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!
…I start almost every story writing by hand, then type it into a LibreOffice doc and continue the story as a typist. If a story stalls really badly, I often end up going back to writing longhand to kickstart it.
Maybe it’s a weird way to do things, but it seems to work.
This is from a story stub with the working title “The Long Trajectory” about a small civilization of cultural refugees who have spent a thousand years hiding on a comet while the Solar System developed into a large and integrated society without them. It’s got potential as both story and political commentary.
It’s one of six or eight stories I’ve recently started and then gone on to start and/or finish other stories. It’s normal for me to start stories and leave them to sit for a while. I come back and complete a good three-quarters of them. Some of them are interesting concepts but I can’t think of a really good way to continue them, and they go in the trunk.
Even then, not all hope is lost. I think the longest a story has sat in the trunk was three or four years, and I ended up pulling it out, reworking it totally, and the end result was “Flower On The Moon,” a little flash vignette that I was happy with and which is out now as one of my freebies. I didn’t try to sell that one first — there’s pretty much no market for vignettes. But they’re fun to write and sometimes inspire larger stories or elements within larger stories, so I write one now and then.
So that’s what my story workshop looks like. I think they all look a bit different — what does yours look like?
We love to read (I feel safe including everyone — who comes to a blog to NOT read?).
Writers love to write — or at least, love-hate. Editing is sometimes a chore, but really it’s going over the rough of the story we want to tell and smoothing it into the best version of the story we can produce. So writers are almost always all about some good editing.
Proofreeding, though, is sort of the proverbeeall red-headed stepchild. Nobuddy likes to poofread.
But if you dun’t want too lokk slily, proofreading is vtal.
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.
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 21st. Become a patron and see posts early, get FREE ebooks before anyone else can get them, and help me on my quest to feed a family of five with my dreams!)
For a little while now, I’ve been kicking around the idea of going back and editing some of my oldest stories. I generally still like those stories from my earliest days of self-publishing — an immense five years ago, has it really been so little time? It seems like ages.
It’s exactly because it seems like ages that I want to create some revamped editions of those stories. Five years isn’t all that long ago, but it was only seven years ago that I decided it might be fun to take up writing for my own enjoyment again and only six years ago that I decided — okay, my wife persuaded me over my own self-conscious and self-deprecating protests — that I might want to write stories to share with other people, and maybe even sell a few.
I used to write in grade school, imitations of science fiction stories found in libraries and the steady stream of paperbacks my father devoured. But after placing only (!) third in a short story contest in my smallish school, I decided I must not be cut out for writing — I had absorbed, from somewhere, the idea that writing was a talent and not a skill, and I didn’t have it. I wrote a few short stories in my teens and twenties, for my eyes only. Still convinced that, though fun, I just didn’t have the talent to write good ones. The thought of writing disappeared from my horizon until my late thirties, when it finally sank through my thick skull — I think the credit goes to Stephen King’s On Writing, which my wife brought home for me from a thrift store — that writing was a skill, like any art, and takes practice and time for the skill to develop.
And so I started filling notebooks with my own writing and reading the stories I loved with an eye toward what made them fun and interesting to read.
Those early self-published works were published while my skills were still new, and they show it. Are they still good? I hope so — at the least, I think the concepts are sound and the basics of story are there. But after writing a hundred and something short stories and making my way through an English fiction writing MA (I’m in the final course of my program as I write this) I think my writing has evolved significantly in the last few years. And I think any writer who passes through the first five years of writing with the intent to be published does the same — the early years of developing any skill are the years of greatest growth.
Now here’s the bit that’s important to you if you are interested in writing and especially if you have enjoyed some of my stories:
I’m planning on writing a few posts along the way as I revise, and I’m planning on publishing new editions with the old text included after the new text for anyone who would like to compare and contrast.
I think it will be an interesting look into how a writer evolves, for you and certainly for me.
I’d love to have the old and new text side by side for easy comparison, but there are a few factors in the way, so one after another it will have to be. 1: my primary self-publishing outlet, Smashwords, doesn’t like columnar formatting. 2: even if I could finangle side-by-side columns they would look like hell on any device you’d read an ebook on, short of maybe a 40″ monitor. 3: my stories tend to lengthen with editing despite the fat I cut, and the comparison columns would soon be out of sync anyway.
But why, exactly, is any of that important?
Because as my patrons (if you’re not, I’m talking to you in the next paragraph, and this one is short, so I’ll be right with you), I’ll treat new editions of old stories exactly like new stories. You will see them on Patreon a minimum of 30 days before they appear anywhere else, and you will get a free copy in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI regardless of what I charge for the new edition elsewhere. This one I’m tackling first, “In Real Life”, is priced at $1.99.
Even if you’re not one of my Patreon patrons, you may not have read the original, and may find it best to wait and get the new and old editions together — and if by chance you bought the original ebook, once the new edition is released you *should* be able to download the new version from the original vendor you purchased it from. If not, let me know and I’ll hook you up after the patron-exclusive 30 days ends — you’re on the honor system; please be kind to this writer who needs every penny he earns to keep his 20 year old minivan running and the lights on at home.
Also, the story may get longer — at least three readers have told me that they’d love for it to be longer, maybe to reveal what happens next after the ending. Now, “tell us what happens next” is sometimes the bane of the short story writers — I, like many others, like an open-ended ending that invites the reader to imagine the possibilities beyond the end of the story — but sometimes it’s actually a good idea. I’m thinking particularly of “Isolation”, the title story of my Isolation and Other Stories collection, which ended after what became the first third of the story in the original draft. My wife read it and said, as near as I can remember, “hell no, you can’t end it there. It needs more.”
Sometimes the reader is right. “In Real Life” might need more. Or it might not. We’ll see. But like I said before, my drafts tend to grow during editing — just as, in the old saying, stories grow with the telling.
No matter how it goes, it should be fun.
Please don’t remind me that those are famous last words — let’s end on a high note.
Oh, he’s infodumping in public. He must be SO EMBARRASSED! Poor thing.
You’ve only just read the title, seen the image, read the caption, and you already know: I’m going to tell you (you writers out there) not to infodump on your readers. If you’re a reader, I’m going to tell you how you feel when you hit an infodump: ‘fine, fine, get on with the story already fer chrissakes.’
Before I go farther, let me tell you what prompted this post. From time to time, I poke through one of the ebook sellers’ websites and preview some of the novels and shorts that my fellow self-published writers come up with. The first one I looked at this afternoon started with a fat infodump in movie-intro style. It was labeled “Prologue,” which was a lie. It wasn’t a prologue. It was an infodump sketching out the author’s worldbuilding so that you, dear reader, wouldn’t have to bother your pretty little head with figuring out the background. And, possibly, so the author wouldn’t have to bother his pretty little head figuring out how to establish the important features of his world through things like dialogue and brief exposition and events.
Now that we’re past the digression: if you’re a contrary or exception-minded sort like me, you’ve taken issue with my hostility against the infodump, and have come up with a number of reasons that an infodump might be perfectly fine in a story. At least a little one. And it’s true, a little infodumping is less offensive than a lot of infodumping. The most inoffensive thing about the example I encountered today was that it was relatively short, less than two pages. Not too big to skip forward to the beginning of the first chapter, which is where the story should have begun. It should have begun with chapter one because that’s where it was interesting in a way the infodump ‘prologue’ definitely failed to be.
Which brings me to my major objection to the usage of the infodump: they’re boring. The worst of them (and the one I read was one of these) read like a transcript from a high school history class with the most uninspired and unhappy teacher you ever had the misfortune of having. Nobody wants to read that crap. I bet the writer didn’t even want to read that crap once it was written. He probably had trouble staying awake during editing.
There are ways to handle the infodump that aren’t terrible, and those are the ways you should use as a writer — because they’re not actually infodumps as I’m defining them here. They’re the ways you want to read as a reader. They’re not encyclopedic, they’re worked in with some sort of action. The characters are doing and thinking and saying things as the infodump develops. You still don’t want to overdo it. Even handled this way, if they’re prolonged the reader begins to wish for less information and more story-meat. But when done well, the reader is still enjoying what’s going on. If you’re the one doing the writing, doing it this way moves it from the realm of the infodump (EWWWW!) and into the realm of exposition (well, fine — so long as it stays interesting).
Technically, exposition and infodumping are the same thing. Exposition simply means ‘showing,’ which might be a bit confusing in light of the old and hoary advice, “show, don’t tell.” Exposition is a point at which the writer tells the reader something informative instead of showing or demonstrating it by other means. I think of the infodump as a distinct category of its own: Infodumping is the kind of exposition you do NOT want to write. It’s the kind that really sucks.
All exposition should be used sparingly. You should think about how and why you use it rather than conveying your information another way. And if you find yourself in the infodump neighborhood of exposition, do yourself a favor:
FIND ANOTHER WAY.
The title story of this one was a year and a half in the writing. Isolation started as a short story. When I thought I had finished it, I sent it to my wife to see what she thought, as I always do. And she thought that the ending point was WAY too open-ended, left WAY too much unsaid. She wanted to know what happened next, and she was certain that what happened next would be interesting and important and the reader had to know what it was.
I grumbled, but I sort of saw her point, so I put the story on the back burner. And then I came back to it months later when more came to me, and it turned out that she was right. A 5,000 word story, in bits and parts over the course of more months, turned into a 20,000 word story. And the ending was still open-ended, but this time both I and my wife were okay with that.
Back in February 2014, nearly a year ago now, I posted an excerpt from That’s All, a story about a man vaulted from the edge of homelessness into reality-show stardom in a future where television and movies include “emotional tracks” that transmit the emotions of the actors to the audience. I have 15,000 words of that one down, and I think that maybe it wants to be a novel — which would be cool, I haven’t written one of those yet. But I still don’t know what happens next. I have some ideas, but none of them are really resonating strongly with me so far. I re-read it every month or two and think about it. That’s how I operate, sometimes. Some stories come to me all in a rush. Others take time. More time that I’d like.
The prevailing advice to writers is, write the story no matter what. Make it happen. Bull ahead, write crap, then edit it like a demon and chop it to pieces. And from those pieces, you will assemble your story.
That’s just not how I work. I don’t like writing things when I don’t know where they’re headed. I don’t need an outline; when I do one, it’s skeletal at best. I tend to write organically. But I need to have a destination in my head, no matter if I discard it after a thousand words because things have changed as I have written.
Don’t get me wrong, I do benefit from sitting down and writing when I don’t feel like writing or when I don’t know what happens next. But some stories, for me, just need to marinate for a while. Sometimes for months. Maybe a year or two.
This writing thing is an art, not a science. Maybe my feelings on stories are wrong sometimes, and maybe they’re right. This is an uncertain pursuit, drawing stuff out of a human imagination. We all need to take our chances, follow our feelings, push ourselves to finish work…
…but we also need to back off when we don’t know what comes next and give things time. Or, who knows, maybe you don’t, you lucky bastard. But I do. So it goes.
There’s a reason I keep a dozen projects juggling at once. It’s because I go through ebbs and flows on any one project, and I need other things to go work on while another stalls. To produce writing, I have to have some grasp on how, personally, I work as a creator. And this is just how I work. So it goes.
Sometimes, this means I post an excerpt from a piece of writing and a year later I’m no closer to completion than I was before. I don’t really like doing that, because I like to follow through with my readers. I don’t like to tease what’s not happening soon. And I have come to hesitate to post work in progress because of that, which, today, I have realized is a shame. I like to share, and I think you like to read. Why shouldn’t we share some work in progress, even if its future is uncertain? Hell, everything is uncertain. EVERYTHING. A black hole could swoop in and eat us all tomorrow, or something.
But again, so it goes.
The author, reflecting on the ain’t-easiness of being green.
The other day sometime between now and a thousand days ago, I got a review for a number of stars I won’t reveal, from a person whose identity or online alias I won’t reveal, on one of my stories which I also won’t reveal.
Because writers who call out reviewers, both I and most of the internet believe, are assholes. And I have quite enough assholishness without adding any more, thankyouverymuch.
But that’s not my point. My point is this: the reviewer referred to my story, which I had not written with the intent of making it YA, as YA.
And that made me think.
What exactly do I write?
I’ve already put out some stories that don’t fit neatly into commercial genre lines. Mainstream with a taste of science fiction, science fiction with a taste of mainstream, fantasy that didn’t turn into fantasy until the story was almost over, the ever-popular horror-science-fiction mashup… well, sort of. Not quite.
But I had never given a thought to writing YA, even when I wrote Kitty Itty And The Seawall Broke, which has a preteen protagonist, a family-centric storyline, a sympathetic cat character, and a title that sounds like YA. I didn’t think of pitching it as YA until my wife read it and said, “you should sell it as YA because it’s YA.”
I tend to favor straightforward storylines, which are not a requirement for YA, but which are common in YA. While some of my work is undeniably adult, much of it is in that gray area that can be enjoyed by the teen reader and the adult reader equally.
So I’ve concluded that I write stories, and some of them can be enjoyed as and thought of as YA because I’m pretty sure they’re all-ages-friendly. Most of them are science fiction, probably because most of my reading, for all of my literate life, has been science fiction.
I sort of wish I could throw them out uncategorized and let the readers decide what pigeonholes they fit in. That would be easiest, if there was any practical way to do that. But there isn’t. So I’ll try to fit the round stories in the round holes and the square ones in the square holes, and when a story is both round and square, I’ll just pick one.
The way the market works, we have to worry about genre. Especially when we’re self-published, and have to face the publisher’s jumbo menu of categories your story must fit in — please pick one already and stop stalling! But the way I write, the way most of us write, I think, we tend to write our stories and then worry about what genre it can be called part of.
So keep writing, and keep pigeonholing as needed. And let the reviews and the puzzled comments about what you’ve written fall where they may.
The unused first cover draft of Isolation and Other Stories. Isolation features a nicely creepy dream sequence, a scene from which is depicted here by artist and loving stepson Erik Elliott.
I really enjoy putting a good dream in a story. In a sense, of course, every piece of fiction is a dream, a vision the author has transmitted into the mind of the reader via the written page. That’s not the sense of it that I’m talking about here, though. I’m talking about showing the reader the dream of a character.
Dream sequences in fiction do not have a particularly good reputation. In television and films as well as writing, they are often seen as either being a corny, tired, old trope, or as being cop-outs in which action happens and then the audience discovers that none of that action really mattered. And the audience, generally, is not amused.
That in mind, I do not write dream sequences casually, nor do I use them often. They have to fit in the story logically; given their reputation, you can’t just cram one in there and expect not to be heckled for it. When I contemplate including one, I think hard about it. I second-guess myself. And when I return to the story to edit, I give the dream sequence a very critical eye.
And yet, I’ve included them in Isolation, as I noted above. There’s one in The Tomatoes Bloom in Winter, which also appears collected in Hunger. There’s one in Flayed, which I will likely be publishing in the next few weeks. I’m working on a story now, working title Empty Plastic Father, which opens with one. I’m probably forgetting one or two right now, too.
I’ve produced dozens of stories, and I can think of only five times I’ve written a dream sequence that stayed in the story after editing (I’m 99% sure the one in Empty Plastic Father is staying). So, caution is the word in writing dreams into a story. Why bother, if they’re so dicey to include, if they’re such tired old tropes?
Well, they’re great for adding personality to a character. What says more about you than your dreams? Carl Jung, I think, would approve of the dream sequence for revealing what a character is all about.
Dreams are great for foreshadowing and explaining a character gaining insight into a situation. Due to the way the human mind works, we often know more about things than we can hold and analyze in our conscious minds. We put puzzles together in our dreams, make connections that elude us when we’re awake. How many great discoveries in history have been made in dreams? And now that I’m writing about it, how many times have I been stumped on how to continue or conclude a story, slept on it, and awakened with my answer?
Dreams are also an opportunity to step outside the frame of the story for a moment. I don’t mean in a fourth-wall-breaking sort of way, though you could certainly do that if you were writing a fourth-wall-breaking sort of story. I mean that things can happen in a dream sequence that would not be credible in the frame of your story. For example, Isolation is a story set in a near-future world without any supernatural elements, and it reads like one. In the dream sequence, wildly unlikely and surreal things happen. At first they’re small things, and they grow larger and stranger as the dream advances. I couldn’t include them and the in-story insights they point to without breaking the readers’ suspension of disbelief, because in a reality-based near-future story like this one very little suspension of belief is required. And that leads me to a final caveat about the dream sequence.
I don’t think readers like it when a dream sequence gives no clue within itself that it’s a dream sequence; I touched briefly on this point at the start, and I’ll end with it because, as a writer, I think it’s a very important thing for a writer to remember. If you don’t drop some clues to your readers that they’re reading a dream sequence, then they read the whole thing as if it’s the main story, and then you throw their perception of the story into a cocked hat and they feel totally derailed. And probably half of them will throw your book into the corner with a muffled dammit and never pick it up again. They’ll wince the next time they see your name.
So my caution on using a dream sequence: give your readers a clue that they’re reading a dream sequence along the way. I recommend dropping some small hints near the beginning, make it a little plainer in the middle, and make it really clear as the dream comes to an end. That way, you accomplish several things: your reader doesn’t feel deceived and betrayed. Your reader has the satisfaction of figuring out for themselves that they’re reading a dream before you tell them. And your reader can appreciate the content and clues in the dream sequence because they haven’t thrown the book into the corner and cursed your dreaming name.