Category: writing

Writers live for the mail

Kelly finds it amusing that the first thing I do upon arriving home from work is rush off to the mailbox to check for any mail.  I’ve tried to explain to her that writers live for the mail, but I’m not quite sure she gets it.

Granted, there aren’t a whole lot of science fiction and fantasy markets these days that don’t take electronic submissions.  But so what?  We live for mail regardless of its delivery mechanism.  At this very moment, I have 3 stories out for submission.  One of those stories is at ANALOG (and has been for 51 days–writers count things, too!) and my biggest reason for racing to the mailbox each day is in the hope that there is NOT a small, self-addressed stamped envelope there indicating a rejection.

(Think of applying to colleges here, and the stress and anxiety sweated out over the mail.  Would you get a “big” envelope, indicating an acceptance?  Or a small one, indicating rejection?)

Each day that I don’t get something from ANALOG increases my hope that the story I have sent has made it farther and farther up the editorial scale.  Writers say that they want fast responses from editors, but what they really want are fast acceptances.  There is a thrill to not knowing as time stretches on.  A kind of quantum state of acceptance kicks in where a manuscript exists in both accepted and rejected states simultaneously until the wave function collapses and an SASE shows up in the mailbox–or an acceptance shows up in the inbox.

Writers also read all kinds of things into these submissions.  Perhaps the longer my story is over at ANALOG means it really is rising up out of the slush, into the hands of assistant editors and maybe even Stan Himself.  Or perhaps, everyone is on summer vacation and manuscripts aren’t being read.  Or maybe–horrors!–the thing has been lost in the mails!  Such things have been known to happen.

There is not quite the same thrill with markets that take electronic submissions, and I’m not sure why that is.  Some of these markets even go so far as to tell you where in the queue your story sits, and some of them respond so quickly that you don’t even have time to built up to the requisite peak of anticipation.  Nevertheless, in all these cases, I am checking my submission spreadsheet several times a week to see how long various manuscripts have been out, daydreaming each time that one or more will come back with an acceptance–or, dare I dream it!–a cluster of them.

And when we do find that SASE in the mail, we don’t tear it open instantly.  We weigh it carefully in our hand, hefting it to determine if it is merely a form letter rejection, or perhaps something more, something editorial comment.  It is, alas, always light, but that doesn’t deter me.  Short story contracts are usually short and it would be easy to squeeze one into the envelope.  And of course, there is always the last resort: that the market has decided to accept manuscripts the way that John Campbell accepted them: with a bare check.  Could a check be in that SASE, we wonder?

Of course, eventually we tear it open to some amount of disappointment, but if we are serious about our writing careers, then this low point doesn’t last long.  For within a few minutes we have it in another envelope (or virtual one) and on its way to the next market on the list and before the day is out, we are once again seized by that lottery-daydream possibility that our story has already sold, and we are just waiting to get the official word.

I tried to explain all of this to Kelly, but she just thinks I’m some kind of obsessive nut.  Exactly, I toldher, what writer isn’t?

Scrivener: the ultimate writer’s tool

Today’s announcement of the upcoming release of Scrivener 2.0 gives me a good excuse to write about my experiences with this invaluable tool for writers.

There are literally scores of positive reviews of Scrivener available online, and for good reason:  it is an outstanding piece of software that allows a writer to focus on his or her primary job, writing.  Philosophically, Scrivener focuses on content.  Since most professional markets (novels, short fiction, plays and screenplays) have a standard manuscript format, Scrivener knows how to take the content a writer provides and turn it into the proper format–so that you can concentrate on writing.  All of my stories since 2007 have been written using Scrivener, including the stories that I have sold to professional markets.

Scrivener uses an innovative “corkboard” that allows you to plan out your scenes on virtual index cards, easily shuffle them around, color code them (by point-of-view, for instance) and visualize your story at a high level.  There are features that allow you to set goals for a story and session.  (I want to write 1,250 words today.)  And there are features that allow you to manage your research.  (Scrivener is even used by students for writing research papers.)  All of these features have been described by others many, many times.  I wanted to describe some of the unique ways that I use Scrivener, in addition to just writing my stories.

Scrivener provides templates for different projects.  I made some small modifications to the Short Story Manuscript template, adding some folders that I use with all of my stories.  There are 3 of these folders that are part of my template: Deleted Scenes, Critiques, Business.

One of the toughest things for me as a writer is cutting my own writing.  But it is a necessary evil and I’m a better writer for the cutting I do.  Scrivener has made this cutting easier.  I have a folder called “Deleted Scenes” and when I am cutting scenes, I simply move them to the “Deleted Scenes” folder.  This allows me to preserve what I wrote (and possibly reuse it somewhere else) without cutting it and losing it forever.

Back in the summer of 2008, I participated in an 8-week writing workshop led by science fiction writer James Gunn.  One of the most beneficial things to come out of this workshop was a trusted cadre of writers whom I trust to give me feedback on my stories. Scrivener makes it easy for me to manage these critiques and keep them associated with the story.  Each critique gets a document in the “Critique” folder (with the person’s name) and in this way, I can keep feedback on the story with the story.

Finally, I have  “Business” folder.  In the business folder goes things related to the business-end of the story.  For instance, if I sell the story, a scanned (PDF) version of the contract would go in the folder.  Correspondence with editors get placed in this folder, and I also put any reviews of the story that I find in this folder.  (I could probably keep a separate folder for reviews, but I haven’t done that at this point.)

The ability to keep everything together for a writing project, from the first index card on which the idea is scribbled, to the contracts and reviews of the published story is one of the things I really like about Scrivener.  The clean, unobtrusive interface makes it easy to focus on the writing.  I used Scrivener to successfully complete NaNoWriMo last year and plan on doing it again this year.  I would highly recommend Scrivener to any writer out there.  (Although that writer would have to be on a Macintosh.)

I can’t wait for Scrivener 2.0!

Writing advice from Quintilian (circa 96 A.D.)

I came across this passage of writing advice in my reading of Will Durant’s Caesar and Christ (pp. 315):

Clearness is the first essential, then brevity, beauty, and vigor.  Correct repeatedly and stoically.  Erasure is as important as writing.  Prune what is turgid, elevate what is commonplace, arrange what is disorderly, introduce rhythm where the language is harsh, modify where it is too absolute… The best method of correction is to put aside for a time what we have written, so that when we come to it again it may have an aspect of novelty, as of being another man’s work; in this way we may preserve ourselves from regarding our writings with the affection that we lavish upon a newborn child.

When you think about it, not much has changed in nearly 2,000 years.

My take on story rejections

I’ve been noting over on Facebook my story rejections as they come through (13 so far this year, on a total of 15 submissions).  It is heartened to see my friends reply with indignant responses, most of them aimed at the editors, and while I appreciate their sticking up for me, I probably need to clarify my own take on these rejections slips.

  1. Stories are rejected not authors.  This is another way of saying that rejections are not personal.  Editors act as gatekeepers for their respective markets, and are trying to get the very best possible stories they can.  Rejecting a story is not a reflection on the writer, merely a reflection on the editorial taste for that particular story.
  2. Editors know what they are doing. After mentioning a rejection, I often get comments to the effect of “what does s/he know, anyway?”  Editors know what they are looking for and they won’t accept anything less than the best.  I wouldn’t want a story of mine accepted unless an editor thought it was worthwhile.  While I understand an appreciate the sentiment behind my friends’ comments, another point is that the editor usually has an advantage over the friend in that the editor has read the story; my friends usually haven’t and are going on faith that the story is worthy.
  3. Editors have different tastes.  A story rejected by one editor can and will be picked up by another.  The stories that I have sold each collected their share of rejections before finally being accepted somewhere.  Editorial tastes vary.  This goes for established pros as well.  In my conversations with other writers, I’ve found that, to this day, they have stories rejected at one major market, only to be accepted at another.   It is for this reason that I always have the next market in mind and when a story comes back, I try to get it out to the next market that same day.
  4. I try to learn from every rejection.  When I was starting out 15 years ago, I inherited my views of editorship from those authors that I admired.  I soon learned that a seasoned author can take a different view of editors than someone starting out.  Now, I look at rejection as a way to learn.  I am at the stage where, more often than not, I get some kind of editorial comment back on the story.  I might not always agree with the comment but I can always learn from it.

Sometimes, though, it can be frustrating receiving a slew of rejection slips.  Sometimes, it can seem as if no progress is being made.  But this is just frustration talking.  I look at the stories I am sending out now and find that they are much better than the stories I sent out last year.  And the stories I was sending out last year are better than the ones sent out the year before.  I can see the improvements and the key is to take the rejections, learn from them, continue to write, continue to improve and soon enough the tide will turn, fewer rejections will come in because better stories are going out.