End of the year Potpourri: Rocking the Writers of the Future, Izzy Crow, and Surviving December

Izzy Crow

I’m currently writing Chapter 11, as soon as I finish, I’ll be taking a some time to reoutline. I love outlining. I need to outline, but my outline is not a static document. The first draft is full of discoveries and course corrections – everything is fluid. So, at about the 25 percent point, I’m going to take a step back and look at the big picture again and redraw my map a bit. I still don’t think I’ll have it outlined all the way to the end, but that’s okay. Maps of undiscovered territory are always a bit sketchy.


After skipping a few quarters, I sent a story to Writers ofthe Future this fall and it received a Silver Honorable Mention, which is the category just below Semifinalist! Essentially, this story made the top 50. I am quite jazzed and have already sent this story off to a pro market. Hopefully I’ll have publication news for it before too long.

The last story I sent to WOTF, by the way, was Futile theWinds, which garnered an Honorable Mention and was published in Interzone.

December is a tough month to write through, what with the crushing amount of errands and non-negotiable family obligations joyful Christmas shopping, decorating, and precious family time.*

Returning to my outline will be a relief from pushing the narrative forward on my novel. Seriously, a novel is an endurance event. In the afterglow of my WOTF success, my December writing assignment is to rewrite a novelette that I’ve been tinkering with and send it off to the contest. I just keep repeating to myself, “write a little every day to keep the holiday insanity away.”


* Precious family time is the one part I unironically love. That and time to knit.

Hello, New Year

This year, instead of making resolutions, I’ve made a plan. Heading into the second half of December, holiday and family obligations avalanched and, as usual, my writing ground to a halt. Instead of feeling bad about this (like I do every year), I spent those last couple weeks creating a plan for 2015.

A plan that includes not only weekends off, but writing vacations. I’m building in two weeks off at the end of December, one week in June (when school ends for my girls), and I’m keeping one vacation week in reserve to be slotted in as needed (spontaneous road trip, anyone?).

Over the last couple years I’ve established a daily writing habit and I have a good idea of how many words I can write in a typical day and how much I can accomplish in a day, a week, a month.

The plan has me drafting, revising, and finishing:
6 flash fiction stories
4 short stories (3,000 – 5,000 words)
2 novellas
1 novel
2014 was the year when a lot of my short stories grew into something longer and I ended the year with a lot of open projects as I learn to manage longer forms, both in terms of writing skills and writing time. The flash and short stories will be new. The novel and novellas are projects started in 2014 that I will finish this year.

I’m budgeting two weeks for short stories, a month for the novellas, and six months for the novel, which is really a guess. This is the novel I began late last year, so a lot of the preliminary work is complete. 

The closest thing to a resolution I have is that I intend to track my daily work in a log book. An actual paper journal, because I’m old fashioned that way. At the end of this year I will have better data to further refine and improve my process.

Turkey City Writers’ Workshop

Turkey City 2014
I didn’t blog last week because I was preparing for the Turkey City Writers’ Workshop, which happened Saturday, October 18. I found it to be a useful and positive experience. It is also a ton of work. They don’t call them workshops for nothing.
Turkey City has been around since the early seventies, and its participants through the decades are a who’s who of genre writers, especially cyberpunk. This workshop is geared for advanced writers, and is known for its tough love approach. The expectation is that all the attendees have mastered the basic techniques of writing and storymaking. I found this to be the case for the most part. Even the less experienced participants brought material worth discussing, in my opinion.
For the past few years Chris Brown has graciously hosted it in his amazing home. He also participated with an excellent story that sat right at the intersection of genre and literary and wonderfully captured the gestalt of Austin hacker scene.
This year the word limit was 10,000 words, and with twelve people participating, well, you do the math – that’s a lot of preparatory reading. Not everyone turned in a novelette, but since my regular crit group limits pieces to 5,000 words, I did relish the opportunity to submit something longer.
We were six men and six women, and with strong female voices such as Patrice Sarath and Stina Leicht attending, I found the opinions and insights well balanced along gender lines. Anil Menon and Jasmina Tesanovicalso provided international and literary perspectives to our pieces. All in all there were plenty of fascinating, quirky, and useful opinions to go around.
Corey Doctorow even stopped in at the after party as he was in town for the Texas Teen Book Festival (which is becoming quite a thing BTW).
I was determined to bring something new to my first Turkey City and worked hard to complete a 9,000-word novelette from a previous fragment. It was pretty green. If I’d had all the time in the world, I would have taken it through one more revision before submitting it to group critique. It got dinged on the things I pretty much expected it would. Elements of the story are a little pat; the characters tend toward types. Subtlety and nuance, for me, tends to blossom in revision. The first pass is usually about setting the storyline and expressing the characters basic traits. (I’m one of those weirdos who likes revising way more than pounding out the first draft.)
I also got some excellent food for thought, especially from Bruce Sterling, who was the idea man of the critique group. He threw out all sorts of alternative scenarios for my story and its characters that really freed up the way I was thinking about it. The novelette is taking a well-deserved rest this week. Next week I’ll pull it apart and revise it and get it out there into the world.

Story Fail, Critique Win! Or, My Story Will Rise Again!

Red Bleed by Jon Coffelt
Another post about failing and just how awesome it can be!
I brought the first half of my novelette, Izzy Crow, to my local critique group on Tuesday night where it pretty much totally fell down. While everyone agreed that the writing was fine on the micro level (I like to think that I’ve achieved some competency in that area), the most consistent reaction overall was confusion. I want to elicit many emotions in a reader, but confusion is definitely not one of them.
While writing, I had hoped that I was pulling things off brilliantly. Yet I’m not surprised by my writing fail. Whenever I’m drafting I’m working hard to create the best story I ever have (my goal with each new project). I believe that you have to go into the first draft with a little hubris. A hubris born from an original idea so awesome that it inspired me to undertake the whole mad project in the first place. Hubris is also fuel for the engine that powers me through the thousands of words it takes to get the mangled corpse of the brilliant idea down on the page.
Another other thing that informs my first drafts is a piece of advice that I remember from last year’s Armadillocon. Unfortunately, I can’t remember who said it. It was during the opening session, when all the authors, editors, and various experts were arrayed across half the room, firing all their words of advice at us acolytes like so much buckshot. The advice was:
Don’t be afraid to fail.
A lot of things have to happen if you want to continue to get better. You have to show up and do the work and you have to learn the craft, but you can’t just keep coloring inside the lines. Failing is all about putting yourself out there. Trying something crazy, untenable, something nobody’s ever tried before, because if you always stay safe inside your zone of competency, you’ll never really breakthrough. I believe that to create something great, something transcendent, you have to keep making that leap. Or as Robert Browning put it:
“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”
And that leap guarantees failure. That’s why failure is my friend. I really believe that you can’t find out what doesn’t work – until it doesn’t work. You can’t skip failing, just like you couldn’t skip falling down when you were learning to walk.
As for as the critique: I don’t bring a piece of writing to the group until I feel like it’s at a point were people can at least see what I’m trying to achieve. But by the middle draft, it’s been just me and the story for so long and I’m so deep into it that I can’t judge it any more. I really can’t tell if it’s great or terrible. And honestly, I’m usually a little bored with it too. Hearing everyone discuss what they saw – and didn’t see – in the story, can both reset my compass, and get me fired up about it all over again.
The group was able to tell me where they were confused and why, and what they were (and mostly weren’t) getting out of it emotionally. This is invaluable. They tossed around a lot of ideas that really got my brain cooking. Instead of coming home depressed that this piece of writing wasn’t working, I was excited and stayed up way too late restructuring, reoutlining, and sketching in the scenes that will make this into a different, but definitely better, story.

When do I get to read it, you ask?

Detail of man reading “The Three Kingdoms”

After reading my post about finishing the first draft of my novelette Izzy Crow, my brother asked, When do I get to read it? I’m afraid the answer is, not for a while. I think of a story idea, sit down and write it out, and that’s really where things are just getting started. I followed my own advice with this story and wrote fast and let it be a big, bountiful mess, which will need a lot of taming before it resembles a finished story. 

One of my favorite short story writers, George Saunders talks about about his approach to story being an iterative process. He explains that even if he doesn’t know exactly what a story is about when he starts it, if he keeps returning to it over and over again through revisions, the true meaning of the story kind of accretes (Check out the article and listen to the whole interview here). I think this is true. In any creative pursuit, it becomes apparent that while you can work faster, there are no shortcuts.

Here are the steps in my process as it is today. It may change and evolve as I continue to push myself to become a better writer.

    First is the idea of course, usually followed by a little preliminary research. I don’t factor this into the time it takes to produce a finished story. I keep a collection of ideas simmering in my journal, and when I have a spare minute or two I’ll poke around the Internet for information that will help grow a particular idea until I’ve got enough to start writing. For example, for the story I’m working on this week (remember a story a week!): I’m reading about the different kinds of environments tidally locked planets might have. I am actually doing this concurrent with writing the first draft.

    • First draft. “Ground Zero” can mean either the point directly below an exploding nuclear bomb, or a starting point for some activity. In writing, I think both definitions are apt. This set of half formed characters and events have to go from my brain to the page and even when I start with something, it feels like starting from nothing. The process can be quite disfiguring, in that what you end up with can be pretty unrecognizable when compared with the original idea, but that’s not always a bad thing.
    • First read through with notes for big changes. This is where I assess what I got with my first attempt. Theoretically I could abandon a story at this point, but I haven’t done that yet. I usually do a little additional research here, filling in missing information and searching for specific, vivid details to add.
    • Second draft. Here I implement all the stuff I got from the first read, making big changes. Reshaping by cutting big swaths out and chunking in new material including said detail (from a hopefully brief trip to the land of research). At some point around here, my understanding of the themes of the piece usually come into better focus, which may cause another sub-round of cutting and chunking.
    • Third draft. These are smaller adjustments, smoothing it all out, paragraph and sentence level work, style, tone, tweaking metaphors and language to highlight said theme. This can take a long time. Writing a good sentence is hard.
    • Critique. Now I’m ready to let a few people see it. Slugtribe, my in-person critique group meets the 2nd and 4th Tuesdays of every month, or I can send it off to the Online Writing Workshop, crits usually take about a week to come back from that site. I find getting feedback from others essential to the process. This is also a chance for me to step away from this story for a few days. It’s amazing what I’ll see when I look at it after a break. 
    • Final revisions. Assessing all the critiques and incorporating the useful comments AND a final proofing read through (yup, still finding typos).
    first read through

    Each of these six stages can take a week or more, and that’s a minimum, what with hubby and kids and the dog and life intervening and all. Some stories are harder than others, they put up more resistance, require more revisions to really get at the nut of the thing. This year I am trying out drafting a NEW story every week, so I am working on the new thing in the morning and revising older stories in the afternoons and evenings. I expect I will be writing more flash fiction (stories under 1,000 words) and probably some poetry on weeks when I want to devote more time to revising a longer story.

    So, finally the story is finished. Time to start submitting it.

    Notice I didn’t say “time to submit it” I said “time to START SUBMITTING it.” So far, all of my published stories have been submitted to a minimum of 3 markets and a maximum of 15. That’s 15 rejections before an editor said yes. Some markets will respond very quickly, within a week, but many take a month or two or three. Zombie Envy, just published this month, and another one that is forthcoming (which I will get to announce soon!) were finished in EARLY 2012. Maybe as I get more story-writing skillz, I’ll get on a faster track here. But I know that plenty of great stories also get rejected because they don’t fit the theme or aesthetic of a given publication. The only thing to do is send it out, forget it, and get back to work on the current story.

    So, I hope to finish Izzy Crow by the end of February or early March, then I’ll start sending it out. When it gets accepted for publication, believe me, you’ll be the first to know!

    Writing My First Novelette & Google Auto-Complete as Story Prompt

    I see now what Jay Lake is talking about when he says writing a short story a week will teach you about scaling. All I can say is that it’s going to take me a while to get that down.

    January’s Week Three story ballooned into novelette (with the working title of Izzy Crow).  I just completed the draft yesterday and true to my Order v. Chaos theory, this draft is a glorious MESS! It’s currently at 14,000 words with close to 3,000 words in the trash bin (I decided not to count shearing off and dumping my extraneous flailings-about as revising).

    I’m spending today attempting* to draft a couple flash pieces. I don’t know if I’ll come up with much as I’m pretty spent, but I’ll be writing and I’ll keep W1S1 obligation on track for January. I think it’s going to take a few months to get this write-a-story-a-week thing up and running smoothly. I’m surprisingly okay with that. Despite my shaky start in terms of meeting the letter of my goals, I think I’ve met the spirit of them. I have written more regularly and produced a greater volume of words than I did in any single month last year. Instead of struggling to write a thousand words a day, most days I wrote at least 1K words and even had a couple 2K days!

    I’m hoping that this new velocity will produce, if not cohesion, then more passion in my stories. I’ll know more after I give Izzy Crow a read through this weekend. Next week I’ll start revising. I will be very interested in the difference in the word count between this draft and the first revision.

    Inspired by Cheezburger’s Auto-Complete Writes a Poem, I decided to let Google auto-complete prompt me. If you want to try it just type in a pronoun and the first letter of any “be” verb. I wanted to write in third person, here’s what I got with “she” and “he.” Fun!

    Here’s and example what I got with one:

    That Guy

    He who arrived two hours after the party started.
    He who never answered the invitation because he never received one, but his old college roommate did.
    He who is always hungry for meaning, which is not to be confused with mere  information.
    He who corners you between the buffet table and the wall for forty-five minutes, but never tells you his name. He must consider that “information.”
    He who tells you, more than once, that he would normally never attend a party whose hosts are so cruelly uninformed as to serve overpriced eggs torn from the bellies of the magnificent fish that swim in streams or are raised in aquaculture or are freakishly enlarged due to genetic modification or hormones or maybe all of the above.
    He who tells you about the cabin he lived in after he graduated. It belonged to his grandma, though the land belongs to the county now.
    He who spent the winter writing truth after truth about the degradation of our culture in a pile of spiral notebooks.
    He who would have everyone believe that the cabin is as pristine as the unmarred wilderness that embraces it. But you have been in a few cabins yourself, and looked out at the wind driving the rain through the slender gaps between each gray plank of aging wood.
    He who huddled on the bed, blank notebooks at his feet, wrapped in an ancient blanket so thoroughly eaten by moths that the holes resemble a spray of buck-shot. While he talks, you remember the marred roadside signs that still say Yield despite the paint that has been torn away.
    He who will not yield, but will instead hike out of the valley, watched silently by bobcat and snake, harangued by jay and squirrel.
    He who returns to the city and begs a spot on your friend’s couch.
    He who sleeps quiet as a mouse and turned discretely toward the cushions until the roommate’s wife and new baby wake him, she singing softly to it until the two of them fall asleep again in the rocking chair that has been moved into the kitchen.
    He who when he cannot sleep, slips out into the slick-paved night where he discovers an all-night coffee house filled with fantastic and impossible animal heads mounted on the wall.
    He who is seriously considering a career in papier-mâché, because art is art, right?
    He who stays until all of the guests have left including his old college roommate.
    He who does not have cab fare.
    He who ate all the caviar.

    *The novelette was supposed to be a flash story. It grew out of a prompt from Storymatic (more about that nifty little item in another post). The cards I drew were: a pig, plastic flowers, and royalty.