The internet is crawling with magic bullets. I’m going to make some up, but they’ll probably replicate or be damn close to real ones: “5 Easy Tips To Unleash Your Creativity” “10 Great Writers Tell You How To Be A Success” “3 Simple Principles To Unlock Viral Fame”.
You know the stuff. You’ve seen it. Maybe you’ve clicked on a few. Lean in close, I’ll tell you a secret.
I’ve clicked on a few.
Yeah, sometimes I read those things. Maybe you have never, but the odds say you have. They’re tempting. We all want to do the stuff we do better. Sometimes we’re pretty sure we’re doing it wrong. Sometimes we’re pretty sure that what we’re missing is simple, a little thing, something so obvious that we’re not seeing it like (we presume, because AFAIK nobody’s ever talked to a fish) fish don’t realize they’re swimming in water.
Also, there’s great advice out there. Granted, it’s usually not behind a headline like “7 Pathetically Simple Things Your Dumb Ass Can Learn In 30 Seconds By Reading This Article What The Hell Is Wrong With You”. Which is how all those headlines read when I’m feeling down. THANKS INTERNET YOU JERK.
The great advice, though, really is in little online articles sometimes. Or in tweets from some of the more entertaining and personable writers out there. Or in books like the ever-so-frequently-mentioned On Writing by Stephen King — his isn’t the only one, look for some in your home genre if you write and you’re looking for tips.
Y0u just never know where it’s going to show up.
But the “magic bullet” articles are generally 1 part obvious stuff and 9 parts crap. There’s not a magic bullet to make you an enormously selling writer (I mean, I don’t think so. I’m not enormously selling, so I could be totally wrong I suppose) or anything else. No magic listicle to unlock huge webcomic popularity or world champion marathoner prowess or being a better friend-spouse-whoever-you-are-to-someone-else, no magic bullet to jack your B average up to an A, no magic bullet to unlock the best lyrics ever from your songwriting pen.
If you’re really looking for magic bullets to success, you’re in for a sad surprise. They’re basically spells. Modern-day incantations and rituals. Do X,Y, and Z while saying A and writing B, and you’ll be the next Rowling.
There’s magic in the world — and if you’re allergic to schmaltz, skip ahead a bit. There’s the magic of hugs and love and empathy and giving a damn about your fellow human being and babies and kittens and freshly baked cookies and waterfalls and walks on foggy beaches and blooming flowers and fat bumblebees and…
You get the point.
But there’s no magic zip-zappity-poof now you’re at the top of your chosen field.
The truth is boring.
Always work to improve. Always be ready to hear constructive criticism. Always be ready to ignore trolls. Keep working. Keep looking for new opportunities. Keep on keeping on. And do read things that you think might contain helpful things for you. Sometimes you can find a bit of perspective or a tidbit that points you at a personal shortcoming or strength so you can improve or capitalize. Sometimes it will even be in one of those silly listicles. But mostly not.
Just don’t give up.
And maybe write something like this if you’re having one of those days when you, personally, feel like giving up.
It helps. Take my word for it.
A month ago, I posted a word cloud for a work in progress, Broken Rice. It was around 8,000 words long then.
Since then, I reached a “I don’t know what to do with this next” point, then let the story sit for a while and worked on other things, then picked it back up recently for a major rework.
I liked a lot of things about the story and basic premise. Other things weren’t working for me at all. That’s why I took a break on writing it. I do that quite a bit. I start stories, then set them aside and come back days or weeks later. Sometimes I accumulate quite a few half-finished stories. When my pattern of working works well, it forms sort of a natural cycle with periods of drought and periods of plenty. I’ll finish nothing for a couple of months, then knock out a spate of finishes all of a sudden.
Broken Rice needed major work. When I picked it back up I overhauled it completely. I radically changed the setting, the personality of the main character, some major plot elements. I had to rewrite from stem to stern, making everything make sense again, then rewrite a second time so everything felt and sounded right, so everything fit in again, had the right new tone and the right new mood.
I really didn’t want to change the story so radically. But I had to. It’s hard to explain — you have to be invested in what you’re writing enough to kill it or alter it beyond recognition, sometimes. Get too attached to finishing exactly what you’ve started and you can find yourself writing a lot of meh. I don’t like writing meh.
Times like this, I’m so happy not to have hard deadlines. That’s an aspect of being self-published that is a great advantage… unless you let it turn into procrastination. Which I’m sorry to say has happened before and it won’t happen again please don’t be mad I’m probably not as much of a stereotypical GenX slacker as you think.
But, back to the story.
I’m not sure it will be finished soon. I have a general idea for an ending and some general ideas of what may happen along the way. From 8,000 words I’m now at 14,000. Maybe there are 5,000 more words in this one. Maybe 10,000. But the words keep coming in little chunks of 500 or so in stolen moments deep into the wee hours when everyone else is asleep or when I wake up early. So I keep writing them.
The more of them I write, the better I like the story now. That’s a good sign.
The word cloud changed quite a bit. Compare and contrast!
Perfectionism kills writers… because it kills stories. If you let it, it will drive you to editing and proofreading and reworking and expanding and cutting without end and you’ll never finish a damn thing. Overcompensate by rushing work out and you’ll rush out lousy stories that don’t make sense and are shot full of typos and plot holes and tense shifts and characters who change name halfway through and who knows what else.
If you want to get your work out into the world you have to find your sweet spot. Enough perfectionism to put out your best, enough humility to be honestly open to improvement, enough arrogance to think you’re worth reading, enough recklessness to mark a deadline and throw one story out into the world and begin the next, the bullheadedness to take rejection as a challenge rather than a defeat, and the stubbornness to keep flailing away until one of the stories you throw connects.
It all begins with that perfectionism, though. You have to accept that there’s no such thing as perfect, just the level best — and the real best, not a “fuck it I’m over it” halfass best — that you can do right now.
Or you could say “to hell with that!” and just read without worrying about all this writing jazz.
Honestly, that way is easiest at all.
Whichever you choose, best of luck.
(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.
There’s a one-third preview of the story below, under the bloggy goodness about the joy of being published.
This story is one of the twenty-one in my Not Gruntled collection, available in trade paperback or ebook!
Today, Daily Science Fiction published my insanely-long-titled short story, “New Housing Starts Increase For Twenty-Second Consecutive Year”. It’s just a word shy of 1500 words; if I self-published it, it would be a free title. Lucky for you, it’s free to read with them, too. In fact, they’ll email you a fresh short every weekday if you let them. I would. In fact, I do. They send good stories and I enjoy reading them.
To the point of the title, though, I’m a self-published writer. I enjoy publishing my own stories. I enjoy making the covers. I like seeing them out in the world and I like seeing the reports coming back that prove that some of you are downloading them (or buying the paperback collections) and — if I might presume — reading words that I wrote. Self-publishing is a pleasant and rewarding experience for those of us exhibitionist enough to want others to see what we’ve dreamed up. Or at least, it’s rewarding to me and others who self-publish often say similar things in the blogo-tweeto-sphere.
Still, there’s a special little thrill that comes with having someone who’s not you publish something you’ve written. Self-esteem is fine, but working on something and having someone else buy it from you to show it to others is a validation that says, “hey, it’s not just ego-smoke you’re blowing up your own ass. You’re actually pretty good at this thing you do.”
So, anyway. If you write, keep sending your literary preciouses out into the world. If you’re not good enough to be published yet, the odds say that if you keep at it, keep practicing with an active and open mind toward learning and improving, sooner or later you WILL be good enough. There are a lot more stories out there than there are slots available in the publishing world for them, so even if you are good enough, you’ll likely see a lot of rejection. That’s been my experience, at least.
One more nice thing about self-publishing: if you convince someone else to pay you money for a story, once the exclusivity period requested by your publisher runs out, you can still go ahead and publish it yourself. So, in about 90 days, if I remember my contract with DSF correctly, you’ll be seeing this story as a free ebook single.
And I get to put “originally published by Daily Science Fiction” on the title page. Cool.
Here’s your one-third preview of the story:
New Housing Starts Increase For Twenty-Second Consecutive Year
First appearance: Daily Science Fiction, 12 DEC 2014
By S.A. Barton
Copyright 2014 S.A. Barton
“Of course they do,” Daniel said. He punched the Power Off key on the remote so hard the knuckle of his thumb turned white.
“Dear,” Rosetta said, warning.
Daniel took a deep breath, eyes closed.
“I thought we could go out together tomorrow,” Rosetta said. “There’s a new house going up on the next block. Iris is getting old enough to see.”
“Of course she is,” Daniel said, grumbling.
“Dear,” Rosetta said again, a little more sharply than before.
“I know,” Daniel said. He sighed a small harassed sigh.
“I’m old enough to see what?” Iris asked from just inside the hallway that opened into the living room. She had taken up the habit of lurking there around Christmas, trying to catch them talking about her presents.
“Daddy was just saying a five year old girl is old enough to start learning more about houses,” Rosetta said.
Daniel scowled. She sounded like a salesperson, bright and chirpy and too enthusiastic.
“I like houses,” Iris said. “They keep us dry when it rains.”
“And so much more,” Daniel said.
“When you’re like this, my love, it would be better if you waited until you felt happier before you talked,” Rosetta said to Daniel, then rose to gather Iris up in her arms. “Who wants a bath?” she asked Iris. “Who needs more soap, mommy or Iris? It must be Iris, I still see some egg behind her ear from breakfast…” Giggles retreated down the hall. Daniel sat in the empty room, brooding.
There was so much he couldn’t say. Didn’t it bother her like it bothered him? Was she just better at covering it up?
That night, with Iris sound asleep in the next room, they relieved stress the way couples have for as long as there have been people. They moved together, skin on skin, drawing closer, breathing faster, embracing harder.
“We go go. Tomorrow,” Rosetta growled in Daniel’s ear, teeth gripping his earlobe, as they reached the peak.
“God! Yes!” Daniel threw back his head, crying out, the pain in his ear mixing sweetly with pleasure. “Please,” he added as he collapsed next to her, spent. “Oh God yes please,” he sighed, eyes closed, imagining the ceiling opening on the stars above him. “I don’t know how you work your miracles, honey.” Hating the need to speak in subtext, each hoping the other understood, even in pillow talk, the hate staining the afterglow.
“One day I’ll tell you all about it. For now, just be happy.”
“After we see the house being built, we’ll go to the beach,” Rosetta told Iris as they got ready to leave. “So we’ll all pack a change of clothes for after we swim. Bring a couple of keepsakes, I think we’ll build a pretend house in the sand for them while we’re there. Do you remember what a keepsake is, Iris?”
“It’s something you want no matter what house you live in. Something you really really like that makes you happy,” Iris said.
“That’s right,” Rosetta said, leading Iris down the hall to her room to pick out clothes and keepsakes.
“Can you grab my…” Daniel said, and stopped.
“Grab your what?” Rosetta said, voiced raised to carry back to him.
“Nevermind. Iris is the keepsake I want in our… beach house,” he said.
“Daddy!” More giggles.
Whatever Rosetta had planned, Daniel hoped it would succeed. He hated to think of the day Iris realized what the houses really were. More than shelters.
…grab a copy or head over to Daily Science Fiction for the rest!
The upside of having an eclectic vision, or, put another way, of being a scatterbrain: variety! I love variety in just about everything. Music, food, my reading, my writing. The downside: lack of focus. Focus has its advantages. It’s easier to finish things when you’re focused. Finishing stories can be a struggle for me. I tend to get interested in something else and wander away. If I didn’t make myself go back and finish, I could easily have a couple of hundred story fragments and nothing done. As the hoary old chestnut goes, starting things is easy, but as time goes on… SQUIRREL! Look at the squirrel over there! Wait, there’s something shiny the other direction, wonder what it is… hey, I’m hungry, are you hungry? Wonder what sort of snacks are available…
Today’s thoughts of the ups and downs of eclecticism came to me while updating my ‘stories to either resubmit to markets or self-publish if I’m tired of sending them back out’ stack. Right now the stack stands at five; I don’t like it to get much larger than that. Stories sitting around on my hard drive doing nothing are, well, doing nothing. And that’s just not helpful. They’re an eclectic lot. Let’s take a look at what I have here, using 1-word shorthand for titles, since I haven’t sold or released any of them yet:
Kitty: Near-future. Speculative fiction, just barely. If it wasn’t set in the near future, it would be a mainstream story and it reads like one. A tale of a boy and his cat in an impoverished coastal North Carolina ravaged by severe sea-level rise and powerful climate-change-fueled storms.
Meow: Call this one contemporary fantasy. A Cat of Power awakes after a long sleep frozen in Siberian permafrost and tries to make sense of what the world has become. Two cat stories in the lot is as close as I come to a theme in this list. I do like a good cat story. I blame the internet’s bad influence.
Dawn: Definitely science fiction, there are spaceships and everything. The participants in a long-distance relationship meet via interstellar travel. As usual in a long-distance relationship story, there’s something unsaid that must be confronted once they meet.
Pornodroid: Science fiction, again with spaceships and everything. Not as sexy as it sounds. A pop music star under a very onerous contract discovers that stardom ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, and finds a high-tech way to attempt an escape.
Fire: A 100-word western involving a lost Spaniard, a nasty bearded brigand, and a campfire.
Maybe it would be a little easier to attract readers if I stuck to one thing. On the other hand, I can’t be the only one who enjoys variety. And frankly, if I tried to compress myself into a branding-marketing straitjacket and keep everything focused, I have a feeling that the writing I produced would rapidly start to suck. I’m happy being a bit scatterbrained. My mind is a restless dog, sticking its nose into every corner and smelling after new and exciting smells. If I tried to chain it down it would rapidly become unhappy and you’d get tired of hearing it bark all the time.
An advantage of working in short stories, as I do (or writing shorts in addition to your novel-length project): when you get stuck, you can set a story aside and work on another one.
Caution must be used with this approach — it can turn into ‘start a bazillion projects and finish none’ syndrome, from which, I understand, many suffer. ‘Finish everything’ is common advice to fight this dread syndrome; it’s advice I almost follow, but not quite. There are a couple of projects I haven’t finished. They sit in the ‘Trunk’ subfolder of my ‘Writing’ folder, just in case. You never know what will be useful, and I like to open all of my unfinished story files, including trunk stories, once in a while to see if inspiration strikes. A couple of months ago, I was doing just that, reading a trunk story that felt unfinished even though I had forced an ending, and otherwise didn’t feel quite right. It had been sitting there for two years or so. Inspiration struck, I retitled and reworked it, and ended up with a story that was satisfying and, I think, pretty damn good.
Some stories do sit unfinished for considerable lengths. I tend to have 8 to 12 working at once and sometimes months pass before start and finish. Isolation, the ~20,000 word lead story in my Isolation and Other Stories collection, ground to a halt twice and sat fallow for months before I picked it up again; it was a year and a half from inspiration to finishing for that one.
But in the meantime, I conceived and finished plenty of other stories. And that flexibility, at least for now, is a major reason I favor writing short stories over tackling a single novel-length project.
That doesn’t mean I think anyone’s wrong for concentrating on writing a novel. It doesn’t mean I don’t like novels. It doesn’t mean I think less of novelists. And it surely does not mean I won’t be producing a novel in the future. Conventional wisdom says the opportunity to make money is in novels, not short stories, and there’s a lot of evidence that this conventional wisdom is substantially accurate. And I do hope to make some money doing this writing thing, one way or another.
I just enjoy the freedom of having a somewhat chaotic creative process that short forms provide. Because I’m a somewhat chaotic person. That’s all.