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.


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.