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I’m about to commit a crime. I’m going to kill some of my “darlings.”

Words, of course. I’m talking about walking back a scene in my novel. You see, I was sitting here, in this very chair, blithely writing away, when a character took a walk, because it was necessary that he talk with someone, someone who didn’t want to be seen. But then I needed a reason for that character to walk off, away from his friends, and in the circumstances, it seemed the most normal thing in the world for him to be responding to a call of nature. That would certainly explain why he was alone when this other character accosted him.

Unfortunately, as the scene developed, it became obvious fairly quickly that it could easily devolve into sophomoric humor. Even if it didn’t, I couldn’t trust that the reader’s mind wouldn’t go in that direction, which would be bad. You see, comic relief is all very well and good, and I have used it myself, but it has its time and place, and two-thirds of the way through the novel, when the hero has been stripped of his companions and is trapped in an inescapable prison and about to engineer an escape anyway which will lead to the final act taking place in the midst of his enemies, isn’t it.

My novel Once a Knight is essentially 80,000 words of comic relief–except very near the end. In the end, the plot has to be resolved, and while the lead-up to your main characters saving the kingdom can be funny as you want, when the hero and the villain finally square off…well, not too many battles to the death are that hilarious. And so it was here. I am getting too close to the end of the book for comic relief, particularly since this book hasn’t featured any so far. To insert humor–or even allow it to be inferred–at this point would be off-putting and discordant. So my darlings have to die.

This is the kind of thing you learn as you go. What you leave out is as important as what you put in, and you have to know when each is appropriate. There are those who say that you should throw everything at the page and move on, then clean it up later, and to them I say, “Absolutely. Don’t let the right brain interfere with the creative process.” But there are those times when, if you don’t let it interfere, your book will go off on a tangent and you may not return for thousands of words. That’s time wasted.

And wasting time… is a crime.

#SFWApro

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They say that the hardest thing to know, is to know yourself. Well, maybe they do, and maybe I just made that up. It’s hard to know. But one thing I do know is, that the longer I write, the more I understand about my own process.

Like, for instance, when I said that I thought the hardest part of re-writing a story would be coming up with a new title. I had no idea how right I was.

The story’s drafted; I need to run it by a beta reader, but I think I fulfilled the magazine’s requests–except one. I have been racking my poor excuse for a brain for over two weeks, conjuring literally dozens of ideas, and discarding them all. And then, to add insult to injury, my novel-in-progress started making noises that it wanted a permanent name, rather than just the working title I slapped on it months ago. Last night I tried on and immediately dumped five of them. I think I have the general idea in place, but nothing’s guaranteed.

What to do? I need to get this story out the door so it can (with luck) sell. I also need the brainpower to finish the novel, which, just as I thought I was entering the home stretch, began presenting new problems. (Why does every scene have to contribute to the plot? Why? I can name lots of famous authors who pad their books mercilessly, but like Tess McGill said: “You can bend the rules plenty once you get to the top, but not while you’re trying to get there.”*)

Perhaps I’ll try one of those random word generators. But you know the worst part? This posting. I knew its title before I ever started writing it.

Irony, thy name is writer.

 

*Of course, she was merely trying to smash a double-glass ceiling shielding corporate America, while I’m trying to come up with a title for a short story. Who’s got the better chance here?

#SFWApro

I’m working on re-writing a story. Happily, this is due to an editorial request. I sent in a story, it was considered, and the Powers That Be decided that, while in their opinion it was good, it could be better. Editors sometimes give you notes and ask if you will rewrite a story in line with those notes. You don’t have to if you don’t want to. Sometimes the requested changes conflict with your idea of the story. You can always say, “No, thank you,” and move to the next market. (You want to think very carefully before you do that.)

In this instance, I reviewed the suggestions, found them palatable, and replied that not only could I make them, but only one was likely to be difficult: Changing the title.

You’d think that would be the easiest, but titles are tough–they’re like flash fiction, where you have to tell a complete story in 1000 words…except titles are much shorter.

Your title must express to the reader what kind of story it is you’re telling. Is it horror? Fantasy? Philosophical? Satirical? Is it more than one of these? Your title has to tell all of that in fewer than a half-dozen words. At least if you’re writing a book you have a cover!

Alas, it turns out that I am as good a prognosticator as I feared: I have finished a draft of the revised story, but I have no new title. And the editors were quite clear they want a new title.

I could send it back as is, arguing for my present title, or simply tossing the problem to the editors, but I tend not to want to make trouble for people who might pay me for the trouble I’ve already gone to. And nobody likes a problem author. There’s no guarantee my revision is going to meet with approval; I don’t want to stack the deck against myself.

I think back on the million monkeys typing on the million typewriters. I don’t need Shakespeare; I need maybe five words.

Maybe if I hired five monkeys with five typewriters?

#SFWApro

This evening, as happens so often, I spent my writing time not writing. I was involved in the practice of writing, just not the craft. I corresponded with my publisher, found a new market, looked to see if I had anything appropriate to submit, checked to make sure the story I chose wasn’t already out somewhere (an embarrassing mistake that all of us have made), submitted the story, found another new market, discovered that all of my available stories were already in submission (woohoo!), and corresponded with two (other) editors about potential projects.

Whew. Busy night. So busy I “forgot” to write; you know, that ever-demanding mistress which supposedly runs my life, and for which allegedly I breathe. So why do I not only consider this a productive evening, but fun? Aren’t I supposed to be writing, and feel guilty if I don’t?

Well, yes, I am supposed to feel guilty. Why do you think I’m writing a blog post? But that doesn’t explain why handling all of those ancillary tasks was so much fun. What is it about writers that we will do anything to keep from writing?

First of all, the idea that I would have so many ancillary tasks to do would astound the me of ten years ago, who was just starting to make some headway in the writing game. Back then the idea that I could have three published novels on the market and 11 different stories and novels on submission, would have been stunning. This level of involvement is still recent, so the novelty hasn’t worn off.

Second, attending to little necessary tasks (correspondence, submissions, charting submissions) is easy. Writing is hard. Ironically, the hardest part is when you’re sitting around apparently doing nothing. And not only is it hard, it’s scary. There’s no one to fall back on, no one to blame. You have set yourself the task of creating an entire universe and all the people in it, and then you not only have to come up with something for them to do, it has to be so amusing that other people will pay to see how you did it. They have to be willing to pay and then spend hours watching you. (In a sense.) And if you screw up, they will throw your work across the room and go on the internet just to trash you. (Okay, that applies to everyone.)

Hey, if I wanted to be watched by a hostile audience waiting for the slightest slip-up so it could savage me, and for little pay, I’d be a stand-up comic. Or a teacher.

Still…when you succeed, even if no one else likes what you did, there’s that feeling of accomplishment, that sense that to your characters, you are a god, generous in your bounty and terrible in your wrath, and you can destroy planets with a word–!

Hmm, maybe we writers shouldn’t be the ones who are scared. Maybe our characters should be concerned. That’s probably why they so often take over their own stories.

If they could just type them, too, this would be a much easier business. I’d be happy to take care of their correspondence…

#SFWApro

I’ve been engaged in some long-term strategic planning. When you’re a writer, no one assigns you tasks the way your boss does at work (unless you’re a freelancer, different system); you have to determine for yourself what you’re going to do after you finish the project you’re working on. (Assuming you do finish. It’s okay sometimes to put a story aside because it just isn’t working, but one of the hallmarks of a writer is that you finish what you’re working on. If every project is being set aside half-done, that’s a problem.)

And now I’m concentrating on novels, so it’s even more important to have some idea of what’s coming up next. Writing a novel for me can take anywhere from a couple of months to a year (although I’m working to bring that down). You would think that this would allow plenty of time to plan the next one, but you’d be surprised. So I’m doing a little strategic thinking: A possible trilogy cut to one book, a half-done book to be revisited, a long-time thought experiment moved to the starting lineup.

The thing is, all of these are speculation. Any of them could change because a book sells better than I think (or worse), a publisher changes his mind about me or goes out of business, a new and exciting idea comes along and crowds out everything else. This is solely a thought exercise designed to make me believe that I have some idea of where I’m heading. Uncertainty is a momentum-killer. It’s the outside force that acts on your career to slow you down.

Then again, nothing is certain, even uncertainty. It’s bad when it slows you down, but “uncertainty” is just another word for “potential.” If you can’t predict your next project because nothing speaks to you, that’s bad–but if you can’t predict your next project because you didn’t know that a TV producer was going to offer to option your book and your agent calls you to demand a sequel, that’s good. Or there could be other factors delaying or derailing your Plan, either good or bad. Writing is not a linear occupation.

Which is why, when I see people complaining that certain Big Name Authors haven’t come out with a new book as fast as they’d like, I think, “Well, obviously you’re not a writer.”

Books are not mass-produced like cars or toasters. First, writers move at different speeds, and no one moves at the same speed every day. Second, writers are people, and they have lives. Sometimes those lives interfere with writing (ironically often because of what we have to do to support our writing, like editing, book tours, convention appearances, or just sitting around Planning).

This doesn’t just apply to Big Names with huge series. This applies to all writers, published and pre-published. Just as there is no schedule for writing a book, there is no schedule for moving from publishing short stories to novels, or just publishing. There’s no requirement that you have to move from short stories to novels (or vice versa) at all. Writing (and having a writing career) is not done according to a recipe.

If I ever become sufficiently well-known that someone asks me, “How did you become a writer? How did you get published?”, I’m going to say, “I wrote. For many years. Sometimes I think I didn’t write enough. Sometimes I think I just needed time to grow into the right person. None of which has anything to do with you. Now go write something.”

Because there’s no secret handshake, there’s no schedule, there’s no recipe. You may sell the first time out, or collect 500 rejections in a row. You may sell the first time out, and then collect 500 rejections in a row. The best you can do is make a plan. Which probably won’t happen the way you wrote it.

But you will have written something. And that’s where it all starts.

#SFWWApro

(Note: This has nothing to do with “The Virtues of Keeping Your Pants On.” Different subject–although it is a valuable piece of advice, particularly in public.)

I was recently informed by a publisher that a short story was not quite what he was seeking in his magazine, an unfortunate event which occurs both more and less often that we’d like. More, because stories are often rejected for this reason, and it’s frustrating if it means a good story just can’t find a home–and less, because usually you have no idea that the problem wasn’t your story but just a bad fit, and it’s nice to know that. This interaction, however, went a little further.

The editor asked me if I would consider allowing my story to be used in a parallel venue, one which does not pay. This is known in the business as “exposure.” Because the story in question is a reprint, I considered the matter, but eventually decided “no.” I have turned down opportunities for “exposure” before and quickly turned the story around for money. If I allowed even a reprint to be published for free, I wouldn’t be able to peddle it again for some time. I’d rather take the chance on a payday.

This is not the case for everyone. Many authors, particularly new ones, jump at such a chance. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, but one should always look before leaping. I have offered stories for exposure before, but each time I had a reason: I was new and thought any publication was worth seeing my name in print, the story was a reprint that I submitted to an audio magazine simply to hear it read aloud, or (in one case) the anthology was for charity and featured a Very Big Name that should actually generate sales, meaning the opportunity for exposure was real.

You see, the problem with most “exposure” markets is–you don’t get a lot. Most authors aren’t going to sell stories for nothing, so a market that doesn’t pay is less likely to snag first-rate stories, so fewer people are going to see your story in print. And while any publication is better than none, as far as credits go, most markets don’t really care where else you’ve been published anyway, unless you’re famous, in which case they already know.

Of course, when you’re new and you haven’t sold anything, the idea of “taking the chance on a payday” feels like trading a bird in the hand for the chance to shove that same hand into a thorny bush. And my own first couple of publications were for free, so I know the thrill of simply seeing your name in print.

It all comes down to what you want out of your writing. Think about it, though. If your name on a book is all you need, write a novel and self-publish it. (Again, I know how good that feels.) You’ll save yourself the time and anguish of submitting to magazines. But if you ever want to see your name on a magazine in a convention dealer’s room, or have someone ask for your autograph, or (!) make money… then resist the temptation to give your work away. If no one will pay for it, call it a “learning experience” and shelve it. Someday, when you’re finally published and you’re looking for more stories to send out, you’ll dig through your old files and come across that piece again. You’ll glance at the title, smile indulgently, and think, “You know, it wasn’t really that bad a story. Maybe I can fix it.”

And it wasn’t. And you can. And then you’ll sell it. I know; I’ve done it. I exposed my story to the world.

And it paid off.

#SFWApro

 

The Year in Review, 2018

I think there’s a law that says you have to recap your year in a blog post, but even if there isn’t, this has been (ahem) a pretty big year, so what the heck.

Stories submitted: 57, fewer than other years, because my inventory is being whittled down by attrition, meaning they’ve sold. (One story was returned with an invitation to re-submit should that particular anthology merit a sequel.) This is an awesome problem to have. There are seven stories out at the moment, a number I’m comfortable with.

Sales: Eight, of which two were original, three were reprints, and three were republications. So what’s the difference between reprints and republications? Read on…

Publications: Here’s where it gets interesting… 12–nine short stories and three novels!

Yes, not only is this the most stories I’ve ever had published in a year, the highlight of 2018 unquestionably came at the end of September when I accepted an offer to re-publish the Stolen Future trilogy under the Digital Science Fiction imprint. I had previously self-published all three volumes, but they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Convention appearances: One. I made my third appearance as a panelist at Loscon, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the Hugo shortlist for Best Panelist will have my name on it. (I’m sorry, what? They don’t have a Hugo for Best Panelist? Why not?)

Current projects: Two… one short story and one novel. (Which is a lot, as I’m typically a one-at-a-time kind of guy.) There are other things in various stages of incompletion which could see the light of day next year, but nothing I’m actively working on.

And that’s all I can think of. Could I have done more? Sure, I could’ve worked more diligently and suffered fewer writer’s blocks, but honestly, this was my best year ever on more than one front, so I’ll cut myself some slack. Besides, it gives me a chance to make some New Year’s resolutions…

Resolved: Propose a Best Panelist Hugo!

#SFWApro