Wednesday, March 26, 2008

To Blog or Not To Blog?

Here's a rant from published author Robin Hobb who is not a fan of the blogosphere as a venue for writers.

Her arguments against blogging are compelling, I think, but I found it amusing. Can you guess why?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


It's been drummed into me since I started into a serious study of the writing craft that money always flows toward the writer--never away.

Self-publishing is a huge gamble that almost always ends in the latter, but every once in awhile you hear a success story. The Christmas Box, for example. The Train to Potevka for another. But for the few success stories, there are dozens of failures, and deservedly so. I have only rarely come across a self-published novel that was worth my time to read.

But there's a new twist in the self-publishing industry. Online publishing that can be done for FREE! I did it here on my blog, republishing an old out-of-print story from a few years ago. I've even heard of self-published online novels being picked up by print publishers, because people who read print media rarely read on the computer, therefore a print publication won't compete with an online publication of the same novel.

Note, I said NOVEL there. This really doesn't hold true for short stories. I don't know of a single publication that says they'd love to have your online self-published stories for their print magazines. But I DO know of several that specifically say that if you have self-published the story online (even just putting it up on your blog, or on an open entry format writer's site for general critique), they consider it published and absolutely WILL NOT consider it for publication.

If you have any hope of publishing a short story, do not post the entire story(or even the majority) online.

In fact,, an open entry (you can read all you want, but have to be registered to post) writer's workshop peopled mainly by speculative fiction writers, has a rule that you can only publish the first thirteen lines of a story that you would like to have critiqued. Among other reasons, this rule protects the writer's publication rights, while still giving enough of the story that you, as a critiquer, can decide whether or not the story interests you.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

On Flash Fiction

I've written a bit of flash fiction in my day. I enjoy it very much--both writing and reading.

But I don't write flash exclusively. Why?

I consider it more a tool for my own study of the craft of writing.

I want to be a well-rounded writer. I want to have a deep understanding of the elements of fiction writing. So I read it all--all lengths and (mostly) all genres. I study it all. I critique the stories of others. I engage in discussion on writing topics in writing communities. And, of course, I write.

But, as I said, flash is a tool. A very valuable tool, in my opinion. Every writer should study the craft of writing flash fiction as a way of improving their own writing skills.

First, I think it's important to establish my definition of flash fiction:

flash fiction n. 1. A story constructed in 1000 words or fewer. A flash fiction story must contain the basic elements of any story--plot, character development, setting.

I do not consider vignettes, or slice-of-life, to be flash fiction. They might be less than 1000 words, but unless they contain an actual story with beginning, middle, end, conflict and resolution they are not flash fiction. At least by my definition.

So how does one write a complete story in so few words?

The answer is reduction.

You can almost establish a formula for story length dependent upon certain factors. These are:
1. Number of characters;
2. Number of scenes;
3. Number of conflicts that require resolution;
4. Complexity and number of settings.

When you reduce these numbers, you'll have a short story. Reduce them further and you have flash fiction.

Flash is generally not capable of supporting more than 2 or 3 characters, or more than 2 or 3 scenes, and works best if there is a single point of conflict that requires resolution. Identify those, reduce them as much as is absolutely necessary to tell the story, and you just may find a short short story staring out at you from the computer screen.

As far as setting, understand that there are certain genres that are VERY hard to write well in a flash fiction format. Science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction--any genre that requires using up word space to explain an atypical setting, rules of magic or science, establishing time and place. When you write in contemporary times, you need spend very little time making it clear to the writer that she is in familiar setting territory. But if that setting is in the least bit unfamiliar, it is crucial to any story that the setting be clarified. That takes time to do. You don't often have time to do that in flash fiction when you still must establish characters and work out a plot.

I won't say it can't be done. I won't say that any of these 'rules' can't be broken. I've seen them broken, and successfully; but not by a writer who doesn't understand and work efficiently with the writing craft.

And there's the beauty of studying and learning to write flash fiction. Efficiency. Few other forms of story construction can teach you that kind of efficiency in structuring sentences, characters, plot, on and on.

So, you want some practice? You want to read some?

Check out Join up. At Liberty Hall they write flash. Lots of it. Liberty Hall hosts a weekly members-only flash challenge. It goes something like this: Someone (generally the previous week's winner) selects a 'trigger.' It might be a picture or a phrase, a word or a website. Those participating in the challenge send in for this trigger on certain prearranged days--usually Friday and Saturday. Once they have sent for the trigger, each entrant has 90 minutes (yes, you read that right) to complete and submit a story. Participating writers and other members of Liberty Hall then spend the next few days reading and voting on their favorite stories. Each week has a best-of-the-best 'winner.' There are no prizes awarded and no promise of publication. But, darn it, it gets people writing.

And that's really the purpose of Liberty Hall. Founder Mike Munsil wanted to get people generating story ideas. And generate they have. LH keeps track through one its forum threads of all the stories that have been published after being first generated on Liberty Hall. They don't all stay flash fiction stories. Many writers take the skeletons of what they started at LH and develop them into longer stories, novels sometimes.

I also recommend a book titled 100 Malicious Little Mysteries, edited by Isaac Asimov. The book is about 300 pages, so each story is about 3 pages--about the length of a flash piece--and you'll find some GREAT stories in that collection. Beyond that, check out: where I work as a slush editor.
There's also

Any others? I love to advertise for good markets. If you know of any, leave me a comment and I'll put it up on my blog later.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Outline Breakthrough!

Yesterday I spent a lovely hour with a writer friend of mine.

She showed me how she outlined her novels.

As with any new thing I learn, I take what makes sense to me and try it out.

The thing that made the most sense to me was her pre-outlining process.

To be frankly self-depricating, I'm not sure why I had never mentally figure this out on my own. Probably a freak of my personality. I tend to be highly organized and linear in my thinking, so it never occurred to me that I could simply write down random ideas in no particular order, then re-order them later on into a functioning outline.

How simple! How sensical!

Her advice freed me! I went home and immediately began jotting down things that I wanted to occur in the storyline--scenes, thoughts, a few lines of dialogue, etc. I'm nearly ready to take those and begin organizing them into that outline. After that I can start writing!

That's what I'm doing today. The kids are out of school (and while that may not seem like a break for most writers, it is for a homeschooling mom), and the computer is all mine! Mwahahaha!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Still Outlining!

So far I've taken a few notes on each of the main characters, avoiding physical description, concentrating on what each character wants.

I don't have to worry much about a storyline outline because this novel will be based on a completed short story. Storyline done.

Right now I'm considering where to begin the story.

If you don't know about Orson Scott Card's MICE quotient (I've seen basically the same thing with a different name elsewhere, but Card's is easiest to get a mental handle on) check it out in his books How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, or Characters and Viewpoint.

My story is an event story, which means my story should start when the action starts--when something happens that begins the chain of events that will lead to the solution to the problem. But this story has many good places from which to begin, many potential starting places. So, I think I'll end up writing 4 or 5 first chapters and see which one feels right.

Monday, March 10, 2008


I am launching a foray into outlining.

I've never outlined. I've written numerous short stories and two novels without outlining. I've always been a shoot-from-the-hip writer, one who, in the past, just let the story take me where it wanted to go, with only a vague idea of where the story began and where it ended.

But I'm about to tackle a new novel, and after hugely overwriting one of my previous novels, I want to get this one right the first time, with very little revision necessary. My previous overwritten novel requires so much editing I've decided the only option is to simply start over and completely rewrite it--which I will someday.

As I said, I've never outlined and am not entirely sure how to approach it. Every author I talk to about it seems to have a different approach. So, I guess the solution for me is to write a few short stories trying out different methods of outlining and find out which one works.

I have yet to find a book on writing novels that isn't pretty much about 'how to write,' when what I'm looking for is specifics of how writing novels is different from writing short stories, and how I can organize my material, how I can keep track of story threads, how to juggle multiple storylines, characters, conflicts, resolutions and still come out the end of it with a complete and satisfying story.

Any recommendations would be most greatly appreciated.

Friday, March 7, 2008

What Do Editors Want?

That's a loaded question, to be sure.

First, editors want what they want. No matter how good your story is, if it happens to be a genre or style or narrative voice or POV that the editor isn't particularly interested in, you're unlikely to sell it.

Second, editors definitely want stories that actually fit their magazine. Seems like a no-brainer. But there are too many writers who send Sword and Sorcery stories to Mainstream fiction markets, or Mystery writers who send to Western fiction markets. Research your markets. Make sure you follow that market's guidelines for submission.

Third, editors want to be absorbed into the story as quickly as possible. If you haven't heard of the Lucky Thirteen, I'm going to tell you about it:

The idea is that, if properly formatted for submission, a short story contains exactly thirteen lines of text on the first page. In that thirteen lines should be some element that's going to get the editor to turn the page--something to interest him, something to make him think, "Hm. I wonder what's going to happen next." That's called a hook. Hooks don't need to be overt. They can be subtle. But they should exist. That's why they say never to open a story with a weather report. How uninteresting is that. I know of some editors who will instantly reject if the story opens with weather. Period. They don't have time for the inevitable untrained author's reply of, "But, just wait until you see what happens on page 2!" If page one doesn't at least interest the editor, I guarantee he's not going to turn to page two.

Editors want to see characters they can relate to.

Editors DON'T want to see surprise endings. Really? Yes, really. But "Of course!" endings are superb! What's the difference? An "Of course!" ending means that you have properly foreshadowed the events in the resolution of the conflict. It's the concept in a well-written murder mystery in which the author successfully keeps the identity of the murderer only guessed at until the end. If he ends and the revealed murderer is too obvious, it's a let-down. If he ends and the the revealed murderer is someone that the reader never even suspected, or that the reader couldn't conceive of as the murderer. Success comes when the reader and the author put all the pieces together at the same moment, and the reader says, "Oh! Of course! Cool!"
If the ending exposes an element that has little or no foreshadowed setup through the story, that's a let-down as well. That's a surprise ending, and they don't work. As an editor, I hate them. I hate when the author invests me in a story, then throws something at me in the last parpagraph and I think, "Where did THAT come from?" Like a horror/adventure story in which it is revealed in the very last paragraph that the Main Character is actually a vampire! Oh, my! Doesn't work!

Editors DON'T want to see poor grammar and spelling.

Editors want to see that you're smart and you've done your homework. They want you to demonstrate to them that you have looked over their submission guidelines carefully. They also want you to demonstrate to them--through your writing--that you are not just some hack with a computer and a dream, but a serious student of the craft of writing.

For a good book on what editors do/don't want to see, try: Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King.

Thursday, March 6, 2008


Where does yours come from?

One of my favorite feel-good books for writers is Cathleen Rountree's The Writer's Mentor. In it, Ms. Rountree includes one of my favorite writerly quotes from Jack London:

"You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club."

Such is the truth.

Ideas are everywhere, but we have to seek them. Once found we have to develop them. Once developed we have to write them down. Once written down we have to submit them.

Otherwise our stories die with us. And there is nothing more tragic than a story lost to the march of time.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Critiquing: the Double Edged Sword

It might seem odd to use the sword metaphor for an all-positive thing, but if you're the defender and the sword is yours, then that certainly is to your advantage.

My point is, that with critiquing, both sides of the sword are good.

All aspiring writers know how valuable a critique circle can be. You can learn a great deal from others' perception of your work. You can take the advice given and put it into play to improve your writing much faster than plowing through your education as a writer all by yourself.

First, if nothing else, critiques should teach you that no matter what you do you're writing is never going to please everyone--editors included. It doesn't mean your writing stinks. It just means that some people don't like it. That's fine. I don't care how much person A loves Tom Clancey. I don't. Do you think Clancey's feelings are hurt by that? Probably not. He already knows that a good percentage of American readers have never read one of his books. That's OK. He's not writing for them. He's writing, hopefully, for himself.

Second, critiques help a writer develop a thick skin. Thick skins are good when you start receiving rejections. But, at least for me, it takes a thicker skin to receive a form rejection than it does to receive one that includes a few helpful comments. I once wondered (on an online forum) if the difference between a pro writer and an amateur was simply that the pros submitted everyting they wrote until they sold it, while amateurs continually worry over the story and seldom send it out, let alone sell it. I had a pro writer respond, and he pretty much said, yep. That's how it is. He said that he just considers that everything to come out of his pen is golden, and someone's going to love it enough to buy it. At first I thought of that as a little conceited, but the more I thought on it, the more I realized that he's probably a good deal wiser than I am on the matter. After all, he's a pro and I'm not.

Third--and here's the other edge of that sword--critiquing the work of OTHER writers helps you develop your own writing skills. In fact, I would argue that critiquing the work of others does MUCH more than receiving critiques on your own work. Why? Because you're too emotionally invested in your own work to see its flaws as clearly. Mothers of ugly babies never think their babies are ugly.

Now, a challenge--instead of critiquing the work of another aspiring writer like yourself, go to the library and check out a volume of short stories. Something in a genre that you enjoy or that you enjoy writing. Critique it. Pick out those things you would have changed, and most importantly, identify why you'd change them. Slam the pros!