Thursday, October 30, 2014

When Too Much Polishing Ruins the Story

One of the big questions for beginning writers is just how much one should rewrite a story before sending it out. Some people will tell you to polish everything carefully and only send out your very best so that editors don't come to associate your name with sloppy writing and think you're incompetent. Others (including Robert A. Heinlein, in his famous directives for writers) say that you should never rewrite, save to editorial direction, at most doing one quick pass to correct spelling, grammar and gross errors of continuity (as in, if your character changes name, race, physical appearance or other major characteristics without a good in-story reason) so that you don't spend all your time trying to perfect one masterpiece story and never write anything else, or send anything anywhere.

This is especially true when you've just written something that's near and dear to your heart, and you really, really want to give it the best chance you can get it. Especially when most publications will give you exactly one chance with any given story (and some of them keep submission records in perpetuity -- I once got called out for resending a heavily rewritten story to a market that I'd sent it almost a decade earlier, since I'd forgotten that the market had even existed that long ago and hadn't checked my list of prior submissions thoroughly), you don't want to blow it with a stupid or careless mistake. So there's a temptation to think that if you just buckle down hard enough, you can get it right, irrespective of your skill level.

Which leads to the paradox of actually over-polishing a story to the point that you take all the life out of it and end up with a "recital piece," stiff and mannered with everything just so. Something to be admired for the effort you've put into it, but not really enjoyed.

In the current environment, this problem can be exacerbated by fear of causing inadvertent offense, of using the wrong turn of phrase or the wrong characterization or whatever, and suddenly being showered with condemnations for being racist, sexist, ableist, or whatever. So you go through and scrub it of everything that might cause offense, and in the process produce something so bland that pablum is tasty in comparison. It has no spirit because it doesn't take any risks.

Unfortunately, it's often a problem that only experience can cure -- experience that has to be won through writing lots of different stories, not endlessly polishing one's first story in hopes of getting it Just Right. And that means that a lot of stories may well be written only to bounce around until they run out of possible markets, and then vanish into a trunk to stay there forever, or until your family decides it's time to clean out the trash. Not what you want to hear about stories that have meant a great deal to you as you wrote them, full of enthusiasm for the ideas but not yet ready to execute them with the facility to tell an enjoyable story.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Talking to an Empty Room

Earlier I wrote about how obscurity and indifference are the writer's greatest enemies, especially at the beginning of one's career. Obviously, if people can't find you, you're going to have a hard time growing your audience -- and there's only so much self-promotion can do before it becomes off-putting and counter-productive. But obscurity and indifference can also be detrimental to a writer's career in a more subtle way.

Imagine that you've been asked to give a speech. When you arrive, you discover a rather unusual arrangement: the podium is brightly lit, but the rest of the room is in darkness. You're having to speak to an audience you cannot see.

Or at least you assume you have an audience you cannot see. As you proceed with your speech, you become uncomfortably aware of how quiet everyone is. No whispered comments, no little rustlings of papers as someone fidgets with their program, just silence. Maybe the rumble of the building's HVAC or other mechanical sounds, but nothing human.

And then you finish and the lights come on to reveal row after row of empty seats. And you wonder: did the announcement not go out that I was giving a speech? Did nobody consider it interesting enough to be worth their time? Or worse, were some people out there in the beginning, but found it so terrible that they tiptoed out without a sound and left me standing there talking to an empty room?

Most of us who've tried the traditional publishing route know how disheartening it is to get one after another say-nothing form rejection. But we could always comfort ourselves by noting how many stories that did get published were nothing we wanted to read. Maybe they just weren't to our tastes, or maybe they struck us as overly lit'ry or just plain badly written. But their presence in the markets we were trying to crack let us comfort ourselves with the idea that the gatekeepers really didn't have a clue about what they were doing and were picking stories by guess and by golly, and if we could just get our writing on the right editor's desk, things would start happening. And that thought enabled us to keep pushing on past rejection after rejection.

But for those of us who've decided to go indie, putting something up and seeing no evidence anybody is even interested can be particularly disheartening. We're not dealing with gatekeepers who may be flaky or beholden to clueless suits in the corner office. We're dealing directly with the reading public, and none of them are coming. It gets to the point we'd almost welcome a harsh critique for the simple reason that it means that someone actually cares. And so it becomes harder and harder to scrape together the enthusiasm to write the next story, the next chapter, the next novel. That little voice in the back of your mind starts asking whether it's time to give it up, if nobody wants to read what you're writing.

Which means that it may not take that much to rekindle one's enthusiasm -- just evidence that someone out there is reading and likes it can be enough to get the words flowing again. On JukePop Serials,  just getting a few +votes here and there have been enough for me to be able to get the words flowing on that next chapter and have something new to put up again.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Shadows of the Past

When I first got the idea of pulling out The Steel Breeds True and getting it ready for publication on KDP and other online e-book platforms, I thought it would need little more than a quick polish to get it into shape. Maybe a few changes here and there to bring it in line with some developments in some other novels, particularly in the relationships between some of the people in Tsar Joseph's court. And I figured it'd be good to break up some of the really long chapters for online reading. But I was pretty sure that I'd left it in decent shape when I last sent it out to a novel market in 2003.

But when I got it out and started working with it, I was astonished to find that it wasn't in nearly as good of shape as I'd remembered. The first couple of scenes in Chapter 1 weren't bad, needing only a couple of names changed. By the time I came to the third scene, I knew I was going to need to do some substantial work, and in later chapters I found whole scenes that needed to be restructured or cut altogether and summarized in some other scene.

By the time I got to the seventh chapter, I decided not to even try to plan in detail. There was a very real possibility that major changes in an earlier chapter would invalidate everything I was planning for later ones. So I decided to focus on doing the detail rewriting.

And in doing so, I realized that I was going to need to do some thinking about the deep-level concepts. The Steel Breeds True is one of my oldest novels. Although the current text dates back to the early 2000's, having been begun shortly after the September 11 attacks, I originally started writing it way back in 1995, when I was a freshman at the University of Illinois (where it's set). When I first wrote it, I thought it was going to be a short story, but it soon grew, drawing in more and more characters and goings-on around it, at least partly in response to various issues in my own life at the time.

In 1990 I finally ended up setting it aside, thinking it unsalvageable. It was partly the result of a particularly blistering critique, complete with snarky and condescending comments that seemed deliberately intended to wound rather than just to point out problems. But a big part of it was the changing world, which I thought had left it behind so thoroughly that it simply no longer had a market, and thus there was no reason to even try to do another rewrite. Better to just put it away and move on to other projects, of which I had plenty.

When the crumbling of the Soviet Union turned into full-out dissolution and the various union republics became fully sovereign states, I was certain of that judgment. Not just about the novel, but about the entire world in which it was set. Even when I wrote stories that were supposed to be part of the same continuity, I tried to minimize or conceal the connections. In the early 1990's, when I wrote Shapeshifter!, set in the middle of the Sharp Wars era, I avoided any mention of the Russian political landscape. Instead, Japan became the principal external enemy of the dictatorship that had taken over the US, a state of affairs that perfectly suited a story in which the protagonist takes the form of a World War II admiral and the antagonists are constantly making references to events he was involved in. Of course it helped that the first-person protagonist was a teen and thus not particularly aware of the world scene.

Yet it was still there at the back of my mind, even when I carefully avoided mentioning the Russian monarchy or anything that might draw awkward attention to what had become Yesterday's Future. Hardly surprising, considering that the world in which The Steel Breeds True is set was already several years old when I started writing that novel.

The Lanakhidzist Revolution timeline had its beginning when I was in junior high, when it still seemed unimaginable that the Soviet Union could fall from within. It was too strong, too well controlled by the iron fist of the Communist Party. If it were to be brought down, it would have to be by military force, which might well mean nuclear war and the post-apocalyptic future that was featured in so many books ranging from the hopeful Alas, Babylon through the grim Canticle for Liebowitz to the downright hopeless On the Beach. And through the 1980's, it was still possible for me to write it as a future history, although as Gorbachev's Perestroika progressed, it became increasingly Zeerusty. But when the Wall fell and when the Soviet Union dissolved, I could no longer imagine anybody buying it as science fiction.

When I did finally decide to pull it out and tackle it afresh as alternate history in response to an online discussion in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks (basically, the thesis that old-style Cold War novels might well have a sudden resurgence in the market, either as straight-up historical fiction or as alternate history, as comfort reading for people longing for the certainties of a faceoff between two nation-states in this uncertain new world of non-state actors carrying out attacks in secret, without allegiance or accountability), all that internal history was still bubbling under the surface. All that unconsidered stuff left over from my high-school exuberance, which was then overlaid with an only slightly more mature exuberance of my college years, particularly when I was studying Russian.

And now, as I'm pulling The Steel Breeds True out yet again, I'm seeing places where stuff established way back in high school was simply assumed as background. Now, looking back with the eyes of a middle-aged married woman, I find that a lot of it just doesn't hold together under closer examination -- yet I have no idea what should be put there in its place.

I'm finding that I have a great deal of sympathy for JRR Tolkien's struggles to put The Silmarillion into publishable form after the success of The Lord of the Rings. How could he reconcile the sometimes whimsical elements of his youthful exuberance with his new stature as the author? In his case, death cut short his dithering and the process of putting his papers into order was left to other hands, not always in a completely satisfactory fashion. Which on reflection could serve as a warning against letting the best become the enemy of the good.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Considering Strategies to Proceed

Right now I'm at a point where I need to decide how best to allocate my writing time, especially now that I'm trying to maintain some level of forward motion on my book reviewing site, my jobhunting site
and my economic awareness site. I have a number of writing projects in various states of completion, and I need to decide how to prioritize them.

I have multiple novels jockeying for my attention. I've been serializing Holovideo at JukePop Serials, and I'm rapidly closing in on the ending. My original outline from the early 1990's called for 28 chapters, but I've just combined chapters 19 and 20, and I'm looking at the possibility that several other planned chapters should be combined because there just isn't enough material in them individually to make a solid chapter. That means I may well have no more than 25 chapters, and if I do the remaining ones on a weekly basis, I'll be done with the novel by the end of the year, leaving me with the question of what (if anything) I want to serialize next.

However, interest in Holovideo has really fallen off. I'd had some good interest in September, but since the beginning of October I've posted three chapters and haven't received a single +vote on any of them. This lack of interest may be partly the result of new-chapter notifications not getting to the people who've put it on their bookshelf (I have not received a single notification for it, and neither has a friend who has it bookmarked), but it's not exactly conducive to enthusiasm about getting Chapter 20 written.

Meanwhile, I've been wanting to try out KDP and some other e-book programs that some friends have been having good success with. Rather than try to write a complete new novel from scratch, I had decided to rewrite an old novel, The Steel Breeds True, on the theory that it would be easier to spiff up something that already had a complete text.

However, I've been rather surprised to find out just how bad the existing text looks after ten years. It's going to take more than just a little surface spiffing of the text to get it into shape. A lot of the chapters need to be broken up into shorter chapters for electronic reading, and there are places where scenes need to be presented in a different order, and a few scenes may well be eliminated altogether or reduced to a quick summary at the beginning or end of another chapter.

So it's going to take a lot more time than I'd anticipated to get it done, and with all the trouble I'm having with Holovideo, I'm not able to give The Steel Breeds True nearly as much time as I'd like. So what I thought would be a quick and easy polish has turned into a stalled major reconstruction job.

Not to mention Last Moondance on Farside, which I was making such good progress on back in 2013, but then stalled on me when I needed to take care of other projects, particularly a couple of short stories for invitation-only anthologies (both of which were subsequently rejected, and I've been shopping around in hopes of finding some home for them). Chelsea Ayles and her adventures among the community at Shepardsport keep tugging at the back of my mind, wanting to be finished, but I keep feeling that my first obligation needs to be to finishing Holovideo.

And speaking of short stories interrupting novel progress, I'm working on a short story for an anthology with a deadline at the end of this month. I've got a full outline for it, and I've got it moving, but it's still time I don't have for any of the novels. And there's another, related story I want to write for the Jim Baen Memorial Science Fiction Contest. That's not due until the beginning of February next year, but it just keeps tugging at the back of my mind, wanting to be told, to the point it's a distraction. So I'm wondering whether it'd be better to just give in and get it written, then hang onto it until closer to the actual deadline so I could look at it with fresh eyes and give it a really good polish.

So that's where I stand right now on my writing projects.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Bad Words

It's been said that learning to write publishable fiction is a matter of getting all the bad words out of you so the good words can take their place. But what did they mean by "bad words?"

I think most of us know what comes to mind when we think of "bad words." Swear words. Cusswords. The seven words you can't say on television, and all their variations. Words dealing with the deity, with supernatural punishment, and with those messy pelvic issues of elimination and reproduction.

And yes, there are good reasons to want to keep those kinds of bad words out of our fiction, for they tend to be empty venting of anger, no more meaningful than the barking of a dog or the quacking of a duck. JRR Tolkien suggested that his orcs were far more foul-mouthed than he ever portrayed, but that such detail would appeal only to "those to whom the sordid seems strong." Herman Wouk artfully suggested the crudity of sailors' speech in the first shipboard scene in The Caine Mutiny without dropping a single f-bomb (or even specified it as the word that became like a haze in the air, although one familiar with servicemen's slang would be confident in identifying it as such). But there can be places in which one cannot elide over one or another forbidden word without weakening the scene, especially if it somehow reflects the shock or horror of a situation in a way that nothing else will do.

Another type of bad words are the ones that have fallen out of fashion, especially those that have done so as a result of overuse and abuse. The most obvious of these are the -ly adverbs, which are often treated by critiquers, especially the amateur variety, as being The Work of the Devil. And to be honest, it is true that overused words have often had their power sapped by that overuse, such that they no longer have the power to conjure up imagery in the reader's mind. Yet they too have their place, especially to capture the flavor of a particular character's speech, but now and then because there simply is no single verb that can do the job without the qualification of an adverb.

Yet another possible candidate would be those words that have become more heat than light. You know what I mean -- the ones that have been co-opted for political purposes, to the point that daring to use them in any but the Approved Sense, with the Approved Attitudes, will bring down the shrieking hordes to tell you in great detail how Eeeeevil you are. Race. Culture. Prejudice. Even seemingly innocent words like "cure" have taken on a taint of Bad Words among certain disability activists (who seem to be advocating more for the disability than the people dealing with it). Just avoiding them altogether often seems to be the best way to avoid having your time and energy sapped by the sound and fury signifying nothing crew.

Yet it might be possible that we need to drill even deeper, especially in relation to the saying about the "million bad words" we need to get out of us before we can start writing really good stories, publishable stories that people actually want to read, and most importantly, to pay money to read. It can't be just the dirty words, the disfavored words, or the politically charged words we need to get out of us. Maybe it's not even specific words at all, and it's not a matter of purging them from our vocabularies.

Instead might it be ways of using words -- the sloppy, unthinking words that don't do anything. The colorless words that sap the life from a story. The bland words that, like small plans, lack the power to stir the soul. And getting rid of those is a lot harder, because there's no simple, easy way to identify them, or even to know how to replace them with good words. It's something that comes only from lots and lots of writing, and even then it's not guaranteed. Many would-be writers have simply kept churning out more and more bad words, thinking that they were making headway.

But there's one sure way to see if you have been making progress. Take out an old story, one you stopped working on a year ago, five years ago, ten years ago, and haven't touched since. Re-read it. Does it  make you wince? Do you want to grab a red pen and rewrite sentences and paragraphs, even cut whole scenes? Then you've been busily pushing out the bad words and replacing them with good ones.

Friday, October 10, 2014


Writers are told again and again to write what you know, but taken too literally, that advice can be excessively constraining. Limited to our own personal experience, we'll soon run out of things to write about -- not to mention that it pretty well shuts out the possibilities of speculative fiction. Who among us has commanded a space fleet or led a conference of magic-users?

Obviously we can draw upon our knowledge of familiar things to understand by analogy. But there always will come a time when we need to extend our knowledge beyond personal experience.

That means doing research. Google, Wikipedia and other online sources can be excellent starting points, but often you need to go beyond them. There are numerous guides to doing library research, but depending on what libraries are available to you, they may not be adequate to provide the information you need. It may be necessary to contact and expert and request the information you need.

Cold-calling a stranger for help is a scary process. Might they consider your approach an affront? Might they brush you off or shut you down? The fear of being rejected in a humiliating manner can be paralyzing.

In fact, there's no reason to fear the process. If approached properly, most experts are happy to talk about their subject of expertise. After all, they often become experts because it's a subject they're genuinely interested in.

The key is, approached properly, which means presenting yourself professionally. And it's not just the old "a writer is an artist, and therefore suspect" canard. Since the rise of the Internet, there has been a growing problem of students at all levels in the education system writing to experts in various fields effectively trying to get their homework done for them.

As a result, you need to be careful not just to introduce yourself in a professional way, but also to make it clear that you've pulled your weight and have reached the end of the resources available to you. You probably don't want to disgorge a huge laundry list of books and websites you've used without success, but you probably want to mention the most critical sources.

There is some debate as to whether you should name the specific institutions where you've done your research, especially if they would indicate your location. Some people have a vastly different idea of what constitutes a reasonable travel distance, especially if your circumstances are constrained by responsibilities or finances. I still remember writing to a departmental library at a major university and getting a snippy answer that I could "just hop onto (road) and drive over to visit in person" because I'd mentioned our local public library by name. At the time I did not have a vehicle of sufficient reliability that I'd want to make a three-hour drive (each way, not round trip) alone, and my husband was working full time and not available to travel with me unless he used up a vacation day.

While it may be acceptable to shade the truth a little, soft-pedaling some facts and emphasizing others to enhance your appearance of a professional researcher who has exhausted local resources and is not able to travel, don't outright lie about your credentials or your situation. Don't claim degrees or institutional affiliations that you don't have. Don't give a big sob story about nonexistent misfortunes that  make it impossible to travel even a short distance. People in a field generally know enough other people in it that lies will catch up to you, and while you may get results once or twice, eventually you'll get a bad reputation that will make it impossible to get anybody to help you.

Presenting yourself as a professional is only the first part of the proper approach. The second is presenting your question in the proper way so that the recipient will welcome it, rather than feel it is an imposition and become annoyed. Typically the student trying to get out of doing homework will present an overly broad "tell me everything you know about X" type of question. As a result, you want to be as specific as possible in formulating your question. Again, show you've done your homework by using the correct terminology -- but avoid name-dropping or using big words just to impress.

The best questions are the ones that are closed-ended, requesting a very specific but obscure piece of information. For instance, recently I was writing a story with a scene in a building at a university I once attended. However, I couldn't remember where the department's main office had been located, and when I went to the university's website, I discovered that the department had moved to a building that had been built since my last visit. Unable to locate any historical information on something so specific, I wrote to the university library and asked for the room number -- a very specific bit of information that could be easily researched in older directories and catalogs that they would have on hand but were not available to me.

Finally, be sure to communicate your gratitude for the expert's assistance. Close your initial contact letter or e-mail with a thank-you, and when they answer, make sure to thank them again. There's some question about whether that final thank-you note needs to be handwritten and posted, even in the case of a contact that was initially made by e-mail. I'd say it's a generational thing. If your informant is older, you may well want to post a longhand thank-you note, especially if this person has given you extensive help. Younger people who've spent their entire lives communicating electronically will probably consider an e-mail thank-you note more than adequate, and might even find a snail-mailed note vaguely stalkerish, since it means you found out their physical location to send the note.

Monday, October 06, 2014

The Gnawing Porcupine of Self-Doubt

In the beginning of The Steel Breeds True, Amanda Lordsley-Starcastle is struggling with her internal editor, who has taken to carping criticism and faultfinding instead of anything useful. He alternates between two forms, sometimes appearing as a tiny Nikolai Yezhov and at other times as a literal hedgehog.

Since there are no native hedgehogs in North America, mine takes the form of a porcupine. And unlike the insectivorous hedgehog with its generalist teeth, the porcupine is a rodent, with specialized gnawing teeth. And oh gods, but does mine ever gnaw at everything. Sometimes just getting words on paper is an uphill struggle as he gnaws away at every word, every phrase, every image.

And now that I'm beginning to prepare The Steel Breeds True for indie publication, it's getting even worse. Not just is my writing good at the word and sentence level, but is the story any good? What if the whole thing is so stupid that people will laugh and point?

It's the problem of finding the balance between being relentlessly self-critical in order to attain our best and being able to believe in ourselves when nobody else does. I wish I could offer a nice pat answer for everybody out there who's struggling with the same problem, whether in the form of an unending stream of say-nothing form rejections or a serialized novel posted to a reception of such utter indifference that one is left almost wishing for a blistering review because it would mean that someone actually cared. But all I can offer right now is fellow-feel, the knowledge that you are not alone in your uphill struggles, and at least now you do have options beside struggling to fit through the narrow door that is so carefully guarded by the gatekeepers of traditional publishing.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Putting the Pieces Back Together

The last several months have been difficult for me. At the beginning of June, I was trying to get serious about my writing and promoting it. I'd had some moderate success with my serialization of A Separate War, and I wanted to make my new serialized novel, Holovideo an even bigger success. In addition to keeping up with a regular posting schedule, I wanted to get to blogging regularly on the several blogs I maintain.

Then we got an unexpected call that upended everything -- a medical emergency that turned into a death in the family, and all the emotional fallout that flows from that. On the top of that, our book and t-shirt business had several major events which took an enormous amount of my time.

Now that things are calming down again, I'm wanting to get back on track again. I have gotten some fresh chapters written and posted on Holovideo, and I'm getting some more +votes, but I want to reach more readers. So I'm wanting to get back to blogging, both here and on some other blogs I run.

Which means that I need to figure out how to keep everything moving forward and not have forward motion on one thing come at the expense of everything else grinding to a halt. So that's my new challenge.