Saturday, September 30, 2006

Drafting the Ugly Draft

I orignally began this as a response to Kelly's post, but it grew enough that it seemed to warrant becoming a separate post of its own.

As Kelly says, I tend to leave my first draft alone as it takes form. This is mainly for the simple reason that if I went back to "fix" things, I would never get beyond chapter three. I would fix, and re-fix, and re-re-fix forever. For me, it is push on to the end, then go back and straighten out whatever train wrecks may have happened along the way.

The first main exception to this is if I come to a point in the story where what is happening on the page now requires major changes to what has come previously. Even then, I may simply make a note in my Revision Notebook, adjust the outline, and keep pushing on. Or I may go back and rework the last 200 pages. But unless that latter is absolutely necessary, I try to do the former.

Ideally, of course, this kind of mid-story revision shouldn't happen since I outline, but I tend to put equal empahsis on plot and character. This means that one can serve the other, or vice versa, depending on where I am in the story. Plot usually over-rules character, but I find that isn't always the case.

The second exception to not going back is my habit of sometimes revising the last two pages I wrote before moving ahead. That mainly happens if I am stuck, or really not happy with what came before. The main focus, though, is always on moving forward.

Overall, I tend to be fairly generous with myself when it comes to the first draft (the phrase "kitchen sink" comes to mind :). However, in the second draft, I approach the MS with a gleam in my eye and machete in my hand. It may be more work than following a harder outline like Kelly does, or revising on the fly like both Kelly and Lyda, but it's the method that I am most comfortable with at present.

As to for Erik's comments on what to cut: well, part comes from feedback from the Wyrdsmiths (although I don't always listen to them :); part comes from my gut (does something feel right?); and part comes from cold, hard analysis of deciding if a scene/action/sub-plot really serves a core purpose. If it doesn't advance the plot or tell me something important about the character that we don't already know (and is relevant to the story at that point in the book), it shoud probably go.

Caveat: The above goes with the understanding that other people may have other core purposes when making revision decisions, depending on their focus. If a person is more of an idea writer (the story is there to hang a cool concept on), then the focus may be on the scene presenting another facet of the central concept; if they are more of a world builder, then pieces that further illuminate the depth of setting may need to stay; if they are a hard science writer, then the nuts and bolts of how things work may be critical. What I consider core is what is most important for my story, but may by no means be a critical consideration in another author's process.

Ultimatley, drafts and revisions, IMO, are all about making the story stronger. The tricky part is developing the craft to figure out just what will accomplish that. And that learning curve never ends.

Drafts and revisions, fixed or mutable?

A conversation that's been going on in the comments seemed interesting enought to move out to a front page post. It's about drafts and revisions among other things.

I know a number of writers who work like Erik, who said of first drafts, unless I make a major discovery along the way or I screw something up massively I try to leave my work alone as much as possible. That number includes (I think) Wyrdsmiths' own Doug Hulick. I'm sure he'll correct me if I'm wrong. This produces a pretty distinct first draft.

Another school is one in which the writer is constantly making changes that ripple up and down the line. Lyda and I both do this. So I don't really have a first draft, because I'm contantly making changes that then necessitate further changes throughout everything written so far, and because I do those changes at the time they occur to me. One part of the rough draft might have gone through ten revisions while another came straight off the keyboard and has never been touched.

I was talking about that with Sean on thursday night and about how it affected and infromed character. He was saying that one of the reasons that some writers might not want to force a character into doing something necessary for the plot but unnatural to their internal makeup is that they feel it might make the character flatter and more limited. That idea struck me as very odd, and I realized something about my process. I trust the plot (the story) more than I trust the character.

So, if I get to a critical point and I've built a character who, for lack of a bettter term, doesn't want to do something it means (to me) that I made a mistake in crafting the character, so I go back and change the character's past to make their actions in the present make sense. I don't try to force the character to do something unnatural, I revise the character to make it natural. And one of the reasons it's easy for me to do this mentally is that my first draft is very mutable.

So, anyway, here are the stages I go through:

1. Drafting stage, in which nothing is terribly fixed, though I do outline and follow that outline fairly closely. This is a very mutable draft and informed by critique from my writers group(s).

2. Clean up and beta draft. The end result of this is supposed to be a pretty clear and polished version for first readers.

3. Submission draft, i.e. going out to my agent and editor after I've made the changes I find useful from first readers.

4. Final draft, the submission draft with whatever changes my agent, editor and I agree on.

So, what's your drafting and revision process. Do you first draft? And, more importantly, why do you do it the way you do?

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Accurate vs. Effective Dialogue

During the critique session of my Tuesday night class, the question came up about accurate versus effective dialogue. It’s an interesting question to me because a lot of the emphasis in beginning classes (which this is) tends to be on writing “realistic” dialogue. Instructors like myself spend a lot of class time telling students to hone their ear, read their dialogue out loud, and to generally try to mimic the cadence, colloquialisms, and character of real-life conversation.

Except that sometimes being accurate gets in the way of being effective.

Yes, it’s true that some people say, “uh, like, yeah, uh, I told him like that was so not cool,” but is it effective? Possibly. If you’re first establishing a character it might be effective to have the first sentence of their dialogue be full of ums and uhs and likes, if you want to quickly establish a particular personality. However, if you do this every time this person speaks and/or if this character has some important piece of information or plot point that needs to be conveyed, that kind of gimmick gets pretty cheap pretty quickly. This is also why I personally deplore the use of dialect. “Ach, now lassie,” etc.

When my partner was nursing our son when he was first born and up every two hours, I dutifully fetched water for her and OUTLANDER by Diana Gabaldon. As Mason had his repast, I translated everything Jamie (or any other Scot) had to say in that book into English, because I felt far too silly reading “in an accent.” That book is so long that we didn’t finish it before Mason got a more reasonable schedule, and Shawn said that when she went to pick up the story, she just couldn’t do it. She hadn’t realized the work I’d been doing to make the book readable, and she wasn’t up to interrupting the flow of the story to decipher some authorial attempt to add local color.

Granted, these books sold in the hundreds of thousands (and still do!), so pot and kettle and all that. But, despite being bestsellers already, I still think these books could have been improved by toning down the dialect. After all, isn’t it true that after you’ve spent some time with people who speak English in a different way, they start to sound more “normal”? So, if I were Gabaldon (other than selling much better than I do now), I’d’ve given Jamie a few chapters of Oching and Aching and ‘Tsking, and then let him speak in the cadence of the Scots without overdoing the intentional misspelling, etc.

But, dialect is only one aspect of the question of accurate vs. effective writing. Some of it is a lot less straight-forward. For instance, the author who was being critiqued in class hadn’t tried to overdo any particular language quirk (be it stammering or accented English) but instead had simply allowed a conversation to meander the way real conversation does.

The truth of the matter is that she had accurately portrayed two men trying to avoid talking about an awkward subject. However, for the purposes of fiction, what she’d written felt like stalling, and, stranger still, it felt almost contrived – as if the author were intentionally trying to be coy with the reader. This was accurate dialogue that wasn’t entirely effectively. Almost to a person, the class apologized for asking her to cut what was essentially deeply lovely conversation, because this was a story, damn it, and we wanted to get to the meat of it.

When we come across moments like this, I always think of the writing adage, “Well that might be true, but it would never fly in fiction.” Real life is a lot messier than we allow our fiction to be. We want our information, we want it now, and we don’t want a lot of interruptions before we get to the “good stuff.”

In fiction, it behooves an author to just come out with it. Even though, despite years of Nike telling us to “just do it,” most people are never so bold or clear.

Struck & White have a point: Be bold. Be clear. It may not be accurate, but it’s effective.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Character traits

Tate, fascinating question and interesting answer. Normally you and I are so far apart on the way we approach character that we could be living on different planets. In this case, how we get there is just as far apart, but the end results are very similar.

Short answer, I don't keep track of any of those things unless they're directly germane to the plot.

Longer answer, I deal with characters in much the way a director deals with actors. There's a script. They follow along. If someone wants to know what their motivation is, I make something up and then go back and layer it into the early parts of the story. Say that on page 138 it becomes important that Johnny is fanatically attached to the color blue and that impacts the plot in a way I hadn't thought about in the original outline. I write the scene on 138, note the new twist down in my constantly updated plot outline, then go back and look for places earlier in the story that I can introduce the idea of color attachment, both personally for Johnny and thematically for the story.

Now, say that the character of Johnny wasn't actually fond of the color blue. I've rewritten his history at this point, so now he is. Simple as that. I hired these people to play certain parts. If that doesn't happen, they're out looking for a new job while a new actor comes in, identical in every respect but the fact that this one will do the job.

Does that mean that nothing off script happens? Of course not. If an actor improvises something that's cool and that moves the main story forward (the story I wanted to tell from that get-go, since that's how I write) I use it. Whole chapters have been born this way, and huge important new sections.

Of course, all my characters are really sort of like little split-off bits of myself since I don't actually believe in their independent realities. It's all a matter of "if I were this person in this situation..."

So, if it's critical to the story it goes in the plot outline. If it's merely a telling detail, I just store it in memory as it comes up, I can always do a word search if I lose it. If it's not that important, I don't generally know or care. It's all about what move the story forward.

I'd love to hear what other writers have to say on the subject since Tate and I, so far apart in conception, are so close in practical execution.

Anybody? Anybody? Bueller?

Springing Fully-Formed or Where Characters Come From

I’m teaching at the Loft this quarter, and tonight we talked about character. One of my students, Pat, asked a very astute question that actually stumped me. He asked, “How do you keep track of your character’s various personality tics and traits?”

The thing is I don’t.

I don’t have a list of hobbies, hair color, favorite foods on a post-it note next to my computer, because my characters are real to me. I have never had much luck doing those writing exercises where you fill in what is basically a RPG character sheet with additional questions like: “What’s your character’s favorite time of year?” Thing is, I don’t really know the answer to those questions until I ask it “for real” in the story. And, if I wrote down “fall” outside of the context of story, the answer would be a lie (in fact, it would most likely be MY answer to the question, not the character’s.)

My characters tend come alive as they interact with the story.

I know their answer to those kinds of cocktail party questions only when they come up in the course of storytelling. If it’s germane to the plot that my character has a favorite alcoholic drink, I know the answer when I need it and not a second before, you know?

The only character developing exercise I ever had any success with was the whole “sit down and interview your character” one. I couldn’t do it as me, however. I had to set the scene, create the character of the interviewer, and, in essence, have the frame of a plot in order to trick myself into believing that this wasn’t an exercise at all, but something that could really have happened in the history of my character. (If you want to read the result, I have it online as part of my Mouse’s house extras.)

I told Pat that why characters come to me like this is a mystery to me, and that it may be one of those moments when writing and magic are the same thing. So, in effect, I waved my hands around a lot and in the end admitted that I don’t have a freaking clue.

I came home tonight still puzzling.

While I often say that some characters spring out of my head, full-formed, like Athena, I think I’m discounting both conscious and subconscious play. I spend a lot of time playing make-believe. I’m not talking about the play that goes into writing, I mean, extra-curricular play. Pretty much any time I’m not required to actively participate in my own life, I’m somewhere else being someone else -- not unlike the infamous Walter Mitty. There are people that I like to be, who I have been for decades. Some of whom, correspondingly, have decades worth of back story. When I think about “starting” a character, a lot of times I draw on those people whom I’ve had living in my head all these years.

I don’t have to keep track of the personality quirks of my characters because I know them intimately. They’ve been my companions while I wait in line at the grocery store, they ride home with me on the bus, and their stories have entertained me as I’m falling asleep at night, every night, since I was old enough to tell myself stories (but particularly once playing pretend with other people became verboten for someone MY AGE.)

But this is not good advice to give a student. “Listen Pat, what you need to do is go home and start playing pretend. Once you’ve done that for nearly forty years, you should be able to remember everything about all your characters without having to resort to quirks and tics.” And, anyway, once again it’s not the whole truth, because there are times when the story demands characters I’ve never thought of before and I do make them up on the spot, rather than culling from a life-time of pretend.

More hand waving.

I guess I still I don’t really know.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Luck… Or How Much Does That Suck?

When we started talking about talent/aptitude/flow, Kelly mentioned another factor key to becoming a published author: luck.

I think this aspect is the hardest one to deal with. There are times when you get those particular rejection letters that are especially hurtful, in my opinion. Those are the ones that say: “I loved your story. You’re an undiscovered genius. However, I recently published a story about vampire junkie cowboy elves, and can’t use yours at this time. Good luck elsewhere!” The first time you get this kind of rejection, you’re elated. You’re sure success is just right around the corner. But, as the months wear on and all you hear is “Loved it, but we’re overstocked/just can’t use this/had to pass…” you start considering giving it all up and taking up a respectable career like plumbing. Or maybe even, like I did, you find yourself in a very weird place – you have an agent for your first novel (which isn’t selling yet), you’ve sold a few pieces to very minor semi-pro markets, but you can’t seem to break in to the “big league.”

That was probably the most difficult time in my career. I considered giving up several times. (Especially since at this time I’d also gotten myself a large network of writer friends, some of whom were succeeding faster than I was.) The heartache of nearly being good enough (and the jealousy of my colleagues’ success) was enough to crush my soul.

I don’t have any good advice or wisdom to pass on. Except that I got through it. And luck really is part of our chosen path. You do need to have some of it, it seems.

Especially since, once you’re published by that big New York publisher your woes aren’t over...

Write the next story

Whenever anyone asks me what's the single most important thing they can do to sell their book, I always tell them to write the next book.

This is one of the fundamental rules to follow in the quest for publication. Every time you add a story or novel to your inventory you increase your odds of selling and you get vital practice that will make you a better writer. The vast majority of writers don't make the break on their first story or novel. The first novel I sold was my 4th, but I didn't sell it until I'd already completed 7 and having my editor read and really like #6 had a lot to do with selling #4. I'm at 9 now with only 1 in print and 1 forthcoming, though it's likely I'll sell at least 6 of the remaining 7. My short story career is similar, though I've been publishing longer in shorts and have now sold something in the neighborhood of 30 of 50.

It's easier to sell if you have more stuff out, because you have more stuff, because it familiarizes editors with your name, because it demonstrates that you're not a one story writer, and because with every story you get better.

So, practice. Write the next story. And remember one of the best things about being a writer as opposed to many other kinds of artist is that you occasionally get to sell even your practice work.

Monday, September 25, 2006

John M Ford, Vale

I was going to post on writing the next story today. It'll have to wait. We lost John M Ford last night. I didn't know him well, but we often exchanged greetings and chatted over the years at WisCon and other events. He was a hell of a writer and I find that I'll miss him much more than I'd have expected to if you'd asked me about it yesterday. I read his book The Dragon Waiting many years ago and loved it and what he did with Richard III, and that book is a small but significant part of the reason I wrote my own Richard III book, Winter of Discontent. So it seems terribly appropriate that I post a quote from another Shakespeare play, Richard II, in his memory:

"of comfort no man speak: let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs; make dust our paper and with rainy eyes write sorrow on the bosom of the earth..."

The world is a darker place for his passing, and I am the poorer for not having known him better. Sometimes, life hurts.

Practice Makes Better

Kelly's point in "Writers need practice too" is so parallel to an example that I have been giving for years that I want to tack it on for good measure. "No one would expect a pianist to sit down for the first time at a piano and play Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3. They have to start with "Chopsticks," and scales, and after a great deal of practice and effort, years and years of repetition and acquired skill, then and only then, can they approach something as complex and masterful as Rachmoninoff's Third. Why would you expect differently of a writer?"

The answer, of course, is the same one that causes business executives and grocery managers to brush aside edits of their letters and posters: The vast majority of people grow up learning to speak, and in some way or another, to write, in order to communicate, and most people begin to feel, at some point, that they have acheived a level of communication that is sufficient for any eventuality--generally when they get out of school. Thus, you have executives who try to write advertising copy and don't understnad why people just don't get what they're saying; grocers who can't understand that it matters whether the sign reads "Carrot's Sale Price" or "Carrots Sale Price."

One of the concepts by which this group was named was the term "wordsmith", which is wonderfully accurate in its depiction, suggesting persistance, effort, craft, and banging away at something until you get it just right. I agree with Kelly's implication that "talent" lies along a bell curve, with the exceedingly able and the utterly incapable being the minimal extremes, and with most of us lumped into that large, ambigous middle zone. I think Lyda's point is perfectly accurate once you hit that middle zone, once you chop off the two extremes of the curve, which I would (very casually) estimate at approximately 1-2% of the population. (There are other factors that I think further sub-divide the field--education, personality, etc.--but for now, I'm just talking about "talent.") For the rest of us, I think "talent" is mostly a useless term, independent of its accuracy/inaccuracy.

Borrowing from Steph Zvan, though, I would suggest that one dichotomy that plays a large role in aiding someone toward being a writer is not between "talent" or lack thereof, but between imagination and lack thereof, something that can only be fostered and nutured when we are children. By the time we hit adolescence, our basic brain patterns are established, and while change is possible, it is also unlikely, and requires a very large shift to force us out of those comfortable, predictable mental ruts.

For millenia, we have regarded creativity as a drive, a compulsion. I think compulsion is a strong element of it. Creativity is a type of insanity--focused, honed, practiced even--but a compulsion nonetheless, to find and build that which is not yet in existence. I think the word "drive" captures its essence, both the need to create, and the persistence with which we must create. We walk the line between the rational and the irrational, reaching out to either side and grabbing hold of what we find there, and tying together the things we grasp in each hand, linking the rational to the irrational both to find our balance as we walk that fine line and to push that frontier one way or the other, depending on our mood, our experiences, and who we define ourselves to be. And, like my argument here, we always face the potential of wandering off into the nonsensical, and must struggle to bring back from that precipice something of value: a metaphor, an insight, an FTL drive, a quantum entaglement of minds that yeilds telepathy, however inconvenient it may be.

I think that when we are children, our imaginations can either be encouraged or they can be shut down, and that simple approach taken by our parents, over which we have exceedingly little control ourselves, can do more to define our creative potential than almost anthing that we do as adults. That said, I am not yet ready to yeild my free will to the mores of psychological predetermination; reading, learning, speculating the whys and wherefores of the world--all are things that we can do to increase our opportunities to spark that drive, to jumpstart the engine of our minds, should we so desire. If, individually, we have no control over certain elements of our temperment, then those elements should not factor into our calculations of what we can do and what we should try to do. There is a difference between the impersonal hypothesis of "What makes a writer a writer?" and the highly personal "Can I write?" Yes, you can write, and if you feel so compelled, then you should, you must write, and nothing anyone says to you should interfere with that goal. In the end, this is all speculation. You must define your own success, and tell your own story.

Sunday, September 24, 2006


The word I like to use to describe what it takes to succeed as a writer is ganas. This is a Spanish word that means "desire"; it's used by teacher Jaime Escalante in the movie Stand and Deliver, and the real Jaime Escalante really did have a banner in his classroom with the word ganas on it. In an interview from 1990, Escalante is quoted as saying:

    Ganas replaces the word in America "gifted." I cannot accept "gifted." You're going to measure IQ -- and I say no. Any student, any [person] to me is gifted. They have something they can do, and I -- especially the students -- I hold them accountable for what they do. And that's where I make the transformation to motivate them to go for mathematics. You become "gifted" from practicing. Practice assures success. I give you a simple equation, and you do it and do it over and over, and you store that information.

He's talking about math, but he's saying basically the same thing as Lyda: that what matters most is that you really want it, so much that you're willing to work really hard.

I took piano lessons as a child. I liked playing the piano, and I was a reasonably talented amateur, but I never had the desire to be a professional musician. I practiced, but never more than 45 minutes a day, and usually more like 30, because it just wasn't something I cared about that much. My sister also played the piano: like me, she was a reasonably talented amateur. My brother, on the other hand, played the trumpet, and when he was 14 years old, he started setting his alarm at 6 a.m. in order to get in a practice session before school, as well as the practice he was already doing after school. That is ganas. Nate went on to attend a conservatory, and became a professional musician, supporting himself through his playing.

(And then he burned out on music, and now he's going to law school. Which just goes to show that this kind of work and desire sometimes leads to a job rather than a hobby, and having a job in the arts can be just as monotonous and draining as a job anywhere else, plus you typically have no health insurance and the pay tends to suck. But, if you discover something else you'd rather do, and you apply that same discipline and drive, you'll probably succeed at that, too.)

Honestly, I don't know if writing talent exists. I've read some bad writers, but I don't know if they're bad writers because the Talent Fairy never left the magic dust on their pillow, or because they haven't worked on it enough. I tend to keep an open mind, particularly if I'm in a workshop setting. My early work was dreadful, and I got better.

When I think about truly bad writing I've seen, I remember a man who showed up on the Speculations Rumor Mill years ago and posted a link to an excerpt from his novel (up on his website). It was terrible -- every science fictional cliche in the book, tossed into a blender, with stilted dialogue and cardboard characters. He got some critique -- not terribly gentle, but not brutal, either. He was outraged. Fuming mad, to the point of calling his critiquers names. He was particularly rude about the fact that some of them hadn't been published, either, so who the hell were they to tell him there was ANYTHING wrong with his writing? Clearly, the real problem was that they were too stupid to understand him. On and on and on.

His fundamental problem was a surplus of arrogance. I think anyone can learn to write, but they have to start out by knowing that they have things to learn.

There are also a lot of people out there who simply don't want to write fiction. And that's fine. Writing is a lot of work and the pay is mostly unimpressive. If you'd rather knit, paint, or go fishing, then by all means, knit, paint, or go fishing. There's no moral imperative to write. The only imperative to write has to come from inside you.

Writers need practice too

The passion and persistence thread leads pretty naturally into something I want to talk about that doesn't get stressed often enough.

My sister-in-law is a symphony orchestra cellist. My step-brother is world-class, make-a-living-at-it target shooter. Both of these professions have several things in common with what I do as a writer. First, the success rate is very low. Second, they require extreme passion. You can't get there without really wanting it. Third, talent. There's seems to be a minimum level of talent without which there wouldn't be much point in starting down the road. Fourth, lots of hard work. And that's what I want to talk about here.

Hard work. Kari and Matt both dedicate thousands of hours a year to practice. So do I. For some reason this idea often surprises people. There is a not uncommon belief, fostered perhaps by the fact that most people learn to write as a matter of course, that writing is something one can just do. People who would never expect a professional cellist to be able to play without rehersal, or a target shooter to be able to hit the mark without practice, seem shocked by the idea that you have to write a lot to master the craft. I can't tell you the number of times I've been asked about short cuts or the aghast looks I've gotten when I say that there aren't any.

Which brings me to my next point and the subject of tomorrow's post:

Practice—Write the next story.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

How Passion Informs Writing

Kelly has a point. When I said that anyone can learn to write, I neglected one important factor: passion. I still maintain that *anyone* can develop an ear and the skills to become a published writer. However, the reason that most people don’t is because you also need an intense drive to succeed. In fact, I think that beyond acquiring the necessary skills, having the hunger (and the corresponding discipline) is really key to publishing success.

You really have to want it.

You have to want to be published so much that you can put up the crushing rejections that are part and parcel of the game. Worse, you not only have to put up with them, you have to be willing to put ego aside and learn from them.

This is one of the reasons I think that writers groups are so valuable. They’re a training ground for pain -- the personal pain of hearing that this intellectual baby of yours is not, in point of fact, perfect. As an aside, I think that one of the reasons that people who are trained in theatre often have the temperament for the writing life is that you learn early in your career as an actor that even as the "star," there is ALWAYS room for improvement. It’s a weird kind of ego you develop. It’s one that alternately _believes_ you’re a genius and a diva, but at the same time knows you can always strive for a better performance.

Anyway, you need to really, really want to be a writer in order to succeed. Someone who really desires it, for instance, makes time for it. Thinking back to Naomi’s blog about her life with two kids, you have to realize that Naomi writes because carves time out of her hectic life to do it. That’s why I have very little patience for students who say to me, “I want to write, but I just need to...” (clean my office space, get the right job/computer/notebook, wait for my inspiration to hit....fill in other excuse.) There are, of course, legitimate excuses for not being able to write, but I know one writer who learned voice recognition softwear because her carpel tunnel/tendonitis was so bad she couldn’t type. I also know a professional writer who has been diagnosed with breast cancer, who is still making deadlines. These are extreme examples, but they make anyone (even me) feel like an underachiever. That’s not the point, the point is, they want this THAT bad. That kind of passion should be an inspiration.

So, what’s stopping you?

Friday, September 22, 2006

Talent vs. Craft vs. Persistance

Interesting question, Lyda. I don't think I agree with you on the basic point, but I'm pretty close to you on the end conclusion.

I'd say that talent definitely exists, but that it's a minimum condition. There seem to be, at least in my experience, some people who simply don't have the right wiring for writing fiction. But they're a minority. There are also a tiny minority of people who seem to be able to write wonderful stuff from the first word they put on the page.

But for the vast majority of folks it's about craft and persistance, and I'd argue that persistance is the more important virtue for a writer.

I have a formula for writing success that I give my students and anyone who wants to know: Publishing is about 15 percent talent, 15 percent luck, 20 percent craft, and 50 percent banging your head against the wall until you knock it over. Your forehead heals, the wall doesn't.

In other words, talent helps, but no more than luck, and a lot less than craft and persistance.

What to Make of Talent

I’ll be honest. I don’t believe in talent.

Even though I was often told as a student that I was “talented,” I always found that label vaguely offensive. Calling me “talented” negated all the hard work, the sweat and sometimes literal tears that I put into learning. But then again, even though I got mostly As and Bs, I fought for each one of them. I’m mildly dyslexic, which meant, for me at least, that I had to pay attention, check and double and triple check my work, and there would still be mistakes. I loved school, but it wasn’t ever easy for me, like I’ve heard other people say it was for them. So being called “talented” grated. I would have preferred to be “accomplished.”

As a teacher, I truly believe that writing is a craft, and, like woodworking, can be taught to even the most novice practitioner. With instruction (either informal or formal) and enough practice, I believe that nearly anyone could write sellable fiction.

I only add the “nearly” because there is such a thing as having an “ear” for narrative and dialogue. Some people have a wooden or tin ear when it comes to storytelling, and that’s very difficult to rise above. However, I still believe it can be done. You develop your ear for the written word by reading it. If you read, your writing will improve.

Having an ear, well greased by copious reading, also explains those anomalies. Those of us who, when we sat down to write our first story, had people remarking that we had “talent.” It may have even come easily to us – those things that mystify others like pacing and plot and dialogue – because we read so much that we understood those craft-related things on a gut level, rather than an intellectual one.

I also suspect that’s why so many people start off with what is, in many ways, the harder of the two forms – the novel. While I read short stories (and did as a kid), I read many, many more novels. Thus, for me, the novel feels like the natural form. It’s what I’ve got an ear for. I’ve had to teach myself to write short stories, and I still don’t feel as comfortable writing them as I do novels. I just don’t have enough practice either reading them or writing them. The first time I decided to try to get over the transom, I sat down with one of Dozois' YEARS BEST SF collections and read the whole thing. When I was done, I got up and wrote a story called "Twelve Traditions" my first professional sale (to the now defunct SF AGE.) What was telling to me, was that when I finished the story, I knew it would sell. It just felt right. I'd found my ear (however briefly.)

What do you think? Are people naturally talented writers? Is it nature or nurture?

Quick Hit

Another Swordsmith guide to publishing post this time on ideas.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Send it out

Again, this seems simple, but a lot of folks don't do this consistently. You can't sell a story that's sitting on your desk. Won't happen. Every time you send something out, you increase its odds of selling by an infinite amount, from zero, to some unknown number greater than zero. Instant infinite improvement. What more could you ask for?

So, do you have anything sitting on your desk that could be in the mail? Come on, you know you do. Put it in the mail. Let it be someone else's problem for a while. Worst that happens is you get a reject, which means you're in the game, which means you rock.

P.S. Charging the batteries and Lyda's post. Great idea to talk about. Like Lyda I read when I'm in a down cycle. But I also write. One of the most exciting things for me about being done with Cybermancy (the next contract book) is that it means I have several months to write something just because it sound cool to me. That's what The Black School is—my rest and recharge book.

What do you do to recharge?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Not Wanting To Start (and Not Wanting Guilt)

The next book in the series is sold, but I’m not ready to start writing yet.

Normally, I love the pressure of the deadline. I’m one of those writers who thrive on impending due dates and multiple responsibilities. Fear is a great motivator for me. All I need to inspire me is a post-it note proclaiming: Due on August 1!

Most of the time.

Maybe it’s the weather or perhaps the change of season, but I just don’t want to write. I want to snuggle under a blanket and read a good book. I want to veg out in front of the TV. with the latest DVDs of Battlestar Galactica. I want to sleep with a fat, warm cat napping on my chest.

I could brush off these desires and write them off as typical writer-avoiding-writing. But I also believe that a writer needs a little time for living, a little time, as Alan Steele once called it, for “in-take.” Especially when you’ve been doing a lot of output, it makes sense to make time for reading and living. One of the things we’ve talked about on this blog (and in my Loft class last night) is the question of where ideas come from. The truth of the matter is I think a lot of professional writers worry about running out of ideas because when they’re rushing from one deadline to another, there’s very little room to breathe, much less live – and it’s in the living that ideas have their most fertile ground. It’s those quiet contemplative moments when images collide (which is why I think a lot of people find inspiration in dreams. It’s at least six, seven or more hours for your subconscious to rest, to play. A luxury of time we don’t often allow ourselves in our waking hours.) It’s also when we interact with our culture – and by this I don’t mean anything snooty, I mean, by watching TV, movies, listening to the radio, and reading – that we open up a dialogue with other writers and creators, all of which fuel the idea machine in our heads.

If you don’t put your pen down from time to time, you deny the idea-machine a well deserved moment to restock.

So, I’m going to veg, and try to not feel guilty about it. I plan to take a break from writing until October 1. In that time I’m going to tackle the pile of books that are sitting in my “to read” bookshelf. I’m going to watch some butt-kicking SF TV, and I’m going to take long walks in the fading summer glory and I’m going to nap (proudly!)

Every rejection letter is an achievement

This is one of those concepts that seems counterintuitive but is in fact one of the most empowering ideas a writer can have, and I know whereof I speak on the rejections front.

I've had something like 410 rejection letters over the course of my career to date. I sold my first short after 96 rejections for various shorts and novels and my first book after about 360.

Rejection happens. It hurts. It's also a point of pride, not something to be bummed about. Here's why:

Finishing and submitting a story means you're in the game and you should be proud of that. Rejections are a measure of finishing and submitting a story—you can't get one without the others. So, getting a rejection means you're in the game. Be proud of that. How many people do you know who say they want to write but don't? How many who start things and never finish them? How many who finish, but won't send something out?

So when you're feeling down because you've gotten a rejection, remember you're in the game, pat yourself on the back, and write another story.

And so on. That's how you win.

Of course, licking your wounds has its points, especially on the rejects that really hurt. But it's better if you do it as a celebration. So, do what I do when I get one that hurts and treat yourself to a night out and a really silly movie, something guaranteed to make you laugh. The dinner out is the celebration of the lumps and bumps on the road to becoming a professional writer. The movie thing seems to take the worst of the sting away, at least for me. It's hard to laugh and feel punched in the gut at the same time. Not impossible, but hard.

Rejection = you're in the game = you rock!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

How I Wrote My First Novel

I first tried to write a novel in 4th grade. I didn't finish it. I did manage to write an extended story for the first time in middle school, but it wasn't a novel (and anyway it was more fanfic than original fiction. I used my classmates as characters. We were allowed to read our creative writing out loud to the class, and I discovered that when I used my classmates as characters, I guaranteed myself a riveted and enthusiastic audience, and the plausibility of the story was entirely beside the point.) I started several more novels in high school, but always got bogged down, most often by a total lack of plot. Typically, I'd have a compelling character and a fabulous Big Emotional Scene. So if I were writing Star Wars, I'd have Luke, and I'd have the scene in which Obi Wan sacrifices himself. And absolutely nothing else.

Some spoilers are about to follow for Fires of the Faithful and Turning the Storm.

The earliest version of Fires/Turning was a short story. It was about 12 pages long, and the action it covers takes 100 pages in Fires. I got two rejections (one from Marion Zimmer Bradley, one from Weird Tales) where the editor said, "This isn't bad, but it reads like chapters one and twenty-six from a novel." So, when I decided I wanted to try again with the novel, I figured I'd expand the short story -- after all, I already knew basically what happened, and that should make it easier.

With my first two or three tries, I kept the short story intact as written for Chapter One. That did not work at all. The first thing I needed to learn was that novel pacing is totally different from short story pacing. With novels, you're going to be spending a long time with the characters; you can have long scenes where the purpose is to develop secondary characters and their relationship with the protagonist.

I finally figured this out, scrapped the short story version except as an outline, and started writing again. The first section of the book was going to have the basic emotional arc of the short story. Eliana is a student at an isolated, rural conservatory; one day, she gets a new roommate, a mysterious girl with a secret. In the big emotional scene of that section, the secret is revealed, and Mira is forced to choose between her convictions, and her best friend. I also had incidents that happened in the short story, which I expanded on. But the thing that was most helpful was this: I had a short-term goal. I had a scene that I was writing towards.

I finished that section and revised it, then started thinking ahead to the next section. What came next was vaguer. Eliana was going to go home, and things were going to have changed horribly. She was walking home, and it was a long way, so stuff needed to happen along the way. I brainstormed Stuff, and talked to Lyda because I wasn't sure what Eliana ought to find when she got home.

Lyda said, "I think she's going to find bodies."

I said, "Huh. Okay."

So, that was the next Big Emotional Scene that I wrote towards. Eliana was going to go through some hardships and difficulties getting home, and would finally reach it, only to find no haven.

Anyway, if you've read the books, you can probably identify the key scenes that were the climax of each section. For each section, I'd know the Big Emotional Scene, and I'd brainstorm a bunch of stuff that could happen, and then I'd sort it all out and put it in some sort of order that would get us to the next big dot on the map, and that became my outline.

It was kind of like the literary version of hut-to-hut hiking. (Is that a metaphor that makes sense to anyone reading this?) It was much less intimidating and overwhelming for me than trying to structure a whole book. Also, it made revision a lot easier. At one point I completely reworked the beginning. I knew exactly where I needed to end up, and exactly where I needed to drop each character off for them to slot back into the rest of the novel as it stood.


Today is International Talk Like A Pirate Day! Really. Oops, yarrrr. Can't go too long without a "yarrrr" or its moral equivalent or I'll lose my pirate's licence.

In celebration Laura and I are going on a sea raid (afternoon canoe) with her parents. Shiver me Timbers!

I'm not sure what this might do to my current novel, so I'm not going for write like a pirate day, though Laura is teaching her physics class, yarrrr, with an eyepatch and has printed up more for her students at the University. Ahoy Matey!

Now I'm off to board and loot the novel. Please, try this at home! I am an expert, having played a pirate for years at the Renaissance Festival, but really anyone can (oops, avast!) manage.

Hey, maybe I'll type like I've got five fingers and a hook!

What are you going to do for your inner pirate today? Yarrrr?

Monday, September 18, 2006

Never reject your own story

I was having an online conversation today that made me reiterate one of the fundamental rules of selling your fiction—Never reject your own story. That's the editor's job. Too many times a writer will look at a story and decide one of three things:

A, this is a disaster and I can't send it out.

B, this story isn't the right sort of story for ________ (fill in the high end market of your choice).

C, this story is perfect for __________ (fill in the low end market of your choice).

In all three cases, the story never makes it to whatever is the writer's dream market, thus guaranteeing that it will never be published there. But, for the cost of postage and a little time the writer could give the editor the chance to do the job of rejecting the story if it doesn't work for them, or maybe, just maybe, buying that story.

Look at it this way:

When a writer pre-jects a story for an editor:
—The worst case scenario is that they don't sell to dream market x.
—The best case scenario is also that they don't sell to dream market x.

When a writer lets the editor make the decision:
—The worst case scenario is that they don't sell to dream market x.
—The best case scenario is that they do sell to dream market x.

Never reject your own story.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Quick Hit

Next installment up from Swordsmith. Today's topic: Editing. This just a great ongoing series on the realities of the publishing world from a writer, editor and writing teacher who has worked in the genre for years.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Unrelated, but...

...I had to post it.

Someone forwarded this to me, and I had to pass it on:

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Novels Vs. Short Stories and Career Building

In one of the threads Erik asked why some of us had recommended that Sean focus on short stories for a while rather than novels. It's a topic worth talking about at some length as it's advice I give to every aspiring writer these days—if you can write short stories, it's the best available way to build your career. There are a number of reasons for this.

The market: In science fiction and fantasy the big publishers are collectively breaking something between 20 and 50 new writers per year. I'm not sure of the exact number, both because it varies and becuase the editors I've talked to aren't terribly specific, but it tends to be on the low end of that. In short stories, the numbers run into the low hundreds and there are venues that are open solely to new writers or that hold a fixed number of slots open for new writers. On top of that, the competition is lower. In the middle tier of short story markets a writer is competing against considerably fewer writers for a significantly larger number of available spots.

Diversity of story: The short markets are also willing to take more risks on the really bizarre and the stuff that crosses genres. This is a twofer. It lets a writer have more room to experiment and it can be used to establish that there's a market for the outre. Short story readers write letters to the markets and those often get published. If something with a different flavor draws a lot of attention at the short story level, the book editors will pay attention to that.

Failing spectacularly: This is directly related to the diversity issue. I came into writing from theater so I'm used to thinking in terms of rehearsal and seeing that as the opportunity to fail really spectacularly without consequences. Short stories can be like novel rehearsals. They give you a chance to try out effects and improvisations that are either going to end in something extraordinary or in total disaster without the consequences of attempting the same feat in a novel. It's much easier to walk away from the smoking wreckage of short story.

Time into product: Let's say that 10,000 words of text takes a fixed amount of time to write, whether it's for a short story or novel. I know, it doesn't. But for the sake of argument let's say that it's at least close. Let's even assign it a time. Call it two weeks. Some writers are a good bit faster than that, other writers will be much slower, but it's within the realm of reason. That means that a novel (arbitrarily 100,000 words since that's slightly on the high side of what the publishers are looking for in a new writer at the moment) takes about 20 weeks to write. Let's say a short story is 5,000 words, again arbitrary, but with some basis in fact since that's the high end for a lot of markets. So, one week per short, or 20 shorts in the time it takes to write a novel. That's 20 chances to sell that first piece of writing and start building a reputation vs. 1.

Splash factor: George RR Martin has already said this better here, so I'll quote, of his first novel: it was not just another novel being thrown out there with all the other first novels, to sink or swim. It was "the long-awaited first novel," and that makes a very big difference in a career. And: A novel may pay more initially, but if your concern is to actually build a career, you do yourself a lot of good by building a reputation with short stories first.

Finally, learning curve: And I actually think this is the most important reason of all. In my own career, I wrote three novels before ever trying short stories. I'm not a natural short writer and when I started out it was like pulling teeth to get them down on the page. Also, I wrote a lot of things that were not shorts, though they were genre and of the right length. Mostly, they were lost chapters. However, I persisted, writing nothing but shorts for three years. In that time I wrote something like fifty shorts, more than half of which have now seen professional publication or are forthcoming, and a gazillion fragments for a total of something like 250,000 words. I created hundreds of characters and dozens of worlds. I had to come up with something like a 100 plots (there were a lot of fragments) and write a huge number of beginnings, middles, and endings. And all of it had to be short, there was no room for wasted words or blind alleys. I learned a ton about the craft of writing and about idea generation, and the vast majority of it is also applicable to novels. Would I have learned as much from writing 2-and-a-1/2 novels? Possible, but highly unlikely.

Of course, none of this matters if you're one of the fraction of authors who simply can't write shorts. But if you can, it'll do you a world of good over the long run.

And now I've talked way too long when I should be working on The Black School, so I'll open the floor to comments and questions. What do you write? At what length? Why? Are you a novelist first last and always? A short story writer? Bitextual? Do you dabble in the truly outre. . .poetry? I do, and again, I've learned things there that apply to my other work.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Goals and projects

Hey All,

I find that occasionally stating my goals helps me get more accomplished, especially if I put them up someplace public. So, here goes.

Front and center:

My current project is a historical fantasy trilogy set in an alternate World War II with most of the action of the first two books set in Edinburgh and the third traveling from there to Dachau. It's quite dark and it's YA. The Black School which is the first of them is my second YA novel so far, as cracking the YA market is my next major goal. I'm hoping to knock off six thousand or so words of that in the next couple of days. I'm really excited about this one.

Running Second:

Submission Novels: This is the stuff that's out looking for a home or waiting for a response, any of which could become my main project with no warning. That includes Cybermancy, the WebMage sequel, contracted and handed in but as yet unread by my editor. The Urbana and Uriel, both being held by my editor for further consideration. Winter of Discontent, out with another editor. Numismancer, likewise. And Chalice: Artbreak, the aforementioned other YA, on the desk of my agent who plans to get it in the mail shortly.

Complete Shorts: At the moment I've got exactly zero short stories out and I need to fix that, so some time in the next month or two I need to sit down, re-read all my shorts, make some adjustments, and figure out who might be interested in what. I'd like to have at least ten stories back in the mail by the end of October.

Unfinished Shorts: I've got about six shorts that need to be completed or rewritten, but I have no idea when I'm going to find the time.

Unfinished Novels: I have a several chapters of a contemporary fantasy novel, Outside In (a secret history of architecture), sitting and waiting for me to get back to it. Likewise a mystery, Ave Caesar, which is supposed to be the first of series of light murder mysteries set in theater and film productions with an actor as the detective.

Trunk Novels: Apprentice Assassin, book I of the Assassin Mage trilogy (written three years before the appearance of the Robin Hobb book of similar title and bearing no resemblance to same). This one is awaiting a rewrite to convert it from a high fantasy general market book into a YA and is my lowest priority at the moment since it's the first of a trilogy I'm not up for finishing at the moment. The Swine Prince, a high fantasy farce that's ninety percent rewritten. It just needs a new first three chapters to get it out the door, so maybe ten days worth of work counting reread and rewrite. I'm hoping to get to that one within the next year so it will stop giving me guilt-inducing looks whenever I pass it in my files.

What are y'all working on? What do you hope to get done soon? What's sitting in your trunk making rude noises and inducing writer's guilt?

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Wyrdsmiths meeting

I got confused about the date for our next meeting and showed up at the meeting place two evenings ago. Fortunately, Lyda and Doug were also confused and showed up. The three of us sat around and talked about writing and families for a couple of hours. Then we left the coffee house where our group meets. It's in a historic district. The street lamps are old-fashioned, short and topped with white globes, five in a cluster on each lamp. By this time, the lamps were lit. We looked up at the lamp outside the coffee house door. The globes were covered by spider webs, and there were many large, round, fat spiders climbing on the the webs, silhouetted against the glow of the globes. We went "oo" and "ah." A guy came by and said, "There are even more spiders on the lamp across the street." We went over, and he was right. The webs went up to the building overhang as well as from globe to globe.

Lyda's three year old son wants to be a spider, when he doesn't want to be a shark; and she knows something about the animals. "They aren't social," she kept saying, as we watched the spiders climbing over their webs.

I said goodby and crossed another street. The lamps on the far side had more spiders. These seemed to belong to two species, one around and fat, the other narrow and long legged. I called Lyda and Doug over to see the new spiders. Then I continued on my way home. All the lamps I passed had spiders. It made sense: the light attracted flying bugs, and the spiders caught them in their webs. Even though most spiders are not social, there was food enough for all.

Even with an explanation, it was amazing, almost science fictional.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Reading Over My Own Shoulder

One thing I've always had a problem with as a writer is turning off my brain. No, not all of it (although sometimes I think my prose reads like I had), but rather the analytical part that sits back in it's cerebral Lay-Z-Boy and takes pots shots at what is going onto the page. In other words, my internal editor.

I am by nature a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to writing, so this isn't a huge surprise for me. However, in the last few years, I have noticed it takes longer and longer, and becomes harder and harder, for me to move forward in a piece of fiction. This is not necessarily becasue I am constantly going back and revising (I actually try to avoid that, since it is huge pitfall for me), but rather it is my constant working and re-working of a paragraph or sentence to get it "just so." It's kind of like Kelly's comments about the "right" vs. the "perfect" word, except I am looking for the perfect phrasing for a block of text (or page, or chapter ending, or what have you).

I've tried all sorts of things to short-circuit my interal editor, but have never really been successful. I've found that I can sometimes consciously get myself to push forward and say "to hell with it - I'll fix it later", but that is a rare thing for me, and it never lasts.
The editor always comes back, always nit-picks, and always ends up frustrating me because I know what I have is fine, I should just move on - except I can't.

So my question is, how do you deal with your internal editor? How do you keep yourself from circling the same territory over and over (and over), and instead move on?

The right damn word. . .argh

I was writing yesterday. I'm working on the first chapters of a brand new book, which means that I'm laying out all the new terms. As so often happens, I know what the stuff is, but not yet what to call it. So, when I got to the first actual use of a particular new word, I dropped in a (placeholder) and kept moving. No big deal, I've done this many times and I know I'll come back to it.

Then as I'm writing another scene, I realize that this scene has implications for something I'd done earlier and that I'm going to have to change that scene because of the new stuff. Again, no big deal, this happens all the time. But when I go back and look at the scene, I realize it means changing what I think was pretty tight little paragraph and coming up with the right word*. So, (placeholder).

*the right word—a digression. For me, the right word is not to be confused with what I will call the perfect word. The perfect word is one of those things that writers, with their invariably huge vocabularies, know exists to perfectly describe the thing in question. Usually it's a polysyllabic monstrosity of the 25 cent to 50 cent variety that makes you smile when you think of it. It also all too often ruins the flow and the voice, and should probably be tossed seconds after it occurs. The right word, on the other hand, is usually only a nickel word, and it's appropriate to the character's voice, the setting, and the situation—easy to find, right?

Anyway, I now have two placeholders and 2,000 shiny new words done on the book. Laura comes home, reads the new stuff, makes appropriate happy noises, and reminds me we have a faculty thing. (It was lovely by the way, soup and fresh bread with the English department folks–we seem to spend a lot more time with them than with Laura's own Physics people) Social obligations pleasantly fulfilled, we return home, do some reading and head for bed.

That's when the placeholders creep out of their spots and start whispering in my ear about things unfinished and how important they are. I ignore them, pick up Ellen Kushner's Privilege of the Sword, and try reading a bit more. This only makes things worse.

So, almost three hours after Laura has gone to sleep, I crawl out of bed and bang my forehead on the keyboard for twenty minutes until I've got something better than placeholders. I'm really happy with one and will probably keep it throughout, but the other turned into a multi-word sensory flow thing that may yet have to go. We'll see.

So, do you find yourself dragged out of happy sleep by words whispering themselves incomprehensibly (it's always incomprehensible otherwise, you could just jot them down and be done) into your ears? Oh and that's metaphorical, of course, I don't actually hear voices;-) What writing problems invade your dreams or prevent them?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

When and Where

Kelly and Eleanor asked two interesting questions, and as I am coming late to the party, I'm going to answer them both at once.

I've found that over the years, my writing time has fluctuated a great deal. I used to be night writer, with my most productive period being generaly after 10:00 pm. Once we had our first son, though, that changed. Then I became and afternoon and/or evening writer, working either when he napped or after my wife got home. This is how I finished my book. Then our second son came along, and I ended up taking a hiatus from writing for about two years. There were other factors involved in this (I had other commitments that I couldn't ignore), but the end result is that I didn't do any writing for quite a while.

About a year and a half ago, I returned to the Wyrdsmiths and also tried to reorganize my writing schedule yet again. For a while, I got up early and wrote before the rest of the house woke up. That worked fairly well until our second son decided to become an early riser. Also, I found that I needed a couple of hours after the kids went to bed to decompress, and this worked in direct opposition to an early bed time for me. Then I tired writing at night, but often found I was either too exhausted, or too easily distracted by the chaos in the house, that I ended up more frustrated than productive. Weekends have always been a wash, since that is the only time we either get to do something as a family, or necessary things get done around the house.

Fortunately for me, our youngest is now going to pre-school three mornings a week, and our older boy is back in school full-time. This theortically gives me three mornings a week to work on finally revising the book. I say "theoretically" because there are always things that come up to interfere with this time (sickness, doctor or dentist appointments, holidays, etc.). So, in some ways, the latest schedule isn't one of my own doing, but rather one determined by outside factors. Still, I'll take what I can get.

With luck, next year both boys will be in school full-time, which will give me more free time. This is both good and bad, since I am by nature terribly unorganized and a procrastinator of epic proportions. I am somewhat concerned that I will end up getting less done because my time will be more flexible. For that reason, I am trying to develop better habits now.

As for where I write, until this year, it was always in my office, at my desk, with papers strewn around me and the door closed. I've never liked laptops much, and prefer a full sized keyboard and screen. However, my son's pre-school is now across town. This means that I would lose between 45 minutes to an hour of writing time driving back and forth from school to home each day, so instead I have found a handy coffee shop to perch in. This isn't an ideal arrangement, since I am easily distraced and still tend to do best in a quiet environment, but it is working to a degree. Plus, I cannot get up from the computer if I am stuck and find something else that "needs" doing (laundry, cleaing, mowing the grass, etc.), which has always been a problem at home. Five minute breaks often become two hours for me. Since I tend to work in small bursts anyhow (I can't write continuously for longer than an hour without having to take at least one break), the less "big" distractions I have to keep me from getting back to work, the better.

So for me, it has been a study in change, adaptation and resignation for the past eight years when it comes to when and where I write. I can't say it's been fun, but it has been educational.

Where do you write?

I've been thinking about writing environments lately, and how very different are the processes of the various Wyrdsmiths. I'm an outdoors writer whenever possible—well as close to outdoors as you can get in Wisconsin without being eaten alive by mosquitoes.

In my current home I have a second floor screen porch that looks out over our backyard and a city park. It's a small town and the park is empty of anything but plants and bunnies most of the time with the occasional deer for spice.

Before that we had an apartment that backed onto a golf course and I would write mostly in a couch facing the course. The apartment's back yard and a line of trees separated us from the course, so it was a very parklike view.

And before that in our little house in St. Paul, I mostly wrote on the front porch. The view wasn't as nice because it faced our neighbors, but we had a huge pine tree on one side and a shaggy hedge on the other.

Which brings me to the biggest common factor—green. I really like to be surrounded by green in all the shades of nature while I write. It soothes me and makes my job easier.

Now, that doesn't mean I won't write without green, I've worked on stories sitting in hotel corners or on the floor of the Air and Space Museum surrounded by tourists. I can't not write. But I'm happiest outside.

So, where do you write? Are you an outdoors writer? Or does all that visual distraction drive you crazy? Do you prefer a corner in the basement with no distractions? Or a coffee house with the fragments of conversation providing subconscious cues?

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Time to Write

When I wrote my first novel, I had a full-time job as a Technical Writer. Fortunately, my company defined "full time" as 40 hours per week, not 60 or more. And also fortunately, I was married to someone who believed that my fiction writing was a worthwhile activity, and didn't pout when I would disappear to write for hours night after night.

So, here's how my routine went, more or less. I came home from work. One of us cooked dinner. The other would clean up. After dinner, or after I was done cleaning up, I'd go up to the home office, open up my Word document, and write for at least ten minutes. If I wasn't much in the mood to write, I'd quit at that point and go do something else, but most evenings, I'd write for an hour or two. Eventually I'd knock off and go to bed.

It helped that I watched almost no TV. (I still don't watch much TV.) In order to make time to write, I also significantly cut down on my leisure reading. At the time, I had no Internet connection from home. Some evenings I'd quit after ten minutes to spend some quality time with my husband, and of course there were nights that we had friends over or went places or otherwise did stuff.

In September of 2000, I had a baby, and quit my job. We decided that I would be the stay-at-home parent in part because I thought it would mesh better with continuing to write. In the evenings, Ed could spend some time with the kids, and I could have some time to write. This was not a flawless plan, but I did get some writing done when Molly was a baby. I had finished about half of an SF mystery before she was born; the summer of 2001, Ed started taking her for long walks on the weekends, and I finished up a draft of this novel during that time. It wasn't pressing, though -- I had no deadline.

Then in September of 2001 (on Molly's first birthday), Bantam bought my first novel. And suddenly I had a kid and a deadline. They wanted me to split it into two books and do some fairly extensive revisions. Then I wrote a proposal for a trilogy, sent it off to Bantam, and they decided they wanted to buy it at right around the same time I discovered I was pregnant with Kiera.

So, I wrote Freedom's Gate while pregnant and taking care of a two-year-old. (I arranged to have it due a month before she'd be born, because I remembered that in my last month of pregnancy with Molly, I got NOTHING done.) I revised Freedom's Gate when Kiera was about a month old. I wrote Freedom's Apprentice with a newborn (a colicky newborn) and a three-year-old to take care of, and I wrote Freedom's Sisters with a four-year-old and a one-year-old.

Now, that was challenging.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, during both of those projects, Molly went to preschool from 10 a.m. until 12:30 p.m., September through May. I'd do my best to get Kiera to nap when we got home, and if I could get her to sleep, I sat down and wrote. I did not do housework, I did not shower, I did not check e-mail: that time was reserved exclusively for writing.

It got harder and harder to get Kiera to nap when I wanted her to nap, though. She would usually fall asleep in the car, so I would strap her into her carseat, pack my laptop, drive around until she sacked out, then park and write on the laptop until she started to wake up. At which point I'd shove it aside and start driving again. I learned some interesting things from this: (1) the driver's seat of a Geo Prizm is not the most ergonomically optimal writing environment one could design; and (2) it's amazing what you can manage when you have a deadline hanging over your head.

On Saturdays and Sundays, Ed would make a really concerted effort to get the girls out of the house, or to get Molly out of the house while Kiera napped, to give me some writing time. At some point, he started scheduling evening appointments twice a week at the childcare center at our health club: he'd take the girls along, drop them off to play at the center while he exercised, and leave me at home to write.

These days, Kiera and Molly both go to bed at a predictable time (tucked in by Ed). Molly starts Kindergarten this fall (tomorrow, in fact) and Kiera starts preschool next week. Suddenly, I'll have hours of free time during the day, plus evenings.

I'll say, though, I still found it easier to write when I had a full-time job but no kids. The kids are entirely worth it; I love being a parent, and even if parenting had meant that I never wrote another word of fiction, it still would have been worth it. I both love and really like my kids, and getting to watch them learn and think and grow is honestly one of the coolest experiences I've ever had. But there's no question that kids will cramp your style in all kinds of ways. (We also haven't traveled abroad since before Molly was born.)

Monday, September 04, 2006

Holy Toledo

I just checked Kelly's website. According to it, he is in three (3) writing groups. How do you do it, Kelly? I can barely keep up with the Wyrdsmiths.

Time for writing

I work a full time job, which fills my day until 6:00 and 6:30 p.m. five days a week. After a day at work, I am pretty tired. Maybe I could write, but I feel more like watching a movie on DVD or reading a book or going to bed. On weekends there is house cleaning and running errands and various writerly activities other than writing: posting to my personal blog and this blog, reading stories by other Wyrdsmiths... My second writing group, the Lady Poetesses from Hell, meets one Sunday a month. In the fall and winter there are operas on Sunday. (I have season tickets.) Patrick and I like to take day trips to Duluth or down along the Mississippi on the weekend.

Most of my working life, I have worked part time or taken time off between jobs to write. About ten years ago, I looked at those neat little reports you get from the Social Security Administration and realized I could not afford to retire. I needed to make more money in order to increase my social security payments; and I needed to save money. Since then, I have worked full time, and my productivity as a writer has gone down.

I'm not saying it's impossible for me to find time to write. Difficult is not impossible, as I always like to say. But I do feel frustrated; and I am unwilling to give up the rest of my life in order to write. Russell Letson, the distinguished Locus critic, has told me -- when you get to be our age, Eleanor, it's time to give up deferring gratification. Deferring gratification is fine when you're young; but if we don't enjoy our lives now, when will we?

How do other people find time to write?