Not Your Gramma’s Grammar
The default view of our own language (I’m speaking from the US as a monolingual—feel free to chime in with experience of other native or second languages) is of a rigid thing. A structure. Strict boundaries. Even a trap, sometimes. Penalties may apply.
There’s some justice to that view. Mistake “your” for “you’re” in a post online and you’ll soon hear about it. If you Capitalize random Things as you write—maybe for “emphasis” as our barely-literate President Trump has put it—you look like a fool who doesn’t know the language. Even worse, quotation marks for emphasis. NO THAT’S NOT WHAT THEY’RE FOR STOP IT.
Some things are fairly rigid. But.
Language is made out of thin air. It’s a figment of our imagination, shared. And it changes. It changes all the time. The Latin of the beginning of the Roman republic was different than the Latin of the late Roman Empire. Old English is literally a foreign language for a speaker of modern English, yet the latter evolved from the former (along with a crapload of loanwords from a bunch of other languages, to be sure). And then there’s slang. Notice how fast slang terms come and go? Not many stick around for more than five or ten years. But some do. “Cool” is the biggie, somewhere near a century old at least. A fair number of people still know what World War 2 era FUBAR means. How long has a kissass been a kissass? That’s slang if I’ve ever seen it.
Words are coined to fit new things. Automobile was coined to describe the new motive invention, but the old car which was used for some horsedrawn vehicles survived side-by-side and is used in preference. Laser passed from an acronym used in specialized sciences to an everyday word. Watergate, due to association with Nixon’s scandal, stopped meaning a specific hotel and took on the general meaning of big ass scandal. And then there’s Shakespeare who coined a new word when he felt like it. What a bold display of artistic power that was.
Language may change as we move about the country. As a boy in Wisconsin I’d go down by the store to buy some pop. As an adult in Virginia I go TO the store to buy some SODA.
And language has a sneaky way of shifting for no apparent reason as you watch. I’ve noticed an example.
Even a decade ago, you’d go to the gym to work out and when you got home you’d say “wow, what a workout.” A two part phrasal verb (verb + a different type of word) is/was two separated words BUT ONLY FOR CERTAIN WORDS, but the noun form of these linguistic weirdos would be a compound word (it can also vary by tense). The airplane will take off shortly, so buckle your seatbelts for takeoff.
For some reason I can’t see, for a few words the construction has shifted for some of these phrases, and I have no idea why. All I know is it looks weird when I see them, but it doesn’t seem to look weird to Millennials or younger folks. Do you want to workout? I need a good workout. It looks weird to me, and it probably looks weird to you if you’re over 30ish. Or maybe 40ish. My fingers are not quite on the pulse of bleeding edge English linguistics.
People love to bitch about grammar and spelling mistakes, and talk about “kids these days.”
Some of those mistakes are just normal change, and kids have always shaken things up, linguistic or otherwise. It’s what they’re for.
This is a little bit especially for people in the early days of their sending-their-writing-to-total-strangers-and-asking-them-to-publish-it careers. Which is daunting. It was for me. It was every time I did it, and so far I’ve chalked up around 200 rejections for 4 acceptances, only two of which are still in print (in the sci-fi world, small mags can come and go fast).
Rejection sucks no matter where you find it, but it’s worth it. And it’s just part of the game. An editor gets hundreds of stories for every one they print. Rejection might mean you need to do more work on your story or your writing in general — but it also often means a story isn’t a good fit for the mag, the upcoming issue, or the editor just likes another story a smidge more. Just part of the game.
But anyway, I had this little exchange. Maybe you can take something away from it.
If you’re going to submit stories, and you might have more than one in circulation — and that’s likely if you’re steadily writing. It can take an editor a day or two to reject a story (Clarkesworld, in my experience, was always quick to reject me, and that’s not only because my stories didn’t do it for the editor, but because they have notoriously fast turnaround in general probably due to hard work and fast reading). Or it can take two weeks, or two months for some markets, sometimes even more. Take a peek at the bottom of the landing page of the Submission Grinder — they keep a running list of response times reported by writers. They also maintain a great list of markets to send stories to if you’re doing that.
It’s very easy to end up with multiple stories in play at once.
So you can use a tracker sheet like I do (below). Or keep a digital record on a spreadsheet. Or something else that suits you.
The advantage of the simple little one-story-per-sheet tracker is it’s very easy to see where a story has been so you don’t send it back to the same place twice (which is a no-no 99.9% of the time).
The weakness of this sheet is that you have to look over all the sheets for all the stories that you have out at a time to make sure you are not submitting a second story to the same market that hasn’t yet decided on the first story you sent them (also a no-no 99.9% of the time).
Personally, I can live with that. You may not be so excited, in which case I’m sorry I wasn’t more help!
The notes section gives you a place to write “send more” if the editor says send more, or anything else you think is relevant. It also gives you a place to note the exclusivity period on the story if you’re accepted so you know when you can resubmit it to a reprint market or self-publish it (which, of course, is my personal game).
Here’s the tracker sheet I use. I wanted simple, so I made simple. I just copy-pasted it here — I don’t know if you can copy it and use it in this form. If not, drop me a comment and I can email you the .doc file.
Back in the days when I read more superhero comix, and today when I watch a movie with a flying superhero — especially one with some kind of ranged attack, IRON MAN I’M LOOKING AT YOU — I’m super annoyed when they just happen to fly low enough for an opponent with no ranged attack to grab or hit them.
JUST FLY HIGHER, DUMMY.
“But the plot requires me to get close enough to let my opponent start a thrilling grapple…”
SHUT UP THAT’S LAZY-ASS WRITING.
Same goes for every drama that features a standoff with a gun and the hero stands there holding the gun on the villain as the villain creeps closer and closer until they can just grab the gun. It rarely makes sense. If there’s something about the character holding the gun that makes it make sense, fine. Maybe they’ve just realized that they can’t bring themselves to shoot another human being. Or there’s some overriding reason that shooting and maybe killing the villain would be a terrible idea.
But that’s so seldom the case. More often than not, it’s a contrived situation to up the tension.
Don’t be lazy and write things that don’t make sense. If you want more tension or whatever, and it doesn’t make sense, GO BACK AND WRITE IT DIFFERENTLY SO IT MAKES SENSE.
If the tiger catches the drone, make sure there’s some internal logic to 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!
It’s about writing hard science fiction when you’re not a scientist, which is a lot of what I do, so I speak from experience. If you write or read science fiction I think you’ll like it. 🙂
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.
Some art that made me say, “cool!” and a few tweets led to some bigger thoughts on genre writing – which is a pretty normal thing, small ideas leading to larger ones, if you’ve done some writing or pretty much any art I can think of or serious thinking.
I found Travis Durden’s Star Wars Greek statuary through a tweet I saw a couple of hours ago (on the 27th — this post first appeared on my Patreon page (would you like to support a not-quite-starving writer? Please do! Because every penny helps tear down the budget worries that often occupy my mind when I’d rather be writing) in the wee hours of the 28th) (tweet posted below). Durden’s art is seriously neat stuff.
Which lead to this tweet:
And this one:
And finally this one:
After I graduated from kiddie books so many years ago, I cut my reading teeth on science fiction. I tried reading the paperbacks my father brought home from used bookstores and quickly learned to look for the short story collections and anthologies — I’d recently learned to read, it was hard enough to work through all the words I didn’t recognize without trying to figure out what was going on in a whole novel. But the shorter short stories, in those early years, I could wrap my mind around those. And remember (well, you might not have known, so I’m telling you) this was in the mid-70s, when certainly many authors in science fiction and elsewhere may have been experimental in their writing, but the mainstream in short science fiction stories was heavy with straightforward plots, traditional story arcs, and mysteries resolved with a single final twist. There’s plenty of that now, to be sure. But either there was more then or those are what I remember because they’re the stories I understood as a child.
That’s a long way to go to say that science fiction seemed huge to me, but it did. It seemed huge and very distinct because it was my entire fictional world then. Nursery rhymes and the little stories found in early reader books — if you’ve had or been around small children just learning to read much, you’ll recall them — hardly counted.
And science fiction is distinct, or at least distinctive. The definition has been endlessly debated over, but most of us who read much of it recognize it when we see it. The same goes for the other genres I mentioned in that last tweet. Horror is distinct enough that we notice the difference, for example, when we read a Stephen King horror story as opposed to a Stephen King something else. Legends have a pretty distinct definition. Magical realism blurs the lines — sometimes it’s fantasy, sometimes it’s science ficiton, sometimes it’s literary, sometimes, sometimes, sometimes.
That’s the genre that really makes the point, with its blurryness.
They’re all blurry, really. Think of Star Wars: get a SW fan who calls it science fiction and a SW fan who calls it science fantasy in the same room and watch the genre boundary argument fur fly.
We love to dicker over what story counts as which genre and who’s that writer whose work is called X but really it’s more Y don’t you think?
To say they’re all fiction is too simplistic. But there’s that in pointing out that genres are small things that cannot really contain a story, not the large and well-defined things we’re tempted to think of them as, that we often reflexively think of them as after a scholastic lifetime of being taught the boundaries of genre.
They’re all stories. They’re all about human beings and what human beings do and think and feel and wonder. All of them, even the genres where there is debate as to whether or not they’re fiction or nonfiction: mythology, legend, religion.
They’re stronger when they wander, stories are. When we get it into our minds that we can’t write in X event because we’re writing science fiction or that Y character doesn’t make sense because we’re reading fantasy, we weaken the stories that we might otherwise love, whether we’re reading them, writing them, or representing them in other forms of art. For centuries fiction and poetry have derived inspiration and imagery from religion and mythology and legend (assuming you divide stories that faith has grown up around into those rather than lumping them together). Star Wars is beloved science fiction in part because it incorporates elements of fantasy and legend and even, at least in the beginning, of the Western movie.
Try picking out a few of your favorite stories that have won wide acclaim or are considered enduring classics. Give them a read with this in mind, and look for where the genres blur. You don’t need a story that glaringly throws seventeen genres together; one that’s mostly in one but draws in bits of others is just fine — even better, in fact.
Much like the ancient advice that a single stick alone is weak but a bundle of those same sticks is strong together, I think you’ll find that stories that gather together elements of different genres are the strongest.
And I also think that it’s more than worth the effort to seek them out as a reader, and to try to create them as a writer.
I’ve begun rewriting that early story of mine, “In Real Life”.
(The new cover is better than the old, don’t you think?)
It was published in 2012, but it was written, to the best of my recollection, in late 2010. Maybe I’m wrong and it was early 2011, but it’s no more recent than that. That wasn’t too long after I took up writing again – by that time I had worked the most egregious bugs out of my writing, I think – but I temper that thinking with the fact that it’s something of a yearly affair to look back at what I have written and think, oh, I wouldn’t have written it that way now. I could have improved on that. Go ahead and read it with a critical eye, see what you think.
I’m helping the last customer of the day pick out a low-end cosmetic skin for his personal Heads Up Display when my PayDayFeed blinks three times and turns yellow. That’s the signal that I’ve gone into overtime. The dollar counter speeds up, reflecting time and a half, and the HUD Gear corporate overlay adds a digital countdown to the icon population floating in my view. I’ve got half an hour before I get a disciplinary notice; the company is very serious about limiting overtime outside of major shopping holidays. I perk up my tone as I list the features of the skin the lean pimple-faced boy seems most enthusiastic about, guiding him to a quick decision. We ShareSpace our HUDs through the retail interface, and I nudge his skin’s icon over to his side. He double clicks it to accept, and his account transfers the $119.95 to the store account. The receipt icon appears and I move it over for him to acknowledge. I’m loading my closing checklist at the same time I’m walking him to the door. It’s going to be close, the counter is down to 00:24:36 when the lock clicks shut.
It clicks shut again, behind me this time, freezing the countdown at 00:04:09. Good. I still have 42:21:55 working time until my last OT warning goes inactive. I really don’t want a second one. I smile as I slide behind the controls of my aging Honda/soft three wheeler…
As I read over that, making mental notes about where to make changes, I thought, this is not going to be a cosmetic rewrite. I am going to rework this sucker bigtime. I haven’t developed just in terms of story mechanics or of smoothly communicating the story and scene to the reader. My style has changed. I have (I hope) a better feel for what needs to be explained overtly and what can be left to the imagination or assumption. Yeah, this story is going to change a lot. And that affirms my idea that the original text will be included after the rewritten story when I create the ebook. The reader ought to have the opportunity to see what the new edition sprang from.
Picking out details as I tackled the rewriting, the first thing that caught my eye wasn’t a miss in terms of writing, but in terminology. “Heads Up Display” (HUD) isn’t the worst way to describe “augmented reality,” but it’s not really very good, either. I hadn’t yet encountered the term “augmented reality” to describe the species of virtual reality in which the user sees the physical reality around himself, but with a visual overlay or modification added. A “skin,” to borrow a term from videogaming. HUD usually refers to a similar idea in which the augmented reality is projected on a transparent surface like the windshield of a car. So one of my first changes is to replace HUD with augmented reality and introduce my own take on the inevitable slangification of technical terms with “augreal.”
I also thought I leaned a little too hard on the details of how the transaction was navigated. Other things I changed were based on subjective feelings – I felt the flow of the original was a little choppy. I think I paid more attention to describing the action and being linear and chronological, and less to how the language sounds – I bet I didn’t read the first version to myself out loud. Now I pay more attention to that aspect. Prose may not be poetry, but it should be good storytelling, and good storytelling engages as much through the feel of the words and sentences as it does through definitional means of describing the setting and action the writer is imagining. At its best good storytelling prose feels a bit poetic in a way, transmitting something emotional and subjective, not just a dry description. Did I hit that mark? I don’t know, it’s notoriously hard for a writer to judge his or her own work. Did I at least get closer? I’m pretty sure I have.
These kinds of conversations with myself (is this good storytelling?) remind me that it’s easy to be a perfectionist in theory. I’d love my writing to be “perfect,” whateverthehell that is. In reality, indulging perfectionism kills productivity. No writer is perfect. Every writer misses the mark sometimes. No writing is ever loved by everyone who reads it. So I have to set myself a limit – I’ve tinkered with this enough, now I’m no longer improving the prose I’m delivering. I’m just tweaking the arrangement a bit, changing for the sake of changing.
Perfection is an illusion. Always strive to improve, never expect to be perfect.
Here’s the rewritten opening:
I’m already trying to hurry the last customer of the day through his purchase when the world grows a blinking yellow border – I’m now trespassing upon the dread domain of overtime pay. My bank balance, always present in the lower left of my augmented reality, ticks over faster with time-and-a-half. Glowing red digits appear in the center of my vision, ghost-translucent over the face of my customer – the Worktime corporate skin on my augreal counting down the half-hour of OT I’m allowed before I’m written up.
I resist the urge to talk faster – nothing turns a customer off like feeling he’s being rushed – and pour on the persuasion. He’s a kid, pimple-faced and gawky, self-consciously coolish, browsing first person shooter skins for his augreal and avoiding the ones with the highest user counts. But he skips past the lowest, too, and I get it: the key to hurry him out the door. He’s a safe player, looking for the middle ground between Popular Fanboy and Ironically Uncool. I lean in, tipping my forehead toward his, the universal gesture: merge our augmented realities? He nods and I zip through the advanced search options too fast for him to follow – I’ve been here ten years; jobs for humans are rare and precious; nobody leaves one on purpose. I flip through three skins like the ones he’s been lingering on, heavy on reds and flamethrower effects, and repeat the magic words to death: you can exchange it within seventy-two hours, FREE, if you don’t love it. Finally he taps one of the skins. I pass him the TOS icon and he taps agree without reading just like everyone else, even me. Nobody reads the TOS. He passes over his $119.95 – cheap skin, lousy commission, but you don’t try to sell a cheapskate a rich skin. I give him the exchange period countdown widget and open it for him in his augreal. I’m already opening my closedown checklist as I give him the thank-you-come-again. Time is slipping away fast and I don’t need another OT writeup – a quick peek at that widget tells me I’m still three workdays away from the last one dropping off. I rush through the closedown and freeze the OT countdown at 04:09 by locking the steel security gate over the store’s door on my way out. Victory.
One: This immediately became a complete rework of the whole text. It’s basically as time-intensive as writing a brand new story. I may not do this again because I’d rather be writing something new. If I wanted to revisit this particular story, I could do just as well coming up with a sequel or a second story set in the same universe.
Two: I do like the new copy more than the old. And of course I do. I’m taking something that 2011 S.A. Barton liked and making it into something that 2016 S.A. Barton likes. People change, likes and dislikes change; this is just another illustration of this.
Three: I’m going to keep going on with this exercise, but it’s going on the back burner. It will be a fine thing to tinker with when I’m feeling otherwise uninspired. And it has inspired me to critically look at myself as a writer – that’s almost always a good thing. Also, I said I’d rewrite the whole thing, and followthrough is good – mostly. If I find it’s eating new work, it’s going to have to go in the trunk. Sure followthrough is good – but on the other hand there’s no need to go down with a sinking ship but pride, and if life as a poorish person has taught me anything its that you must choose what you take pride in with care because pride is a luxury in most cases and luxuries are simply not in the budget.
Four: Rewriting those couple of paragraphs led to this (longer!) post PLUS a few clarifications of my priorities when it comes to writing. Part of my slow progress as a writer is due to the volume of other things that occupy my attention: life in general, children, mundane chores like cooking and, soon, moving household, online classes because grad school loans are part of what supports me having a home and internet access with which to pursue matters of education, family, and self-publishing. Interruptions of writing, unless you’re a monomanac, are going to happen, and many of those “interruptions” are GOOD THINGS. I don’t want to miss playing with my kids and private time with my wife because writing. But part of my interruptions spring from lack of focus. I’m especially prone to defocus because I’m worrying about X, Y, and Z current things going on in my life. The usuals, like keeping vehicles running and people fed and what if a hurricane or tornado comes this year and what if there’s a bureucratic snafu or something and we can’t pay rent and what if my last story sucked and, and, and… and I’m guessing plenty of you reading this can identify with worry as an enemy of focus to one degree or another. I worry about things, it’s what I do – and I remember being a small child and my grandmother saying “we are a family of worry-warts.” Worrying about things is apparently genetic. But I worry, worry, worry. I worry that slow sales of my work stems from older, less attractive stories that turn readers off, for example – rather than the idea that short story singles are limited sellers and novels, or at least novellas, are where the sales are at in self-publishing 999 times out of 1000. Actually, is that the figure? I’m not sure I’ve EVER heard of an author, self-published or other, making a self-supporting income out of solely short stories. At other times, I glom on to other ideas. I’m pissing readers off with my tweets or my blog posts (and I’m sure I have, because having ANY opinion will piss SOMEONE off – you can’t please everyone, ever), but most readers look past differences of opinion with authors and save “I’m not reading that person anymore” for REALLY HUGE UNFORGIVABLE stuff like kitten-eating.
Still on point four: so it turns out this rewriting exercise wasn’t as much about rewriting and getting a few blog posts about the process of rewriting as I thought it was.
It turned out to be about settling some of my internal conflict over my successes, failures, and in-betweens as a writer and self-publisher. Just taking action on the start of this old story plus the thought behind writing this post led to what I hope are some positive conclusions. Writing new things is more important than rewriting old things.I recently wrote a post in which I said unpublishing is a giant pain in the butt and you should consider everything else, including rewriting, before doing it.
Well, I may be best off unpublishing a few things. I don’t know yet – it IS a pain in the ass – but it’s on the table for those stories of mine that aren’t my favorites. We’ll see. Having some short freebies, as I do, remains a good idea – the free story has been the centerpiece of self-publishing marketing/selling strategy for a long while (comparatively long in this young current and extensive incarnation of self-publishing). Keeping my longer novelette and novella singles is a good idea – long stories are more likely to sell. Shorter stories that are neither freebie or novelette, neither the fish nor fowl of the world of self-publishing – I need to take a close look at those. If they’re already in a collection, maybe that needs to be their home instead of living a dual existence as a 99 cent single AND part of a collection. If I drop the unpublishing axe at all, it’s going to be on some of those awkward short stories that are not also flash fiction, novelette, or novella.
I have a lot of thinking to do as a result of this exercise. That makes it already successful, in my book. Some of the points above are me thinking ‘aloud’ on the page – and I’m inviting all of you who have read this far to tell me what you think.
This post has been as long as some of my short stories. If you read it all, you are definitely one of the people I’d love to hear a comment from – you were interested enough to stick with me and my thoughts for quite a while, in reading-on-the-internet terms.
See you in the comments section.
(This post first appeared on my Patreon page on the 10th of this month — that’s right, they get to see posts THREE DAYS EARLY. When I publish an ebook, they get a FREE copy THIRTY DAYS BEFORE NON-PATRONS CAN EVEN BUY THE THING. So you should totally support my efforts by becoming a patron. You’ll even have my very sincere thankyous because times are tough, money’s tight, and my family of five enjoys pricey things like “eating” and “having a roof over our heads.”
Enough of that, here’s the actual post you’re here to read:
I seem to like writing about writing about food. Probably because I REALLY like good food. If I had gotten my head on straight earlier in life, there’s a pretty good chance I would have ended up being a chef instead of a writer. Both careers sound good to me — though I mostly lack the patience to make it through the prep drudgery of chefdom (at least in the early career stages). Maybe in an alternate world there’s an S.A. Barton restaurant. I hope it specializes in science fiction themed food.
But I’m WAAAAY off track of what I had planned to write here today. I’ll just mention that I’ve posted on food and science fiction before, in “Eat Science Fiction” and “Eat MORE Science Fiction“, and move along.
So, I’ve got this work in progress. Like about half of my stories, it started with a title that clicked with me. I’ll be sitting around tweeting, reading, or otherwise minding my own business and all of a sudden a phrase or word will flash into my head and I’ll scramble for a pen and scrap of paper thinking, “man, I have GOT to write a story with that title.”
This time, the title was “And The Dish Ran Away With The Spoon”. I know, it’s just a nursery rhyme phrase. But this time it came to me while I was reading about machine learning and artificial intelligence.
So I had this little stub of an idea. A story about AI, and this title. The story gears started grinding away in the writers’ lobe of my brain. I sat down to try to puzzle out what to do with this thing. I picked up my pen and a pad. I stared at the blank paper for fifteen or twenty minutes — some of you may recognize this as the vital part of writing fiction that makes non writers say, “so are you ever going to start working, or what?”
DAMMIT I AM WORKING. JEEZ. SHH.
Finally I started to write. I started to write a menu for an appetizer course. Because the Dish and the Spoon suggest a kitchen, and we all know what comes out of kitchens. Delicious food.
And I like to write about food almost as much as I like eating it. A match made in heaven. So now I have a story about food and AI and a kitchen and does it really have to be a literal spoon and dish? Hmm…
…and it started to really come together in concept. I’d open and close the story with a menu card. Place a menu card in between each scene. For framing the story, for punctuation, to play with foreshadowing and tone-setting with my menu choices. Eating a meal and socializing go together all over the world, so I’ll write a story about relationships.
So now I’m fifteen hundred words into my story about AI and relationships and food. I have an AI relationship developing along with a human relationship to make the whole thing more, at the risk of becoming too repetitive here, relatable.
I’m in the middle of soup and salad now, and looking forward to the entree. I already know what dessert will be, and I think it will surprise and please the diners. Readers. Whichever.
Now, I’m sorry to say this one won’t be appearing in public for a little while. Once I finish it and bounce it off a couple of readers, I’m going to see if I can’t sell it, and I think it has a place in a new collection I’m working on. But don’t worry.
Anticipation and hunger are the best sauces a meal can have, they say.
(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.