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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Writing with a purpose

One of very few blogs on writing I have read and consistently gotten value from is fantasy writer Patricia C. Wrede’s blog “Wrede on Writing.” Her advice is practical, well-considered, and based on years of experience writing and being published in the genre world.

One thing she shares more than once is her dislike of writing exercises. Rather than practice writing so-many words of description, or so-many pages of dialogue, she prefers to hone her skills in the field: learning new things by doing them, in “pay copy,” as she puts it, rather than in an ultimately futile exercise.

This made me think of a couple of things I have done in my work, not necessarily because it served the story or was critical to the character, but to see if I could. We like to think our stories are their own purpose, pure and free of ulterior motives – but sometimes it’s just too fun to squeeze something else in too.

For example:

In “The Way Home,” * David loses his glasses almost immediately after being transported against his will and all known science into an alternate world. On some level this serves story and character: emphasizing his alienation, highlighting his helplessness in this unfamiliar and potentially deadly situation. Really though, it was great practice using other senses in descriptive passages.

In “The Edge,” Marta and Doc encounter a person of indeterminate gender. I had sometime in the past read a passage by Laurie R. King (whom I admire greatly), in one of her Kate Martinelli novels, in which the author aims coyly to conceal the sex of Kate’s partner. King’s passage comes across as clunky and awkward, sentences tripping over themselves in an effort to avoid pronouns or other obvious indicators. As a reader I found it annoying, not only because of the sacrifice of smooth prose, but also because it attempted to play up the main character’s sexuality – as if being a lesbian somehow made her strange or special. (It was written in the mid-90s and was at least a decade old by the time I read it – maybe it worked better in its own time.)

The passage stuck in my mind for years. Ultimately, the time came for Marta and Doc to meet up with Marta’s old friend Dell, and I could not decide for the life of me whether Dell was a man or a woman. Each rewrite I went back and forth, but neither seemed to entirely fit. Finally it occurred to me to take King’s work as a challenge. It was not necessary to the story that Dell’s sex be concealed, but it was interesting to write the scene – a mercifully brief one – without using pronouns, and without being obvious about not using pronouns. I think I did pretty well; you can judge for yourself below.**

(Now, as trans, intersex, and non-binary people have become more visible in everyday interactions, I wonder if Dell wasn’t trying to tell me something back then.)

I’ve taken writing classes, and I’ve tried out some writing exercises, and overall I think I agree with Pat Wrede: it’s more fun to do it her way.

 

* “The Way Home” is currently free on Smashwords with coupon code DB73P.

**Excerpt from “The Edge,” c2015:

The terraforming project was in chaos.

Soil preparation was well underway, kicking up great clouds of dust that swirled in the orange-tinted sunlight like smoke from a raging forest fire. Nutrient-injection machines thundered and growled, and people in burgundy Explorer Corps uniforms scurried to and fro like ants at a picnic. A ground crew swarmed aboard to unload supplies as Marta and Doc made their way down the ramp. Marta’s eyes watered in the thick air, and she squinted blindly up at the towering figure who stopped before them.

“This way,” said a voice muffled by a heavy dust filter. Marta and Doc followed the giant away from the landing strip into a low building nearby. They shut the door on the pandemonium outside and breathed in the cleaner indoor air with relief.

“Thank you for coming, Doc,” said their host, unfastening the dust filter. “Sorry about the mess. And you know, you really should have told me whose skinny black ass you’ve been hauling all over the Edge.”

Marta gaped as the mask fell away, revealing the twinkling eyes and round, olive-toned face of an old friend. “Dell Bier,” she said with a delighted smile. “They let you out of the inner systems? What were they thinking?”

They embraced, Dell engulfing her in a crushing hug. “Explorer Corps,” the giant explained to Doc. “They’ll let anybody in who’s got the coin for training.”

“You would know,” said Marta as they settled around a much-abused conference table. “How the hell are you? And how did you score a functioning project when all I got was a dead hunk of rock?”

“Didn’t mean to.” Dell glanced at Doc. “My commanding officer vanished into thin air.”

Doc paled. “They’ve been here?”

“About a week ago. I suppose we were lucky; no bodies this time.”

“What happened?”

Dell sat back, the chair creaking protest. “Commander Meyers went out with the irrigation supervisor to have a look at the spread beyond the ridge. They didn’t come back. Next morning all we found was the gear. No trace of them.”

“Will you show us?”

The broad shoulders lifted and fell in an immense shrug. “I can show you. But the area’s been planted since. We couldn’t wait.”

“That doesn’t matter. I’d like to see it.”

Dell reached for the radio set in the middle of the table. “I’ll order a car.”

 

The three of them stood in a sweet-scented grove, gangling young trees stretching thin branches overhead. The high ridge to the north hid all sight and sound of the work in progress. Spacious orchards filled the low valley, stretching east and west as far as the eye could see; to the south was nothing but unformed orange desert. A bright yellow butterfly flitted among the tiny flowers at their feet. Marta drew the tablet from her belt and booted the program, as Dell watched with bemusement.

“Trace sensor?”

“Supposedly,” Marta answered. “It’s not finding anything.”

“Too much time has passed,” said Doc. “There’s nothing left.”

Marta returned the tablet to her belt. “I’m sorry, Doc. We’ll find them.”

“She will, too,” said Dell with a grin. “Best tracker in the Corps. Once found a water-bearing comet by – well, I’ll let her tell the stories.”

“Thanks, Dell,” said Marta with a smile. “Thanks for everything.”

 

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Well that was a full month.

First, a poetry collection assembled by assorted disparate members of my writers’ group has come out. It contains several pieces previously seen here as well as a range of similar-ish things by other writers. I’ve only flipped through it so far but as poetry goes it stands out for being accessible and straightforward as well as poetic. Also, the cover art is gorgeous.

You can find Over Land and Rising at Amazon.

November is home to literary events Wordstock and Orycon here in my ‘hood – that is, three-plus days packed full of writerly events, panels, workshops, and of course shopping. I discovered the urban fantasy Enter the Janitor, which is just as much fun as it sounds like, and a couple of authors I look forward to getting to know. My to-read pile has grown beyond all reason (not that it was reasonable before) and I also learned a few potentially useful things in terms of writing.

Among those things was some insight into the fun world of submitting. The short fiction panel at Orycon opened up a whole range of markets beyond what I already knew – which is good, because the piece I last mentioned having submitted to Uncanny Magazine has now collected four rejections – one of them personalized, with feedback. One of my upcoming projects is to launch that one into a second round of submissions.

Also in the world of submitting, “The Way Home” is finally finished. This time last year, it wasn’t; this time last month, off it went (just for fun) to F&SF whence it was promptly returned. However, that was not only expected, but perfectly timed. “The Way Home” is now available on Smashwords and has been submitted to the Library Writers’ Project, my community’s annual dose of local library love with which I have twice so far been successful. Wish me luck on this one – “Way” is my heart-piece, a bit odd-sized and weirdly shaped for conventional publishing, and I hope it finds a home here.

Then of course there was Nanowrimo. I really didn’t expect much of this; my last Nano fizzled at 25k, and this month was full of travel and literary weekends and wine. It was somewhat to my own surprise that I managed to write 25 days out of 30, even on airplanes – and at 8pm on the very last of them, verified 50,219 words.

All shitty-first-draft, but that’s the point.

I noticed this round that writing without concern for quality allowed all sorts of ideas to come flying up out of the muck. I went places I might not otherwise have considered, opened new doors, tried out new directions. All of these will help the executed projects in the end. On the down side, it was exhausting. 50k in a month is not a sustainable pace for me, though it’s certainly good for a jolt every now and then. My challenge this month is to work out what IS a sustainable pace. 5k a week? 3k? 500 words a day? (not doing so well so far, this being the 5th, but I think vacation is just about over.)

So what’s next??

Nano encompassed two projects: an idea for the BBC playwriting competition I mentioned last time, and something involving wizards, gender roles, and an unkindness of ravens. Both stories have a rough structure, an arc, a beginning-middle-end. Both need a LOT of work to be readable. The deadline for that competition is Jan 31, and my writers’ group has expressed a desire to perform scenes together, so my next task is to get that script into some sort of functional shape.

Once that’s done, then we’ll see about those wizards.

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It’s well past time for an update, isn’t it?

This time last year I posted that I was possibly close to done with a piece that had been on my mind for half a decade. Turns out, I wasn’t: the draft I was finishing then went to a beta reader, got heavily revised, and then went back around my critique group. Now I’m pretty sure it’s almost done. One more read-through, maybe, and it’s off to F&SF.

I also currently have a piece in the queue at Uncanny Magazine. Yes, I finally caught an open window, with a piece of the proper length, a piece that my critique group at least thinks is very strong. It will be at least another couple of weeks before I hear back, and I’m trying not to have any expectations.

Tomorrow, NaNoWriMo begins again. I haven’t participated the last couple of years, and the last time I did participate I only managed about 25k words. Not nothing, but not what I was going for. This year, my projects-in-process are all wrapped up, and I have a number of potential new ones in mind. I’m not sure what I’ll tackle tomorrow: a radio play for the BBC’s International Radio Playwriting Competition, or a sequel to one of my finished works, or maybe a new story that’s been kicking around my brain for a while. Maybe a bit of everything, as none is likely to reach 50k words on its own.

In the meantime, in honor of established tradition, my previous Nano projects will be free on Smashwords with coupon codes below.  Share and enjoy!

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A while ago I was considering participating in an anthology for charity. My sister provided original art for their first volume, and money raised selling the book went to a group supporting victims of domestic and sexual violence. Volume 2 called for origin stories: old religions told newly, entirely new ones invented, character origins, however writers chose to interpret the phrase, “In the beginning…”

Intrigued by the concept, I quickly produced a story which my writers’ group described as “Just So Stories meets OMNI Magazine.” It’s fun and cute, and also brief at 500 words – too brief, as it turned out, for the anthology has a 2000-word minimum. I sent a message asking if the minimum was firm.

While waiting for a reply, I began to have second thoughts about my submission. I hadn’t read Volume 1; what if the editors had no taste, and my story ended up collected with a bunch of clunkers? They also hadn’t (still haven’t) selected a charity. What if they chose one I could not support? I considered sending the story off to a pay magazine. Mostly, though, I did nothing.

Finally, word came back that the minimum was firm. The editors offered to help me “expand” my story. No thanks, I thought; not going to mess with a good thing. I turned back to the pay magazines – only to find that every single one was closed to submissions.

More nothing. Then F&SF opened last month. I dawdled and postponed. I really wanted to submit to Uncanny Magazine, a new-ish publication specializing in new ideas and new writers not getting seen by the mainstream. I supported them on Kickstarter in their first year and have loved the result. But they remained closed. So I did nothing, intending to send the story off to F&SF and yet not doing it.

Then, today – mere days after I signed up to support the magazine’s Year 3 – Uncanny Magazine opened to unsolicited submissions. I flew to the web page, ready to roll.

And encountered their 750-word minimum.

Fine. F&SF it is.

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Conundrum

Recently my sister invited me to submit a story to a group that sells themed anthologies for charity. I haven’t read the group’s previous work, but the theme of the next collection intrigued me, so I wrote a story with intent to submit.

After a couple of false starts and a lot of nothing, I finished the story. My writers’ group delighted in it. I went back to the charity group – with second thoughts now, as a charity hadn’t been selected, and what if I didn’t like it, what if I’d rather sell my story – to find that I had only a quarter the preferred minimum word count.

I’m not going to quadruple the story’s length; that would entirely not work. I messaged the group, to ask if the minimum was firm: the answer was “kinda” and “we’ll get back to you.” They haven’t.

Do I wait? Do I submit elsewhere in a hurry, and hope for a response before the charity group’s deadline? Do I submit without concern for the charity? The magazine I would most like to appear in is not currently accepting submissions, but what if they open next week? Next month? Do I submit to one of my old standbys, because why the hell not? Last time one magazine got back to me in 24 hours…

It’s possible that this is why writers are crazy.

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It’s been a while, hasn’t it?

In truth, I’ve fallen well behind of late. Job and life circumstances pushed my writing aside, and even though the schedule is clearing up, after so much time it’s hard to get back on the horse. I almost have to force myself to sit down and type, and I’m rarely happy with the result. There’s a reason conventional wisdom advises daily word counts: it’s easy enough to slack off, and so much harder to get started again.

Still, I’m getting there. And in spite of so little activity I am not without news. My local library put out a call to local authors in the fall, inviting submissions to the e-book catalog. Through an agreement with Smashwords, the library would purchase the chosen books and make them available to patrons. I have a “why not?” attitude when it comes to this sort of thing, so after some consideration I selected and submitted “The Edge.”

A few weeks ago I received notification of a purchase on Smashwords. Very little data accompanies these notifications; I assumed it was a friend who’d let his coupon expire and was embarrassed to ask for another. Then, yesterday, I received this:

“Congratulations!  Your book, The Edge, has been selected to be added to the library’s e-book collection as part of the Library Writers Project.  We had nearly 150 submissions to the Library Writers Project this year and yours was a standout.  Your book will be featured on the Multnomah County Library OverDrive web site, which is accessed by 20,000 unique users monthly.”

By this time I’d forgotten about the project. Of course it was a delight to receive the email: “Congratulations!” and “standout” and “20,000 unique users” are all wonderful to hear. But the real treat is this:

“The Edge,” at Multnomah County Library

My book. My library. How cool is that?

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It appears that reading about writing helps me write.

‘Generation One’ came almost whole out of reading How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card. John Truby’s Anatomy of a Story formed and guided ‘Dreamscapes’ and ‘The Edge.’ All kinds of things came out of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.

Now, I’ve been dry for close to five months. Finishing ‘Nicky’s Dragon’ was a struggle. ‘The Way’ has started and stopped a dozen times. So has ‘Cambaria.’ No new ideas, no new beginnings.

This week I picked up Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, a collection of essays by genre writers on topics from title to character to setting to sitting down in front of the keyboard and getting things done. This week I wrote 4000 new words on an old idea, fresh and alive again, and a thousand or so on two entirely new ones. I wrote a half-dozen blog posts, and added content to a bunch of character bios on Fanlore. I’ve hardly gotten any actual work done; I’ve written in notebooks waiting for the bus, in the car, on my home computer for three hours at dinnertime, an entire morning at my job. I don’t want to stop.

It’s probably a coincidence. But that doesn’t mean that next time I get stuck, I won’t pick up a book.

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