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 #17 – How Soon Do I Edit, and How Much?

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4/19/18

I’ve read a writer needs to let a first draft breathe, like a fine red wine. I take that last part on faith since I don’t like red wine, but I agree with the basic premise.

In On Writing, Stephen King states he lets the first draft of a novel sit for 6 weeks. He wants his story to be familiar but foreign enough he isn’t afraid to tear it apart.  In other words, he needs to be able to step back. He believes too often a writer is too close to the story and characters immediately after completing the first draft. Once the 6 weeks pass, King completes a first edit where he focuses on strengthening themes he either consciously or unconsciously included in the first draft. Then his wife reads it, and he revises according to her suggestions. Next, he hands the draft over to his beta readers and edits accordingly. Finally, he sends the draft to his editor at the publisher.

I take a somewhat different approach, though my edits to date are of short stories or picture book manuscripts not novels. I try to do a clean up edit immediately after finishing the first draft. I don’t want to stumble over those errors when I do my first content edit. When time permits (meaning I’m not attempting to beat a closing submission window), I wait about a week before that first content edit. I’m usually over eager to get a new story out to my critique group while it’s shiny and new, so I’m always battling that impulse when allowing a story to breathe.

I conduct a second content edit after receipt of comments from my critique group members. The last step is handing the draft to my very understanding wife who acts both as my final beta reader and copy editor.

But wait there’s more. I know, I already talked about the last step. However, I like to read a story one more time after my wife’s review. Sometimes I find a typo everyone else missed. More often I find a typo that I made entering my wife’s edits.

All this amounts to 4-5 drafts for a short story. I doubt professional writers do that many for anything other than a novel. However, as I’ve stated before, I expect their first drafts are significantly more polished than mine. Hopefully, as I become a better writer, my work will require fewer rounds of edits.

Sadly, what I’m not including as an official edit is the formatting changes often needed to comply with a market’s submission guidelines. That’s a topic for a future blog post.

Let me know in the comments how soon you edit and how much.