Now Then, Where Was I?

Not a lot of blog posting lately, though (as usual when I go silent on here) that doesn’t mean life came to a complete halt. So what have I been up to?

Since before Thanksgiving I’ve been sick off and on. Mostly on. I rarely get sick, so this was pretty frustrating. Every little hint of recovery was followed by another setback. Ended up going to the doctor twice, and trying four different prescriptions and a shopping basket full of over-the-counter meds. Mostly better now, but I’m definitely not going to rush back to full activity. Still taking it easy as far as exercise, and making sure to sleep every night.

Been writing pretty steadily. For every early morning session I’ve missed (making sure to get enough sleep), I’ve managed to add an evening session (skipping my workout), and continued my most important Sunday writing marathons. I spent much of the last month or so crafting something to order for a themed, invitation-only anthology. Now, getting an invitation doesn’t mean your story definitely gets accepted, and I know there are plenty of other really strong writers who were also invited to submit. So I’m keeping my fingers crossed on that one. The good news is that I was able to create one of my best stories ever, and learned a lot from the process, both writing “to order” and following specific notes and suggestions from the editor.

Aside from that, I have at least two stories “short listed” in submission. Being short listed can mean just about anything, from “Your story is among six from which we’ll choose five to publish,” to “Our slush readers forwarded us 25 stories this month, from which we’ll choose three.” In other words, sometimes being short listed means your odds are really high, and other times it means they’re better than they were when you first submitted, but still not a sure thing. I’ve been short listed many times before and ended up rejected (or seen the magazine fold before they published any of the stories they were choosing from), so I’m hopeful, but not getting carried away. The best news is that this seems to be happening more and more often. A much higher percentage of my stories is making is past the slush pile and into the hands of the top editors.

It’s also fun to check out Duotrope’s listings for the markets where you’ve submitted, and see where they are in terms of dealing with their slush pile. If a magazine has had a story of mine for 30 days, and you can see on Duotrope that the same magazine is rejecting a bunch of stories they’ve only had for 10 or 15 or 20 days, then you can guess that they’ve seen your story (since they generally read things oldest to newest) and that this is roughly equivalent to making it past the slush reader. Some magazines never tell you “our slush readers are recommending your story to the top editor” or “you’ve been shortlisted,” but you can sort of figure it out by reading the tea leaves on Duotrope. If you’re a writer submitting stories to open markets, and you’re not checking out Duotrope.com, you really should be.

Last writing news is that I’m trying to put together another story for a different themed anthology, but this one’s open, not invitation. It’ll be tough to get something done on time (the deadline’s not too far off) but I’m still working on it.

Other than that, I’ve been reading an awful lot, but two of my recent books have been over 1,000 pages each so a lot of pages read doesn’t translate to a lot of books read. I’ll start posting reviews again soon. I’m really looking forward to taking on a few 200-300 pages books!

Typing and Writing

I write differently with pen and paper than I do with a computer. Maybe because I write more slowly than I type, or maybe because the visual feedback is different, or the tactile experience. Whatever the reason, there’s a clear difference in my output.

Even more pronounced than this, though, is the difference between how I edit using a pen, compared to how I edit on the computer. It’s almost as if a different part of my brain engages.

Lately I’m trying to get a handle on how to take advantage of these variances for different effects. Recently I work with pen and paper more and more. I still love Scrivener, and consider it my most important tool, but I’m shifting my stories in and out of Scrivener. To my mind it’s similar to an artist stepping back from a painting to get a look at it from too far away to actually work on it. When I’ve come to some kind of better understanding about the what’s different about my writing or editing processes when I write by hand rather than when I type on a computer, I’ll post about it again.

I’ve seen other writers who say they always do first drafts by hand and then type them in, or they always re-type every new draft from a new, scratch document (rather than editing into an existing document). I’m going to go back and forth for a while and think about hos the process is affecting what I’m doing.

A List of Places To Which I Submit Fiction

A List of Places To Which I Submit Fiction For Publication (in no particular order)

Cool, Interesting Up-and-Coming Online Periodicals Who Tell Me They Loved My Story and It Was Right In the Mix Until the Final Cut.

Stodgy, Old-But-Still-Popular Magazines That Generally Only Seem To Publish the Work of Winners of Multiple Hugo or Nebula or World Fantasy Awards.

Seemingly Energetic New-ish Webzines Who Suddenly Shut Down While My Story Is Under Consideration.

Periodicals of Diverse Characteristics Where The Editor, Who Had My Story on Their Short List, Abruptly Resigned or Was Fired.

Internet-Based Publications So Utterly Obscure Nobody Would Likely Read My Story Even If They Chose to Publish It.

Electric Spec, Which Gave Me My First Publication: “Remodel With Swan Parts.” (Thanks for that!)

Many Other Places Who Of Course Just Go About Their Publishing Business in Quiet, Routine and Dignified Ways Not Subject to Japery or Ridicule in This Blog Entry.

Note:

I’m not one of those writers who likes to bitch about editors, or to focus to much on how hard it is to get published — I’d rather put my energy into making my stories as kick-ass as possible — but I’m giving myself these few minutes to reflect on the absurdity and seeming futility of this endeavor.

The Techie and the Fountain Pen

I love my computers, and my fancy “cloud computing” magic. I love Scrivener, especially. Love my iPad too.

But I’m trying something different. First drafts created with a fountain pen, longhand, on good paper. This is how I used to always do it, up until a year or so ago. It’s just so fast and convenient to draft right in Scrivener. But maybe fast and convenient aren’t best, at least not right now.

Scribbled handwriting, and ink on my fingertips. The words feel different this way.

How I Work, 2010 Edition

In my last post I mentioned I’ve been working harder than ever on writing fiction.

When I first picked up writing again last year, I really only dabbled a few hours occasionally on the weekend. Then late in 2009 I got more serious, and added one or two more weeknight sessions, maybe an hour or two after work.

This summer I stepped it up. I now get up at 5:30 every morning, which gives me almost 90 minutes to write, five days a week, before I have to get ready for work. Three or four times a week, after work and exercise, I might squeeze in another hour. On the weekend I write all day Sunday (8-12 hours), and often an hour or two on Saturday.

This may not be “full time” but it’s a huge improvement over what I was doing just six months ago, and it means much of my time not spent at work, or commuting, exercising or eating, is spent writing.

I’ve often seen established writers offer the straightforward advice, “write more,” and I really believe that’s the best prescription. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not only spending more hours per week, but also making the sessions more frequent and consistent, that makes the difference. When I was writing a couple times per week, every time I sat down I had to re-acquaint myself with where I left off. Now, the moment I sit down at the computer I know exactly what I want to work on, and where I stand with regard to that piece. For this reason, if I had the choice between two hour writing sessions six times a week, or a single twelve-hour marathon, I’d choose the near-daily consistency.

Because of this effect, I’m now writing many more hours per week, and each hour is more productive now than before. Effectively I feel I’m accomplishing ten times as much per week as I did a year ago. It’s exciting to finish new stories at an increased rate, and feel I’ve been able to give them all the care and attention they needed.

Semi-Serious Comment on Punctuation

Kottke recently linked to a video of Kurt Vonnegut, the great writer-character, and he talked about the semicolon. I love this quote:

“Don’t use semicolons. They stand for absolutely nothing. They are transvestite hermaphrodites. They are just a way of showing off. To show that you have been to college.”

The semicolon has drifted out of contemporary usage, and I feel generally where a semicolon is used, a period or a comma might work better. I find the semicolon has an archaic feel, and those writers for whom the semicolon works well tend to be dead and buried, or else taking on an intentionally ornate, old-fashioned, or throwback style.

Elmore Leonard is handy with them, and uses them a lot, but the guy was writing and publishing novels before my parents were born.

Stephen King uses a ton of semicolons, but he also does a lot of nonstandard technical stuff. He’s a big-time Elmore Leonard worshipper.

I’ll give the writer the benefit of the doubt with semicolons if their voice is strong and their prose is unusual. I’m halfway through Laird Barron’s collection Occultation (fantastic work, review forthcoming) and he’s got a slew of ’em in there. His writing also includes all manner of unorthodox technical stuff, though — dialog set off not by opening and closing quotes but by an emdash at the beginning, or short paragraphs containing dialog by multiple, different speakers.

Generally I’d say the semicolon bothers me less when the writer shows a confident, slightly experimental, maybe even baroque approach to stringing words together. In the middle of plain vanilla prose, however, the semicolon stands out in just the way Vonnegut describes. Beginning writers, stick with the comma and the period. It’s easy enough to remember what those guys do, roughly corresponding to the yellow and the red traffic lights, respectively.

Methods and Tools

In my years of fiction writing I’ve tried many different methods for coming up words and making a record of them, everything from writing in pencil on legal pads, to writing with a fountain pen on plain white paper, to some old Atari ST word processor, to Wordperfect for DOS, to Word for Windows, then Word for Mac, WriteRoom and assorted other minimal text editors, and finally Scrivener.

I’m actually quite happy working in Scrivener, which is an integrated outlining, organizing, composing and editing application for Mac OSX, in case you haven’t heard of it. Find out more here, at the Scrivener page on the Literature and Latte developer page. But even though I feel as comfortable with Scrivener as with anything else I’ve ever used, I’ve been toying with the idea of trying to dictate some first drafts sections as a way of capturing a different sort of voice (in the writing voice sense, not the spoken voice).

This made me think about all the different possibilities for writing methods and tools, and I decided to undertake a sort of game or experiment. I have several short story ideas pending, ready to draft fairly soon, and ordinarily I’d draft a new one approximately every month, which is about the rate I finalize stories and send them out. I decided I’m going to try to draft one new story per week this month, using a different method and different tools for each.

The four plans are:

1. longhand on plain paper, working from a normal (for me) moderately-developed outline and basic character sketches

2. voice dictation only, working from an extra-detailed outline — more of a move-by-move synopsis, halfway to story form really

3. draft in Writeroom, a distraction free text editor, in case you didn’t know — web site here — using a normal outline and character plan

4. create a story using my usual workflow in Scrivener, using corkboard planning layout, outlining, character notes, and drafting each scene in a separate file

Saturday I began round one and started drafting using a regular old pen and clipboard and paper, just like the old times. Everything went very well at first, when I was full of energy and knew exactly where I was going. I wrote about 2500 words in just a few hours, which is pretty good for me.

I encountered a problem when I began to doubt my outline, and wanted to take the story in a slightly different direction. For some reason, faced with nothing but blank pages ahead of me, I had an unusual sense of uncertainty about forging off in a new direction. It was difficult to sort back through the handwritten scribbles on a dozen or so sheets of paper, enough to get a good sense that I was really correct about my intuition. In other words, I began to doubt myself, to freeze up and have a difficult time figuring out which road to take. It’s possible this reflects a weakness in my outline or the story concept, but I don’t think so. I think the truth is that the breezy confidence I usually feel when I’m laying out a first draft depends to a large degree on the markers I’ve layed out for myself, not only showing the way ahead but also letting me figure out, at a quick backward glance where I’ve just come from.

So, I’m about 2/3 of the way through this story after a few hours work on Saturday and another frustrating hour’s stab at it on Sunday and again this morning, and I’ve already decided round one has taught me all I need to know. I typed in my fifteen longhand pages earlier, and as soon as I finish this blog post, I’m going to create a new Scrivener document and finish this story in there.

When that’s through, I’ll continue with rounds two, three and four, but at this point what I’ve learned is that writing longhand makes me feel adrift, and lost without any point of reference. It’s weird, because I’ve written thousands of pages of first draft that way in my twenties, but that’s where I am now. I’ll retreat to Scrivener, break this baby into scene bits and re-assess whether one bit of bad news happens to character A mid-way, or at the very beginning, and that will determine how character A and character B treat each other up to that point.

Fun stuff, actually. I’ll report back later one once I’ve had a chance to try some other tricks.

How many balls should I keep in the air?

Those of you casually perusing this blog might say “This fella here looks like one of them wannabe writers, who talks a lot about how he wishes he could write some day, but doesn’t actually commit any words to paper.”

I’ve known people like that, more in love with the idea of writing than with the act itself, but I’m not one of them. I don’t write every single day, but I’m pretty productive. No, the reason I haven’t said much about my own fiction yet is a bit of self-consciousness about talking my own ideas and process. Having asked myself “What’s up with that, anyway?” I’ve come to the conclusion it’s mainly due to being unpublished at this point, so I feel more qualified spouting off about science fiction books and writers, since every reader feels qualified to be a critic. I figure, though, if I have enough nerve to send my work to professional editors to consider for their periodicals (a threshold I’ve crossed), I can certainly put myself far enough out on the limb to talk about some of my own creative philosophies and mechanisms.

Rather than starting with something I feel confident about, though, I’ll begin with a question to which I don’t really know the answer. One thing I feel unsure of, and I go back and forth on this question, is this: How many stories should I be working on at any given time?

Over the past dozen years I’ve recorded a lot of ambient electronic music. That’s not what this blog is about, but it’ll come up here sometimes because it’s an important part of my life. I mention it because in all those years, having released a handful of solo albums and another handful of collaborative ones, I’ve almost never tried to work on more than one thing at once. Finish the Griffin solo album, start the Viridian Sun duo album, start the second Griffin album, set it aside entirely and make the second Viridian Sun album, and so on. The process was to start a project and either finish it or set it aside completely before starting another. I never thought about this way of working, but it made sense to me and it seemed to work.

With my writing, I’ve always worked on more than one thing at once, sometimes juggling a really large number of projects and ideas. Last month I counted twelve short stories in progress and another thirty plotted, outlined or otherwise planned (but not yet started). When I have an idea for a story I slowly add little things to the mix during the planning stage, starting from a scribbled sentence or two that could barely be called an idea, into the seed of a story, fleshing it out into a full-fledged anecdote or scene, finally combining elements of plot and character, conflict and drama, until I have something ready to be written into a story. Often I stumble upon elements that fit well only very gradually, and I feel like my best stories have benefitted from being “in progress” for long enough for this to unfold.

Recently I felt overwhelmed by the many long-pending stories hanging over me, and resolved not to start anything new until I could shorten the queue down to just a few. Though I’m not yet entirely sure I need to change what I’m doing, I’m considering this an experiment.

MANY items working at once gives me the benefit of allowing each idea longer to mature, gather a sort of richness or complexity. The drawback is, certain stories get lost in a swirl of too much going on. When I have a dozen stories working, and I’m not able to write every single day, sometimes I’m away from a given story for long enough that it becomes too unfamiliar and I have to reacquaint myself with important details before I can begin working again.

FEWER items working would help me see clearly all the balls I’m trying to keep in the air, and ensure I can give time to each of them every week without spending too long away. The flipside to this, though, is that I can’t take much time away from an idea that seems like it would benefit from being shifted to the back burner for a few weeks, because I won’t have enough other stuff to work on instead.

I’ve been on roll lately, finalizing stories and sending them out, and January’s dozen or so pending stories may be reduced by half before the end of March. This is gratifying because the more stories I have completely finished and off my plate, the more I feel like a “real” science fiction writer and not just this confused guy who’s starting to dabble in a new genre. Also I feel the stories show rapid improvement, which makes me hopeful about getting something published soon, if not with one of the stories already finished and submitted, then with something I’ll finish soon.

In Stephen King’s wonderful book On Writing (and no matter what you think of King’s own work, this really is a useful book on writing that any fiction writer should own no matter what style they’re working in) he suggests an approach not too different from my own, involving sticking a first draft in a drawer for several weeks until it can be seen more objectively, and working on other things in the mean time.

If my focus were on novels this wouldn’t even be a question, as novelists usually just hammer away on their one novel at a time, or at most take a little break to work on a short story before getting back to it. Nobody’s juggling a dozen novels in various stages of completion. I’m curious how other writers focused on short fiction do this. I suppose I’ll just try narrowing it down a bit this spring, and see if that’s better or not. If it doesn’t feel right, I could always just start a few new stories… toss a few more balls up in the air and try to keep them up.

Science Fiction Academy

I haven’t posted here in several months, nearly half a year. It’s not from a lack of interest in what I started writing about here (recent reading and writing for the most part), rather from a desire to focus more on actually doing those things, and worry less about blogging on the subjects, for now.

I’ve been reading a ton — fiction, nonfiction, magazines — and listening to a lot of audiobooks as usual (the old commute), and working very hard on writing fiction. As I blogged earlier, I’ve gone through earlier stretches of intense focus on fiction writing in my life, but since I got started working on electronic music and my Hypnos record label, that had been completely set aside until just over a year ago.

Partly this grew out of the joy of discovering some great new science fiction writers, and also rediscovering some of the books I loved earlier in my life. Partly also, it’s been a response to a nagging sense I’ve had for a long time that sooner or later, I would start writing fiction again. I didn’t want to get back to doing it the way I did in my twenties, with a focus on “straight” literary fiction with a slightly experimental or surreal angle. This, I realized later, was my way of trying to have my cake and eat it too — enable myself to write about “weird” concepts and yet occupy the same accepted and respected literary mainstream of my big heroes like Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

Coming back to things after a long break, I realized it was important to me to work on the kind of stuff I enjoy reading and watching. My favorite books and films, and the writers and filmmakers I most idolized, occupied a more “fantastic” corner of storytelling. This could include science fiction, fantasy, horror, and even surrealism or absurdism.

In practice I’ve mostly zeroed-in on science fiction stories, though I’ve dabbled with stuff that could be called urban fantasy or occult/supernatural horror. This feels right to me, and I’ve come up with some stories that I love and feel enthusiastic about in a way that never happened with my earlier writing efforts, toward which I felt a sort of detached aesthetic regard that might barely be called admiration.

Also I think the stuff I’m writing is pretty good. I feel better about my chances of getting published now than I did before. It doesn’t feel like buying a lottery ticket when I send out a story to a magazine, more like playing a round of solitaire. OK, I might be more likely to lose than to win at this point, but at least I feel like my chances are better than astronomical.

One thing I’m doing, aside from questioning all assumptions as a writers of words and builder of stories, is trying to shore up my fundamental base of understanding the genres I’m interested in, science fiction in particular. I’ve undertaken a sort of self-study course to reexamine some of the works I loved before, and more importantly to check out the many classics I’d never yet read. This sort of self-taught course in SCIFI 101 has been instructive, but not always in the ways I would have expected. There have been books I’ve read and said “Wow, how could I have waited so long to discover this?” and others I’ve read and wanted to stop before the end, thinking to myself, “What the hell is this crap? Who decided this was a classic?”

It’s caused me to think differently about the relative merits of some names that occupy mostly equal levels in the pantheon of big science fiction names. I mean, if you post a request on some public message board for recommendations of what science fiction classics you ought to read, you’ll get a lot of people suggesting the obvious Heinlein and Asimov and Clarke and Bradbury stuff, as well as plenty of Niven and Anthony and Dick and Sagan and Haldeman, and you know what? Some of that stuff stands up really well, and some of it doesn’t. Some of the ideas are really fresh, and some is quite stale. Some of it is very good writing, and some of it is excruciating on a sentence level. Interestingly, some of the guys with the best “big ideas” write some of the worst sentences and most cringe-worthy dialogue, while a guy who’s a better wordsmith might be lacking in the “sense of wonder” department.

As I continue plodding away through my own Science Fiction Academy, I’ve reached a point where I feel like I know only a little, but enough to start asserting opinions, pushing a certain point of view. That’s what I’m going to work on here for a while, a piece-by-piece reporting of what I’ve learned and how I assess some of the major books and big-name writers of the science fiction genre (and other related styles), possibly with occasional diversions into lessons from movies, TV or even art. I’ll tag these entries with Science Fiction Academy, as well as with the relevant names and titles.

I’ll also start to give some more specifics of the stories I’m working on writing.

We want our artists to be crazy

Last week I read an interview with Thomas Ligotti (who, in case you don’t know, if a very interesting, uncompromising and very strange writer of psychological horror fiction. I’d read about Ligotti before, but in the course of reading this interview I realized a very high percentage of the creative people I’ve admired are somewhere between “troubled” and “completely nuts.”

Just look at who else I’ve written about in this short-lived blog… Hemingway (suicidal alcoholic), Fitzgerald (depressive alcoholic), Philip K. Dick (who, let’s just say, has a five paragraph section under the heading “mental health” in his Wikipedia entry), and now Ligotti. For a catalog of Ligotti’s psychological troubles I’ll leave you to read the above-linked article, if you’re interested.

Add to that list some of my other favorite creative inspirations, for example painters –Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo — and a pattern begins to emerge. One begins to wonder, do individuals of the sensitive nature who might excel at creation just naturally have a hard time in life due to that sensitivity? Or is it that unbalanced, obsessive people have more time or energy to focus upon their creative work, and are thus more likely to be productive and to succeed? Or is there something in the inward searching all creative artists must undertake that is somehow troubling or corrosive to one’s happiness in the long term?

I really don’t know the answer to this. It does seem, though, that a quick rundown of my list of favorite poets, artists, composers and so on, yields a rate of incidence of psychological problems greater than what’s seen in the general population.