Daw puts out. Just... can we please not ruin this old-fashioned reader's enjoyment by perpetuating mistakes? Aaack.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Of snow and Pollyanna

Okay, I had every intention of checking in over the holidays, but then it started to snow. And snow. And snow. Over 5 feet in less than two weeks. That's just rude. After last winter everybody was hoping for a mild(er) winter, but nooooo. We got 2' in one day and then storm after storm after storm. The good news is that after clearing the roof of my 2600 sq ft house by myself, all those Christmas cookies are history. Two jillion calories burned, wahoo! The bad news is that I have to fix my barn roof come spring. Two of the support timbers broke but it did not cave in, thank God sincerely, because my horse was in the stall directly underneath. My wonderful brother-in-law came up and helped me shore it back up. Or rather, I handed him tools while he shored it back up. I wuv my family!

The year started on a depressing note: a rejection from some soul at Intergalactic Medicine Show working on New Year's Day. Thanks, fella. Way to set the tone. However, my ego was salved when Science Fiction Trails snapped up "Message in the Dust" in less than a day. I got the contract two days later by snail mail. That's gotta be a record, which makes me wonder if I should have shopped that story around a little. That was the first place I sent it. But if the market's right, it's right, and I appreciate the sale. Let's hope the trend continues.

My New Year's resolution is to quit obsessing on all the rotten things that could go wrong and focus on accentuating the positive. At the end of the day, I want to be able to say "It was a good day." Even on Tuesday, when an expected check failed to show up and the market took a nose dive, it didn't snow! The sun was actually out for a while, and it's one day closer to spring. So let's hear it for the Pollyanna syndrome. It's working so far...

I have 18 subs out so far this month, 1 acceptance, 1 rejection. I'm looking at a lot of different markets I haven't tried before, so we'll see.

Cheers from Pollyanna!