Tag Archives: Craft of writing

The Passage into Autumn

Autumn has finally returned here in the Southwest, and we can feel the passing of summer into winter. The harvest and roasting of green chile is almost over, and the leaves have begun to brown along their edges on the trees.

If all goes well, there will be one more burst of blooms from the trimmed rose bushes, and then they’ll go to sleep for the winter.

Some of you already know that the print edition of Cubicles, Blood, and Magic is a finalist in Science Fiction & Fantasy for the 2015 New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards. (The lists are a great way to find authors and publishers located in the Southwest to take a closer look at.)

I’ve been offline almost completely these past two months as I wrestle with the last 1/3 of the sequel novel to Cubicles, Blood, and Magic. What makes it so awkward is that I feel as if I’m collaborating with an earlier version of myself. The novel was started and the first draft finished back in 2013, then got derailed in the editing process due to severe illness and other difficulties.

Health-wise I am finally whole again. So things should get moving rather quickly as autumn passes into winter. I’m excited by what is to come.

I am not the same writer I was back in 2013. I’ve changed. A lot. So most of the sequel got rewritten this year from the ground up … but stays true enough to the 2013 version to not be a complete break from the past.

Book three in the Dorelai Chronicles will be where I can start with a clean slate from the first page.

So now, as the seasons pass from one extreme to another, is a good moment to pause, look around, and enjoy the change in the flowers, grass, and trees. Some parts of the world are waking up, and some are going to sleep. Whichever way it is, may it be wondrous to watch.

Pleasant days, Lynn

P.S. The short story in the Dorelai Chronicles universe,  A Maze of Cubicles, is still available to download for free from various e-bookstores. You can click here to find a partial list of stores. (Please note you may have to notify the Amazon store that it needs to be set back to free. It tends to randomly go off of free.)

The Madness of Perfectionism

I hate making mistakes, no matter how small. Hate, hate, hate it. I’m one of those perfectionists that psychologists like to lecture about. And I know I’m not alone in the world–there’s a whole lot of perfectionists I know.

Being a perfectionist is a pain in the butt when it’s out of control, because it means one can get stuck in a rut of endless actions done over and over and over, or else one quits too soon. It’s an “all or nothing” mindset.

It’s a good thing babies don’t have this trait. Can you imagine a baby deciding after his first babble: “Hey, that didn’t make sense at all. I must have no ability for talking. I might as well quit now and stay silent.”

And yet I’ve seen people quit endeavors after one or two tries because they weren’t perfect at it. Perfectionism, when allowed to reign out of control, can shackle us in mental chains. We give up too soon. Or don’t even try at all, telling ourselves, “There’s no point, I’d screw it up anyway.”

As a perfectionist who loves to write, there are days when I wonder if I’m just a glutton for self-punishment by doing fiction writing on a daily basis. There are so many balls that need to be kept in the air during the writer’s juggle: plot, characterization, setting, narration style, word choices, grammar, structure, etc….no matter how a writer tries, there’s going to be mistakes.

For instance, I just got back today a corrected novel manuscript from the copy editor, and discovered that I’d accidentally left out a few bits of information about one of the villains that readers needed to know.  As the writer I can see into all the character’s heads at the same time, but the reader can only see into the characters by the words that were written on the manuscript page.  That’s why writers have first readers go over a manuscript–no matter how hard we try, we will not fill in all of the “lost” information the reader needs.

Still drives me bonkers when I forget to write something down for readers. I’m a perfectionist. I want to get it right the first time.

I’ve had to learn to accept that mistakes are going to happen. I still get upset, but at least I no longer quit or cycle endlessly in revisions. I find it helps to remind myself about my years in QA in the software industry, and how there was a point in the software release cycle where there were diminishing returns on the investment of time in revisions. There comes a point where a manuscript–or a piece of software–begins to fall apart the more you mess with it.

I’ve always like the advice one old pro gave me, which was, “Once you find yourself changing something in the manuscript, then changing it back to how it was before, it’s time to stop revising and send it off.”

There are days I’m sorely tempted to take the current urban fantasy manuscript that is being edited and hide it so that it’ll never see the light of day, even though it’s been read by an editor, several fellow writers, a careful first reader, and a copy editor at this point. My perfectionism flaring up.

I have to keep reminding myself that there comes a point that a piece of work needs to be released into the world to fend its way on its own.

Also, if I’m continually redoing old work to death, new work won’t get done, ala George Lucas and his endless revisions of the Star Wars films. Lucas is going to end up the patron saint of perfectionism at this rate. 😛

So when perfectionism rears its ugly head, remember Saint George…

The Power of Kickstarter and Other Links

I’ve been swamped with writing and editing work, so that’s why I’ve been so quiet here on the blog for a bit. But there’s some links I want to share before I forget.

Everyone has probably heard all about Kickstarter (the funding platform for creative projects), but if you haven’t, go and check them out! Kickstarter is proving to be a great way for professional artists to get the start-up funds they need and for people to support favorite artists and web shows. For example:

A writer friend of mine, Annie Bellet, was able to successfully use Kickstarter to help fund her tuition to Clarion this past summer.

The web show Put This On just successfully raised over $70,000 to film Season Two.

Travis Hanson, a fantasy/comics illustrator I got to meet briefly at Albuquerque Comic Con, has successfully raised the funds he needs to print his web comic in book format.

Money has always been an issue for artists, especially filmmakers and illustrators, so the rise of crowd-sourcing such as Kickstarter excites me to no end.

In other news, Dean Wesley Smith has an important technology blog post on how writers, publishers, and booksellers can use Book Cards to market an e-book cheaply and attract readers into independent bookstores to buy e-books for their e-readers. WMG Publishing and Lucky Bat Books were passing out the first ever e-book cards at Worldcon to show off this brand new marketing idea.

And 20+ year pro Bob Mayer has some blunt, quick advice on how to be a fiction writer that has a career that lasts for decades.

Every Renown Writer Starts Out a Beginner

Every renown writer you love to read started out as a beginner.

This is so obvious, and yet it gets forgotten so easily since it’s the masterpieces that get remembered when we talk about our favorite dead writers…not the unpublished works and the weak stuff published early on (unless you’re an English major doing research or an obsessive fan).

Very often, people who are not artists or just starting out have this mental gap in their heads about the journey that an artist takes from beginner to master:

beginner———– > luck  ————> master

Mastery and success are attributed to luck.

Well, there’s a middle phase that gets left out:

beginner ——-> apprentice ——> journeyman —> (95% hard work, 5% luck) ——-> master

The apprentice phase for writers is equivalent to the law school phase for someone who wants to be a lawyer. This is the phase where a writer often has to get on a plane to study with a particular writing teacher or to attend a national-level writing workshop. In old novels or movies, this was the point where the young artist packed up to move to an international hub for artists like Paris or New York City or London.

And then there’s the journeyman phase, where the writer has started to sell his or her stories, but there’s still so much to learn. This phase lasts for years to decades, or even a lifetime if the writer decides to stop learning and coast.

As for mastery, it doesn’t spontaneously happen. Don’t ask me why, but people  seem to have a natural tendency to ignore the middle phase when they talk about a particular famous dead writer or fantasize aloud about how easy it would be to write a bestselling novel if they just had the time.

And yet it’s the hard work in journeyman phase that will make or break a writer in becoming a master of the craft.

I think one of the most valuable lessons a writer can do once past the beginner stage is to choose a couple of favorite writers (both living and dead) and read their early works.

So, for example, if you were a huge fan of Charlotte Bronte as a writer, you’d dig up a research book that had her unpublished first writings and probably also a copy of her first novel, The Professor.

Or how about William Shakespeare? Go read his earliest plays (researchers still fight about which play he wrote first, so I’d advise reading several). Then think about how we’d see him now if he’d stopped after those early plays and had never written anything more.

But make sure to also include some favorite recent writers who wrote over a long time frame, twenty years or more.  For example, I went out and bought collections of the early published short stories of three recent writers whose later works I loved to read:  John D. MacDonald’s More Good Stuff, Stephen King’s Night Shift, and James Lee Burke’s The Convict & Other Stories.

This turned out to be an eye-opening exercise for me as I read the unpublished  early works of old greats (such as Jane Austen) and early short stories of favorite present day NYT bestsellers.

Their early works weren’t as well-written as their later works were. They’d gotten better at their craft over time. Big shocker, right?

Of course not.

But I’ve noticed a lot of my fellow Americans like to see their artists as the equivalent of Athena jumping fully formed out of the skull of Zeus. The arts are supposed to be “easy.” You have either “got it” as an artist or you don’t. No hard work, no sweat, no tears, no frustration, no years of dedicated study–as if somehow the arts are different from every other human endeavor.

So reading the early works of these various writers impressed upon me, at a deep gut level, how craft gets better over time as one works at it. Hmm, let me put it bluntly. A few of the early works “sucked.” A few seemed like they showed “no talent.” And yet these writers persevered and became masters of their craft. It would have been a terrible thing if any of these writers had quit during the early days due to a mistaken idea that it was impossible to improve in writing skill.

Every writer starts out a beginner. Where we go from there is up to us.

Writing the Unmarketable Novel

Almost two years ago I finished a YA novel, Soul Cages, that I knew in my heart of hearts was going to be a nightmare for an editor to get past the sales & marketing department of a traditional publisher.

That’s because in my gut I knew it was going to be difficult to get any readers to even want to pick it up. I knew the book was in trouble sales-wise as soon as my usual first reader burst into tears while reading the synopsis, and then refused to read the manuscript. I had to get other readers to take over for that book. Most ended up loving the story, but I never forgot the response of that first reader.

Seeing your first reader cry in sorrow really sucks.

Let’s face it. Most of the time, readers are coming to a story to mentally relax for a while. They’re coming for entertainment. I’d written a story that was a weird horror/romance/special issues tribute to Judy Blume, C. S. Lewis, and Stephen King in one go. It dealt with ugly nasty stuff like family abuse, the way kids with Asperger’s sometimes get treated badly, the abuse of Scripture in the Bible to justify cruelty, and anti-Semitism…among other things.

None of that stuff is appealing for entertainment. Ugh, who wants to read all  that after a bad day?

The novel went through several rounds of editing, but there comes a point when you realize as a writer that you can only make a weird “Frankenstein” novel  marketable by censoring your protagonist and mutilating the story by chopping it up. Chop out the romance, or chop out the horror, or chop out the Asperger’s.

In the end I decided to leave the main character alone. It was her story, not mine, and I decided to let her story stand as she’d told it to me, and I went on to write new stories.

And it was the best decision I ever made. I’ve written another novel and many  short stories since I put Soul Cages to rest, and a lot of exciting things have been happening behind the scenes these last six months. Things that would not have happened if I had attempted to keep rewriting Soul Cages to death.

Soul Cages itself has been released in e-book form, and it is still under consideration with a certain midsize traditional publishing house (though I suspect in the end the editor will fail in getting it past marketing).

I’ve done no email blasts, no blog tours, no ads, no book launch party, no “push” of any sort. And I don’t intend to. My limited work time is better spent writing new stories to improve my craft, and some of those new stories will prove to be more marketable–i.e. more appealing to readers–than Soul Cages is.

But am I sorry that I wrote Soul Cages? Do I feel I wasted my time by working on an unmarketable novel?

No.

I think it’s good for an artist to write at least one story where it feels like you’re spitting in the eye of the market. Writing that unmarketable novel made me a better writer by making me a gutsier writer, and I think I’ll be reaping the benefits for decades to come.