Category Archives: Writing

What do stories want?

Well, I wrote half a paragraph the day before yesterday. Only an exercise from Steering the Craft, because it would be pretty lame for me to read the book and not to do the exercises. I also wrote a review today, because I had to. Not “had to” as in someone was making me, but “had to” as in felt the need as the human thing which happens to live in my skin. So maybe I’m getting back to normal. It doesn’t hurt that someone just sent me money for a poem. At least I’m no longer mentally screaming “I hate writing!” every time I look at my laptop.

A couple weeks ago something inside my head just… I don’t want to say “snapped.” More like my desire to write abruptly committed suttee. Yes, I’d just gotten a disappointing rejection, but that only struck the match. The gasoline came came from the mounting feeling that it’s impossible for me to make any sort of progress, because I don’t write the kind of stories that get published. This feeling came from reading a whole lot of professionally published spec-fiction stories and really, really hating them. It’s like, if I can’t even navigate this stuff as a reader, how am I ever going to write it?

Some things I find hard to accept:

1) Many stories seem to go out of their way to confuse people. I love mystery, misdirection, figurative language, metaphor, and all that other good stuff. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about stories where the narration jumps around, as if you were looking through a jerky camera held by some self-important undergrad film student. I don’t mind being a little confused for the first page or two of a story, but I do not like having the rug pulled out from under me every time I start to find my footing. If I’m still confused by the end of a story, it just makes me feel stupid. I get the distinct impression that’s half the point of some of the professionally published stories I read.

2) Many stories are cold and nasty and violent without reason. I understand the world is full of nastiness. But to me, the purpose of filling a story with darkness is to explore that darkness, not wallow in it. Virtually every set of submission instructions warns writers not to include erotic or violent elements unless they have a purpose in the story. Okay, fine. Yet often, when I read the stories these publications actually put out, I find pieces that are plenty erotic and plenty violent, yet seem to have no real purpose at all. What conclusion is possible but that darkness is loved for its own sake?

3) Many stories aren’t very imaginative. I’m fine with deep characterization (though the phrase “character-driven” is starting to get on my nerves). But if that’s pretty much all there is to a story, how is it speculative? In several of the Nebula nominees I read, I had a hard time finding any speculative element. These were stories I enjoyed, for the most part; I just didn’t see how they fit into the field. Much worse are stories that use the same well-worn ideas over and over. Established writers, especially, do this. All the time. They either retread whatever sci-fi or fantasy elements that are currently being passed around from author to author and magazine to magazine, or else cannibalize their own ideas by writing the same type of story over and over.

I don’t think I’m capable of writing things I wouldn’t want to read; I’d be miserable even trying. I do enjoy writing for its own sake, to some extent, but it’s an awful lot of work. Is it worthwhile to draft, edit, and polish words just to print them on toilet paper and flush?

Maybe so. I don’t really know what to think. Writing it down helps some.


The Writing Part of Writing

Most days I try to get in a couple hours of writing time. Unfortunately, the more time goes by, the less of that “writing time” gets spent on anything creative. I don’t think I’ve written anything but articles and reviews and other assorted nonfiction for the last week.

Today I spent most of my “writing time” identifying my first ten query victims. All I did was put the proper filters on at AgentQuery, but still it’s time-consuming to run through the results. You have to look at all their websites, filter out the agencies that look slimy or unprofessional, see what kind of submissions they’re looking for, notice which websites assault you with tacky book covers or annoying music. (Only one had music; I crossed it off the list pronto.) Then look at the pictures of the people themselves, see what they have to say about themselves and how they say it. It’s kind of fun. During most of this process I’m the one who’ll be judged, but this once I get to enjoy a little bit of control.

This is all sort of heady. I’m excited to have a novel ready enough to send out for rejections, and happy enough with the query and synopsis I tossed off last weekend to pinch my nose shut and dive in. And I’m totally juiced that my friend Ariana’s book is getting published, since she’s someone I’ve known and hung out with and believed in for almost as long as we’ve both been on She’s totally worked her ass off for this. Now I’m ready to take a turn.

But I miss the actual writing part of writing. It’s so much more rewarding to write a story than to sell it.

And hey, how introvert is that, right?


Whenever I tell myself it’s going to be a big writing day, Other Self, that person I talk to in my head, should know by now to say, “Uh-oh.” It’s like some Prayer of the Damned.

Woke up a couple hours before dawn and worked on the novel, mostly reading through the ending, with plenty of forehead-palming and teeth-gnashing. At dawn, I took a bike ride out to the Arboretum to have a hike and slow run around. The book takes place there, and the ending happens at just this time of year. Plus wandering around keeps the old brain joggled up.

Gorgeous day. I came back to the bike with plenty of observations and thoughts to write down, as soon as I got home and had some breakfast. Then I realized I hadn’t brought the key to my bike lock.

I’ve always had a combination lock, but the guy at the store where I bought my bike told me the hefty cable that came with half a dozen spare keys was a better buy. I have a key on my keyring (the one Dan bought me, with the scorpion encased in lucite), one in each backpack I use, one hanging up on the Go Army! lanyard hanging in the dining room, one at work.

Fortunately, work was only four miles from the Arboretum, as opposed to eight to get home. So I ran down there, sat around in the shade for an hour till Ashley came to unlock the store, then ran back to the Arb and biked home.

Stupid as this was, it occurred to me how lucky I am–that running an extra eight miles is nothing worse than an inconvenience. I came home hungry and thirsty and sunburned, to say nothing of feeling more than a little stupid, but otherwise none the worse.


The elephant in my backyard

The elephant in my backyard

I decided to spend my poetry prize money on frivolity. And, for frivolity on the cheap, there’s nothing like the store I work at. So I bought:

— one small elephant statue, in reconstituted stone

— one water prism, to hang above the Victorian potted palm in our sunny back room

— An actual physical book

— a mess of cards to send to those people who still dare to have birthdays

That was only $75, so I spent the remaining $25 on three bottles of fairly nice wine. The original idea was to buy one $25 bottle of wine, but it would have been wasted on me.

And hey, since I finally figured out how to add my own photos (not that it’s difficult, I’m just a techno slowpoke), here’s the water prism:

Two stories and three flowers

I’ve been really busy drafting: two new stories, that literary one I think I mentioned earlier, and a speculative fiction one. (There’s a site that’s actually put out a call for retold fairy tales–couldn’t let that pass.) So, two stories hanging around on word processing, and guess which one is grabbing me by the neck?

Literary fiction is often about what people do when faced by dire situations: political crisis, impractical love, untimely death, the unfairness and nastiness of life. Speculative fiction, on the other hand, is about what people do when their lover turns out to be their dead dog come back to life. Or when they take a temporary vow of silence, only to have their tongue cut out by laser-wielding revenants. Or when their Earth Escape Pod is set upon by pirates from the Pleiades.

We go through life expecting things to go wrong, wondering what we’ll do when it happens. The thing about speculative fiction is, it goes beyond that–things you’d never expect in a million years are right there in front of your face, and no matter how weird they are, you have to deal with them. I dunno, to me that’s just more interesting.

In other news: The gravel patch next to the driveway has sprung up with hollyhocks and daisy fleabane and evening primrose–pretty, if unplanned. Even the crack in the middle of the driveway holds a row of these skyscraper flowers!

Take a sad song

I find revising difficult, and revising poetry at times all but impossible. Like performing brain surgery on yourself by inserting a coat hanger into you ear, to repeat something I posted in one message forum. When you’re in there monkeying around, you’re far more likely to make it worse than make it better.

It’s so much simpler when there’s no time to overthink. If there’s a deadline, for example, or when I was writing all those cancer poems I couldn’t stand to look at.

Most of the time, though, there’s plenty of time to look, and lots of stuff that misses the mark on the first shot. When I’m not sure how to proceed, I’ll write a couple different versions, but it’s not always obvious how to proceed from there. It can be like, “Great, now I have three poems I don’t know what to do with!”

Looking at two problem poems this weekend, I noticed that what I really liked about each poem was some kind of vision I thought was really neat. Unfortunately, that vision hadn’t gotten translated into the words. Saying that now, it sounds so dorkily obvious, like, how did I miss that? The tricky bit is that words are all you’ve got, and moving words around while revising isn’t any more perfect than re-bending your coat hanger before surgery.

Ski Jump 3

I didn’t learn to ride a bicycle until I was nine, and even then only because my inability was starting to embarrass my brothers. It was a skill everyone should have by the time they hit first grade, and somehow I’d made it to third grade as clueless about bicycle riding as I was about just about everything else. So I’m pretty sure that when my oldest brother set out to teach me, it was because People Were Starting to Talk.

The streets in our neighborhood formed a steep bowl, with our house at the bottom. Mike stood there watching me roll and jerk somebody’s bike (it can’t have been mine; I never had one of my own till I was an adult) around and around the three-house-wide flat place, offering encouragement and a bribe of one black jelly bean for each time the pedals made a full circuit without me having to put a foot down. We probably went half an hour without him having to promise more than a half dozen jelly beans. The rhythm went something like:

Pedal, flump.
Pedal, flump.
Pedal, flump.
Pedal pedal, flump. “Hey, that’s great! You earned another black jelly bean!”
Pedal, flump.
Pedal, flump.
Pedal, flump.

Half an hour, maybe a full hour, of near-total failure.

But those black jelly beans kept my attention on the job, and eventually the bike stayed up for two, three, ten pedal rotations. Then, finally, my brother let me put whoever’s bike away, because he already owed me 69 jelly beans and his allowance was limited.

Actually, he never paid up. I sometimes still give him a hard time about this. But I’m still riding, probably a lot more frequently than the average 54-year-old female.

I’m hoping for the same effect with this year’s writing goal: 100 rejections. This was not my idea; I heard about it from Katya the Poet, who heard about it from somebody else. The idea is to send out enough submissions to receive an average of two rejections a week throughout 2012.

And no, it’s not fair to send out some truly despicable peom like Bastard Child of Emily Dickinson to a hundred classy literary journals. Nuh-uh. The submissions have to have some plausible chance at acceptance. I am, however, going to count contest losses and agent disinterest in my book or books.

It’s going to be tough, but I’m betting all those pedal, flumps will at least make for a whole lot of practice.

Shameless self-promotion!

This collection will be free on Kindle for a few days.  It’s got a bunch of good stories in it, including one by George Clayton Johnson (a real live professional writer!)  There’s a print version as well.

Ben (the editor) wanted to give this volume a little extra promotion before Volume Two comes out.  I’ll have a new story in  that one as well.

English: American science fiction writer Georg...George Clayton Johnson, professional hippie.  Umm, and writer.