The 40% Solution

Early drafts can be a real bitch.  Especially if you don’t really have the story straight in your head yet.  Sometimes, I sit up in bed at two in the morning, awakened by the force of the muse dropping an entire story into my head all at once.  In these cases, I run to my computer and make a bunch of notes, guideposts that will help me remember this gift in its entirety.  But most stories don’t come that way.  Most stories grow organically out of a ‘what if’ moment.

The impetus for my novel The Vengeance Season came from this little nugget: What if a guy went back in time to solve his grandfather’s murder and accidentally ended up saving his life?  And what if saving his grandfather’s life changed the future so that time travel had not been invented?  I ended up rewriting all the time travel out of it, but that was how it started and that version got me an agent.

The idea for Murderology was basically, what would happen if a group of sleuths got together to hunt serial killers and the serial killers recognized them as a threat and started hunting them?

Those aren’t fully formed stories.  Those aren’t even ideas.  They’re musings.  When you’re developing a story, be it a short story or a novel, from something as thin as that, you’re on a completely different footing than when you’re writing a story you know all the way through.  The first few drafts of a story based on a whisper of a shadow of an idea are just exploratory exercises to get your brain thinking in the right general directions.

And, inevitably, there comes a moment during a first draft of that sort when you realize you’ve gone the wrong direction on a bad road and the bridge is out ahead.  That’s when you tell yourself to just turn around and start over.  Just abandon the draft and start again.  It sounds logical but it is in fact a mistake.


I’m there at that place right now working on a short story that got away from me and ballooned up to novella size while I wasn’t paying attention.  With two paid short story publications, I don’t have the guano to get a novella published in any magazine that I’m not currently an editor of.  And, truth be told, I’m not sure I would publish this novella.  Why?  It’s not done yet. It’s a first draft of a glimmer of a spark of an idea.

Imagine you’re an editor of a big SF magazine.  You spend half your time reading unsolicited submissions, most of which are truly awful, by unknown or unproven writers and the rest of your time doing 100% of your job.  You’ve set a hard limit on short stories at 8,000 words because space costs money and publishing one novella basically means you can’t publish three stories by other equally deserving authors.  

If someone sends in a novella it had better come with some extraordinary bonafides.  I don’t have those bonafides so I know full well at this very moment that I’m trying to close up the wound on this draft that this version of the story will never see the light of day. So cut bait, right?

Actually, no.  And let me explain why: I’ve been in this position many times before and I’ve always taken the path of least resistance and abandoned the draft to head back to the beginning and start over with a fresh perspective.  That has uniformly proven to be a mistake for two reasons.

First, I will eventually reach the end of a later, successful draft only to find that I have no experience with the finale because I’ve been ejecting early during every previous attempt.  Even if the ending you come up with is inappropriate for the final product, the ideas you play with in that endspace will be important explorations into the nature of your story.  You have to know the paths the protagonist didn’t take just as well as the one he did if you want to know him completely.

Secondly, you don’t know which part of your story sucks until it’s over.  If you stop at 66% and tell yourself it’s a wash and go back to the start, how can you know which part was the wrong part?  Was it the beginning that was messed up?  If so, how do you know the ending was equally bad?  

The novel I’ve been working on here and there for the last five years is now growing backwards.  I have the ending I want because I went all the way through a draft I knew I didn’t want to use.  It turned out that the first 66% of the novel was rubbish but the last third was exactly what I wanted.  Now I’m pulling a John Irving and working from the ending toward the beginning.

I like to think of the bad draft as the 40% solution.  Even as I’m writing it, I know it’s mostly bad.  Let’s say it’s 60% bad.  But that leaves 40% that’s good.  And it may not be a contiguous 40%.  There may be a scene here and some dialogue there that need to be saved but you would never have them if you pulled the big red handle before reaching the end of the draft.

“You wouldn’t have these problems if you worked from an outline,” I hear you saying.  That is you, right?  But the truth is that I have worked from an outline before, several times in fact, but the outline is never the complete realization of the story.  It’s just the frame on which you hang the story.  And, unlike with architecture, you can’t know ahead of time if the frame is right for what you’re about to hang on it.

Obviously, this doesn’t apply to all of those writers out there who do everything in one draft.  They’ve been touched by an angel (or madness) so none of the rules apply to them.  For me, however, toiling away on draft after draft, I’ve found it best to go the distance before starting over.

The Work Behind The Work

I’ve been reading the biographies of SF writers lately. I started with Heinlein, moved on to Vonnegut, and am now reading about Bradbury’s life. I love doing this because it keeps me in the mood to write. I read about these now famous guys going through the same issues I am going through — the struggle to find a voice, the ever upward path of getting your stuff out there, dealing with criticism that is sometimes completely off the mark and sometimes right on the money (which may be worse) — and I think, “Well, they got through it all right.”

One thing that strikes me about the lives of these three foundational members of the SF Authors club is that Heinlein and Vonnegut were both older when they got started. Heinlein was out of the Navy after suffering through a horrific case of tuberculosis (although one might more fairly characterize the treatment as horrific) and Vonnegut was working for Westinghouse as a publicist. On the other hand, Bradbury was an actual kid hanging around these powerhouse writers in LA and trying his own hand unsuccessfully at what they did every day.

I’ve come to believe that while it’s important to write (and read) a lot when you’re young, it’s also important to go get a job and have to get up every morning and work alongside people who aren’t artistic by nature. One of the things that strikes me about the differences between the works of these three men is that Heinlein’s stories are full of hard nosed pragmatists with real jobs, Vonnegut’s stories are societal commentaries that lament the dehumanization of mankind and Bradbury’s stories are largely fantasy.

That’s not a bad thing — or even a criticism — because many of Bradbury’s stories are pure works of art, but it makes me wonder if, lacking real world experience, he had to manufacture conflict that takes place in imagined worlds. It also stands to reason that is why he took so long to break through.

This is the reason so many novels have writers as their protagonist. That’s the only experience the author has and it speaks of a particularly shallow dip in the wellspring of human experience.

It would really be better if you spent a few years swinging a hammer alongside a burly Cajun who thinks what’s wrong with the world mostly has to do with college boys. Or work as teller in a bank for a bunch of buttoned-down, needle-nose pricks who are going straight from college to management. Or sell furniture at one of those places that’s always going out of business. If you want to get in touch with the rawest form of evil, working with commission salesmen is the best way to do it. Or work for the NSA where you’ll get an inside look at what a government agency gone rogue is really like.

Obviously, I mention these because they were things I did during my own in-between time and while the people I met and the insanity that ensued didn’t inspire any novels or stories outright, they did form the basis for the characterization and events I use to fill out those stories.

The only real danger in making a living and indulging in a normal life while practicing on the portable Smith Corona tucked under the bed in your flophouse room-by-the-week is that you might get distracted.

This happened to me when I dipped my toe into the nascent world of UNIX programming just as the tech industry was really taking off. Still, I can’t say it was a bad deal. I traded that writing time for two decades of enough income to get married, buy a house in the suburbs and raise two children. And all the while, I was compiling those character traits and anecdotes and outrageous misadventures to use as fodder for when I got back down to business.

The Greater World of Small Places

I’ve notice something about the short fiction I’m writing:  Trying to tell a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end that is populated by lots of well crafted characters in less than eight thousand words is a losing proposition.  Once you get done cutting on the backside to meet the word count limits imposed by editorial policy, all you have left is the version of the story as it would be recounted by a hyperactive seventh grader.

“He goes into the thing and it’s all, like, boom!  But he’s on the thing, the ship or whatever, and then POW! but the lasers miss and he’s, like, running, and then he gets away.  Oh, and he bangs the hot blonde at the end.”

Now that I think about it, that describes every Bond movie ever made.

This drove me crazy for a little bit because I was really chasing my tail trying to get these big stories cut down to magazine appropriate bite size pieces and then I found some flash fiction I had written about ten years ago and it basically set me free.  

In just 830 words, this piece evoked a world of ruin, a post-apocalyptic wasteland bedraggled by a lack of faith populated by people who cannot die.  I love all four pages of this story not for the plot or the characters but for the world it implies exists just outside its margins.

Short stories, especially in the fantasy and speculative fiction genres, are always going to be more about style than plot.  And that’s kind of funny because novels in both of those genres  are routinely criticized for being too oriented toward events and not enough toward relationships and personalities.

One of the greatest examples of this is the movie Vanishing Point.  On the surface — and this movie is almost all surface — there’s a guy trying to drive a 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in less than 15 hours.  And just based on that business, the movie is a massive success.  But it’s also an anti-war anti-Nam movie.  That’s the greater world it exists in.

And which movie is its most likely logical successor?  Mad Max.  Think about about the larger world implied in that movie.  George Miller doesn’t bother to scroll paragraphs of back story across the screen to tell you why the world is as fucked up as it is.  Or does he?  I actually can’t remember now but even if he did, it was probably the studio who made him do it.  You could get by with the few hints.  

One of the greatest “implied world” movies of all time is Blade Runner.  If you read the Philip K. Dick story (which isn’t very good) you know that Earth has been depopulated because all the quality people have fled for the colonies.  So the world is populated by just the 4F candidates who couldn’t pass the most minimal entrance exam.  You would also understand, though I don’t think it’s ever stated straight out, that the reason everyone left was that the world had been ruined by pollution.  

What with all the mass extinctions of even common animals — due to the aforementioned pollution — actual, biological pets have become rather rare.  So rare that owning them is against the law.  The fact that biological humans cannot legally own biological animals is the genesis of both the title of Dick’s story (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and Deckard’s question about the owl in the movie.  

“Is it real?” Deckard asks. On one level, you have to answer, “Of course, it’s not real.” Because everyone would go to jail if it were.  But Rachel’s response also has to do with the definition of the word “real.”  

They never get into it.   A couple of wise old scientists don’t sit around a futuristic space table and discuss the impact of artificial humans on a dying planet.  All of that is implied.  

So my feeling is that I’ve done a good job if I’m able to tell a story in 8,000 words (or better yet 4,000 or 400) that implies a world that could only be described in 80,000 words.  In other words, if I could write an entire novel to fill out the implications of a short story, I’ve done my job — as long as I’ve entertained the reader and expanded their internal universe a little bit in the process.

What’s It About?

Just a quick check-in to say that I finished my first short story since deciding to devote the near future to that arcane art. Finished proofing it tonight and sent it to my first readers for feedback. This is the fastest I have ever turned around a story. Hopefully, it signals an end to my troubles with the form.

Part of the reason I’ve been so productive lately has to do with reading these biographies of great SF writers. I started with Heinlein, moved onto Vonnegut and am now reading Becoming Ray Bradbury. Something about the struggles even the greats go through (Heinlein living in an Airstream counting out pennies to buy food, Vonnegut’s entire life) reminds me that it’s not supposed to be easy.

But another thing that helps when you listen to writers talk about writing: You remember that your story is supposed to be about something. I’ve been hitting this particular steel drum a lot lately, but it’s almost as important as remembering to put on pants every day.

If someone asks you what your story is about and you respond by telling them the plot, you’ve missed something. Actually, you’ve missed the whole thing. This is why Michael Bay will always be a hack no matter how much money he makes and all the cool directors will laugh at him behind his back. His movies aren’t about anything.

Answering the question, “What’s it about?” has provided me with a lot of “What if” scenarios that all stand a good chance of becoming stories. Because good stories are about characters and their actions in extreme circumstances. For Heinlein, stories were about the way a man lives and dies. For Vonnegut, they were about the tragedy of the human condition. For Bradbury… I don’t know, I haven’t gotten that far in the book yet, but if I pull from memory, I would venture they were about the magic of real life.

Okay, that’s it for now. I’ve got writing to do.

Shakin’ It Here, Boss

I’m doing it. I’m writing an outline. I have to admit that this story has kicked my ass so many times over the past four years, the only thing I can think to do is to fall back, make a new plan, and try a different tack. It works in video games when you come up against a particularly difficult Boss (Hello, Borderlands 2) so it must work in everything else, right? Sure.

The truth is that most of my stories are character based. The plot is rarely broad or convoluted. It’s more like an Airstream trailer the characters travel around in. But I got way ahead of myself when I dived into Black Battalion and didn’t have a plan for the second and third volumes of the trilogy.

I remember reading Dune for the first time as an 8th grader and immediately leaping to our IBM Selectric to begin doing something similar because, let’s face it, you learn by stealing. It wasn’t until I started to think up my own rip-off of Dune at age 12 that I realized what a gigantic, herculean creation that novel was. That plot, so many characters, the arrangement of opposing forces, the way he manages the interlocking tensions. It’s an incredible accomplishment and one that was probably suited particularly to Frank Herbert who was obsessed with the intricate design and function of ecosystems.

So now here I am with the new story and it’s pretty big. It’s definitely bigger than Black Battalion and has even more primary characters, so I am doing an outline — directly against my second favorite piece of advice: Never write a story you know the end to.

My favorite piece of writing advice is anecdotal and I don’t remember it completely so I’ll just finagle it a bit here: Someone asked Jack Finney what the most important part of writing was and he responded: You must put on pants every day.

And what he means, of course, is you have to treat writing like a job. Sitting around the house in your underwear does not indicate to your subconscious that you’re at work. Rather, it makes the point that there’s no urgency to accomplish anything.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, the outline. So I’m really going to outline the entire 8th draft of this great white bird dangling from my neck before I start writing it this time. We’ll see how that works. I know it sounds like it could only do me good, but I have tried writing outlines in the past and the result has been not so good. Essentially, once I know the whole story, I lose interest in writing it.

But I’m seven drafts deep in this one, so I think there’s little chance I’ll just write it off like a bad debt. In the words of the immortal Buffy, “Wish me monsters.”

Better or Just Different?

I’ve written before on this blog about unnecessary change not being the same thing as innovation, mostly in a long rant about the new GUIs for Windows 8, Microsoft Office, iTunes and iOS 7 in which I mostly made myself sound like a grumpy old man but also managed to point out that a culture of constant change is not the same as a culture of constant improvement.

Changing the size of the buttons or the color scheme is one thing, but taking something that has become iconic to mainstream computer use like the menu structure and replacing it with a confusing mass of ribbons makes life better for no one.

So now I find myself in a similar situation. The book that I had planned to do just one polish draft of before sending it out is now on the horns of a dilemma. I had a flash of inspiration the other night that would fix many of the problems I feel the current incarnation suffers from. Namely, the story isn’t about anything. It’s just a plot and action with characters, but it doesn’t say anything. Also, the main female character has no motivation and no unique voice. Also, the setting makes large parts of the story hard to swallow.

So delineating the problems like that makes the question seem rhetorical but I’ll ask it anyway: Would these changes, the ones I say will fix the above problems but would require a complete rewrite, make the story better or just different?

The answer isn’t as obvious as it might seem. I often have lingering doubts about the final draft of a rewrite exactly like those listed above but discover during the polish draft that they’re either not problems or can be fixed with minimal changes to the existing draft.

Also, there is a widely known medical condition among writers called Obsessive Compulsive Rewriting. Writers with OCR are possessed by the need to endlessly modify their work so that they’ll never have to send it out and have to deal with all that ugly rejection and Amazon user reviews.

I switched from MS Office because I didn’t think the ribbons were better and I never upgraded to Windows 8 because, seriously, Microsoft? But I learned to live with the new (and completely unintuitive) UI for iTunes and the artsy-fartsy but difficult to actually use iOS 7.

I suppose I’ll make my decision when I start the polish draft. If those problems still exist and can’t be fixed or if the changes I’m thinking about will make the story substantially better then and only then will I embark on an eighth draft.

Oh, wait. The male protagonist has a case of mixed motivation and an unclear voice. I’m definitely doing another draft.

Where Do Your Ideas Come From? And What If They Don’t?

I have never been very good at writing short fiction.  What most people say is difficult, writing novels, actually comes naturally to me.  It’s the very brevity of the short story that I find so confounding.  And while it’s all fine and good to say, “I’m not good at short fiction,” and then focus on writing novels, it still worries at the back of my mind that I’m not doing the work necessary to master my craft.

Because I originally believed that writing happened by magic and was fueled entirely by talent, I put myself at a real disadvantage at the start of my career.  It wasn’t until I reach middle age that I realized writing was, like anything you do, something that gets better with study, repetition and experimentation. In other words, by doing the work necessary to master your craft.

I set about studying story first by diving into screenwriting, a subset of writing that is almost entirely focused on story and structure.  This very quickly led me to writing long form fiction, a practice I would only abandon briefly now and then when I just happened to be struck by an idea for a short story.

But again, I have this feeling that not getting at least “good” at short fiction is somehow doing a disservice to the process of learning to write better.  People are always wondering out loud how to get published and how to get an agent and so on but the advice on those subjects always starts the same: Write. Better. Fiction.  And the only way to do that is to master the craft.

I’ve written poetry and screenplays that I’m proud of and that have done well out there in the world.  And of course I’m perfectly comfortable with writing long form fiction, but I have only published one short story since I began this journey ten years ago.  That seems wrong.

So I decided to dedicate a year to writing and publishing short stories.  Except for the polish draft of the novel I have to go out to agents, all new work for the next 12 months will be on short fiction.  That was the decision and to get started I went through my folder of short stories I’ve put together over the years.  Some I started but never finished.  Some I finished but didn’t like.  Some I even submitted to magazines but when Analog and F&SF rejected them I just went on about my usual long form work.

What I found after some digging were eight stories that could either be rewritten or were ready to go or contained a germ of an idea that I still feel should be examined.  That’s not very much.  That’s less than one story per year.  So I figured my first task would be overhaul the stories that needed work and submit the ones I felt were ready to go but the very next task would be to start writing like crazy.  Like Harlan Ellison crazy.  

I opened up Google Docs and created a blank document to house my list of story ideas.  I figured I would just jot them down over the next couple of days until I had half a dozen and then pick the best one and get started writing.  But a funny thing happened: That document stayed blank for days.  While I put together a list of 39 magazines to submit to and finished out the rewrites of the stories that needed it and submitted the ones that didn’t, I never came up with a single idea.  Yes, this went on for a week.  Nothing came.  And it was truly terrifying.

Have I reached that point in my life where my brain simply doesn’t have the creative juices left to do something new?  That’s a question you never want to have to ask yourself, because inevitably if you have to ask the question you already know what the answer is.

But then I remembered one of my principal laws of the natural universe: Creativity arises from boredom.  

No more eBooks on the Kindle except for the biography of Robert Heinlein.  For some reason, reading about the lives of creative people has always caused me to become very active.  After reading Josh Logan’s autobiography, I sat down and wrote a musical comedy complete with lyrics (But no music.  I am not musical).  

No more audio books in the car.  No more magazines.  No more word games on my phone.

Where do you get your ideas?  That’s what people always want to know.  The answer is: In line at Walgreens.  Stuck in traffic on 183.  At a red light.  In a construction zone.

Since forcing myself back into the boredom regime, I am happy to say I’ve come up with seven ideas in as many days.  Now I have the other problem: picking one.