ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop Boot Camp Week 6: Time for a Spit Shine

We’re two weeks from the June 11 deadline to submit a short story or the first chapter of a novel and sign up for the ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop. Believe it or not, two weeks is plenty of time to create a brand spanking new piece for a writing workshop. If you’re diving in from scratch, clear some time in your schedule, buy some extra coffee beans, and peruse the earlier boot camp posts in this series. Take what you need and write like the wind!
Regardless of when you start writing, we’re not talking about a shining piece of perfection here. What you want to bring is something in decent shape that will give the pros and your fellow critique partners an idea of where you are as a writer. In my opinion perfection is overrated. Strive for it, sure. We all do, and we’re all destined to fall just short – welcome to the creative life. I know it’s scary to turn in something that you can see is flawed or has some issue you just can’t resolve, but the worst that will happen is that your critique partners will point it out. If you’re lucky, you will also receive useful solutions for your story in particular and gain new skills for your writing in general.
If you’ve been following along with my (patented) boot camp schedule you should have a middle revision of a story that, while it still might have some rough edges, has all the necessary parts and culminates in some kind of climactic moment. Either your protagonist DOES something or s/he DECIDES something, and this action or decision carries an actual and/or emotional consequence – preferably both.
Honestly, with two weeks to go there is plenty of time to cycle through middle revision territory a couple more times until you are really happy with the shape and emotional impact of your story or chapter, but I know how good it can be to finish ahead of schedule so let’s talk about the final proofing and polishing.
A few words about grammar.
Grammar isn’t really a final revision task as your grasp of grammar affects every stage of the writing process, but this read though is a good time to really attend to word choice and sentence structure.
Don’t feel bad if you find grammar intimidating. I did for years. Really, if I can get a working mastery of grammar, anyone can! I didn’t get great grammar instruction in middle school, and after that I was on my own. Only after returning to writing as an adult did I take my grammar education into my OWN hands. Now grammar is no longer a nebulous topic where I worry that I’m going to somehow screw up every sentence I write. Once I got a toehold, I have found grammar to be an enduring source of fascination. Like clay to the sculptor, exotic musical keys to the pianist, words and sentences are a writer’s medium.
That said, if you think you know everything there is to know about grammar – check yourself. The English language is constantly evolving – including grammar. Being completely prescriptive about grammatical rules (current or past) will limit your writing, too.
There are many wonderful sources for learning grammar out there, and Strunk & White isn’t one of them. For me its twee style, brevity, confusing advice, and contradictory examples were just more of the same ineffective instruction that got me so deep in the hole during my school years. Here’s a far more eloquent and thorough take down of S&W.

“The book’s toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar. It is often so misguided that the authors appear not to notice their own egregious flouting of its own rules. They can’t help it, because they don’t know how to identify what they condemn…. They know a few terms, like “subject” and “verb” and “phrase,” but they do not control them well enough to monitor and analyze the structure of what they write.”

If you feel you need a grammar refresher, here are some resources. Start small, commit to spending 10 or 15 minutes a day, and focus on one element at a time.
For specific questions, check out the Perdue Owl grammar site
Put the Grammar App or the Grammar Up app on your phone,
Listen to The Grammar Girl or the the BBC’s 6 Minute Grammar podcasts.
As you go over your writing, just remember it’s all about Clarity: 
  • Think about the essential meaning of each sentence.
  • In description, use specific, telling details.
  • Focus on precision of language.
  • Check the usage of any tricky words and make sure you’re using them correctly.
  • For style, try to replace linking and helping verbs with action verbs. 

Look for common errors like their/there/they’re or it’s/its. I read my draft aloud again, “un-contracting” every contraction, and I almost always find one or two slip-ups.

There. All polished up and ready to go. Right? Next week I’ll talk about knowing when a piece is finished. Seems a simple enough question, but when your trying to become a better writer, it can be hard to know when to stop trying to improve a piece and let it go.

NOTICE: Diverse writers welcomed here!

Diversity is vital to speculative fiction. A genre centered on exploration and encountering the Other must include voices and visions from writers, readers and thinkers of all kinds.

This year the Armadillocon Writing Workshop has sponsored seats for writers of color! Visit the workshop page for more information and to fill out the sponsorship request form!

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!