Category: Writing Posts

Weekly Thursday posts on some aspect of my writing

500 Years of da Vinci’s Notebooks

Thursday marked the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death. In the chaos of the week it was lost to me, which is too bad because I meant to write about it then. It first came to my attention in October 2017 as I read Walter Isaacson’s magnificent biography of da Vinci. I remember thinking then that I have to make a mental note that the 500th anniversary of his death was mere year and a half away. How time flies!

It was brought back to my attention yesterday morning when I read the cover story in the May 2019 issue of National Geographic, “Leonardo’s Enduring Brilliance” by Claudia Kalb. Toward the end of the article, it noted da Vinci’s death on May 2, 1519.

There are many impressive things about da Vinci, not the least of which was his curiosity about the world around him. But what has impressed me most about da Vinci, the more I learn of him, is the prolific manner in which he recorded his curiosity in his notebooks, and the mind-boggling fact that over 7,000 pages of those notebooks have survived the five centuries for us to read and study today.

Nothing has made a more profound impression upon me than this. In a world where so much of what we do is captured in a digital medium, paper still proves to be among the most reliable storage systems ever created. I’d been keeping Field Notes notebooks in my pockets for several years before reading the da Vinci biography. Afterward, I moved my journals back to paper form, so impressed was I with the sheer durability and reliability of the medium.

In the year and a half since, I haven’t changed my mind. I always have a Field Notes notebook in my pocket, and my journals are still captured in large Moleskine notebooks, four of which I have filled up in 18 months. I don’t know that these notebooks will last 500 years, but I suspect they will outlive this blog, for instance.

There are trade-offs, of course. The paper journals are more difficult to search, but spending some time indexing them helps with that. They are not “always available” the way cloud-based data is. If I am traveling, I have my current journal with me, but not the past volumes, so if I need to look something up, it has to wait until I get home. On the other hand, I like the simplicity of pen, ink, and paper. I paste in a lot of printed photos so that I get a low-tech multimedia experience. And being a low-tech solution, the journals don’t require a computer, power source, or anything else to maintain.

Perhaps because so much of what I do these days is on a computer, these notebooks offer a reprieve from that. It’s nice to sit down at the end of the day, or first thing in the morning, and write in them, longhand. There is, it seems to me, far less distance between me and other diarists I admire when I am scribbling in these books. I could be in the same room as Isaac Asimov, or John Adams, or even Leonardo da Vinci, each of us scribbling away on paper.

Plotting, Pantsing, and Game of Thrones

When it comes to writing I am a pantser. That is, I don’t plan my stories out in advance, I don’t outline. I start with an idea and some vague sense of how I think things will end, and work toward that, discovering things along the way. It is the only method that works for me. Whenever I’ve tried to plan things out, say by outlining, I find I quickly lose interest in the story. Once it is mapped out, I know it and it is no longer exciting for me.

I don’t even like to talk about the stories I am working on. I used to do this, but found that talking about them had the same damping effect as outlining. If I described the plot of a story in progress to someone, I found it hard to go back and finish the story. Having told it once, I wasn’t interested in telling it again. The novelty of the story was gone. These days, if someone asks what I am working on, I simply say, “a story.” If they pursue and ask, “What’s the story about?” I say, “I don’t know, I haven’t figured it out yet.”

I was thinking about plotting versus pantsing after watching the most recent episode of Game of Thrones, “The Long Night.” It got me wondering if, perhaps, George R. R. Martin might never finish the book series, and instead, call the HBO series the canonical end of the saga. I don’t know if Martin is a plotter or a pantser, but if he is the latter, I could see how the HBO series sort of spoils the writing of the rest of the series. Why write it now that he knows how it ends?

For that matter, why read it once the HBO series has concluded. Certainly there are divergences from the books and the series, but in those cases, the books were the originally published source and can be considered canonical. This isn’t the case with the final seasons of Game of Thrones. Now, the HBO series, which is appearing before the last two books, has to be considered the canonical source.

If the final two books are ever written, they will appear long after the HBO series has completed. The HBO series has been a cultural phenomenon and its images, actors, music have seeped into our psyche in such a way that I think it would be difficult for books to replace events in the series. It is possible that the books will diverge from events in the series but since the last seasons of the series came first, I think they will be treated as the source of truth, and divergence will only cause confusion. And yet, if the books follow the series, there is no longer any surprise, and so why bother?

It would not surprise me if we see Martin and his publisher announce that, after due consideration, the final two books of the series will not be written and the HBO series will represent the canonical conclusion to the books. It will be a novelty: a mixed-media series that began in book form and ended as one the most popular television series of all time. It is a way for the series to go out on top. This would also free Martin of the stress of having to complete the series, and move onto other projects he is eager to do.

I don’t know any of this for certain. I am speculating, but it makes sense to me. I would certainly accept the series as the canonical end and were books to be published, I doubt that I would continue to read them at this point–not because I didn’t like the first five but because I already have a satisfactory conclusion in my mind and don’t need to muddy the waters with multiple endings.

As a pantser, I couldn’t imagine having to write the books after working with the showrunners to produce the rest of the series and knowing in detail what happens. The job, for me, would be more like writing a movie tie-in than a work of original creation.

Not Prolific

Some truths are harder to admit than others. When I started to write with an eye toward publication, I wanted to be a prolific writer. This should be no surprise to people who know my history. I have been, to a large degree, influenced by unusually prolific writers. Isaac Asimov is perhaps the best example, and greatest outlier, even among prolific writers. But even before Asimov, there was Piers Anthony, whose endless Xanth saga is still producing books (though I stopped reading them 20 years ago) more than four decades later.

Being prolific, in my mind, means producing a great deal of published writing. I say published writing because my goal has always been to write for paid publication. Therefore, what counts is what is paid for, what appears in print (or e-form). For me this is often the tip of the iceberg. Much writing I do never sells, and never sees the light of day. So I may be prolific in the sense that I write a lot, but I have recently come to face the fact that I am not a prolific writer in the sense that make frequent sales.

This is an important realization for me. I grew up reading writers who could produce stories quickly, and I have, for many years, felt that is the way one should produce stories. But it is simply not the way that I work, and I have at last come to accept that.

I started a new story this year, a novelette of around 12,000 words. It has taken me the better part of four months to get out the first draft. I could say this is because I have been busy with work, and family, and the process of selling our house and buying a new one. But the truth is, I work slowly. There is even evidence for this. Over the period of 8 years where I was actively selling stories, I sold just about a dozen. During that same period of time, I sold perhaps three times that many nonfiction pieces. Still, about 50 sales of short pieces over a span of 8 years is far from prolific.

When I started to write for publication, I produced a massive outpouring of stories and submitted all of this. This was during a time in which I had a plethora of ideas and no internal regulator of which of those ideas was good and which was bad. They all got written. Over time, the superfluity of ideas continued, but I became a better judge of them, and instead of writing all of them, selecting only the ones I deemed the best ideas. My production slowly began to decrease, but the quality of my stories increased. My evidence for this is nothing more than the fact that I began to sell stories. (The stories may have been bad, but the point is they sold to professional markets, which is the only objective way I can judge the quality of my own work.)

With story sales under my belt, one would think that I would immediately plunge in with more. The door had opened a crack. Now I needed to burst through. That was, I admit, my intention going in, but that is not how things worked in reality. When I rushed a story, I tended to lose control of it. Despite my deep desire to want to be like my idols and write stories quickly and prolifically, I simply couldn’t do it. That particular talent didn’t reside within me.

That said, I like to think which each story I did complete, was an improvement on the previous. And what I have discovered over time is that while I write my stories more slowly, I do so because I carefully consider the lessons I’ve learned by previous experience and weave them into the story to make it better. For me, that just takes time. I can’t even set a goal: write one story a month, or twelve stories a year. That doesn’t work for me. A story takes as long as it takes, but when it is finished, is the best possible story I could have written at that point in my life.

It is difficult to describe what a relief it is to admit this to myself. I no longer feel pressure when a story takes a long time. It takes as long as it needs to take. I suppose if I depended on my writing for my living, this would be a problem. It indicates that I probably couldn’t make it as a full-time writer. Fortunately, that is not my situation, and I can take my time to get a story right. This discovery has dramatically increased my empathy with someone like Patrick Rothfuss.

How do I know if a story is right? I can’t say. If it sells, I suppose it is right. If, when I complete the last words of the final draft and there is nothing more to do, I suppose it is right. Writing is, as is often said, a lonely business. The first part of the new story I’ve been working on (the story is divided into three parts) is being critiqued by my writers group this week. Their feedback doesn’t necessarily tell me if the story is right, but it does give me my first glimpse of reader reaction. And since I am not as prolific as I once hoped I would be, this kind of feedback becomes ever more valuable.

The Diary and the Lens

I. The Diary

I was listening to an old playlist over the weekend, and on it were a few songs that reminded me of my college days. Those days are a quarter century in the past, but the songs drew forth memories like a rod draws lightning. Some of those memories were surprisingly specific. I sat listening to the songs, and thought about my college days, but with few exceptions, all I could were the vaguest of memories, nothing like what the songs could elicit.

For a long time afterward, I thought about those lost memories, and thought about other times in my life where my memories are equally vague. Part of the reason I started to keep a diary back in 1996 was to aid what I imagined would be an aging memory. But there was something else, too. I can remember, quite clearly, laying in my bed as a boy of eight or nine, and saying to myself, “Today is Wednesday, June 19, 19xx…” (the specific date doesn’t matter, it was as arbitrary as the thought) “…Twenty years from now, I wonder if I will remember that I was thinking this, laying here in bed?”

Of course, I can’t remember what the date was, only that I had thoughts like that. Since 1996, I have diaries that I can refer to as an aid to memory. They bring some events into sharper view, but still not as clearly as I’d like. I’ve always been impressed by dedicated diarists like those of the Adams family. What I have seen and read from their diaries seems different from my own. My own entries often begin with, “Up at 6:30 am, my day to take the kids to school, and then started working…” or some variant thereof. Reading through it, I find a good accounting of the day, which helps in knowing what happened when, but isn’t much of an aid in producing clear pictures of the past in my mind.

As David McCullough wrote of John Adams:

Determined to understand human nature, fascinated by nearly everyone he encountered, [Adams] devoted large portions of his diary to recording their stories, their views on life, how they stood, talked, their facial expressions, how their minds worked. In the way that his literary commonplace book served as a notebook on his reading, his diary became his notebook on people. “Let me search for the clue which led great Shakespeare into the labyrinth of human nature. Let me examine how men think.”

My diary is more of a journal in the sense that it is an accounting of events, places, people, without much color, like columns of numbers in an ledger. It makes me confident in timelines, but does little to paint of picture of my life on a given day.

II. The Lens

Thinking about this over the weekend, it occurred to me that a diary was like a telescope lens for human memory. Without a lens, a telescope is nothing more than an empty tube, showing the world as it is today. But add a lens and point it to the heavens and you can see back in time. The better the lens, the clearer the image.

Our house is in utter disarray at the moment. Contractors have been at the walls, slapping on new coats of paint. They’ve pounded the floors, replacing the old carpets with new ones. Shelves have been cleared, books backed into 40 boxes and crammed into our Harry Potter closet (i.e. our “closet under the stairs”). Our living room is crammed with boxes that need to get put into storage. As I write this, my home office is empty, save for a desk, and this laptop. The stress and turmoil of preparing to sell a house and buy a new one has played tempest with my emotions: stress, exhilaration, sadness.

My diary entries for these days are mostly the same as they have always been. I’ve been using a very weak lens, one that allows me to see what happened on a given day, but the image is blurry to the point of uselessness. From the entries I’ve written about the recent contractor chaos, the future me would only know that work was done around the house; he’d have no idea of the mess, the stress, the constant running up and down stairs with armfuls of boxes. So I have decided to create a better lens.

Using 25-years as a guidepost, I ask myself, “How can I recreate the scene in our house these last few weeks in a way that will convey a clear picture to myself 25 years hence? What would have made my college days 25 years past more clear in my head than they are today?

I’ve found that, writer though I am, this is a difficult task, at least at first. I am so used to writing entries the way I do that it is difficult to change. Also, it means writing more, and I am often weary at the end of the day. But I am fighting these difficulties in an effort to produce a better lens through which to view my life.

Why it should be that I am so caught by this desire to document I can’t properly explain. I’m not sure I know myself. Part of it is imitation. People I’ve admired have done the same. Part of it is utility: that “when did such-and-such take place?” thing. Since my kids were born, part of it is a desire to show them what my life was like (and theirs) when they are older. Part of it is the pure joy of writing. But a stronger lens, I think, will help to banish some of the melancholy I feel when thinking of the passage of time.

As McCullough wrote,

They must keep diaries, Adams told [his grandchildren] as once he had told their father. Without a diary, their travels would “be no better than a flight of birds through the air,” leaving no trace.

Writing with Vim

I am back to writing with Vim again. I have been flip-flopping among writing tools, and finally settled back on Vim. For those who are not familiar with Vim, it is a text editor that has been around forever. It is not for the feint of heart. It can be somewhat difficult to learn, especially if you are not used to a modal tool, or not a fan of keyboard commands.

So then why use it? I’ve given this quite a bit of thought over the last week or so that I’ve been back with it, and there are several reasons I think I will stick with it going forward.

1. Future compatibility

A few months ago, I began to try to collect all of my old writing. My intention was to build an archive of my writing from the time I first started, right through the present, and then keep it going forward. I wanted an easy way to see anything I’d ever written with the intent of paid publication. I started to write with the intent to sell stories in December 1992. Believe it or not, I still have those files 27 years later. I used Microsoft Word 5.5. for DOS back then, and these files are all in that format. The latest version of Microsoft Word can’t read them.

This is an example of a compatibility problem I want to avoid going forward. If my writing is going to be stored digitally, I want it to be in a format that is mostly immune to compatibility issues. Plain text is the answer. Vim is a text editor and allows me to write plain text files. I use Markdown in my plain text to get formatting I want in the output, but the files themselves are nothing more than simple text.

There are many advantages to this, a few of which I will touch on later.

2. Separating content from presentation

WYSIWYG just doesn’t work for me the way I envisioned it would when it first came out. I remember the first version of Microsoft Word that had a what-you-see-is-what-you-get interface. Even earlier, I remember AppleWorks, which also had a WYSIWYG interface. It was very cool to be able to layout the document on the screen to appear exactly as you want it on the page.

As I began to write, however, I quickly learned two things:

  1. I spent too much time playing around with formatting options, when I should have been writing.
  2. There are really only a small handful of standard formats that I use on a day-to-day basis.

Scrivener was the first writing tool I used that did a very good job of separating the content form the presentation of a document. In Scrivener, you write content and then compile it into one of many formats. You can move text around easily, and make the screen look however you want it to look, but the presentation–that is, the document that Scrivener compiles–can look completely different from what appears on the screen.

Vim allows me this separation as well. How things look on my screen is completely different from how the document they produce looks, but that is okay, because I still only use a few standard output formats (standard manuscript, letter, etc.). I use Pandoc to compile my Vim markdown into a Word document, or a PDF.

3. Look and feel

I’ve mentioned that my favorite word process of all time was Microsoft Word 5.5 for DOS. Maybe it’s because it was the first word processor I used when I started writing to sell stories, and its look and feel somehow imprinted on me at an impressionable age, but I like the look of white text on that blue screen.I have tried to mimic that look and feel in a variety of text editors and word processors over the years. When I came back to Vim a week ago, I took another focused crack at it–and managed to get as close as I possibly can. The text on the screen looks exactly as I want it to look:

  • White text with a blue background.
  • Show underlines instead of italics in markup–because underline is how you represent italics in a standard manuscript format, and it stands out better on the screen.
  • Not too much else on the screen.
Writing with Vim

I realize that I can come close to this in other word processors. What I have not been able to do is get the look and feel that I want, while maintaining compatibility, and separating the content from the presentation layer–until now.

4. Change history

I like being able to see the evolution of what I write. Plain text makes it easy to see differences from one version to the next. I use flashbake, which is a tool that automatically checks in what I am working on to git’s revision control system every 15 minutes. Everything I write has an automated history of its construction. I tag certain check-ins, like “first draft”, “second draft”, “submitted draft”, “corrected draft”, “published draft”, etc. I can check out any of these and compare to any other.

I learn from these changes. It is interesting to be able to go back into time and look at things I took out, or left in. It also means nothing is ever wasted or deleted. If I write a scene that I really like, but doesn’t quite work in the story, I can remove it and yet the scene is still retained in git where I can always find it.

Here is a recent example of part of the git change log from a story that I have been working on.

Change History

5. One tool for all my writing

Over the years, I’ve found myself using different tools for different types of writing: one for paid writing, another (WordPress) for blogging, another still when writing correspondence. It means having to remember a variety of different key commands (which tend to vary from one tool to the next) as well as differences in the way they function.

I want one tool for all of my writing. I look back to writers in the first half of the twentieth century, doing the bulk of their writing on one typewriter, and using it until the poor machine wore down. Story drafts, letters, essays, everything goes through that one machine. It becomes an extension of the writer. In an effort to simplify, I’d like to be able to use just one tool for all of my writing. Of course, there is writing that I do that won’t get into Vim–mostly email–but there are always exception.

I can do this easily with Vim thanks to Pandoc, which can take my markdown file and convert it to any format I want, using template files. I have a letter template, a standard manuscript template, etc. From the plain text markup, I can produce with a single command, a properly formatted manuscript in Word format, or PDF format. I can do the same for letters, notes, critiques, etc.

6. Searching

With all my files as plain text, searching is much easier. Plus, tools like Vim make it easy to use regular expressions for searching, and I can easily search multiple files at once.

I’ve been using Vim for all of my writing for the last two weeks or so and I’ve gotten more and more comfortable with it. I’m trying hard to stick with Vim’s standard keyboard navigation (instead of the arrow keys) because I think it will make it easier to use with other computers over time. Plus, as I get more familiar with them, I find Vim’s navigation to be a power tool.

And yes, as you can see from the screenshot above, this post was written in Vim.

Rules of Storytelling

At a recent meeting of my writers group, there was a lot of talk of “rules” for writing during the critiques. Among the advice offered was “it’s better to use short sentences in thrillers” and “try using at least three senses in description.” These kinds of “rules” bother me. They are more about the brushstrokes than the painting. They act as the writing equivalent of a hack, a shorthand for doing the work involved in telling a good story.

I don’t believe there are many hard and fast rules for storytelling, just as I don’t believe there are many hard and fast rules for writing. I can think of only one general rule for storytelling: a story should have a beginning, middle, and ending.

The meeting prompted me to re-read “the little book” a.k.a. Strunk & White, a.k.a. The Elements of Style. This book is about as close as one can come to a concise set of rules for writing. And even here, I’d qualify these more as guidelines than rules.

Ultimately, there is one and only rule for storytelling that I follow: tell the best story you can manage.

Why should thrillers require short sentences? Short sentences quicken the pacing of a story, or so the argument goes. I’d suggest that a good story swallows the reader whole, regardless of sentence structure. Few are the stories I have read where the sentence structure really stands out. If it did it would become distracting. When I write a story, I want the reader to forget they are seeing words on a page. An exception that comes to mind is No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, where the sentence structure establishes a rhythm to the story, a kind of backbeat that is always there. In the case of most good stories, I am almost unaware of the language as the story fills my mind.

When I write, I never sit down to construct an inciting incident or character arc. Instead, I consider if what I am writing is interesting. Do the words and images pull the reader along? “What happens next?” is my constant backbeat. When I review a paragraph I’ve just written I ask myself “how can I make this more interesting?” or “does that description create right image in my mind?” When writing dialog, I hear the characters talking in my head and try to capture it as quickly as I can. I don’t worry about whether I’ve used too many or too few attributions. (There can be rhythms to this, too. For a good example, list to William Dufris’s narration of The Human Division by John Scalzi.) Mostly I wonder if it is clear from the context who is speaking, and if not, how can I clarify it in such a way that it improves the story?

These discussions, during critique, often focus on the mechanics rather than the storytelling. Mechanics are rule-based, but story-telling is more intuitive. Where problems arise is when a writer has a good grasp of the mechanics, and good story ideas, but no intuition for how to tell the story. That is a problem I don’t know how to solve. Rules might help, and there are rules I find useful. They are the same simple rules of composition that you find in The Elements of Style. When my writing includes these elements, my storytelling seems to improve.

Most useful among the rules that Strunk and White have on offer is Rule 17: Omit needless words. When writing a story, particularly the second draft, I apply this rule not just to each sentence, but to the story itself: Omit anything that doesn’t drive the story forward. This means taking out passages which, while elegantly written, don’t do anything for the story. 

Other useful pieces of wisdom include: 

  • Do not overwrite
  • Avoid the use of qualifiers
  • Do not explain too much

Perhaps most important of all: Be clear. A story simply isn’t effective if it isn’t clear to me what is happening. But what is “clear”? Clear to the author is very different than clear to the reader. The author knows everything, the reader does not. I try to approach my stories with a split mind, a writer’s mind and a reader’s. It’s a tough game, because the writer knows what’s happening, but need to hide that from the reader until the proper moment.

I wish we talked more about story in these critiques, and less about mechanics, but I understand the desire. The mechanics act as hacks for the hard work of story-telling. In the end, entropy is a difficult force to overcome.

A Writer’s Daydreams, 2019 Edition

Back when I started writing and submitting stories as a junior in college way back in 1993, I used to daydream of what it would be like to have a story accepted by a magazine. I’d be walking to class and imagining getting a letter back from an editor telling me that they liked my story and wanted to publish it. I imagined what it would be like seeing my name on the table of contents of a magazine, and on the byline of the story itself.

In all of this daydreaming, then absolute pinnacle for me, at the time, was to have a story appear in Analog. Analog was the cream of the crop of science fiction magazines. It was the same Astounding Science Fiction that Asimov and Heinlein had sold stories to beginning in the late 1930s. It seemed unlikely such a thing would every happen, but it was fun to daydream about it.

All these years later, I’ve sold many stories and articles, and my name has appeared in Analog‘s table of contents 4 times (two fiction pieces, and two nonfiction pieces). It’s always fun to imagine a fifth time, but with the most recent story I’ve written, my daydreams have started to change.

I finished the second draft of a new story the other day. It was the first story I’d written and finished in three years. Toward the end of my first phase of writing, my stories had started to change. There was usually a science fictional element to carry the story into the magazines that I’d grown used to selling to, but they were barely science fiction. Several reviews of my last two stories pointed this out.

This most recent story, while still maintaining a small element of the fantastic, is not what I’d call science fiction or fantasy. It’s a story. On the drive up from Virginia to New York on Saturday morning, I started to daydreaming about what it would be like if I sold this story, and I was not picturing the science fiction magazines. I was imagining what it would be like to sell the story to a place like the Atlantic or Harper’s. And the strange thing is that the daydreams were just as exciting as the ones that I remember dreaming up as a junior in college more than a quarter of a century ago.

Writers Debates

Writers can be a contentious lot. A thread I saw on Twitter yesterday reminded me of the kinds of things that polarize writers. While there are many topics over which writers can disagree, two jumped out at me as being particularly overdone these days:

  1. Traditional vs. self-publishing.
  2. Don’t work for free vs. write for “publicity”

As I read the thread, I felt increasingly compelled to offer my opinion, but wisely decided to switch back to the book I was reading (Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air–climbing Everest seemed much safer than wading into the Twitter skirmish) and provide some thoughts on these subjects here on the blog.

Traditional vs. Self-Published

I can state unequivocally that one of these is better than the other–for me. I wouldn’t presume to say that one is better than the other for anyone else. I think that goes to the root of the debate: some people feel their way is the best (or only) way to do something for anyone. I can only speak for myself.

I have pursued traditional publishing because that’s the route that writers I most admire have taken, and I want to be like them. I find a measure of satisfaction selling to professional markets, where the stories are vetted by editors, and only those they deem worthy of taking up space make it into print. For me, it is difficult to tell if I am getting better at my craft from one piece to another. One measure of success for me, therefore, is my ability to sell stories. For the first fourteen years I tried my hand at writing and submitting, my stories were rejected. At first, they were rejected with form letters. Then, as time passed, I got an occasional comment back on a story from editors. I took this as a measure of improvement. Then I sold a story; then another. Each subsequent sale, told me that I was getting better at my craft.

I also went the traditional route because it provided a way for me to learn and improve. Professional editors, once they finally started buying my stories, or providing feedback on those pieces they passed on, proved to be a great source of learning for me. They helped me to understand what makes a story work, and moreover, why some stories don’t work.

Finally, I’ve stuck with the traditional route because I have no interest in the ancillary parts of the business. I’m not very good at copy-editing and proofreading my own writing. I have absolutely no interest in the mechanics involved in building e-books, nor do I have any desire to learn about the ins-and-outs of what makes an e-book sell on Amazon. I don’t want to spend much time promoting my stuff. I have limited time to write and I’d prefer to use that time writing. Perhaps I’m missing out on readers, but it’s a tradeoff I’m willing to make.

That said, I have friends who are very successful at self-publishing, and I admire their commitment (to say nothing of their fan base) to what it takes to be successful in the self-publishing world.

Don’t work for free vs. write for publicity

I tend to side with the “don’t work for free” camp, but once again, this is how I prefer to work, not how I think the rest of the world should work. In the Twitter debate I saw last night, someone objected to the statement “Don’t work for free” with the argument that only a successful writer who is making money can make this statement.

But how, exactly, does a writer become successful? Most have to go through the same paces that all writers go through. Isaac Asimov spent the first eleven years writing nothing but stories before he finally moved onto novels and books and even then, it took a few years and a hundred or so books before he was a real success. At the time Stephen King submitted Carrie, he was a virtual no-name, and Doubleday took a chance on him. It was a chance that paid off both ways, but like all writers, King had to earn the success.

To put it more succinctly: the modest success I’ve had selling stories and articles was earned through some amount of skill, a lot of hard work and perseverance, and a measure of luck. I didn’t start out by selling my first story and everything thereafter, and I suspect most writers don’t either.

I said that I tend to side with the “don’t work for free” camp, but it is not an all-or-nothing proposition for me. Where it seems appropriate, I’m happy to do some writing for free. This blog is one example. I’ve written numerous guest posts for for friends. I do this because I enjoy it, but also as a way of paying forward the advice, assistance, and camaraderie I’ve received over the years.

It seems to me that frustration lies at the heart of many of these debates. It is incredibly tough to get rejection after rejections, most if not all, without even a reason for why the story was bounced. I understand that frustration well–I lived it for fourteen years. I may have complained about it from time-to-time, but I never blamed the system for my failure to sell stories. Possibly, the system hindered me along the way, but the only thing I could control was my own writing, and whether or not I’d continue to send stories out, despite the rejections.

Very early on in my writing career, long before I ever sold a story, and submitted stories to markets without much consideration of guidelines, I took Piers Anthony’s attitude. I read a lot Piers Anthony at the time, and he was of the mind that if an editor rejected the story, the problem was with the editor, not the story. This is a good defense mechanism, but it wasn’t until I discarded that attitude and replaced it with one where I intended to learn as much as I could from the hints provide, and try to improve with each story. Those hints were few and far between at first. A few words from Kris Rusch at F&SF, or a helpful observation from Algis Budrys at Tomorrow. Over time, they became more frequent, and I learned what I could from them.

Writers debate all kinds of things: what tool to use, whether to outline or write by the seat of your pants, self-publish or submit to traditional markets, work for publicity or insist on being paid. These debates can be fun, and at times contentious. Over the years, these debates have taught me two things about my own writing:

  1. Figure out what works best for me (it took me a long time to do this) and once I’ve done that, stop worrying about what other writers do because:
  2. Spending time debating these things takes time away from writing. And writing is the only proven way I know of improving my craft.

Breakthrough at the Writers Group

It is easy to write about writing when the writing is going well. Words are flowing and there is often the desire to share the joy I experience as a writer when that is happening. When the writing is not going well, it’s not as easy to write about. When the writing is not going well, I become the way I do when I am sick with the cold or flu. I want to be alone, I don’t want to talk about it, and I want the world to fade away until I’m all better. Talking about it just makes it worse. Writing about it is even harder because I am aware that I am deliberately avoiding what I should be writing by tackling something else.

I have been in this position, unable to write stories well, for a long time now. Late last year, I decided to start attending my writers group again. I joined the group back in 2010 just as I was starting to sell stories to some of the bigger science fiction magazines. I stopped going sometime before my youngest daughter (now almost 2-1/2) was born. There just wasn’t time. But time has freed up a bit and I could return if I wanted. I told myself I’d go into it as if I was a newbie to writing, and just absorb as much as I could. Maybe it would jar something loose, and I’d have a breakthrough.

Let me take just a moment to say what a great group I belong to. The group doesn’t focus on any one kind of writing. Last night we critiqued a chapter of a mainstream fiction novel, as well as a personal essay. But the group has a core of attendees that I have known for a long time now, and whose opinions about writing I’ve come to trust.

The group has produced quite a few exceptional writers. Back when I started, Michael J. Sullivan was a member, and has since gone on to superstardom in the fantasy genre. The first piece I ever read by Joanna Castle Miller was absolutely incredible. Joanna went on to Hollywood, and a that first play of hers that I read way back when, “Ash,” has recently completed production as a film. There are talented children’s writers, established journalists and novelists like Thierry Sagnier, screenplay writers. Those are just a few. It is a talented group.

I sat there last night for the first time in years, listening to writers give thoughtful critiques of their peers’ work. It stirred something in me. I’d been struggling for so long that I almost felt as if I forgot how to tell a story. At one point in a discussion of the personal essay we were critiquing, someone suggested expanding on a particular section because it was interesting. Expanding was tough in the group because we usually limit submissions to ten pages. That was when it hit me! I pulled out my Field Notes notebook and scribbled the following:

For the story “[Redacted]” — can I do the whole thing in 10 pages?

I’ve had this idea for a story and for well over two years, I’ve struggled just to get it started. It seemed like a big story to me and I wasn’t sure how to tell it. All at once, however, I decided that maybe it didn’t need to be a big story. Maybe I could do it in 10 pages?

At home, after the group, I headed into the shower. For some reason, it’s in the shower when my story ideas usually crystalize. I’ll stand there under the spray, hair white with shampoo, and I don’t even have to try–I hear the words I need to type. That’s exactly what happened last night. At first, I was sort of stunned. I just stood there listening to them. Then I realized that I needed to write them down. I dashed out of the shower, still damp, and into my office. I opened a new document, closed my eyes and, somewhat nervously, listened.

The words were still there, and I began to write. Before I stopped, I had half the story written. I knew how the other half would go, and how the story would end. What’s more, I liked what I was writing. Attempting to keep it short made it move quickly, and built up tension just as fast. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I was on the verge of finishing a story, and a pretty good one at that.

I expect I’ll finish the story tonight. Then I’ll give it a few days before I read it and start the second draft. Once that second draft is done, I’ll submit it to the writer’s group for critique, the first story I’ve submitted to that group in probably four years.

I love the feeling I get when I write the last words of a story. Usually, I type those words, and then jump of from my chair and pace a circle around my office. I’m too excited to sit. I’m looking forward to that feeling once again.

The lesson here, for me if for no one else, is that when the writing isn’t going well, introduce a constraint. In this case, I told myself that I had to write the story in 10 pages or less. That seems to shake things loose. I’ve always written better under some kind of constraint and yet I rarely remember that. In college, I often waiting until a few hours before a paper was due to write it. Imperial data showed that the closer to the deadline, the better the grade I received on average. I was once again working with constraints. I’m hopeful this breakthrough will prove useful on other stories I’d like to write. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Right now, I just want to enjoy that feeling I had last night getting the story down on the page, and bring it home tonight.

Organizing My Writing

If computerization has done anything over the last 40 years, it’s made it harder to find what I am looking for. This is anecdotal, of course, but prior to computerization, people seemed to have a much easier time organizing what they wrote. I am always impressed when reading essays or letters by E. B. White, or Will Durant, or Isaac Asimov, or Dumas Malone, or a dozen of other people who wrote in the pre-computer era, how they always seem to have carbons of their letters and manuscripts neatly filed away for easy reference. It’s as if they have a chronological history of everything they ever wrote at their fingertips! Then computers came along, promising so much, and, for me at least, they have made it incredibly difficult to keep track of what I have written over the years.

There are reasons for this. I started writing on an Apple ][e, and my files were stored on floppy disks which have long since vanished. It wouldn’t matter since I was using AppleWorks, which is about as easy a file format to open today as a Microsoft Word for DOS 5.5 document; it’s not that easy and requires a text editor and some dexterity. I moved from that to an IBM and WordPerfect, and then to Word for DOS, Word for Windows, Word, Scrivener, Google Docs, plain text files, etc., etc., etc.

Word for DOS 5.5
Word for DOS 5.5 running on my Mac using DOSBox

Thirty years have passed since I began writing on that long-vanished Apple ][e. Files have been stored on dozens of computers (to say nothing of all those long-gone floppy disks) and many of those computers have also vanished, along with whatever files were on them. Once again, paper proves a more durable form of information storage, or so it would seem when looking back at pre-computer writers.

Cloud storage services seem to offer some persistence from one device to the next (always assuming the service sticks around). But if I store some files in Dropbox, others in Evernote, others in Google Docs, and others still in iCloud, I still have an organization problem.

I’ve been giving this problem a lot of thought lately because I’d like to attempt to organize all of my writing in a single place. How best to do that? A few things seem clear:

  1. The documents should be readily accessible.
  2. The system should work for the long haul.

Of course, one solution would be to print everything I write and stuff it into a filing cabinet somewhere, but my experience going paperless rebels at this thought. I should be able to do this within an electronic medium. Doing so, however, requires a few changes:

  1. All documents need to be stored in the same cloud environment. It doesn’t work for me if some are in Dropbox and others are in Google Docs. I am referring just to things that I write, not all electronic documents.
  2. All documents should use the same file format.
  3. That file format should be something that will be readable a well into the future.

But there is more to it than that. Different documents are often in different states of completion at any given time, and the organization system should make it easy to know if a document I’ve written is still being drafted, if it has been submitted for consideration, if it has been published, or if I have archived it. This suggests a fairly simple structure of folders that would look something like this:

  1. Drafts. Things that are “in progress” whatever they may be (essays, blog posts, short stories, correspondence, etc.)
  2. Completed. Things are are finished. For me these are typically “second” drafts.
  3. Submitted. Things that are out on submissions. Sometimes, a submission draft might differ slightly from the completed draft, but usually in cosmetic ways. This would allow me to preserve those differences.
  4. Published. Things that have been published as they appear in their published form. Editors sometimes request changes so the published versions differ from the submitted versions.
  5. Archived. Anything that (a) was never published and I decided to retire, or (b) was not intended for publication (a letter, for instance) and is being archived.

The documents within each of these folders would require a naming convention that would make them relatively easy to find.

  • Documents in the Drafts folder would have the title followed by a -1, -2, etc. as needed to represent the different drafts prior to completion. I typically go through a total of 3 drafts, (1) telling myself the story, (2) telling the story to an audience now that I know it, (3) post-feedback changes.
  • Documents in the Completed folder would simply be named whatever the title of the thing is.
  • Documents in the Submitted folder would need three things in the filename, the title, the market, and the submission date. Something like: “Gemma Barrows Comes To Cooperstown – IGMS – 2015-05-01”
  • Documents in the Published folder would be named with the title and market where it was published. Some titles would be repeated when a story appears in multiple places (like reprints).
  • The Archived folder is tricker because I suspect it would contain more than just things I wrote for publication. I still have to give this some thought.

With a structure in mind, I need to make two decisions:

  1. Where do I put these folders?
  2. What do I use to create my documents?

I’m leaning toward implementing this structure in iCloud, because that is where I have a lot of documents already. Google Drive would be a good place for the documents as well, but as you’ll see in a moment, I think Google Drive is too complex a tool for my purposes these days.

I’ve hopped around word processors the way a minor league baseball player hops around teams. As I’ve said before, my favorite word processor of all time was Microsoft Word for DOS 5.5, but it is no longer practical to use it, and even if it were, it uses a dead file format. Recently, I’ve been using plain text files which are good for many reasons, but they are just not conducive (for me) for writing. I need to see my text double-spaced. I need to see my emphasized text with underlines. And every now and then, I need to be able to print something out.

I’m leaning toward using the TextEdit app that comes on all Macs. There are several reasons for this:

  • It can default to Rich Text Format, which underneath is just a fancy version of plain text rendered on screen as a minimal WYSIWYG. RTF will be around for a while, and it is easy to parse. This is better for me than Markdown which is tricky to configure to appear on screen the way I want it to look.
  • It is about as minimalist as I can get without sacrificing what I want to see able to see on the screen when I write.
  • I can easily print out what I’ve written, should I need to.
  • I can store the files on iCloud directly from the app.
  • I can access the files from my iPhone or iPad if needed.

There are some sacrifices here. I’ve always love the rich features of Scrivener, and the ease of Google Docs. But when you get right down to it, the tool doesn’t do the writing, I do. Short of a typewriter, I can’t get much simpler than TextEdit and still get what I need out of the system.

Ultimately, I hope to get as much of a backlog of the stuff I’ve written into this organization system. I’m sure there will be some refinements along the way. In the meantime, I can stop worrying about where to store everything and what to use for my writing and actually focus on the writing itself. I’ll keep you updated on how things are going.

Letters vs. Email

The proper definition of a man is an animal that writes letters.

Lewis Carroll

If I were making a New Year’s Resolution, I’d resolve to write more letters. In several recent books I’ve read (E. B. White On Dogs, Bing Crosby, Swinging On A Star, Will & Ariel Durant: A Dual Autobiography) letter-writing is the main form of communication. I am envious of all of that letter-writing.

I know that Lettermo takes place in February. But I don’t want to write letters for the sake of writing them. I want to write them for practical purposes, be it general communication, or responding to official business. The problem is that’s just not how things are done anymore. Email is faster.

The problem with email is that it is devoid of art. Letters are an art form. Why else collect the letters of E. B. White or Andy Rooney or Isaac Asimov or the countless other men and women whose letters have been collected in book form over time? Few email message have any style. The only exception I can think of are the email message I receive from my friend and mentor, Barry N. Malzberg. His email messages, though brief, have a style uniquely Malzbergian. Others who have received email from Barry will know what I am talking about.

Letters can be historic: reading just a few of the letters between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson demonstrates this point. They can be pointedly funny and acerbic, as we find in some of the letters Andy Rooney has written. They can be complete works of art as I’ve seen in some of the letters of E. B. White. They can be flirty and beautifully written, as I’ve seen in some of Will Durant’s letters. The more I’ve consideredt this, the more I’ve grown to despise email as a form of communication. Even the interoffice memo, which email has supplanted, had more art and grace than the electronic message.

Through college, letters were still the primary way in which two people at a distance corresponded. I must have a hundred letters between me and my grandfather. Back then, a long distance call might go for 10 cents a minute, but a 5 page letter cost only 22-cents.

The very fact that a letter costs money helps you to decide if what you have to say is worth the price of a stamp. I also think that what I say in a letter is better thought out than what I say in an email–although for anyone wondering, my letters more often than not read like these blog posts, because that is how I write.

Perhaps more than anything, letters slow down the pace of life. I often feel compelled to respond briefly to an email message that appears in my inbox just to clear it out of the way. There is no joy in the response. I’m just getting it done as quickly as I can in order to move on to what’s next without it nagging at me. Letters take time to compose. They take time to get where they are going and take time in getting answered. I see a letter correspondence as a kind of pace car to the speed at which I want to live my life.

I picture myself setting aside one morning a week to handle all of my correspondence. Without the sense of urgency, there is no need to respond the moment a message arrives in the mailbox. It seems like a pleasant way to spend a morning. I could do this with email, I suppose, but it somehow isn’t the same, just like reading an e-book doesn’t feel quite the same as reading the same book on paper. Letter writing is an art; email is a chore.

Letters are easier to organize than email. I’m always groping for a particular message, and with more than 100,000 emails in my archive, finding one is often tricky. Filing letters (even scanning them and filing them electronically) is far simpler. Also, I doubt the volume of my letter correspondence would come within two orders of magnitude of my email correspondence. Also, I think, “I have in my hand your letter of 23 December, and…” sounds much better than a reply to an email in which the only context is the thread of the email exchange itself.

I suppose I could write email messages as if they were letters, but they don’t look like letters and the look is part of the art. I suppose I could write letters, but in recent years, when I have tried this, I’ve received emails in response, often curious as to why I would resort to such an archaic form of communication. I feel a strong sense of rebellion within me, however, and something has to be done about it.

Perhaps I should just start writing letters, damning convention, even if I don’t expect to receive any in return. I can design a special letterhead that would have a link to this post by way of explanation.

Then again, I often feel like doing whatever it is I see happening in the books I read. If I read a book about an entertainer, I want to be an entertainer. If I read a collection of sports columns, I want to be a sports columnist. Maybe this recent longing for writing letters is noting more than my reaction to reading lots of letters in recent books. I’ve read a lot of letters, now I want to be a letter-writer.

An Evolution of First Lines

Recently, I’ve been struggling with fiction writing. While the desire to tell stories has returned, I’ve felt as if the ability to do so has fled. I know that this isn’t necessarily the case, but if there is one thing I have learned with this recent bout of–let’s call it what it is–writer’s block, it’s that writing fiction, for me at least, is not like riding a bike. I can’t just get back on the bike and with the same level of skill that I had when I stopped writing.

Writer’s block affects writers differently. None of my struggles have to do with a lack of ideas. I’ve got plenty of those. I know the stories I want to tell. As with most stories, I have an idea of how to start them and roughly how they will end. The rest I make up along the way, often discovering that my original ending is not how the stories wants to be resolved. My problem is with tone and voice. I often have an idea of the voice for story, but just lately, I haven’t been able to find the voices I’m looking for. If I don’t have the right voice at the start of a story, I struggle out the gate.

A measure of progress often helps me, if for no other reason, it shows me how far I’ve come. But writing is a finicky thing, and it is hard to measure progress. That said, I think I may have found just the trick for me. I recently began to archive all of the stories I’ve ever written or tried to write in a single place. I had a few simple goals in mind:

  • Archive every story I could find, no matter how far back it goes.
  • Keep the archive in chronological order.
  • If at all possible, keep all versions, and drafts of a story together.

I decided that for my purposes, Google Docs was a good place to maintain this archive. I started with a repository of stories I wrote beginning in my junior year in college. That’s when I first began writing stories with a vision toward submitting them for publication. Converting those stories was not easy. Current version of Microsoft Word do not recognize the Word for DOS 5.5 file format (a good reason for plain text files). So I used a text editor to pull the text out of those documents and put them in Google Docs using a standard manuscript template I created for the purpose.

So far, I’ve archived 27 stories from 1992-1994. The conversion process forced me to look at these stories for the first time in several decades. And that had the interesting side-effect of allowing me to measure my progress in terms of all sorts of aspects of my writing–from the quality of the stories (which is fairly subjective) to the effectiveness of my opening lines. This latter often sets the tone and voice of the story. It was painful to read through some of these old opening lines, but it made me feel good. If nothing else, I can write a pretty good opening line these days.

I thought it might be interesting to publish a kind of evolution of my opening lines. Below are 10 opening lines from some of these stories, along with some comments. Enjoy how awful they are. Though I cringed when I read them, I felt pretty good, too. I’ve come a long way since then.

1. “The Stone” (1992)

Flint made his way across the freshly settled snow, his feet covered in the skin of a black bear.

I believe this was the first story I wrote after I decided to begin submitting stories, sometime in December 1992. It featured a caveman named Flint. How original!

2. “Plans for Christmas” (1992)

Mia climbed into her Jeep four-by-four and tossed the two long black tubes into the back.

For some reason, when I started out, I avoided common names. It looks silly to me now. Once again, nothing of interest happens in the first line.

3. “The Missing Mile” (1992)

The road opened up endlessly before him as Kyle merged his car onto the empty stretch of the countryside highway.

I think my creative writing professor commented for this particular story, “Not only does the road open endlessly, but the story goes on endlessly.” This is what happens to my stories when they start poorly and have no direction whatsoever.

4. “A Byte of Heaven” (1993)

Malcolm stared blankly at the cold white walls of his bedroom, trying hard to ignore the pleas of his son.

I’m almost certain that when I wrote this opening line, I was staring blankly at the cold white walls of my bedroom, trying hard to ignore the pleas of a roommate.

5. “Amphisbaenid” (1993)

Doctor Egerton stood anxiously on the dusty wooden balcony atop a flight of dull gray stairs.

You know that old saw, show, don’t tell? Well, this is pretty much the opposite. How does one stand anxiously? And why did I need to mention that the dusty wooden balcony was at the top of a flight of dull gray stairs. And why does everything in my stories seem to lack color.

6. “Carmel” (1993)

The room was dim, its dull white walls gently illuminated by a small window on the far side.

I’m beginning to see a pattern. I am trying to set the physical scene in these stories at the outset. No action, just telling the stagehands how the set should look when the curtain opens.

7. “Concatenate” (1993)

The Human Ex-Why walked across the carpeted floor, in its unique bi-ped fashion, one paw lifting off the ground and striding forward, while the other paw held back, waiting its turn to go.

Funny thing about this story, aside from its atrocious opening: It’s a story about a cat. I submitted it to Cat Fancy magazine, and several weeks later, received a rejection slip explaining that Cat Fancy does not publish fiction about cats. (Although they did, at the time, publish fiction.)

8. “Conscience Stream” (1993)

His head felt swollen as he stared out the window.

I’m fairly certain I wrote this opening line just after taking a final exam.

9. “Incident Eight” (1993)

It was the deafening sound of silence that started him from his sleep.

This may be the worst of the lot. The story was pretty bad, too, despite its nearly 17,000 words. Stories that start with a character waking up (or a character dreaming) are generally considered to be no-nos. There are always exceptions. This is not one of them.

10. “No Small Discovery” (1993)

William sat in front of his baby.

At least I used a fairly common name this time.

Eventually, I learned, and improved. By 1996 I was writing openings that were pretty good. After about 100 stories or thereabout, I hit upon an opening line that sold for the first time:

From “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer” (IGMS, July 2007)

When I kissed the learned astronomer, I never expected to fall in love, discover intelligent alien life in the universe, and end up in jail. 

I always liked that opening line because it hits on all of the things I need for a story to work for me.  It sets the tone (a little light) and it introduces the voice of the narrator, a voice which works well for the story. Incidentally, when I started writing this story, I had no idea what would happen. I wrote this opening line, which more or less says what will happen in the story. I then went to see where it would lead.

From “Take One for the Road” (Analog, June 2011)

There was only one person on Earth who knew what really happened on that mission to Mercury

I think I was getting better. I like this opening because it gets right to the point and establishes that something unusual happened on a mission to Mercury, and there was only one person who knew what it was.

From “Lost and Found” (Daily Science Fiction, October 2012)

The mailman delivered the unusual package as the young man who visited me on occasion was leaving.

Here I am getting a little more nuanced. It wasn’t just a package that was delivered. That wouldn’t be all that interesting. It was an unusual package.

From “Meat and Greet” (IGSM, January 2015)

So there he is, Borges, returned from the dead and sitting across the table from me smelling of dust and moldy books as if he’d spent the last quarter-century scrambling through the stacks of an old and cavernous library. 

I think this is my longest opening line. And it helps prove my point (at least to me) that I need to find the right tone and voice for a story. I tried writing a version of this story in 1994. It took 21 years for me to find just the right tone and voice.

I often think that when a writer (especially this writer) begins to take themselves too seriously, problems arise in the writing. Perhaps that is what I have been doing lately. In any case, I think it helps to look back at how awful I used to be in order to see how far I’ve come.

And if you think you have opening lines worse than those above (something which I think is virtually impossible), feel free to share them in the comments.