Natural Style

Style is a funny thing.  When you start out, you write like your current favorite author.  I still remember with some embarrassment my Hemingway phase (I think all writers go through this) when I actually tried to follow his advice and start the day with a shot of whiskey  Don’t do this, by the way.  It was terrible advice.  I also wrote lots of short sentences (“He went to the river.  The river was there.”) and had lovers talk asynchronously as if they weren’t in the same conversation.

I was very fortunate to have a creative writing professor tell me very gently that it was perfectly normal to ape someone else’s style while you were finding your own but a bad thing to make a permanent habit.

It was good advice but I’ve always been a bit leery of his belief that style would come to you in time.  I think it was always there, like a natural force pushing me toward writing the words I felt comfortable with. Maybe a better way to describe it is as an internal need to use my own words instead of someone else’s.

So when I started putting little homages to Kurt Vonnegut in my stories, they naturally worked their way out in rewrites when I used my own language.  The same thing happened in my Heinlein phase and my Herbert phase and so on.  I kept coming back to my own style because that was what felt right to me.

The problems that took me so long to overcome were subject matter and character development.  I remember sitting at a traffic light in Leesburg, Virginia just fuming about my latest attempt at a novel.  I knew it wasn’t right, but I didn’t know what was wrong with it.  I could read it and it sounded fine but there was something about that story that rang false like bad key on an otherwise perfectly tuned piano.

I wish I could explain how I came to the conclusion that my characters were cardboard cutouts but it literally struck from the blue.  The light turned green and I suddenly couldn’t wait to get home and start another draft.  I was mad for the work and wrote like I had a devil on my shoulder.  Tellingly, the new draft came out twice as long as the first.

A few days into the process I got a call from an agent to whom I’d sent the earlier, skinnier version.  She was enthusiastic but had some qualms.  I cut her off by saying, “I know, it’s the characters.  I’m working on it right now.”  Three weeks later I sent her the new manuscript and she signed me right away, going on and on about how much the readers had liked it and how they were all going on about how it was going to be a big hit.

As for subject matter, that’s a much more humbling story but not a unique one.  The first time I knew I wanted to be a writer was while watching the movie “20 Million Miles To Earth” on Saturday morning in fourth grade.  As soon as the movie was over, I wrote my first ever short story, which, oddly enough, turned out to be a retelling of the movie.

I’ve spoken before about the wall of science fiction paperbacks we had in the house.  No matter where we moved, and we moved a lot, I had access to a full library of science fiction from Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein to Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny and even some Harlan Ellison thrown in for good measure.  Fifth through eighth grade I was never without a book.

I read constantly and always science fiction or fantasy or crime, but when it came time to write my first novel I was frankly ashamed of my obsession with genre fiction.  That shame pushed me to write mainstream stories that weren’t very good, mostly because I wasn’t using my language.  And then I flat couldn’t come up with anything to write about because my head was full of the God Emperor of Dune, not a troubled marriage in Scarsdale.

So I basically gave up on writing for a long time, a hiatus that ended when I decided to do what I loved and started writing science fiction, fantasy, and crime novels for fun and absolutely no profit.  I did get an editor to offer me a contract with that first mainstream novel but I wasn’t happy with writing again until I went full genre.

Good writing comes from honesty.  If you can’t even be honest with yourself about what you like to write, you’re in for some pain.


The Real Work

It’s been about six weeks since I decided to devote myself to writing short stories.  The first few weeks I spent polishing and rewriting trunk stories of mine that never got the due diligence they deserved when they were first written.  Prior to this renewed effort, my attempt to publish was limited to being rejected by Analog and Asimov’s after which I would simply tuck the story into a drawer and go back to working on my novel.

But here’s the thing, in the old days I was able to get agents to give serious attention to my novel manuscripts merely on the strength of my writing.  Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, and early 2000s I was able to secure no less than four agents without having ever published a short story.  Essentially, cutting to the head of the line without bona fides.

That is no longer the case.  The internet has changed everything and there is far more competition now — not necessarily strong competition, most people out there are terrible, sloppy writers who know nothing of the craft but if Stephenie Meyer can do it surely they stand a chance. There used to be some barriers to entering the market. You spent lots of time at the Post Office, for one thing — all that shoveling of manuscripts into manilla envelopes and making sure you had a SASE was a real thrill — but now that everyone with a keyboard can simply email their stuff out, agents and editors are drowning in all that dross.  All of which makes it more and more difficult for the serious writer to get on anyone’s radar.  

If you want to get an agent’s attention now, you need to do them a favor and come to them complete with prior editorial approval in the form of a publishing history and, if possible, an active membership in the SFWA.  To get that membership you have to be paid a minimum of six cents a word for 10,000 words and to get those qualifying magazines, the ones who pay six cents a word or better, to read your stuff you need to come at them with some bona fides.  

That means you start at the bottom of the food chain.  You go to the fanzines, the ezines, those magazines that pay nothing because even if you don’t make one thin dime by putting a story in their pages, they give you proof of prior editorial approval.  

And let’s not soft pedal the real benefit here which is readers.  You may not get paid much for putting your story in their magazines but people will read it and that is, in the end, the true goal of any writer.

I remember when I got my first check.  It was from a magazine called Electric Spec and it didn’t matter that it was only for 25$.  That was a by God publishing credit.  Proof of prior editorial approval.  Unfortunately, I didn’t follow up with more stories because I was still busy telling myself that I was only interested in writing novels.

It wasn’t until I got hooked reading the biographies of Heinlein, Bradbury, Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick and now Asimov, that I saw how they did it.  They wrote their asses off and they submitted everything everywhere.  They submitted those stories, sometimes for years, until either the damned thing got published (and many never did) or they ran out of magazines to submit them to.

Philip K. Dick once received seventeen rejections is a single day.  His response was to take the stories out of the envelopes, address them to seventeen new markets, and send them off again.

In the last six weeks I’ve revitalized some stories that were already good, reworked and rewritten others that were good ideas poorly executed, and written four completely new stories from scratch.  As a result, I now have 14 stories in play.  And I’m working on my 15th.

It turns out that when you stop telling yourself you’re not good at something and just start doing it, you can discover that you had a knack for it all along.  

The thing to remember is this: It’s a ladder.  This is particularly difficult for me because I’ve already climbed one ladder.  I’ve made my sacrifices, I’ve swallowed my humiliations, and I’ve done my 10,000 hours of practice to become a senior software developer and I make a nice living from it.  

But that’s programming, not writing.  With writing I’m starting all over at the bottom rung.  I start by submitting every story at the top of the list of qualifying magazines even though I stand the least chance of getting published there because that’s where the prize is.  Once I get rejected from the qualifying magazines, I move onto the ones who pay slightly less than the qualifying rate, and then down and down until it’s contributor’s copies or sometimes nothing but a byline.

Which is fine because I don’t need the money.  I need the prior editorial approval.  But having more than a dozen stories in play means lots of rejections.  You have to be strong and listen to what editors have been saying forever: A rejection doesn’t mean your story is bad, just that it wasn’t right for them at that time.  

You have to look for the small positives.  Before the acceptances start to come in, you’ll get the “Good, but not for us” rejections and sometimes there will even be a “feel free to submit something else” on there.  That’s a huge victory at this point.  That is an editor saying they like your writing but this story wasn’t a fit for their magazine.

Right now about half of my rejections are form letters and the other half contain encouragement and constructive criticism along the lines of “I liked the narrative but the plot developed a little slowly for me.”  

This is how things work in the real world if your uncle isn’t an editor at a major publishing house.  You do the hard work for little money and no motivation while you chip away at the wall between you and success.  

Thirty years ago, I would stay up late at night teaching myself to program.  I’d come home from a job I hated and sit down and challenge myself to learn something new every day.  I didn’t have a college degree to pave the way for me and back then it wouldn’t have done much good anyway.  PCs were new.  Unix was new.  They were still teaching card decks in most university programs.  To get started, I had to take a job that paid nearly nothing just to put something on my resume that said I was a programmer.

The problem with my writing career so far has been that the model for success as it was laid out in my brain was totally broken.  It was constructed on the idea that I could write a novel and without knowing anyone in the business, publish a bestseller.  That’s kind of like founding your business on a lottery based strategy.  

And it’s hard to maintain faith in a plan like that because it doesn’t even feel real.  That’s not how things work in the world, at least not in my world.  Fairy godmother’s don’t appear out of nowhere and offer me a career in something.  I have to work for it.  Writing these stories, keeping them in play, taking the rejections, that’s working for it.  That’s something that feels real to me.

NOTE: Have you ever thought so hard about doing something that you get the idea you actually did it even though you very much did not?  This has happened to me several times with blog entries that I write in my head but never manage to publish.  One of those entries had to do with my decision to commit myself to writing short stories in order to obtain my bona fides before submitting my novel to anymore publishers.

That’s why there is a strange gap in the logic between the July 15th entry where I talk about outlining an 8th draft of my novel and the July 16th entry in which I talk about having dedicated myself to writing short stories.  

My best guess is that I had that post about outlining lying around and accidentally published it instead of the one about switching my aim to short fiction.  I’ve done stupider things, I just can’t remember when.

The 40% Solution

Early drafts can be a real grind.  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 messed 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.

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.