Post #21 – Who Do I Write For?

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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 #20 – Finding Inspiration

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5/10/18

Last week, I promised two things: details of my unusual writing circumstances on April 29 and where I intend to draw inspiration.

On April 29, I attended the National Gallery Writing Salon with my fellow Northern Virginia Writers Club member and one of my beta readers, Michelle McBeth. Indeed, she has my gratitude for registering for an extra spot, which she then graciously allowed me to use. By the time I was ready to register, the salon already was wait-listed.

The salon was at the Smithsonian’s National Gallery of Art – East Building, and the topic was flash fiction. The idea was to view Edward Hopper’s painting Cape Code Evening (1939), which is the featured image for this post, and work through five writing exercises involving the painting. By the end of the 2.5 hour salon, the goal was to have most of the elements of a flash fiction piece written.

When the first writing exercise ended, I had the plot of my flash fiction story.  When the third concluded, I’d written most of the story. On the subway home, I wrote the introductory sentences to each of the three sections of the story. The next day I put it all together and had the first draft of a 500 word piece.

Did I find the salon useful? Yes and no. First, I’ve never liked group discusses where people talk about how they feel or what they think this or that means. That went double here where most of the writers attending do not write speculative fiction and were focusing on things irrelevant to my writing. Luckily, when we broke off into groups of two, I, at different times, teamed up with Michelle, who writes speculative fiction, and a gentleman, who also happened to write speculative fiction. That made at least pairing up bearable because we were all on similar wavelengths.  For example: “The darkness of the woods does not represent the sadness felt by the woman in the painting. The darkness is a non-corporeal being coming to eat them.” That’s my type of analysis! At the same time, I will give credit where credit is due. The painting and the salon did give me an idea for a piece that I enjoyed writing and one I hope gets published.

My other source of inspiration lately, like many sci-fi writers, is science. I may be one of the few people who still receive a physical paper every morning, the Washington Post. One of my favorite sections comes on Tuesdays, Health & Science. The health stories usually are interesting, especially the medical mysteries, but they haven’t inspired any story ideas yet.

The science stories, on the other hand, are great sources of information. Orson Scott Card, in Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction: How to Create Out-of-This-World Novels and Short Stories, says he usually does not rely on one idea for a novel, instead he likes to have two and weave them together into a single story. When I read that, I asked myself how does that work? Then I read a science article in the WashPo and thought that would make a good idea for a story. Later I read a second science article, thinking that too could be the basis for a good story. Both stories involve very unusual reproduction outcomes from two different animals. I plan to use both but in a single story. Like Card, I will mesh the two ideas into one story, hopefully making it better.

I envision the story will involve two alien races, each exhibiting one of these reproduction outcomes, meeting and cohabiting. I think it was David Gerrold, in Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, who mentioned a certain scientist’s opinion on how to make an alien race believable. (I need to dig this guy’s name out.) He advocated the unusual characteristics of the alien race should exist somewhere in the animal kingdom on Earth. Earth’s fauna are so varied they essentially encompass every characteristic possible in life anywhere in the universe. I’m not sure I agree with that, and what fun is it to create an alien race that exhibits elements we’re already familiar with? And what if the element present in an Earth animal is so obscure, like discussed in the two articles I’m drawing from, the average reader has no idea such elements appear on Earth? I understand the desire to ground a new race in what is known, but is it practical?

For me, at least this time, it doesn’t matter. My two alien races will have a solid grounding in obscure Earth fauna reproductive outcomes. Maybe I should include a bibliography with the story to prove the bona fides of my two alien races.

Photo credit: Smithsonian’s National Gallery of Art

Post #19 – Help, I Need Inspiration!

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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.

Post #18 – How Do I Treat My Characters?

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4/26/18

The title of this post could be: Who Controls the Characters? Do writers always know what their characters will say and how they will act? Or do writers let the characters dictate their dialog and actions?

This may be a debate between plotters and pantsers (for the uninitiated, authors who write by the seat of their pants). Are plotters more likely to keep their characters on tight leashes, not letting them stray too far from the outline? Are pantsers more likely to let their characters run free to see where they take the story?

Sci-fi author Mike Resnick, in The Science Fiction Professional, is adamant he is the writer, they’re his characters, so he controls them. He also generally puts together a 5000 word outline for a novel and works from that. I consider that a detailed outline, so let’s call him a plotter.

On the other hand, Stephen King, in On Writing, says he likes to see where his characters take him. He never mentions outlining his novels before writing, so let’s call him a pantser.

I fall more on the plotter side of the spectrum. I like to work out the major plot points in my head before starting on a story. This means I mostly control my characters because they need to get me to each of the plot points. I don’t necessarily know exactly what they will say, unless a good piece of dialog comes to mind that I’m able to write down in advance.

Rarely will I start writing and see where my characters take me. Sometimes I’ll work up to as far in a story as I’ve plotted and then stop until I figure out what happens next. More often than not, writing up to that point helps me figure that out, which could be considered letting the characters control the story.

Recently, I was working on a sequel to my first story. The file contained detailed notes on the plot points I’d jotted down over several months as I developed the story in my head. However, while putting the story on the screen, I realized one of the characters would never let the story end how I plotted it. This character altered my story’s ending and in a very dramatic way. Is that me losing control of one of my characters? Maybe, but I liked where this character took the story. And, once again, it reinforced my intrigue about the writing process. It also reconfirmed how fun the writing process can be. Even as a plotter, my own story still can surprise me.

Let me know in the comments how you treat your characters or how they treat you.

Post #15 – 1Q18 Update

4/5/18

I thought it may be interesting to post a quarterly goal update in addition to a year-end tally. When I started drafting this post a week or so ago, it had a significantly different tone. Then, after going 0-31 on acceptances since I started submitting, I received my first acceptance last Friday! That’s right folks, I’ll finally be a published author. Full details will follow once those are finalized.

Until then, for the first quarter of 2018, below are my totals.

Words written = 17,400

Submissions = 24

Rejections = 17

Acceptances = 1!

Of course, a lot of rejections means a lot of submissions.  The editor of Arthur’s Publish, Caitlin Jans, says she caps the number of submissions she has out at any given time to 20, but she likes to keep it roughly at that number. I’m fast approaching her number with 11 works out currently and four more nearing submission status. I feel tracking rejections, resubmitting, and tracking what I resubmitted and where now eats up much of what would be my writing time.

I spent so much of the beginning of this quarter editing I thought I wouldn’t get to a quarter of my yearly word goal. Luckily, I had a late quarter burst of productivity putting me over my 12,500 word quarterly goal. I’m pleased with my words written, but I’m more pleased that word count includes first drafts of five stories, four of which I started during the quarter. Each of these four I decided to write only after reading a call for submissions. I was pleased with how quickly inspiration struck and how quickly I worked through the first draft of each. Oddly, three are humorous speculative fiction pieces.

I’ve come to realize the number of words written is not necessarily an accurate reflection of the writing I’ve done. The amount of work that goes into editing and submitting stories is staggering. While I wrote 17,400 words, I edited seven stories and started submitting those this quarter. I also re-edited several stories finished last year, which were rejected by one or more markets, before submitting them to other markets.

All of that takes time and effort. It takes me a couple nights to edit a 6000 word story. And then another night to reformat it to comply with a specific market’s submission guidelines.

In On Writing, Stephen King says early in his writing career, he receive a form rejection for a short story but with a handwritten note: 2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%. As I track my word count from initial draft to final draft, I seem usually to follow that advice without realizing it. I rarely add substantially to a story after the first draft. I’m usually cutting it down. What I haven’t figured out is what word count to use towards my yearly goal. Do I use the higher first draft total? Or do I use the smaller final draft total because that’s what I submit? I’m leaning towards the former. Last year I used the latter most often, which I think cut about a thousand words from my total. I’m not heartbroken by this; another thousand wouldn’t have gotten me to my 50,000 word goal. Still, going forward, why not give myself credit for those first draft totals? I wrote them. Of course, if the finished story has more words than an earlier draft, I’m using that number. I wrote them too.