Category: writing life


Earlier in the month I received some exciting news.  Swamp Gas, my post apocalyptic flash fic, was accepted for publication!

It did not come without a truckload of effort and patience, and I’m happy to see that it will pay off.

I wrote the beginning to Swamp Gas for fun, following a prompt in one of the writers’ groups I used to frequent.  It grew into a longer, more complicated story despite the length of the polished submitted piece.  Though at less than a thousand words, I felt confident that it had its appeal as flash fiction and set out to find a magazine that agreed with me.

This experience only reinforces the idea that writing, like all art, is subjective.  I received my fair share of rejections.  Most of them were forms.  My one personalized rejection claimed that the story lacked a meaningful conclusion.  I disagreed, but in the end neither of us were truly wrong.

I once compared the submission process to dating.  It’s a comparison that bears repeating here.  The trick is not to submit the perfect piece to one magazine, but find the right fit for your (edited and polished until you are satisfied) story.

Now to work on the next story.  I expect another mountain of rejections from the next batch of slush readers.  I’ll share more details closer to publication.

End of NaNoWriMo Thoughts – What’s the Point?

Four days ago, National Novel Writing Month came to an end.  Those who were dedicated enough, or had enough time on their hands, or chugged a pot of coffee and went crazy on the keyboard, reached the milestone of 50 thousand words.  For many people, it doesn’t always happen for one reason or another.  For some, it never does.  And that’s okay.

The NaNo forums are full of congratulations for those who crossed the finish line, and encouragement for those who haven’t reached it yet.  But you’ll also find links to some odd journalist’s article criticizing the event, always for the same reasons.  They parrot misconceptions about NaNoWriMo that are seen everywhere, especially among people who don’t write as a hobby.

A close friend of mine, after I posted a Facebook status celebrating a day of exceptional wordcount progress, felt the need to point out that the quality of the words is more important than quantity.  The implication?  Maybe I should slow down and work on getting it right the first time.

For some people, this approach may be fine.  I’m not going to pretend that NaNoWriMo is for everyone.  But for many people, myself included, the “getting it right the first time” is a pipe dream.

There are two reasons why those who assume NaNo is all about writing a masterpiece in a month, or that taking the slower approach is better, are downright wrong:

1.  I don’t care how much time you devote to your novel draft, it will not be of professional quality once you finish draft one.  You’ll still have to put it through rounds of edits.  Writers are human, and mistakes will be made.  You’ll make typos and embarrassing grammatical errors.  You’ll probably find a giant plothole halfway through your manuscript.  A character or three will change their personality as you’re writing, and their new thoughts will contradict what you gave them in chapter one.  Regardless of the fact that you own your story, it is in many ways like a living creature: it will change and follow its own path whether you want it to or not, and how you handle these changes will both affect the quality of your story and what direction you go while editing.  But that’s for another topic.

2.  Look at the wordcount for most novels.  You’ll find it is much higher than the standard NaNo goal of 50,000.  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has a count of over 77 thousand words, to give one example.  Most writers who reach their 50K goal in NaNo find that their story isn’t even close to being finished.  What’s more, a lot of the words written down don’t survive later rounds of edits (though keep in mind that nothing written is ever truly wasted.)

Make no mistake, most people who participate have no illusions about having the next Song of Ice and Fire on their desk on December 1st.  But if they work hard enough, they just might have the beginnings of their own great story.  And that’s the whole point.

The Office of Letters and Light (NaNo’s parent organization) freely admits that a lot of what people will write in November will turn out to be in need of edits.  (In their own words, “you will write a lot of crap.”)  Their goal is to use that tight timeframe to encourage you to get off your butt and start writing, instead of putting off that novel idea that you’ve been kicking around for years.

The “NaNo is a waste of time” mentality is the misconception of the year.  NaNoWriMo isn’t about churning out a masterpiece of literature in a month.  It’s about getting those words down, because otherwise you never will.

NaNoWriMo: Week 2

We’re now in week 3 of National Novel Writing Month.  Hopefully it will go better than the previous week.

In the NaNoWriMo community, Week 2 is generally considered the time when productivity slows or hits a wall.  The feeling of hopelessness often kicks in, and that nagging feeling of “there’s no way you can keep this up!  You’re so far from your goals!” starts gnawing at the back of your mind.  The dreaded Inner Editor finishes chewing out of the leather straps you used to restrain it, and gets to work convincing you that the words you do have down are terrible and you’d be better off without them.

I am not immune to this feeling.

My week had a great start.  Despite being behind on the daily word count (to stay on track, writers try to add about 1,667 words a day) by over 10 thousand words, I pulled off an amazing sprint thanks to high doses of caffeine and the BICFOK (Butt in chair, fingers on keys) method.  My end of day total was close to 7 thousand words.  I’ve pulled off 5K days in the past, but this was a new record for me.  I’m still impressed with my progress.

After that day?  Nothing.  I’ve added maybe a few hundred words since then.  At the time of this writing I’m still hovering around 15 thousand words, and although I love all of them, I wish there were more.  But after that sprint I’ve been feeling mentally drained.  Not only that, given the fact that I didn’t plan as much as I’m used to before writing, I’m a bit lost as to where the plot should go from my current state.  I’m not sure yet if I’m not wired for “pantsing” through novels or just not used to the method.

It wasn’t all bad.  What little progress I have made all but cemented the structure that the novel will have upon completion.  Not unlike Jasper, the story will have three distinct parts.  Part 1 focuses on the plague and its destruction of social order in Sunforge, ending with a wedding for the two protagonists that doesn’t quite go as planned.  It will establish the characters and their places in society, create the bleak atmosphere and establish the basic social/economic structure of the city.  The latter is more important for future installments, because I am considering expanding this story into a series.  Part 2 deals with the aftermath of the plague once it finishes off the population.  The survivors are then left to deal with vengeful spirits.  Part 3 kicks in once the characters survive the ghosts and discover the true culprits behind the plague.

I’ve also made some progress into fleshing out the main group of antagonists.  Many Sunforge citizens, accepting that they are facing their death and believing that Shipwreck Islanders are the cause, begin acting out of revenge to commit violent acts up to and including murder on the refugees.  Foreman Zander manages to recruit members of the lower class hardest hit by plague to aid in his “cause.”  It’s not a case of “get them before they get us,” but “get them because they got us.”

That’s how my week was, writing wise.  I’d cross my fingers in hope that this week will show better progress, but that makes it difficult to write.

NaNoWriMo week 1

No, I didn’t vanish.  I’ve been buried in a mountain of pumpkins and pumpkin baked goods.

It’s not all bad.  I’ve written about the pumpkin fever in spite of the Florida climate.  While I’m partial to the occasional pumpkin spice latte, my fondness for the seasonal flavor has gone down.  Maybe it’s the mile-high stacks of pumpkin pies and pound cakes I package on a daily basis, or maybe I’m outgrowing pumpkin.
Along with my new job, I’ve been devoting a lot of my time to National Novel Writing Month.  In the spirit of newness I’ve changed some of my usual habits.  For one, it’s time I took a short break from Jasper and come back to it with fresh eyes.  So I’m working on something new this month.  Ascended is a dark fantasy story with a mysterious plague, vengeful ghosts, and a woman who can transform into a bird.
This is also the first time in five years I’m pantsing the story.  Typically I have an outline to go by as my guide, a bare-bones map into unfamiliar territory.  This year, I have no map at all and the land is totally uncharted.  I wasn’t able to reach the finish line in the past few years with that outline, so perhaps it couldn’t hurt to give pantsing another try.
So far I’ve got a slow start and I’m far from being on track.  So far, I’m up to 3 thousand words.  By day 7 the par is 11,669. I’m slowly catching up but I’ve got a long way to go.
In my next post I’ll go into more detail about the plot and backstory of Ascended.  Expect to see a Weekend Writing Warriors post or three in the near future as well!

My Protagonist is a Lannister! Or, Balancing Inspiration and Originality.

Right now I’m in the process of planning two connected stories for National Novel Writing Month.  Both are fantasy concepts, one high and one dark.  And with the limited time I have to map out a setting, characters, magic systems, and other intricacies, I find myself falling back on archetypes and old, familiar ideas.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Making a setting recognizably medieval means that the reader can get into the story faster without having to do extensive research.  But I still need to make sure that this is my story, and not everyone else’s.

Here’s the problem I’ve run into:  My protagonist is from a noble house represented by a lion.  She’s secretly illegitimate, and her parents take great care in concealing this fact.  The lord of the house has strong armies and strategically adept when it comes to war.  The house goes to war with another house represented by a wolf.

If you follow the events in A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones, you’ll find this strangely familiar.  And George R. R. Martin’s writing didn’t even inspire the plot of this story. (The scale of it, maybe.)  But because I’ve been so absorbed in ASOIAF so far, ideas from those books transferred over into mine.

Maybe these ideas would be fine ten years or so from now, but with Martin’s popularity in recent times I know this won’t fly.  So I’ll be making some significant changes to the characters now before I’m waist-deep in the story.

Non-human Characters

This draft of Jasper City is all about adding scenes and chapters where the plot had holes to fill.  With the chapter count going from 14 to 35, I’ve got a lot of work to do.  Taking the advice of one beta reader, one plot point I am expanding is the presence of sentient robots in the story.

The robots are probably the most difficult aspect of the story so far.  Their original purpose was to show how far the “old society” (that is, our society) had advanced before war and natural disaster turned North America into a wasteland.  They play an important part in Jasper City, a bigger role in Jasper’s Fall, and an even bigger role in the sequel I’m planning.  So they couldn’t remain as a decoration for worldbuilding purposes for very long.  The question then became:  How does one flesh out a character who doesn’t have flesh?

Enter SAM.  Its name stands for Sentient Android Machine.  SAM is among the oldest of Machine models  considered “people” in this setting.  SAM is solar-powered, though its panels don’t gather as much energy as they used to, and a loose screw in its head has led to a constant, distracting ticking sound.  SAM is one of two Machines who have personal involvement with the main characters, but is the only one to have chapters from its own point of view.

I’m working on SAM’s chapter right now.  The hardest part is making the chapter feel relateable while still portraying a robot effectively.  SAM doesn’t feel the way that humans do, and so it isn’t driven by things like fear or loyalty.  It was created with a specific purpose and destiny as a businessman’s personal assistant.  With the businessman long gone with the rest of the old society, SAM is still driven by his initial programming, aiming to survive long enough to be of service to someone else.  So it gathers what few things it can, mostly data, in hopes of finding employment in the future.

Another smaller challenge is writing SAM as a genderless character.  SAM has no need for a male or female distinction, and so SAM does not have either.  Throughout the chapter SAM will be referred to as an “it” whenever necessary.  But while writing this post my brain tried to refer to SAM as a “he!”  Perhaps this is an effect of our subconscious trying to assign genders to everything and everyone whether it’s relevant or not.  (Hell, some languages give all nouns this treatment.  Four years of high school Spanish taught me that dresses were inherently male, for unknown reasons.)  But that’s another topic.

Many stories are written from the perspective of non-human characters, but most of these species are close enough to humans that it doesn’t feel too alien to us.  It’s when you create something that’s so far removed from humanity that the difficult questions pop up.  Things like emotions and pronouns, which we often take for granted, don’t always apply.

Getting Your Toe in the Door

“You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you’re working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success – but only if you persist.”  ~Isaac Asimov

Recently I posted a review of a certain site I use to find freelance writing jobs.  One main concern of mine was the steep learning curve (that is, admittedly, not unique to the site) and that it is more geared toward established writers than a rookie like myself.  Today I looked past those concerns and submitted a few pitches in hopes of landing a new job.

Why would I do this?  The answer is simple, and for the same reason that writers trying to get published send out queries and manuscripts to anyone who will accept them.  Yes, it’s a game skewed in favor of the elite.  But how do you think the elite got there?

It’s a concept I’ve had to learn the hard way, especially now that I’m looking for a new job.  Finding a job in my area in my chosen field is more difficult than it should be.  Even though this is the right time of year to be looking (Season is about to kick in, when all of the tourists come to south Florida and throw money at hotels and restaurants), I reply to many job listings and receive few calls for interviews in return.  Some of the ads can be unreasonable (I need a cook with 4-7 years of experience, to work in my small kitchen and do his own dishes, for $8 an hour), some of the ads are minimal (Me need server!  You call now!), and some are downright fishy (I’m opening a bikini bar on the beach and need servers!  Send me pictures of you in a bikini to be considered!  Oh, you want the name of the bar?  Uhhh…)  Navigating the job listings is like walking through a minefield, except you kind of hope one of them will go off.  But that’s for another post.

Yes, I’m going to be turned down.  A lot.  I accept this.  And I’m not just talking about my recent pitches or my attempts to land a new job.  The same applies to the short story that’s currently making the rounds.  It will apply when I send a query letter for a finished novel.  But the thing to remember is this:  The worst answer you will hear is no.

I’ll repeat that:  The worst answer you can hear is “no.”  And odds are it won’t even be a rude “no.”  The rejections I’ve received for Swamp Gas so far were form letters, but politely worded.  Nobody is going to mock you for submitting your story.  (You wouldn’t want someone like that representing you anyway.)  You’ll get a thank you for submitting and an apology that it doesn’t fit.

Granted, you’ll also get a lot of non-answers.  Instead of a definitive answer you’ll just get silence.  Those sometimes sting more than hearing “no,” but keep in mind that, for whatever reason, this person couldn’t put up the effort to send a quick email or phone call.  Why go through the effort to stress over them?  Focus your attention on someone who appreciates your awesomeness.

It’s only by going through all of these “no” answers that I will achieve some forward motion, because the more exposure I get, the more likely I am to be noticed by someone who will say “yes.”

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods

I’ve decided to return to my book-reading resolution.  While it’s unlikely that I’ll make my 50 book mark by the end of the year, that should not stop me.  Last night I crossed book #20 off of my list, and that’s a number to brag about.

But I also believe that books are not conquests.  You don’t read a book for the sake of reading it and moving on to the next one.  You read a book because you want to experience the story.  Maybe you want to peek inside a writer’s head for a while, maybe you want to escape what’s in your own mind temporarily.  The reasons for reading a book are just as personal as a writer’s reasons for writing one in the first place.

But that’s for another post.

Last night I finished reading American Gods by Neil Gaiman.  Despite the overwhelmingly positive reviews of his work, I’d hesitated picking up a book of his until now.  Why?  Maybe I’m just stubborn.  I don’t like people telling me what I should read.  Perhaps it’s an extension of the ideas mentioned above.  My reasons for reading are personal and someone else shouldn’t interfere with it.  Whatever the reason, I’m glad I finally read this one.

Be warned, there may be minor spoilers ahead if you haven’t read the book.  I’ll keep them to a minimum, though.

My first impression upon reading this book and being introduced to all of the godly characters was “I need to do some research!  These gods are interesting.”  And that’s no joke.  I adored the writing style in this book too.  The book had a darker, more serious overtone which contrasted with scenes full of, well, Gods and dwarves and pixies.  Given the tone, I expected more death and bloodshed (and fewer resurrections) in the ending.  The loose ends did get tied up nice and neatly by the end, but the execution was well done.

Toward the middle of the story, Shadow is dumped in a small town called Lakeside presumably to lay low while Mr. Wednesday does much of the dirty work.  (While at first this seems like a cop-out, this subplot proves have more significance later on, so that was interesting.)  The townspeople take an immediate liking to Shadow, this stranger who wandered in on a bus the night before and has no idea how to live in sub-zero temperatures.  The police chief gives him a tour of the town and helps him buy things because he has nothing better to do.  I was left amazed, thinking, “Is this how small towns really operate out in the Midwest?  Maybe I’ve been living in the wrong towns all my life!”  But alas, even the frozen utopia of Lakeside had some dark secrets to it.

This is definitely a candidate for re-reading in the future.  There were quite a few intricate details that were missed by me in the first go through of the story.  I suppose it didn’t help that I took a break halfway through to focus on writing and editing.

The next book I’ll read will be Nadine Ducca’s Serving Time.

Review of

(Note:  This will be cross-posted to my other blog, The Bitter Baker.)

As previously mentioned, one of my resolutions for 2012 (and 2013) was to take on more freelance writing jobs.  I’ve had some success with this.  While I was able to find and produce some work, it was not exactly at the level that I was hoping for.

Being completely unfamiliar with the freelance world and unsure of where to start, I stumbled across and thought I found gold.  Unfortunately I found more hassle than I bargained for.

The site has an approval process in order to get in and I’m wary of privacy/trade secret regulations.  So I won’t be posting any screenshots to illustrate.  Can’t be too careful.

Bear in mind:  I have been a member for some time and the site has gone through major renovations since my induction.  But I made the cut with almost no experience under my belt, so their process isn’t that rigorous.  If I can get in, you likely can too.

Once you’re accepted as a writer, you’ll have access to the rest of the interface.  (There is a separate interface for buyers, who use a different part of the site to log in.  I have not worked with this side personally.)  There are further steps you need to take in order to start claiming jobs, including filling out a profile, posting a W-9 to the site for tax purposes (US writers only), and applying for certain “specialties” in order to accept jobs in a certain field.  The latter step will ensure that you will wait at least a few days before taking any jobs, due to the time your application takes to be accepted or denied.

This comes to my first complaint:  The turnaround time for the Scripted staff is slow.  Not just for applying to specialties.  Once you are able to take a job, finish it and submit it, you can count on waiting at least a week for the content manager to look at your piece and send it back for edits before the buyer even sees it.  On a few occasions in the past, staff members would email you directly to let you know about certain big jobs you could take.  I would respond immediately for more information, only to wait hours for the staff member to reply and tell me the position was already filled.

Let’s say you made it on the site, filled out your profile and gave them all the necessary information.  You even applied for a specialty in Publishing/Journalism and were accepted.  Awesome!  Now you can start taking jobs.  Nine times out of ten, unfortunately, you won’t see one available to you.  And when you do, it won’t be available for at least two days.  What gives?  According to Scripted this has to do with your “writing score,” an arbitrary number assigned to you based on the writing sample you gave when you applied and can be adjusted based on the quality of previous jobs you’ve filled.  Those with higher scores are given first priority at new jobs, and you’ll find that many of the jobs will go away quickly.  This makes it very difficult for new writers to move up – how are you going to improve your score if you can’t get any jobs?

Another option for new writers, and one where I’ve had most success, is with Pitches.  Buyers not looking for any specific topic will post a general idea in the Pitches section and writers will pitch their own ideas to write about.  If the buyer likes your pitch, congrats!  You’ve got yourself a job.  This is a popular avenue for blogs to find new content to post, because it will give them greater variety.  Unfortunately, the minimal information required of buyers to make posts in this section gives it a Craigslist feel, and the “ads” will be as vague and unprofessional as possible.  There seems to be very little quality control on part of the staff in this section, too.  More than once I’ve seen ads written in Korean, ads that said only “this is a joke/test, please don’t pitch to me,” or double postings.  (At the time of this writing, all of the aforementioned ads are still up.)  It wasn’t as much of a problem in the past, but now navigating this section feels like navigating through a minefield.

I’m not going to pretend that finding jobs in the freelance world is easy, especially for a beginner.  But these are obstacles that are unnecessary and could  be done away with on part of the staff, but for whatever reason this did not happen.

So while is a good idea in theory, the execution seems to be lacking and the quality slipping.  Because of the learning curve, I would not recommend this to beginning writers.  If you are more established and skilled in the field, this may be of more use to you.

Plot Dot Test

I found this in a recent post on the Adventures in Agentland blog.  A plot dot test is supposed to be a way of determining where in your plot action is lagging.

To start, you either need a finished manuscript or detailed outline.
It goes like this:  Take a sheet of paper, and all along the top write a line of numbers corresponding with the number of chapters in your story.  For each chapter, place a dot somewhere below that number.  The idea is to make a bar graph for your story, with the x axis being your story chapters and the y axis being the amount of action in a given chapter.

If my math-heavy explanation is too confusing, here is an example.  This is the plot line I created from Jasper City:

There were a few errors when graphing, hence the crossed-out dots.  Other than that, that’s how I feel the plot flows.

Judging by this graph there are areas where I could probably ramp up the action.  It does look rather slow, but looking at the outline itself I would disagree.  It’s an interesting test but I feel there is a wide margin of error to take into account as we’re measuring something that can’t really be quantified.

What do you think?