Category Archives: Learning the craft of writing

The Value of Seeking Out Editor Rejections

It used to be that the short stories I submitted for publication got nothing but form rejection letters back.  But in the last three months that’s been changing–the letters are coming back at times with personal comments from the editors.  Considering how little free time editors have, if this happens to you, celebrate it, because it means you’ve gotten good enough in your writing that they want to encourage you.   Editors are continually swamped with manuscripts and work–to take a few precious minutes out of their schedule to say something personal to you is a big deal.

And a few days ago, I got a letter of the “we really like this novelette, but it’s too long for us” variety from a major science fiction publication.  Again, this is a milestone to celebrate if it happens to you.  It means that story was good enough to sell.

So, I took those stories, found new markets to submit them to, and mailed them off.    Why not just self-publish them?

Two reasons:  1) Quality control, and 2) audience.

Like any other writer, I am unable to be objective about my own abilities.  So I like to submit my work for traditional publication to editors because it tells me how I’m doing as far as skill level.   I want to know if I’m reaching “pro” level or not in my stories.    If a story isn’t at a “pro” level, I’d rather it sat in drawer than self-publish it.   However, if it was good enough to get a personal letter from an editor, but a hard sell due to length (such as novelette and novella), chances are that once I ran out of traditional markets, I’d look into self-publishing it.

The other reason to consider traditional publishing for a short story is the available audience.  Think about it.   If you get a short story in THE NEW YORKER, you’ve just reached a huge potential reading audience.  Even the smaller periodicals will give you exposure to hundreds, even thousands, of readers who might not hear of you otherwise.

Ray Bradbury and the Enthusiasm that Becomes a Writer’s Voice

Yesterday I stumbled across a 22 minute interview with Ray Bradbury done by the National Endowment for the Arts’ “The Big Read” program.   It’s well worth watching.  There’s even a loud car purr to relax by 😀

But, watching this interview, I was struck by just how vivid and alive Bradbury is compared to some people I’ve met.  He’s refused to be mocked by the world into disguising, hiding, and getting rid of his enthusiasms, and it shows.

How many people do you know go to Paris to walk the streets while stopping to read TENDER IS THE NIGHT along the way?  It’s the actual physical act of getting out into the world and colliding with it that can generate so many new ideas.

Enthusiasms can also act as road signs of what to write about as a writer.   They can help a writer find his or her voice.  For example, a passion for astronomy could turn into a science fiction story or a literary novel about an astronomer.  And I’ve noticed how “catching” enthusiasm is.  I’m not into cars, but by watching the hosts of “Top Gear” on the BBC talk with passion about cars, I’ve caught some of their enthusiasm and am starting to pay attention to the cars and trucks I see daily.

Bradbury has priceless advice to give on finding one’s voice as a writer, both in ZEN AND THE ART OF WRITING and in this “The Big Read” interview.  Check them out.

The Benefits of Keeping a Work Log of Writing Hours

In July I started keeping a daily work log of how many hours I spent either writing or editing a particular piece.  And I ended up proving to myself what many of us have long surmised–the perception of how long it takes to do a piece of work is different from the actual reality.

I’ve now got over a month’s worth of work records, and the insights provided as I flip back through the log are invaluable to me.

–I can now make a good estimate on how many hours a short story or novelette is going to take me from start to finish.

–I can make correlations between productivity and when to schedule my writing time.  Certain times of the day and situations are much MUCH more productive than others for me, and I have begun to take that into account when planning the coming week’s schedule.

–It’s much harder to stay in denial if there’s a problem in productivity, because the work log shows the trend by either lack of hours, or too many hours being spent on a particular project.

–It’s motivating to look back and see the work hours that have already been logged in.

–I can quickly tell if I’m spending too much time on “niggling little stuff” and not enough on the novel or short fiction.

–If one is saying, “writing comes first,” but it’s clear from the log hours that it doesn’t (i.e that it’s coming in last behind everything else), the data is a goad to change that.

A writing log can be anything from a notepad to a daily planner.  To choose mine I went to an office supply store to the planner section, and pulled down planners and calendars until I found something I liked.

Making a Game of Writing Productivity

What I’m about to discuss is a writing productivity technique I’ve heard about.  It involves turning writing into a game with points.  I’ve found the point system has the handy side-effect of making it easy to see if writer’s block or submissions block is creeping up on me.

There are two goals to choose from in this game (or one can choose to track both goals):  Writing Productivity (WP), or Submissions Productivity (SP).   I’m just going to concentrate on the Writing Productivity game.

First off, decide how many points each of the following is worth.  I’ve listed my own point system, but feel free to change it.  Points are ONLY awarded for a FINISHED piece of work.   Incomplete work gets zero points.  No exceptions.

Finished Short Story (<7500 words):  1 pt.

Novelette (7500 – 15k):  2 pt.

Novella (15k to 50k):  5 pt.

Novel (50k to 125k): 10 pt.  (I deliberately give a novel twice the points of a novella because on average mine tend to be in the 100k range.)

Second, decide on the total points goal for the year.  Make it realistic, but enough of a stretch that you’ll be a sweating to get there.  If desired, you can break the points down into smaller goals by seasons, semesters, months, whatever.

Then find a white board, and each month, tally the total points for the year so far.  Seriously consider giving yourself a prize (such as a longed-for book or album) if you meet certain sub-goals during the year.

My complaint about only giving a prize for meeting the total goal points for the year is that it’s too a long a wait for getting a reward for productive behavior.  Significant increases in productivity ought to be celebrated and rewarded as they’re happening.

GREAT WRITERS ON THE ART OF FICTION, edited by James Daley

The title says it all.  GREAT WRITERS ON THE ART OF FICTION:  FROM MARK TWAIN TO JOYCE CAROL OATES  is a book I’ve wished existed for several years now.  Imagine my joy when I discovered that James Daley had edited together a collection of essays by famous 19th & 20th century writers from North America and Great Britain.  I consider the book a major bargain at a cover price of only $8.95 from Dover Publications.

The list of writers in the book reads like a who’s who:  Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Kate Chopin, Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, Mark Twain, Raymond Chandler, Eudora Welty, Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Carver, Wallace Stegner, John Irving, Joyce Carol Oates, and Margaret Atwood.

This is not a “how to” book on writing.  It’s more a broad survey about what famous writers in North America and Great Britain have thought about the art of writing over the last two hundred years.  The essays vary from simple advice to new writers, to complex analyses of style.   So each reader will find that a different set of essays appeal most to him or her.  There is something here for everyone–no matter where they are in their journey as a writer.

For me on my first reading of the book, Sinclair Lewis’ “How I Wrote A Novel On The Train And Beside The Kitchen Sink” was the one that spoke strongest to me this time.   I am glad I purchased this book so that I can reread this essay at my leisure.    I’ll share a sample, but I encourage reading the entire essay to savor Lewis’ acerbic commentary.

…”I think my present life is intolerably dull, and I do want to write.”

“Very well then, I’ll tell you the trick.  You have to do only one thing: Make black marks on white paper.  That little detail of writing is one that is neglected by almost all the aspirants I meet.”

He–and especially she–is horribly disappointed by my cynicism.  He–and often she–finds nothing interesting in making marks on paper.  What he, she, it, they, and sometimes W and Y, want to do is to sit dreaming purple visions, and have them automatically appear: (1) on a manuscript; (2) on a check from the editor.  So he, and the rest of the pronouns, usually finds the same clever excuse:

“But I simply can’t seem to find the time…”

Mr. Lewis then goes on, in a blunt manner, to demonstrate the inherent weakness of this excuse.  As far as he’s concerned, one needs only 1 hour day of writing, six days a week, to get started as a writer.   And if one can’t get an hour, then seize whatever is available, even if it’s only 15 minutes a day.    For the writer who writes 15 minutes a day, gets far ahead of the wanna-be writer who does zero.