Who am I writing for?

Writing ball keyboard
Writing ball keyboard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So lately, I’ve been wrestling with a question. It’s one of those obvious questions that you think you should know the answer to, but when you look deeper you realize you might be as smart as you think you are.

Who are you writing for?

I always thought the answer to that question was “myself!” – which I do hold to be the right answer. But when I stepped back and took a long look at what I was writing, I realized something: a lot of what I’d been writing wasn’t for me. Some of it was just emulation, trying to write stories like the ones I enjoyed reading. Some of it was (indirectly) influenced by what’s in the market. What it was all missing was that spark that got me excited when I first started writing.

I want that spark. Come on baby, let’s light my fire.

Don’t write what you enjoy reading.

The wording in that is ambiguous, because as fiction writers, chances are good we’re always going to be writing what we enjoy reading. We enjoy works that compel us, enthrall us, entertain us, and fill our minds with images and worlds only imagined. Why wouldn’t we want to write something similar?

All of that is great, and I don’t know a writer out there that isn’t compelled to write stories that tick off those checkboxes. What I’ve come to realize is that rather than just take inspiration to write a grand tale, I find myself caught in that most novice of mistakes – I’m not telling a story like the one I enjoy reading; I’m telling the story I just read. I don’t mean plagiarizing. I mean that if I just read a really compelling story by Daniel Abraham about dragons and market politics, I would find myself telling a story that in the end involved dragons. And something akin to markets and politics, but not market politics. But close.

This isn’t something I’ve been doing intentionally. Under the auspices that there are no original stories, we’re all just retelling one meta story over and over, so my effort and the book I just read aren’t even related. Except they are, because I’ve also fallen victim to the thought process that just because I enjoyed reading a story, I’m now capable of writing it. As anyone who has attempted to write hard science fiction and kept themselves fact checked can tell you, those two are not directly equivalent.

This sounds really discouraging for me. Wait, I’ve got more, but there’s a bright end to this tunnel.

Don’t write to market. What’s being read in the market today was bought six months ago. 

You hear this advice repeatedly, but what does it really mean? What’s writing to market? Why wouldn’t you if you wanted to be able to sell what you wrote?

At it’s simplest, what you’re reading today isn’t what’s currently being bought. The average short story (and I’m basing this on graphs from duotrope.com when I had a subscription there, and reported feedback on the (submission) grinder) takes anywhere from a few months to half a year from when it was submitted, to when it gets accepted, *plus* any time needed for edits, prep, and print. A novel? You’re looking at a lot, lot longer than that, assuming we’re talking traditional publishing and traditional submission processes. [A different kind of ruleset applies if you self publish, which I’m not going to broach here.]

So, what you see on the shelves or in the Table of Contents today was actually written six plus months ago. That’s not the current market, that’s the market that was when the piece was being sold. You could still try and write a story that fits this market snapshot, and if that’s the story you have to tell,then by all means! But don’t try and limit yourself to what you see in the market, because what’s being bought today has already changed.

So what do you write?

This has been hard for me to figure out – until I realized I needed to stop trying to write for publication. That isn’t to say that I don’t want to publish, or that I won’t submit. But I’m not writing a story with the thought in mind, “I’m sending this out!” That’s an evaluation I’ll make later; right now, I’m more interested in getting the stories down.

I’m writing for me.

I’m writing what I enjoy telling. I started with trying to remember what got me excited as a kid. What fantastical things did I believe in as a kid that adult me would scoff at – and what if they were true? In my head, I’m referring to this as the Bradbury Method, not because he ever expressly said this was how to write, but because foggy memories from the last time I read “Zen in the Art of Writing” says that this is a lot like his word association lists.

Results?

I’ve written three stories in the last two weeks. All of them are only first drafts, and at least two of them are unlikely to find publication homes (though I might try). I wrote a story called “The Sasquatch Howls at Midnight” that’s all about werewolves and bigfoot and such; an untitled fantasy piece about a  priestess and her apprentice deciding to give back the gift of their goddess (its still really rough around the edges, though I really like a lot of the world building that formed around this one); and “The World is a Vampire,” a story in an alternate timeline where the kaiju threat is very real, and one man’s decision to fight back with the pathogen that causes vampires.

OK, so those stories are a little…odd. But to be perfectly selfish, I didn’t write them for you (although I did write them for your enjoyment, if that contradiction makes any kind of sense). I wrote them because these were the stories I wanted to tell, the stories that were occupying my mindspace. That’s how I’m busying myself writing these days. How about you?

Word Mashing Update

I’ll talk about it, I’ll tweet about it, but it looks like I don’t blog about it much.

“What, exactly, is going on in the word mashing arena?” you might be asking. Fair enough.

I’ve really embraced the entire “the first draft is just for me” mentality. So much so, I’m willing to evangelize it a little here. I don’t outline, I just can’t, but I can write fast (usually). That first draft, something I never appreciated before, is me working out my thoughts. There are inconsistencies, loops, and bum legs that move from one side to the other like a slightly famous Igor.  Like Jamie Rubin said when he made this infographic here:

Story-Drafts from JamieRubin.net

The second draft is where the gold is. Its the pass where I can correct logic flaws, fix consistency errors. If the last few weeks is any indication, the second draft is also a lot faster to write. Since I finished the first draft of the last novel, I’ve written 12000 words in 14 days. A lot of that I contribute to treating the first draft like a really fleshy outline. Sure, it takes me longer to outline than a traditionalist, but when I go back for my second draft, the fingers are on fire. I’ve revised a story I loved writing the first time, and the second time I think I made a lot more consistent (“Beneath the Veil of Clouds”), and I’m 2/3 of the way through revisions on another short story (“Chris Cross, Applesauce”).

So what next? Next I’m giving serious consideration to taking a look at a previously failed novel. I really loved working on “A Mountain Fell From Heaven,” and then I let it die off because I didn’t know how to write. Now I know – keep writing past that, let the story shape itself. Worry about all of the other crap, like whether Amos was holding a sword in his left hand or right hand when the karvashi flowed into the room like a throng of killer monkeys, in the second draft, the draft I write for the reader.

And that’s where I’m at, mashing words and finding my way along the path.

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I’ve been doing it all wrong (short stories)

I’ve come to realize I’ve been doing it all wrong, so it only makes sense that I continue to fail at getting my short stories published.

Revision
Revision (Photo credit: raindog)

When I was in school, I was the epitome of the procrastinator.  Why do ahead of time what you can do at the last possible second and still get the same grade? (Don’t let my kids know I said that, by the way.) Even in college, when the stakes should have been higher, I would often wait until the very end to begin work. I’d spend a long night, part of a pot of coffee (side note: it was college that got me over the hump and into the coffee drinking world), and produce a ten, twenty, once even fifty pages of typed words. Within hours of producing these words, they would be out of my hands and into someone else’s, and it got so my brain was used to the lack of revision and work. Produce the words in one fell swoop, then pass them on to someone else.

After college, I got marginally better, but only for a little while. When I first tried my hand at writing, lacking the funds and means, I wrote by hand in fits of near hypographia, then later would transcribe these. I’ve even commented on that recently (and then failed to follow through), that that process was like its own editing and revision cycle. But when I had the means to have some manner of portable keyboard, I took it, and away went the revision stage all together. The fact that most magazine are now online just fuels that – how can you wait to edit and revise when its so much more convenient to finish writing and just send it?

How? How about a list of nothing but rejections as a result? How about I think I’ve finally sat back and taken notice that that method just doesn’t work for me. For some people, sure, what comes out of their mind and onto the screen is perfection on the first try. But as I sit here today, I realize, finally, I am not one of those people.

I do not produce gold on the first try.

I have a backlog of stories I’ve written this year, most of them submitted at least once, somewhere, for consideration, all of them rejected. A funny thing has happened, though. As I sit leafing through this pile of what I thought, at the time of writing, was gold, I see all kinds of flaws, errors, and plainly inadmissible writing. The stories, the adventures they contain, they’re all still vibrant and worthy, but the writing needs to be cleaned up. I need to revise.

This is a process I’ve heard others talk about and scoffed. But now, I think they may be onto something. It certainly puts a fresh spin on the old Hemingway quote, “The first draft of anything is shit.” I’d always interpreted that as being an excuse for something you were working on that you felt wasn’t up to par. But now I realize its something more than that – even when you don’t realize its crap, it is. Setting aside, as painful as it is, and letting a story fester on its own for a few months lets you come back with a fresh perspective. You come back a reader, a part of the critical audience, rather than the writer that just hammered out words for hours.

I wonder if editors keep the same submission notes that authors do? Do they automatically reject something that comes in a second time without reading it to see if its any better? I’d understand if the answer to that was yes, but looking over this stack in front of me, I hope at least some of them give second chances. Because I have a lot of revisions to do.

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