(This post first appeared on my Patreon page on 24 February. Patrons — even if all they can spare is one thin dollar per month — see my posts first. They also get to see the stories I publish 30 days in advance, plus a FREE .pdf copy, even if I charge for the ebook everywhere else! So you should totally pledge. Seriously. I’m not making a hell of a lot of money doing this (yet!) and the budget is thin, thin, thin — you can see all its ribs, the poor thing. Make my budget happier. Happy, financially secure writers write more writing. Word.)
…so I can put it together better.
I don’t know how many of you know this, but I’m wrapping up an MA in English with a fiction writing concentration. I know, I know — what a huge surprise. It sort of made sense, and the bit of the financial aid that doesn’t go to paying for tuition and books goes toward keeping a roof over our (there are 5 of us stuffed into this little trailer) heads so we have a place to store the computer that I tend to school and work on.
So, in any event, it has been a good ride, and I think my writing is considerably better for the experience.
For my thesis, I am putting together a new collection, and I was working on a story that is part of it.
It was a good story. I liked it. My fellow students and professor liked it. And one of them suggested something (kicking myself — I should have thought of it! See the value of having someone to critique you? Not yet? Read on.) good.
Loosely paraphrased: “good story — but why not start where the action is?”
But how many times have I seen that very basic advice in the blogs and similar from writers and editors and readers?
Tons. (Lesson along the way: there’s a big difference between hearing or reading advice and actually taking it OMG I HAVE THE SUDDEN URGE TO CALL MYSELF NAMES) You probably have too. Now, not every story needs to start in the middle of the action. And “action” is a flexible concept. There’s no combat in my story, and we usually think “someone needs to be trying to kill someone” when we think action. There’s a big expedition to somewhere long-lost and mysterious in this story, and instead of having two scenes of lead-in with their own minor conflicts, I chopped them out and relocated them later in the story. So the “action” is just the characters departing from their origin and launching themselves into the unknown. But it’s more interesting than a slow lead-in, by a long shot. Then the structure cried out for another prelude scene buried later in the story, so I wrote one. And that made the characters, situations, the whole damn world of the story a richer and more interesting place.
The moral of this little story isn’t “always, always, always start in the middle of some form of action.” There are wonderful stories that don’t start that way, and maybe you’ve written and/or read some of them. Great.
The moral is, “don’t be afraid to chop up your story and rearrange the bits to see if it’s better off.” We have word processors. We can cut, copy, and paste. We can save multiple revisions in their own handy little folders. We can print if we want and rearrange pages, scribble all over the thing. Some of us (not me — spend money? I don’t have much of that stuff!) even have cool writer-in-mind software that lets us take a story apart digitally and rearrange it at will just to see how it looks.
Look, we’re creative people. Not just those of us that write fiction, but those of us who read it, too. Relatively few of us humans even read fiction. I think it takes a creative spark to read it and love it enough to come back for more without the whip of a teacher behind us and the carrot of a diploma in front of us. Something like a third of us humans never read a work of fiction again after the required reading of whatever level of education we have is behind us. Another third read “rarely.” That’s roughly what I recall, and I’m probably being optimistic about the numbers.
So being creative people, when we create something, we don’t want to change it. We want to think we have it right the first time, that our initial conception is the right one. We’re tempted to make small changes, not big ones. Not even just to see.
Make some big changes. Maybe you’ll waste some time, but you’ll be playing with something you like anyway — and that’s not a bad thing at all if you’re one to voluntarily sit down and write a story. No matter what you do with that story. Even if you write fiction only for yourself in a locked journal with instructions in your will to burn it after you die, even if you “just” write a little fanfic here and there to share with your friends or on a fan forum, even if you never mean to publish a damn thing.
Because sometimes those experiments with big changes pay off.
So is that all I learned? Nah. I learned a lesson I have to learn over and over again, each time a little better — I hope. I’m a hyperactive person, and I’m distractible. I may or may not meet the definition of ADD or ADHD — whatever I am, hyperactive is what they called it when I was a little tyke in rural Wisconsin in the ’70s. I’m impatient as all hell. I really want stories to come out great just the way I first conceive them. And it has taken practice and experience to get to the point where I’m willing to take my time, even sit on a story for days or weeks until I have fresh eyes to take it out and fiddle with it to see if I can make it better. To get to the point where I have found some balance between the humility it takes to listen to advice and/or consider writing a story a different way, and the ego it takes to say, “hey, this is my world, and I think it’s interesting. Come look at it.”
If I can do it, you probably can too.
This is what I published 2 years ago (plus a couple of days). You can click through and read it, it’s a short-short and it’s free. It was my 26th; my 1st was published in January 2012.
Looking back, it hasn’t been that long. A bit more than 2 1/2 years I’ve been self-publishing. A few thousand of my free titles have ‘sold’ in that time, and probably a tenth or twentieth as many paid copies have sold.
Not too shabby, my practical side says. As long as I keep it up, keep writing and publishing, people will keep reading. Eventually, I hope, many more people. Persistence is the first thing pretty much anyone needs in getting their work out there, written or otherwise.
My impatient side, however, thinks that kind of thinking is for, appropriately for this post, dumbasses.
I don’t like waiting. Does anyone like waiting? I’m pretty sure nobody likes waiting. Hey, I bought Product X yesterday, and the commercials clearly state that if you buy Product X all your dreams will come true in mere days, like a fairy tale. I’m impatiently waiting for my instant gratification.
Hmm, that gives me an idea.
Read Dumbass, and all of your dreams will come true in mere days. Promise.
A few days of new words coming slowly and with great reluctance really grates on my nerves.
Successful writers will mostly tell you that success — having a goodly number of readers and selling material regularly — comes slowly. That sure seems to be how it’s going so far for me. The success stories that involve sudden viral surges of popularity, or look like they do because the years of lead-up aren’t visible to the casual observer, stick in my mind and whisper, if you were any good it would happen to you. You’d go viral. Much like me, those voices are bad at listening when told to shut up and how unreasonable they’re being.
The last couple of weeks, I’ve been lucky to squeak out a couple of hundred words daily. The high point was a 900 word flash one day. It’s writing. I wrote something. I didn’t totally give in to apathy and frustration. In addition, I managed some blog posts here as well. Those are writing. They count.
No, they don’t, the Angsty Voice whispers. There aren’t enough of them, and they are insufficiently awesome. Writing doesn’t count unless it’s totally awesome, unless *I* say it’s totally awesome.
Shut up, Angsty Voice. I’m trying to write over here.
You may have noticed that I haven’t posted anything in an unusually long time.
I have a perfectly good… PERFECTLY good, I say… explanation.
We’ve been expecting a baby any minute now, and have been convinced, constantly, for two weeks, that the little guy was going to make his appearance ANY MOMENT.
He’s a tricky little scamp.
We’re in the hospital right now, me and my wife and my teen (step)son, waiting as labor is being induced. Our 2 year old is with trusted friends until his little brother is born.
I’ve been too distracted to write much of anything. Now, somehow, sitting in this room watching the contractions go by and realizing there are probably a couple or few more hours to go, I can write.
The human mind is a funny thing. Now that it’s happening, I’m calm. For the previous two weeks when nothing was happening, I was a nervous wreck. Go figure.
So, one of my ebooks has broken the top 100,000 on Amazon with a sales rank somewhere around 85,000.
Usually, authors don’t regale you with tales of their sales until they’re on the NYT bestsellers list or they can tell you they’re number one.
But I’m starting from zero, and although I’m not naive enough to think that breaking 100K on Amazon is a ticket to the big time, I am hopeful enough to think that it might be the start of bigger and better things.
Now, usually my reaction to a itty bitty sign of success, be it the growing sales rank of a story I like very much, or something else like the first radish shoots of the season in my garden, is not immediately joy as you might think. My first reaction is impatience, which I think is a very Murican reaction. I’ve grown to recognize this reaction as not such a good thing, as overdramatic and melodramatic. So when I looked and saw this story gaining traction and starting to sell faster than my others, I took that impatience, told it to please be quiet and go sit down, and wrote a blog post instead.
A better reaction to a bit of positive news is a smile. Writing a couple of hundred words about it has helped me to smile instead of complain.
If you happen to buy a copy of this story, Out of the Cold, from Amazon for 99 cents, so much the better.
Edit 2/2/13: My, ratings can shift quickly. Out of the Cold has dipped back below the 100,000 ranking. It was fun while it lasted; we’ll see if it isn’t back up in the ratings soon. My bet is that it will be.
Yesterday I tweeted about how annoying it is that persistence does not pay off immediately. Well, it’s true. Persistence is a challenge for me. It’s probably a challenge for you too. I’m under the impression that it’s a challenge for pretty much everyone, so I’m not going to try to claim that I’m a special little snowflake.
I am, of course, a hyper little snowflake. My problem, most of the time, is jumping from idea to idea rather than coming up with ideas in the first place. So when I stick with something for a while, I start to feel like the world owes me a reward. Quickly. Right now.
That’s a big mistake, of course. I’m pretty sure the world doesn’t feel like it owes any particular person anything in particular. No matter how frustrated I might be at the fact, things take time. My writing is taking time to grow. Well, anything does. Plant a seed and you have to wait for the harvest. And there’s plenty of watering and weeding between one and the other.