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Archive for Writing

Return Of the Nebula Weekend Conference: Part Three, The Pittsburghening

For the past three years, I’ve been attending the Nebula Awards Conference in a semi-official capacity as SFWA webmaster. Last year, I even gave a talk on author website best practices. This year, I learned I was going a little to late to make it onto programming, but I still have a little official meetings business to attend to, and I had some thoughts that I wanted to note for myself while the memories are still fresh.

It was disconcerting to realize that I’m no longer one of the youngest people in the room at a science fiction-related gathering. A lot’s been said about the graying of fandom, and it’s something I’ve picked up on since my first convention in 2002. This may be true of fandom, but writers run the full gamut of ages. I met writers as young as 25, and as old as… well. I’ll omit the specifics. The future of the writing of science fiction appears to be handing down to younger generations just fine. I still wonder in my darker moments if there will be anyone left reading it who doesn’t also write it.

Each year that I’ve attended, the conference itself has been better and better executed. The team of Steven Silver, Terra LeMay, and Kate Baker really bust their asses to make this a premiere event of the year. Sean Wallace deserves special mention for his work to organize the book room where many attendees could sell their books on commission. Prior to discovering the Nebulas conference, my convention of choice was WorldCon, but thanks to this amazing events team, I’m content to mostly attend the Nebulas each year and not much else. It really is one of the best conventions for my interests and needs. I don’t get to see all my awesome friends there, but I do see many of them. Please, come hang out in 2018. I’m pretty sure I’ll be there.

While I enjoy the weekend’s general activities and hangouts, I don’t usually to attend the actual ceremony. I skip formal events with fancy attire. I’m not comfortable around the well-dressed, especially given my slovenly appearance most of the time. Also, by the end of the conference, my introvert energy reserves run dangerously low. Instead, as is my tradition, I sat in my hotel room and listened to the stream while tweeting with folks. It’s a good way for me to not go home completely drained by all the amazing conversations. In my younger days, I’d run into the red badly and become depressed during the convention, but I know how to watch myself for it now. When I start to feel like everyone hates me and I’m a big dumb nobody, then I retreat to my room. I may well be a big dumb nobody, but I’d rather not feel like one.

Every year, I meet amazing new people that leave me in awe of our community. My memory for names is terrible, to suffice to say, if we talked for more than thirty seconds, you impressed me with your wit and charm. I will say that I felt a bit of awe to spend the time I did, brief as it was, with Grandmaster Jane Yolen. And that was only one of a dozen or more conversations in which I learned something new or felt I shared some of my limited expertise or experience with others (I won’t bore you with poorly recounted details). Not being the youngest person in the room means I seem to have some opinions I like to share with those who are just starting out. I tell a lot of people that if they want to write more short fiction, they should read more short fiction.

There’s so much energy and joy at this thing, regardless, I mostly come home feeling pleasant and buzzed. I lately feel a bit jaded about my prospects as a writer, but meeting with fellow writers who still have the can-do spirit inspires me to work harder in the future. Sometimes, the best thing that you take away from a conference or con is the general feeling of good will towards your peers.

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On the Importance (or Lack Thereof) of Revision

I have always valued the clean draft; perhaps because I am innately lazy, or perhaps because my step-father always drilled me on the importance of measuring twice, and cutting once, I began writing by avoiding revision. Some of my favorite writers were one-draft writers, as well, and at least one of my models and mentors, Jay Lake, was notorious about limiting his revision attempts.

I know another possible root cause. I have an odd quirk of intellect, where most of what I know comes to mind very quickly. In school, I was almost always the first person to finish test-taking, sometimes by half an hour or more. I definitely was not the highest scoring test taker always, but upon seeing a question, I always know in a blink whether I can summon the answer or not. And when I definitely do not know the answer, no amount of pondering or torturing myself will reveal it, so it is quite easy to move on take the loss. I call this a quirk because it was neither a help nor a hindrance in life–ultimately, a wash.

Early on in writing, I found it easy to pen first drafts because I didn’t spend a lot of time questioning my decisions in a similar way. The first idea always seemed adequate, and so it was not impossible for me to turn out 2500 words an hour or more. With time, I learned that my first decisions were often inadequate or cliched. This led not to revision, which I still abhorred, but instead to copious pre-writing and outlining. I could prepare a road map for a story that would limit the amount of decision-making on the fly. It kept me with roughly the same pace, but only moderate to limited success in publication.

It wasn’t until I took the James Gunn Workshop at Kansas University led by Chris McKitterick and Andy Duncan that the value of a well-polished and revised manuscript became apparent to me. I brought three adequate stories to the workshop, and received many useful thoughts and suggestions. I’ve always been a big user of critique and first readers, and I’ve often incorporated their suggestions. However, through participating in the workshop, I really had to sit down and revise, reworking entire sections, rethinking my goals, as well as the usual tweaking and polish. I sold two of those three stories, and it’s probably no mistake that the one I revised the least from feedback ended up being the one that didn’t sell. (Incidentally, it was the most comic of stories, and I find comic feedback very hard to come by and to sell. I like writing humor, but finding readers who can critique it isn’t easy, especially given how much humor is subjective.)

These days, I’ve settled into three to five revision passes before I submit work for publication. The last one is usually a line-edit polish pass, but the others often involve structural changes, bigger picture stuff. The difficulty I have with letting the revision process go on too long is that I can start to question perfectly valid decisions. If you were to boil down what writing is, once you get the basics down, it’s making creative and interesting decisions over and over again. Perhaps this is why some writers find it easier to write under the influence — freeing up inhibitions makes decision-making even easier.

You have to have a little bit of confidence that the decisions you are making go somewhere interesting. That’s the trick. Spend too long staring at something and you go blind to both its faults and its strengths. So it’s important to know when to move on. You can work on a piece over a longer period of time, I find, only by taking long breaks from it, to remove yourself a bit. Sometimes, the best drafts and revisions come years later when I’m so far removed from the words that they hardly seem like something I wrote at all. This would definitely be a bad practice to institute across all your work if you value alacrity of career. Sometimes, the thing a story needs most is time. But too much time, and they rot.

With longer work, I find my revision process has shifted. Rather than taking multiple passes on a work after it’s complete, I have the habit of re-reading the entire work and revising as I go each new session. This results in a manuscript that has had the first half revised endlessly, and a very rough ending. I haven’t quite figured out a way to improve on this method, but for writing that takes me weeks or months to complete, I find it necessary to review the previous session’s work just to remember what in the hell I was doing. Often, I feel like the proverbial goldfish in the bowl. What was I saying?

I’ve often heard it said that you don’t learn to write books. You learn to write this book. With short fiction, each project might not be so dissimilar, and my novel-writing experience is thus far fairly limited, but I think there’s a lot to that statement. Primarily, as writers, we have an enormous toolbox available to us of methods. As we develop as writers, we experiment with many of these tools. Some we take to, and some we don’t. Would you listen to anyone who told you that the Phillips screw driver was superior to all others in all cases? Why would you do the same about writing tools and techniques?

Get the work done. Make it the best you can, regardless of how. Show it to the world if possible. At the end of the day, it’s not so complicated. And yet somehow, it is also the most complicated thing you’ll ever do.

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Putting Writing First and How Much Time to Spend Doing It

Our lives are a series of competing priorities, and for a while now, I’ve wondered what it would be like to put my writing first, at least chronologically in the day.  I can’t prioritize its importance in my making a living, but the one thing I could do is try carving out some time at the start of every work day for writing before I jump into my freelance business tasks, chores, and the like (barring emergency exceptions).

I’ve been at this with relative success for a couple of weeks now.  I am averaging about 1500 words per day in a two hour block.  It’s pretty easy to see the advantage of building this kind of habit.  Figure 250 writing days a year, at an average of 1500 words a day and you end up with 375,000 potential words per year.  That’s three novels, a novella or two, and a few short stories.  It’s likely to be less than that if you spend this time editing some days, but I tend to try to do my editing in the evenings, after my kid’s down.   Even at half that rate, it’s a pretty good way to carve out a side-career on top of your main one.  That’s where I am these days.  I’m not determined to be a full time writer at the moment.  The odds of me supporting my family with that money are pretty slim.  But I can supplement, and that feels much more achievable.   If I were to become a full time writer through chance, I wouldn’t complain.  But it’s unreasonable to expect!

I have found myself writing ahead of what I have banked away, I will say.  The relentless emphasis on pure words on the page means I sometimes  forget to stop and think and plan.  Having an hour somewhere in the day where I disconnect from everything and just think through ideas in total privacy is almost as valuable.  My notion of what constitutes “writing time” is shifting with age.  I think for a good chunk of your career, you can count on an idea surplus you’ve built up, but after a certain point, you might empty that bank.  It takes time for good ideas to accrete.

The wide variety of ways to accomplish being a professional writer can be disconcerting.  How much of your day should you work at writing?  If I was a full time writer, would I write 8 hours a day?  Almost certainly not.  There’s definitely a law of diminishing returns for me, where the longer I write in a session, the worse the quality of writing can get.  And there are many other business tasks that need to be performed.

For me, ten hours a week feels good right now.  I’m working on one novel and about to start co-writing another.  I still have some short stories to work on when I’m stymied on the bigger projects.  And so far, novels have so much more space to breathe that they can absorb a 1500 word session a lot more easily than a story.  I’ve been exploring decompressed vs. compressed storytelling for quite a while now, learning the limits of short stories and where you can cheat with a little compression.  Novels feel very freeing so far because you can decompress everything, really take your time.  Eight hundred words of setting description in a short story is usually self-indulgent and gets cut in later drafts.   In a novel, that’s par for the course…?  Although eight hundred might be pushing the limits of patience in some readers.

Ultimately, half of being a writer is experimenting with process and figuring out workflows that don’t get in the way.  There are a million ways to not write.  There are only slightly fewer ways to write.  I’m enjoying finding means that work for me and my life.  It’s something all writers have to figure out for themselves.  What works for you?

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Writing

Upcoming Stories and New Sales

“Taste the Singularity at the Food Truck Circus” has completed revisions and will appear in Lightspeed Magazine in August, I am told.  I’ll be sure to post a link when the story goes live.  It’s a fun story aimed at a cross section of foodies and SF fans.

Additionally, I have sold a new story, “The West Topeka Triangle” to John Joseph Adams for either Lightspeed or Nightmare Magazine.  We’ll be working on revisions to that one to see ultimately where it fits best.  It defies genre categorization, but I will be very happy to see it appear in either magazine.  I believe it is my best work yet, and I think you will love it!

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Writing

On Genuine Gratitude

There is an experience that I need to talk about, because I do not know how to properly navigate my way through it.  The experience is being on the receiving end of a complement regarding my work.  Lately, I’ve received a few in regards to my latest story, and my response to these compliments have felt lacking.

We’re taught from a very young age to say thank you in the most trivial situations but also to give thanks when we experience gratitude on a grand scale.  We use the same words when someone holds open a door for us as when someone compliments our dearest life’s work.  The end result for myself is that saying “thank you” begins to feel trivial, and I search my lexicon for a way to express a deeper appreciation for what has been shared.  I always come up short in the moment.

The greatest gift any stranger can give me is to encounter my work, experience it, and feel positively affected by it.  Taking that extra step to actually tell me about the experience is an even greater generosity.   I know that there are a nearly infinite number of ways for the reader to spend their time, and when someone (friends, family, or strangers) chooses to give one of my stories their time, it feels like a blessing.

When someone thanks me for having read something of mine, I don’t feel like common decency provides me the tools to express my own gratitude.  We writers work in solitude for hours and hours to produce good work that is meaningful to us.  When that meaning is successfully conveyed to another soul, it’s like a lightning bolt.  Everything is illuminated for a brief moment.  Shadows are banished and there is a clarity and a sense of purpose achieved.

I do not go through my life experiencing a sense of constant thankfulness and gratitude, try as I might.  I take so much of it for granted that it’s shameful to even consider right now.  Gratitude is a state of vulnerability that is impossible to maintain for long periods.   Yet still, so many of us crave to experience that vulnerability.  To feel vulnerable is to feel profoundly, deeply human.  Life is often a process of hiding and protecting our humanity.  Paradoxically, it is in unguarded moments of humanity when we truly live.

Lately, I make it a mission of mine to thank the creators that have reached me through their work.  I know how it feels myself.  I want to share that sensation and spread it around.  I encourage everyone to send notes to artists and writers who have created something that has impacted you, even in small ways.  It is a small thing, but so deeply meaningful.  And I suppose there is no reason to limit it merely to artists and writers.  Give your appreciation freely, I say.  It is a renewable resource, and it can power great acts of creation and art.

If you compliment my work, and I say “thank you”, please know that the words are merely a sliver above the surface. A great shadow of emotions looms beneath.  The words do not carry the density I wish they did.  Written, they lack any profundity or intensity; their dullness can only be sharpened so much along the edges of an exclamation mark.

Thank you must suffice, for now.  Thank you and so much more.

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