Interim Progress

Earlier I wrote I was in the process of shifting my writing year to the calendar year and October through December were bonus months before starting a new writing year.  Now that December is over it’s time to quickly assess this three month period and look forward to the new calendar year.

In the last three months I finished editing a novella and wrote twenty-one thousand new words split over three new stories.  And these last three stories explore new sub-genres for me: hard sci-fi and humor.
I’ve found hard sci-fi takes considerably more time to write due to all the research.  In particular I wrote a story for the Jim Baen’s Memorial Writing contest which wants hard sci-fi space stories set no more than fifty, sixty years in the future.  It seemed I couldn’t get more than one or two paragraphs before having to stop to read academic papers on various things, which while the scientist in me enjoyed, the writer in me that likes to make progress resented the delay.
Humor is quite the challenge to write, but I am convinced it can be learned.  Although it sounds strange, I did spend time studying humor, deconstructing it, watching videos to try and understand it.  I can’t claim to have been successful yet, but it was interesting learning experience.  Both hard sci-fi and humor represent two new areas of growth for me and I’m happy to have grown my repertoire and will continue to practice both into 2014.
I also received my first acceptance to a SWFA approved market for one of my most favorite stories, so needless to say I am very excited.  The tentative date to publication is in early 2014 and I’ll write more about it then. 
And after much introspection and going back-and-forth I finally settled on my writing 2014 targets which I’ll roll out next week. 
I am pleased with the progress these past three months, but I can’t wait to get started on 2014.  I’ll roll out 2014’s targets next week.

Overcoming Writer’s Block

It happens to all writers: it’s time to write and either A) you don’t feel like it, or B) you don’t know what to write.  Each is a distinct problem with different solutions, but often the new writer treats them as the same thing with statements like: “not feeling it” or “muse didn’t show up today”.

More experienced writers know that if we always waited for the muse to show up we never would get anything done—fickle creature that muse is.  Often nowhere to be found when it’s actually time to write, and constantly whispering in your ear when it’s impossible to write, such as in the middle of a business meeting.  So the easy solution to A) is BIC, Butt In Chair.  Regardless of how you feel, you make the commitment to face the blank page on a regular scheduled basis.  The result of this is some sessions are spectacular, others abysmal, but always forward progress is made, even if it’s a baby step.  The result at the end of the day is the reader can’t tell the difference between those sessions (with some editing and smoothing of course—I’m not really a huge proponent of large-scale edits, but that’s another post).
The solution to B) is equally as simple, just write the next sentence.  Take it one sentence at a time.  What really helps with this approach is to recognize and accept that not everything you write is gold or even has to be used.  You’re absolutely allowed to write crap to get warmed up—just cut it out or come back to it.  Another good trick that I like, is to write the previous scene from another POV.  Granted this a lot of work that will never appear in the story, but it will give you deeper insight into the scene which may unlock for you where to go next.  However, the most sensible thing to do is to end your last writing session in the middle of a scene where you know where to go from there.
Writer’s block happens to all of us, but having strategies in place beforehand renders this malady impotent.

What I’m reading

I wrote in an earlier post that as a kid through adulthood I read mostly fantasy, but as a writer I write mostly science fiction.  The result was I was writing in a genre I had read very little in.  Naturally, as soon as I realized this I set about remedying the situation.

I have since read at least one work (usually more) of some of the giants in the field: Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Philip K. Dick, and more.  Of the set, Heinlein’s been my favorite so far—particularly Starship Troopers.
In addition to trying to make way through the classics in the field I have been reading the professional short story markets with some regularity.  This is a result of another anomaly: I read mostly novels, yet write exclusively short fiction.  So yet again, I set out to fix this this little hiccup.  All of them have beautifully written fiction, but of the ones I’m reading now the one I enjoy the most is Asimov’s Science Fiction.  It’s also easy to slip in a short story here and there in a busy schedule which is why that’s mostly what I’ve read lately: short science fiction.
When I think back to the last novel I read, it was the latest in the Gentleman Bastard series—a fantasy novel.  Whoops–slipping into old habits.  I had read the first two Foundation novels by Asimov earlier in the summer and had bought the third and fourth.  I think it’s time to go dust those off and get to reading.

Writing Like the Sith

I tend to think of my writing projects as the Sith in the Star Wars Universe think about their training: only two, a master and an apprentice.  As soon as one spot is opened up, it’s filled with another candidate, never more than one candidate in a slot—that is what’s like with my writing.

Generally, my writing slots can be broken down into: idea, writing, revision, proofing, and submitting.  With the exception of submitting, I’m only ever writing, editing, proofing one piece at time.  If things are busy, like trying to get pieces done for a contest or themed deadlines, often I’m writing and editing different pieces (writing story A while editing story B), but rarely ever writing two pieces at the same time (writing story A and B).
I had to change from “never” to “rarely ever” because that is in fact what I am doing right this moment.  This time of year is always busy with the Writers of the Future and Jim Baen Memorial contests deadlines and two other projects that need to be finished up.  So at the moment I’m juggling four, when usually that number is two.
The result, I noticed, from this, is that when I return to a piece in revision that I haven’t visited in a while, I can’t recall the intricacies of the piece.  Now many writers seek this distance to help in revision, to let them read their own work with “reader eyes.”  But for me, at this phase in development, the distance is hurting more than helping.  For example, I have a novella I am currently trying to trim down on word count.  The story was too large for me to hold in my head when I was writing it, and now when I come across a line I think I can cut, I get the nagging feeling that no, that line is important for something later in the story.  But I can’t remember what, and worse: where.  It takes me precious time to sort through it all making the whole experience quite a slog.
The experience of juggling four pieces has taught me the wisdom of the Sith-like approach.  Hopefully, I’ll soon be back on Sith-like production: only writing one story at a time.

Optimistic Endings

“I wouldn’t want to be one of your characters,” my wife said, as we were discussing one of my stories.  At first I was a little indignant.  I likemy characters.  If I didn’t like them, I wouldn’t write them.

Then she lifted up her hand and started ticking off her fingers.  “One—memories stolen.  Two—on the run.  Three—dead.  Four—arrested.  Five—dead.”  I stopped her there, she had made her point.
Last week I wrote about making characters sympathetic by putting them in pain (one technique).  But it’s how the reader leaves the characters at the end of their journey that makes them memorable.  As you can probably tell by my wife’s list, the characters I tend to like the most, aren’t the ones that live happily ever after.  This is actually a reader bias on my part.  I think there are poignant points to be highlighted and made not by what happens, but by what could and doesn’t happen, letting the reader fill in their own commentary.
But more than one market, more than one editor has said they’re swamped with these kinds of stories and they’re looking for not necessarily happy-ever-after endings, but more optimistic endings.  My goal is to become a better writer and sell commercial fiction, so I adjusted my stories to accommodate more optimistic endings.  After all, each story is just practice for the next one, so I decided to practice optimistic endings for a bit—with mixed results.  But I’m having a blast writing them.
I’m not sure if my wife would want to be one of my characters now, but at least she’s not ticking off her fingers anymore.

Making Characters Sympathetic

One of bedrocks of creating memorable characters is to make them sympathetic.  After all, not many readers want to spend time with characters they can’t stand.  The easiest ways to generate sympathetic characters is to show them in pain, show them doing something heroic, and/or show other characters admiring them.  In general, creating sympathetic characters isn’t something that requires conscious thought on the author’s part.  If the author wants to spend time with that character, writing their story, then generally readers will as well.

Occasionally though, we come across characters that require more effort to get the reader to sympathize–think Sherlock Holmes and Watson.  Those stories wouldn’t work from Sherlock’s point-of-view, he’s an egotist that loves to lord it over others.  So Sir Author Conan Doyle chose Watson as the everyman and more sympathetic character.
Recently, I ran into this problem with a main protagonist.  I wrote the first scene and thought eww, I hate being in this character’s head.  And like Sir Author Conan Doyle, I began thinking about different point-of-views to tell the story.  Ultimately, I decided that no, that character’s point-of-view was the right one.  But I still had this problem.
My solution was to start the story in a different place to show the character being sympathetic, in pain and being heroic.  There’s a reason the reboot of the Star Trek franchise first shows Kirk as a kid stealing a car.  As a kid, there’s an innocence there coupled with the pain of loss of his biological father.  We laugh because we know it’s a foreshadowing of his swagger and that he’s a kid (would we have laughed if he was an adult?  I doubt it).  The next time we see Kirk he’s in a bar and soon in an impossible fight, not backing down—again foreshadowing his heroic nature.  Finally, that sequence ends with Captain Pike admiring him, which firmly plants Kirk as a sympathetic character for the audience—even though he’s cocky and a womanizer.  If they started the story with him in the academy, the audience wouldn’t have likely reacted as favorably to him.
Making characters sympathetic is a key component to storytelling.  If, as a writer, you find your character unpleasant to spend time with a different point-of-view or starting the story in a different place may do the trick.

Just Practice

Writers of the Future (WotF) results for the fourth quarter of volume thirty started coming out around Halloween, a full six weeks before anyone’s most optimist guess.  Earlier this week, I learned the fate of my submission in the second wave of notifications: flat reject. 

WotF is one of my primary markets that I study and write stories specifically for.  It was my fifth entry and when I finished writing it, I felt as if I written a winner.  My beta readers independently echoed my sentiments.  In fact, when I learned about the rejection, I wasn’t upset or even disappointed: I was confused.  And then I realized the trap I had fallen into.
I made the mistake of thinking this entry represented the culmination of all my skill, voice, and vision.  Culmination is the key word there.  Culmination represents a peak, an ending.  The mistake I made was forgetting that this is a journey, that each story is just practice for the next one.  By viewing the story as a culmination, when the rejection came, I felt (after the confusion passed) as if that’s it, I gave it the best I had and it didn’t measure up.  Such a thought naturally leads to more dangerous thoughts of giving up.
But that really isn’t an option for me.  I cannot, not write.  If I go for more than a day or two without writing, I start to get twitchy and grumpy.  The disappointment of quarter four is already passed and I’m writing the quarter one entry for volume thirty-one right now.  And this time, I remembering it’s just practice.

The case against word count goals

Last week, I wrote about developing a writing routine and how that helps increase both the speed at which a story is written and the number of stories written.  A very natural companion topic to this is word count goals.

In any career, it is important to be able to measure progress.  This helps with a feeling of accomplishment, accountability, and lets one know when one as strayed from one’s goals.  Many writers use word count goals in this capacity.  They often come in the form of yearly goals that are then broken down into smaller units, finally ending up at a word count goal per writing session.
I tried this, this past year and ultimately decided such an approach was bad for me.  I know many writers where this strategy works, which is why I tried it.  But I found it sucked all the fun out of writing for me.  I was more consumed with the word count, then the story.  And if I didn’t meet the word count goal, I felt bad and if I did, I felt like: “Great, I have to go through this again tomorrow.”  Then I noticed a curious effect: I would subconsciously use the word count goal as a reason to notwrite.  As soon as I hit the goal, more often than naught, I’d stop writing, using it as an excuse to stop.
I recently wrote a novella using this word count approach, but the process just wasn’t fun for me (I love the story though, now that it’s done).  I’ve hit writing funks before, so I thought it might just be that one story.  I dutifully finished it and started a project I had been really excited about.  Again, I used word count goals.  I wrote the opening (usually my favorite part to write) and it still wasn’t fun.  I began to get seriously concerned that writing had run its course in my life.
Worried that I might stop writing, I went back to the stories that I loved to write and tried to think through why I loved to write them and the process involved in their creation.  I’m sure you can guess at this point what they all had in common.  Yup, no word count goals.  Instead, my goals were by scenes or plot points.  This allowed me to have writing sessions where I didn’t actually write any prose, but flushed out an outline, did research, wrote character profiles and still felt like I made progress.
I’ve definitely thrown out using word counts per writing session.  I haven’t yet decided on whether a yearly goal would be good thing for me or not.  I think I’m leaning toward a goal of number of new stories written over a word count goal.  Either way, writing is fun again.  I’m glad I tried using word counts, but ultimately it’s not for me.

Developing a writing routine

When I first started writing that ill-fated first novella, I just sat down and wrote.  There was no intentionality.  I wrote when I felt like it, and because it was such a new and enjoyable experience, it wasn’t difficult at all to maintain momentum and finish it.

For close to a year and a half, I wrote this way, sitting down when I could find the time and when I felt like it.  The result was it often took me three to four months to finish a story, which at the time, I was perfectly happy with.  Then two things happened in conjunction that forced me from this mindset: a decision to get serious about writing and a baby.  When I finally made that leap to follow after a life-long dream, a different dream materialized in the form of a child.  And any parent out there can sympathize with the sudden lack of time.
My response was to institute a writing schedule.  I never have been and never will be a morning person.  It’s just not how I’m wired.  But I am at my most creative when I first wake up, rested and ready to work.  So, the only solution was to wake up before the rest of the house (approximately 4:45am) and get some writing done for an hour or two.  I have been doing this for about year and every morning is still a struggle to get out of bed.  I can get into a rhythm, but sickness, travel to different time zones, various life idiosyncrasies all kick me out of it and it’s like starting all over again.
But since developing this discipline, my production has doubled, and my story development time shortened to weeks instead of months.  I likened it to going to the gym.  Some days you’re super motivated and it’s easy to get in and get a nice workout in.  Other days, you have to drag yourself in and it’s a slog.  But both days you make progress, make a step closer to a goal.  It’s the same way with writing.  Some days it’s inspiring and words flow faster than you can type, others it’s a slog.  But at the end of the day, the reader can’t tell which sessions were which in the finished product.
One of the best things a writer can do when they become serious about their craft is set a writing routine and stick to it.  You’ll be amazed at the end of the year how much it’s helped.

Setting


I love a good setting.  It gets me invested in the story more quickly and it’s what really gets me excited to write a new story—a new, exciting setting to explore.  Now of course, what constitutes a good setting is as individual as a favorite meal.  For example, I seem to have a mental block on sparse settings (e.g. desert, moonscapes, etc.).  I read these and am almost immediately bored (it goes for movies as well).  The characters and plot have to do extra work to get me over that hump.  But that’s individual tastes for you.

It’s a problem I ran into recently when writing a novella (the length is comfortably outside the word limit of Writers of the Future so it’s okay to discuss).  It’s set on an asteroid cluster passing through space—a sparse setting.  I love the characters, the circumstances surrounding them, the plot, and the theme so I powered through writing it.  But I had to work extra hard to try and make the setting interesting to me so it would be interesting to the reader.
The setting is what almost always incites me to write the next scene, to explore.  The fun ones are near-effortless for me.  Which probably isn’t true, I just really enjoy writing setting so I don’t notice the work involved for the fun ones—that is, it’s not work.
In short, I love a good setting.