Post #37 – Paradoxes and Other Fatal Flaws

9/6/18

The first two short stories I wrote involved time travel. I know, it’s arguably a tired trope, especially how I used it. There was no grand scientific achievement. No new method of defying Einstein’s theories. I merely used time travel as a plot device, a way to set up conflict for the characters.

Using such a routine sci-fi trope didn’t bother me, but both stories also featured a paradox caused by the time travel. The paradoxes in these stories did bother my beta readers and at least one magazine editor I submitted them to. My first reaction to their reaction was, it’s time travel. Paradoxes happen. Get over it. How do we know how time travel will work? Nobody has done it yet.

I was partially vindicated when a magazine accepted one of these stories for publication. I say partially because the other story has not yet found a home. The latter story was part of the novella I’ve spent much of the summer on. I saw was because I’ve since made it a stand alone story again.

When my copy editor (my very understanding wife) read through the novella, she pointed out the paradox. She had pointed it out when she read the original short story, but I hadn’t done anything with it. However, this time she commented that if I took out a particular sentence then the paradox was not so apparent. That got me thinking. If I tweaked a character’s reaction in one scene to be a little more ambiguous, I could avoid the paradox altogether and at the same time foreshadow how a forthcoming dilemma was resolved. So that’s what I did.

Of course, this made me wonder why I hadn’t considered it before. Wasn’t it a fatal flaw in the story, or did I just not view it as such? A criticism of almost every time travel story is it can’t work because of a paradox. I assumed a paradox was inevitable and accepted that without considering ways to avoid it.

Have I accepted other fatal flaws in my stories, knowing or unknowingly? I hope not. None of my beta readers have pointed out similar flaws in other stories. They’ve provided valuable feedback, but nothing along the lines of this story won’t work because of [insert fatal flaw here].

That’s why I have beta readers. Given the number of typos my wife finds after I’ve been through a manuscript however many times, I know how important a second set of eyes are. My beta readers’ eyes are needed to detect those fatal flaws I don’t see because I’m too close to the story. I’ve said it before, but thank you beta readers for your support and for keeping my stories from failing.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve written a fatal flaw into a story and whether you realized it or needed it pointed out. And let me know if you still ignored it or fixed it.

Photo credit: geralt via Pixabay

Post #35 – Exposition, My Old Nemesis

8/23/18

Like any new writer (and maybe any old writer?), I regularly fall prey to the exposition trap, or info dump. I feel I need to set the stage, so I end up writing paragraph after paragraph, if not page after page, of backstory. My first flash fiction piece was 1000 words of exposition.

Not surprisingly, editors haven’t accepted my stories containing lots of exposition. Benjamin Kinney, an editor at Escape Pod, always provides me with one or two sentences of critique when rejected a story. For two such stories, the critique focused on too much exposition bogging the story down.

When I reviewed those stories again, he wasn’t wrong. One began with four pages of exposition, the other a modest two. I revised this latter story to spread out the exposition. A little at the beginning, a little in the next scene, and then the remainder in a third scene. And the story is better for it.

The story with four pages of exposition is more of a hard sci-fi story, and I’m struggle with how to avoid the info dump. Then I saw this article published by Writers Digest.

First, I’m pleased that others recognize how difficult it is to avoid the info dump in sci-fi. When a writer cannot assume a reader knows certain things about a setting or even a people, more exposition is needed for a reader to understand the where, when, how, and who of a story. That’s the problem faced when writing sci-fi. The story often doesn’t take place in the here and now with the usual suspects. It takes place in the future, on a planet in a distant solar system, inhabited by four-armed aliens.

Second, page after page of exposition used to be the norm. I recall many classic sci-fi stories written this way. I remember entire chapters of exposition, and that didn’t bother me. Apparently, that’s not what readers (or is it just the editors?) want to see now. Readers are writers’ customers. If we don’t satisfy our customers, we don’t get published. So now we writers must be more sophisticated with our exposition.

Remember the flash fiction piece I mentioned above that was all exposition? One beta reader pointed out that issue and suggested I expand the story by telling it from the viewpoint of the antagonist, who was mentioned only in passing. That’s what I did, and I’m pleased with where the story went. I even added to that story, which is part of the novella I planned to submit to Tor earlier this month.  Alas, as noted in Post #34, I didn’t quite nail down the ending to that expanded story; so it remains a work in progress.  Once I do, I believe I’ll have a better novella ready for submission somewhere.

I also began revising the story with four pages of exposition.  I took the paragraphs in those pages and spread them, one or two at a time, throughout other scenes.  I haven’t yet cleaned up the flow of those paragraphs.  Right now they read like someone picked them up from elsewhere and dropped them wherever they landed, which is mostly true.  It’s on my to do list, and once again I believe the story will be better for it.

I have a plan for the next time I write a piece with an intricate backstory or complex setting or characters.  I’ll write out the exposition but keep it to the side.  Then, as I draft the story, I’ll drop in pieces of that exposition as I go.  I did something similar when drafting the sequel to the story with four pages of exposition.  Since I already knew the backstory, I could easily insert that in nuggets as I went along drafting the new story.  This technique made writing the sequel much easier.  I hope the same holds true when drafting a completely new piece.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve struggled with how to handle exposition and how you mastered it (or still are working to master it).

Photo credit: jarmoluk via Pixabay

Post #34 -Novella Submission

8/16/18

This was the week.  Monday, August 13 was Tor’s deadline for novella submissions.  Followers of this blog know I’ve worked most of the summer on combining three of my unpublished stories into a single novella.  This involved expanding the third such story from a flash fiction piece to a significantly lengthier piece to meet Tor’s minimum length requirement of 20,000 words.  While working on this project, I encountered two issues, which I detailed in Post #31 (involving not submitting my best work) and Post #32 (involving a submissions dilemma).

Well, I resolved both issues by not submitting the novella.  This was a difficult decision, but I believe the right one.  Because of the looming deadline, I sent the finished novella to my beta readers with not much turnaround time.  Two managed to get through the 21,100 words, and both had the same comment—the ending didn’t resolve anything.  In other words, it wasn’t an ending at all.

The interesting part is, I had the same critique.  Often, I need a beta reader to point out a flaw in a work.  This time, I knew the flaw going in.  In order to meet the minimum word count, I had added a scene beyond the ending of the original third story.  I like the added scene, but it opened up an entirely new avenue of the story, which I then didn’t explore.  I was rushing to finish the story, so I’d have time to edit it and send it out to my beta readers.  So the story has no proper ending; it just stops, and my beta readers were left unsatisfied. If they felt that way, there’s no way the editors at Tor would accept it.

That’s when I decided not to submit the novella.  I already had qualms about not submitting my best work, and my beta readers’ comments only solidified those qualms.  This is my longest work to date, and I want to do it right.  I want to have the best chance at cracking the pinnacle of sci-fi publishing.

So, I have a new plan.  Initially, I’ll chop off the first of the three stories.  As I expanded the end of the novella, I realized the first part no longer fit.  The story had morphed into something different.  With the first story separated from its sequels, I’ll start submitting that story to markets again as a stand alone piece.

Then, I’ll continue to take the novella wherever the last scene leads.  I haven’t figured out what that entails yet, but I’m excited to find out.  Once I’ve written a proper ending, I’ll see if my beta readers agree.  Hopefully, Tor or another market will be open at that time for novella submissions because mine will be ready to head out the door.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve ever purposely failed at a writing goal because you knew it was the better way to proceed.

Photo credit: typographyimages via Pixabay

Post #21 – Who Do I Write For?

5/17/18

Another point I’ve read is every writer has a specific reader in mind when they write. Stephen King, in On Writing, states he writes for his wife. She is his intended audience, which also happens to be true. King always has his wife read a new work first.

In one of six writing tips attributed to John Steinbeck, he confirms there is no generalized audience for a writer; so forget about it.  Instead, he found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person, real or an imagined, and write to that one.

Michael Morpurgo likes to tell a story as if he is talking to his best friend or one of his grandchildren.

King also says a writer friend of his always wrote for the same person even after that person was long dead. If you believe King and Steinbeck, the audience a writer has in mind while writing isn’t necessarily the intended audience at publication.

The audience I envision while writing varies by project.  Like King, my wife frequently is the person I have in mind. She has given me a lot of support with my writing, so I want her to be entertained with the works I ask her to read.

I also often include names of family or friends in my stories. When doing so, I find I especially want them to read that work. Though I use their names, the associated characters are not necessary my friends. Nonetheless, so far that’s gone well. No one has come back saying they hate how they’re portrayed. That’s good since the characters aren’t actually meant to portray them.

One other I can’t leave out is my sister. She has read almost everything I’ve written and is a trusted member of my critique group. I certainly have pictured her as my audience more than once. Since I often use people and places from my youth in stories, I know she will recognize them like few others would. She also has appeared as a character in a story, along with a couple of her friends, which I wrote with her in mind. She’ll be the first to tell you they are nothing like how I wrote them.

For the picture book manuscripts, I always envision my little girls. While I like the idea of bringing joy to any child who reads a book of mine, I especially want my girls to be entertained as I see they are when reading other children’s books.

Let me know in the comments who you write for.

Photo credit: EvgeniT via Pixabay

Post #19 – Help, I Need Inspiration!

5/3/18

This is what I feared when setting my writing goal this year. I’d run out of ideas. That was part of the reason I set a goal of 50,000 words for 2018 instead of doubling that.  After a very productive first quarter, I’ve written all of 1250 words in April. I’ll need to average 5625 words each for May and June to stay on track, but inspiration is lacking.

That is not to belittle those 1250 words. I’m proud of them. Next week I will discuss how I wrote the last 650 under unusual circumstances on April 29. For the first 600 words, I received inspiration one morning from the title of a song I heard at work while listening to Google Play. During the walk back from a haircut at lunch that day, I ironed out the plot details. I then hammered out the story that afternoon. It must have been a slow day at work. I already finalized and submitted that story to a new market for me, one that only publishes flash fiction of 750 words or fewer.

If it weren’t for that flash of inspiration (pun intended) and the unusual circumstances on the 29th, I’d have written nothing the entire month.

I’ve kept up my submissions though. In addition to the 600 word story above, I submitted three other stories in April for the first time. I also revised two existing stories. The first was an flash fiction piece, which was a sequel to another story. Both stories have been rejected on their own a couple times, so I decided to make the flash story the last chapter of its predecessor. One of my beta readers felt the sequel wasn’t working on its own as a stand alone story, too much exposition to catch the reader up on the events of the predecessor, especially for a flash piece. By combining the two, I cut much of that exposition. I already submitted the combi-story for the first time and am hoping for more favorable results.

I also revised a story written in response to a call for submissions with a very specific theme. That market rejected the story. However, I am proud of that story too. It’s a humor piece I really enjoyed writing, and my beta readers all said it was funny. A couple also said a certain element did not go in the direction they anticipated, and they enjoyed that surprise. In anticipation of sending this story to other markets, I changed many of the details specific to that theme. I’m also including several revisions suggested by one of my beta readers, who was not able to review the story before I submitted it to meet the call’s deadline.

Now I must decide when to submit that story. In Clarkesworld‘s submission guidelines, the editor, Neil Clarke, has a list of hard sells, one of which is “stories originally intended for someone’s upcoming theme anthology or issue.” Everyone will be circulating those to other markets, so he suggests waiting a while. But how long is a while? It pains me to have a story finished and not submitted somewhere.

Unfortunately, these revisions don’t add to my word totals. If anything, they subtract from those totals since they usually involve cuts. Next week I also will discuss where I plan to find inspiration.