Monday, March 26, 2012

This Isn't Working

I'm not the kind of writer who gets things right the first time.  My stories go through several edits at least.  To get published, one of the keys is figuring out if something's not working.

With rough drafts, it's a time to crank out ideas as quick as they come.  Grammar?  Marginalized.  Plot holes?  You bet.  Confusing dialog?  Yes, that character did just ask a question of himself that he answered in the form of another question - and I don't care.

Past that stage, when the story transitions into something much more organized, there comes a point when it seems like the piece is done.  Except it isn't working.  You may not be aware it's not working until it's not selling, which forces you to look closer at the story and discover that it's not working.  (I don't believe that just because a story hasn't sold, it therefore has problems, but I am suggesting that a second or third glance is in order if it's run through a lot of markets without any bites.)

Wait, is "not working" subjective?  I'm not so sure on that one.  Preferences are subjective, so to a degree, something like pacing can be subjective.  But if the story has a pacing problem, it's noticeable beyond a preference for a certain type of pacing.  For example, I may have a preference for a story that starts out a little slow and builds into something fast, but if I read a story that starts fast and then meanders to a crawl before picking back up, I would cite that as a pacing problem.  I'm not against it because it started fast but because it drastically lost momentum in the middle.

So there are two challenges - the first is finding the problem (or problems).  For that, read with a critical eye or look for personal feedback if you're not spotting anything yourself.  The second challenge, which can be just as duanting, is resolving the problem.  In one of my published stories, I struggled with narrative issues due to how the protagonist interacted with other characters.  I sensed a problem and went with what I thought was the best solution, though I never felt settled about it.  The editor saw the issue as well, and it took several more drafts before the best solution found the light of day.  I had almost given up hope at one point, but persistence paid off.  Once complete, I knew I had an actual working solution, not just my best guess at a solution.

Solving the issue may take a complete rewrite from start to finish.  With one of my stories, I recongized halfway through the rough draft that it needed to be a first-person narrative.  Normally, I would not advise starting over before completing a rough draft, but I couldn't just go forward without fixing what was behind me; I needed resolution immediately.  So I printed out what I had, opened a new document and started over. 

Don't leave junk behind.  Whether you see issues during a first draft, a "final" draft, or three years after submitting it to markets, fix the story.  Even if it hurts.  Even if you have to put other stories on hold.  You'll gain valuable experience in the process and become that much keener at editing your work in the future.  Plus, you'll end up with something that has a much greater chance at publication.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012


At the 2010 World Fantasy Convention, I spoke with Howard Andrew Jones, and he showed me a small notebook he carried around with him that he used to record his thoughts. I assumed these were writing ideas or the megalomaniacal musings he’s prone to (those who know him can back me up on that), but I didn’t actually read through it.

A short time later, I decided it was time to invest in a notebook of my own. And I already had one on hand that my wife had given me as a gift. It’s a hand-sewn, leather-bound cover with a leather strap to tie it closed. On the inside, it has pockets on the left and the right so that I can slide the covers of a notebook within. But I don’t just use any notebook; I use a notebook of thick, unlined parchment paper with a rustic look to it – not the bleached-white pulp found at a supermarket. I love the way it feels, and it gives my notes more of a fantastical feel, making them twice as good in my mind (okay, not really – but they do look cool).

I record ideas for new stories as well as notes on existing stories. I keep my notebook with me most of the time, so I’m rarely dropping ideas. Not that all ideas lead to stories or that all notes get folded into existing stories. But if a noteworthy thought comes to mind, I’ve got it. I’ve found this to be quite invaluable.

I think what helps is that my notebook is special; it’s not just some piece of paper shoved in my pocket, and I’m not just using some Smartphone app. It’s ink on a page. It demands to be used.

I recommend purchasing something unique to your personality – something you’d find worthy of your ideas. Then try it for a month. See what you jot down. I think you’ll be surprised at how much you’ll record in the notebook and how you can expand a wisp of a thought into something tangible within the moment.