Getting Down to Business

I’m quitting my MFA program.  Though money was partially an issue, in the end it came down to me not enjoying the program and my classes not helping me as a writer.  I think that I’ll be more productive on my own for now.  I have the Online Writing Workshop for my critiquing fix.  So the plan is for me to work on the current novel projects this year and come next year apply to a couple of other MFA programs.  I’m thinking Stone Coast and Seton Hill, since they offer Popular Fiction tracks.

In the good news from all this, however, a girl in my workshop who writes pretty delightful regency romance has agreed to do chapter exchanges with me.  So I’ll be emailing her chapters of Chwedl and she’ll give me chapters of her current novel project.  Editing novels is tough partially because they’re so damn long that getting people to read all of it takes some doing.  It’s been my experience so far with the OWW that novel chapters don’t get as many critiques as short stories, plus there’s often no one to look for continuity errors or flow since people might only read a few chapters and not the whole book.  I’m thrilled that this girl and I will be exchanging chapters.  We’ll both get eyes on the whole of our novels.  Not to mention that I’ve read the first couple chapters of her novel and am totally hooked.  Hopefully she’ll feel the same about mine once she sees the first chapters (she’s pretty brave to want to exchange without seeing the novel first, but she has seen two short stories of mine, so I guess that’s something).

I aim to have Chwedl finished by the beginning of July with an edited version ready by the end of August.  At that point I plan to write up a query letter and start the fun and exciting agent hunting part of the writing life.  I have a short list of agents I want to query and it’s my hope that I’ll maybe get to meet and chat with a few at Worldcon, though I intend to keep that informal.  It would be nice to talk to some of the agents I’m considering, however, so I can get a feel for it this project is right for them.  And of course, I have to find a real title for the book since “Welsh word no one can pronounce” probably isn’t going to fly.

Hmm… “Aine and the Hounds”? Nah. “The Hounds of Clun Cadair”? Too Holmes-ripoff.  Grr. I’m not good with titles.  If only I could bribe Elizabeth Bear into thinking up titles for me, hers always rock.

Bits and Thoughts

I’ve been catching up on my issues of Analog and Weird Tales.  Often times I find Analog stories to be too technical for me to engage and Weird Tales stories too ‘horror’.  I prefer stories that focus on character first and everything else second (yes, I’ll even forgive a lack of coherent plot if the character issues drag me in enough).

However, I found two stories so far that are made of so much awesome I have to share how much I loved them.

The first is a short piece in Weird Tales Nov/Dec 2008 titled “How to Play with Dolls” by Matthew Cheney.  I assume looking at the length that this is flash fiction, which is a very hard length to do well in any genre.  Cheney pulls it off beautifully.  The story is engaging and haunting and full of just enough weirdness.  The images are perfect and there’s the right balance of telling and emotion.  He handles the underlying issues of the little girl in a way that isn’t overdone and the ending is strong, poignant even.  Find it, read it.  It’s flash at its best, in my opinion.

The story in Analog that caught my attention is in the June 2009 issue.  “Attack of the Grub-Eaters” by Richard A. Lovett has a somewhat unfortunate title in that I read the title and winced.  I had no idea what to expect.  Then I saw the format of the story, which is in forum posts and winced more.  When reading short stories, however, I always give a story at least two pages to keep me reading.  It took less than that for me to be hooked in this story.  By page three I actually stopped, went and got my husband, and started over reading it to him again (that was before I even got to some of the more awesome parts of the tale too).  The framing of this story is totally unconventional, but it works.  Hell, it better than works, I think it allows for the author to build tension and utilize dialogs in ways that a normal story structure wouldn’t.  In parts it’s laugh out loud funny, in others I was reading the way I’d read a particularly juicy flame-war; that edge of the metaphorical seat “oh god what’s going to happen next…” sort of car-crash-can’t-look-away sensation.  And thinking about it now, I guess “Home and Garden Saves Iowa” wouldn’t have been a great title either, though perhaps more apt.  Screw the title.  The story hardly needs it.  I’m going to give this copy of Analog to my dad I think, since his mole killing competitions with our neighbors are the stuff of (small town) legend.  Again, find the story and read it.  I can’t gush enough.

All right, setting gooey fangirlness aside now, back to writing related stuff.

I posted a story in the JBU slush.  I’ve lurked on that site a while, sometimes out of schadenfreude but mostly out of genuine curiosity about the way they do things since JBU is unconventional in many ways.  I’d never posted a story for consideration for two reasons.

One, JBU likes optimistic and often lighter work.  I don’t really write optimistic stuff.  My stories are often about people trying to deal with bad things that don’t necessarily have a rosy resolution or explanation.   After I wrote the story that became The Spacer’s Blade, I thought “hey, maybe this would work for them”.  I didn’t post the story immediately after I wrote it, however, for reasons that lead me to reason number 2 of why I’ve never posted there.

JBU slush has some of the most blunt and to the quick critiquers of anywhere I’ve ever seen.  In some ways it’s refreshing to not have to wade through a bunch of accolades that essentially mean nothing in terms of how to improve one’s writing.  In other ways, I don’t know why anyone would put themselves through that process without first getting the story as far as they could on their own.  Before this, I didn’t feel I had a story that was nearly up to snuff yet for that kind of criticism.  I didn’t want to waste my and other people’s time with typos, loose sentence work, and other easily fixed but sloppy writing mistakes.  (Caveat, this does by no means imply that I catch all that stuff in my various drafts.  Errors sneak right past me all the time.  I just try to make sure they have to roll a nat 20 to do it).

The story I posted is the fourth draft.  It’s been through the sff online writing workshop and critiqued by four pros at Norwescon.  And it still got mixed review at JBU.  I’ve rewritten the beginning paragraphs for the third time now based on what I’ve been told.  I’ve had two readers go over it and the third will get to it this weekend before I post the revision in the Slush.  So what is technically version 2 for the slush and version 5 for my records will, in fact, have gone through three revisions post the revision I did based on comments before the JBU sees it again.  I do this partly because I really want to be a professional writer, but also because once again, I don’t want to waste time with simple mistakes.  I want to know what the readers think of the STORY, not get bogged down in the sentence level stuff.

That said, I’m not taking all commented advice.  I can’t.  It’s one of the things I’ve learned about the dangers of workshopping.  Not everyone is going to like everything.  A writer has to parse what advice will improve the story and what might improve it but turn it away from the original vision in the writer’s head.  I know the story I’m trying to tell with The Spacer’s Blade.  If in the end I work out the things that people point out that I agree are keeping it from being that vision (because, hey, it’s not there yet- I’m pretty hard on myself as a writer too) and the barflies still don’t think it’s what they want, that’s ok.  Maybe it isn’t a fit for JBU.  I think it could be, but I’m going to try to walk the fine line between what people want to read and the kinds of stories I want to tell.

And in the end, no matter how much I want to be published, if I’m not writing the stories that I want to tell, well, I’ve failed even so.  I don’t think it’s an either/or.  With enough work and practice and some more work, I think I can find that balance, that happy zone where what I’m writing is transmitting to the reader exactly the kind of pleasure that I get when I read awesome things (see above gushing, for example).

Now, back to editing something else.

A Bit More About Process

I’m not a seat of the pants kind of writer, even when it comes to short stories.  Now, mind you, I don’t outline for short stories (though I might jot down notes or lines that come to me).  I definitely know where something is going when I sit down to write it.  I do change my mind and write something else to make things make more sense when I have to.  I imagine, however, that anyone watching my short story writing process would think I’m doing it on the fly.

This is because I write short stories in one or two sittings and hardly ever have notes (I usually do research as it comes up, thank you Google).

My short stories don’t start on the page.  They start in my head and sometimes have a very long gestation period.  Novels are the same way, though I tend to write up more notes when thinking about novels due to the sheer amount of stuff going on in my head when it comes to bigger projects.

First, there’s the spark.  Whatever set off my mind with a “hey, this could be a good story”.  From the spark I start to think about what it needs to fill it out, to bring it from cool character/idea/image/line of dialog etc… into being a full story/populated world.  From there I decide if the idea is going to need a novel length to fill it out (ignoring here, for the moment, that one of the most common coments I get on my short stories is “hey, this would make an awesome novel” sigh) or if I can turn it into something shorter.  Frankly, I prefer short stories because I like to just sit down and finish things.  Also, rewriting fifteen pages is far easier than rewriting 300.

But my point is that I spend a great deal of time thinking about everything before it ever sees the page.  I run through potential scenes, characters, what would or would not work in the particular world I’m inventing and why, and other useful questions like that.  I sometimes even start composing in my head and run through different POVs and tenses to feel where I want to start a story.

And then there are the times that I call my version of Writer’s Block.  I never run out of ideas, ever.  However, I occasionally get stalled out because my brain won’t stop with the thinking and focus on something long enough for me to just write something.  It’s why I haven’t been sleeping lately, and why I’ve done nothing but revise things for a few weeks now.  Too many bloody ideas.

So I’m going to have to force-march my brain for now, I think.  No starting or thinking about anything new before I’ve finished the following:

Sparks (fantasy short story), Prince Called Courage (fantasy novella), final edit of Monsters (fantasy short story), two thesis short stories (prewriting for my thesis novel), Chwedl draft (fantasy novel) and the rewrite of Casimir Hypogean (science fiction thriller novel).  The ambitious part of me says I can totally do this by September.  Suuure.

I’m going to do the short stories first, mainly becaues that means I’ll have eight or nine short stories out making the submission rounds while I hunker down to finish the novels.  I want to be done with this all by September since starting my thesis novel early wouldn’t be a bad idea.  Fortunately, ideas are imploding my brains but good when it comes to that novel, so at least it won’t be stalled due to lack of my head working on it.  Which is different from Casimir Hypogean, the bane of my existence.  I’m going to look at it as a learning experience and force myself to finish the rewrite.  If I never touch it again after that, so be it, but I’ve come too far to give up now.  It’ll take about 6-7 weeks of hard work to complete at this point.  I can do it.