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(Writing) The View From 10,000 Feet

Self Improvement 150There are a few things that are preventing me from finishing up stories on a consistent basis: a general lack of self-discipline, toxic perfectionism, time management skills, and an inability to stick through the end of a project. As I’ve gotten older and learned more about how my brain works, I’ve realized that developing a process for these things is probably the way to go. By breaking down each story into a series of actionable steps, the focus becomes about getting to the next part — not this free-floating, vague goal to eventually finish a short story some day.

Now that I’m nearly done with the editing pass for “Stable Love,” this monstrous commission that I had taken on years ago, I’m ready to move on to new stories — which is an excellent time to take a step back to develop some basic framework for how to move through writing them. This will be a work in progress, no doubt; I also realize that not every story is going to take to the same basic process, and some modifications will be needed from time to time. Still, we have to start somewhere, so let’s call this the beta version of my story-writing process, meant to take me from idea-generating to a story ready for submission or publication.

Since my big weakness is structure, I’ll need to take care that I pay attention to that in both the pre-writing and editing stages. With pre-writing, I’m hoping I can use character, setting and scene summaries to dive deep into the things that excite me most about the story, refining the core kernel so that it extends through pretty much everything else. What am I really doing with this story? What do I want to communicate to the reader? What do I want the audience to feel once they’ve finished? Answering those questions up front will give me something of a ‘north star’ to guide my decisions in writing and editing after that.

Pre-Writing. This is obviously the first step. I’m a bit of a pantser, mostly because attempts to plot my stories ahead of time don’t go so well. Main characters fight the plot, with some previously undiscovered trait or desire. I’ll think about a scene or direction for the story and decide that some other thing is way more exciting. Usually, the story is unrecognizable halfway through my planned outline because various changes add up.

So there has to be a better way to outline. In pre-writing, thinking about the kind of story I want to write, the effect I’d like it to have, and what the journey of the main character will be like is essential. Everything extends out from that, right? Especially in a short story, where there’s limited space to get the job done, you pretty much have to have that north star guiding every decision you make.

So: step one is figuring out the theme/purpose of the story — even if it’s just to titillate or have fun. After that, writing up the main character, the arc of their journey, and the conflict they need to deal with is the thing to do. From there, brainstorming other characters, situations and ideas to support that main theme should round things out from there.

When I’m done with pre-writing, I should have the main theme, the main character, the primary conflict and resolution, supporting characters, setting, and a rough skeleton of how things should go. For now, I’d like to stick to ‘tentpole’ plot points — the things that NEED to happen in order for the story to work — so I can forge a path towards them however the characters dictate.

First Draft. Now that I have a general direction for the story, the first draft is the pass with only one goal. FINISH. No editing, no doubling back, no overthinking. I’ve got the plan; stick to the plan. FINISH. There will be time for editing and revision later, but the most important thing is getting to write “THE END”. Once that’s done, chances are I’ll let the story marinate in its own juices for a few days to clear my head a bit and get the chance to look at it with fresh eyes.

Second Draft. After a few days’ rest for the story, I’d like to take it out of the drawer and read it over to see how much of it works. Here is where the bulk of the revisions will come. If there’s a better idea for getting the effect I want, or if the characters decide to take the story in a different direction, here is where that will happen. This draft, I think, will be the one where I look at all of the major stuff — theme, setting, character — to see if these aspects are consistent, interesting, and hold up well.

To be honest, I think this step will be the most difficult for me. It’s hard for me to read my own work, especially with a critical eye, and feel like I can actually work with it. I don’t know how many other writers have this problem, but I really hate reading my own stories — things will come off lame, or repetitive, or just boring. It’s much easier to just write something and throw it out there, forgetting about it once it’s been thrown up.

But honestly, that’s a form of cowardice and certainly no way to get better. Being able to take a hard look at your own work with an eye towards making it better is essential if I’m going to expect to get better as a writer. It’s also a way to encourage self-awareness, which might be the reason I have such a hard time with it. Right now, writing is a sensitive area for me, and most of us don’t like working with the parts of ourselves that get hurt easily.

Beta Read. Once the second draft is done, I’d like to submit the story to a few folks for a beta read. Depending on the story, the beta readers could be anyone from my writing group, a few close friends, or the patrons who are encouraging me to write more and write better. The feedback that I get from this group will help me know how close I’ve hit the target and which scenes, characters, or themes I should work on moving forward. It’s important to know that the story isn’t complete here; that it’s still a work-in-progress, but at this point it’s a good idea to show it to others for additional perspective.

Third Draft. This is where the final version of the story takes shape, more or less. Armed with the feedback of my beta readers and a clearer sense of what the actual North Star for my story should be, I can take a hard look at the pieces of the story — scenes, characters, transitions — and figure out how to make them strong and lean. Things that I like but don’t quite serve the story are excised here, and the basic structure of the narrative is set. This is also where I can settle in and try a new thing or two, planting seeds in early scenes that will bear fruit later. Since I know where the story is going, I can look for opportunities to plant signposts with that knowledge.

Polishing Draft. After a few more days in a drawer, it’s time to take out the story and polish it up. The plan is for this to be the final draft; knowing that the bulk of the story is where I want it to be, I can spend some energy “punching up” scenes, descriptions and characters so that they pop in ways that make the story as enjoyable as possible while also emphasizing the things that I really want to lean into. Once the story goes through it’s polished fourth draft, it’s ready to be submitted to a website or publication with the hope that it’ll be selected for something neat.

I’m not sure how long it’ll take me to write a story under this process; if I outline a week for each draft, that would make it a month for each one. I’m sure that’ll get faster as I become more confident and capable as a writer, and I really don’t mind the long gestation for the story. A story that makes slow progress towards publication is better than what I have been doing.

I read a blog entry on another site — I forget which or else I would link to it — that likened editing/drafting passes as hitting one circle closer to the bull’s eye each time, and I like that. That first draft, unless it’s a total disaster, should hit the outer ring of the target. Each edit should feel like a better shot, until at last you hit exactly where you’re aiming. As a young writer, I’m pretty sure I’ll have to settle for a more generous definition of the bull’s eye, but that’s OK. Getting closer with each story will almost certainly happen, and there’s simply no such thing as a perfect story.

Hopefully thinking of my writing process this way will encourage me to push through the difficulty of finishing up the draft as well as the humbling experience of reading over it and picking it apart. I know it’s silly to not want to read my own work while simultaneously hoping other people will (and like it), so that’s definitely an impulse I’ll have to get over.

What do you think, dear readers? Is this a fairly decent plan, or have I missed something? What are YOUR writing processes like? I’m really curious!

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2017 in Self-Reflection, Writing

 

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Pinpoint: Clarion Write-a-Thon, Week 3

Writing 150The Clarion Write-a-Thon is a little over halfway done, and I have good news and bad news. The good news is that I’ve hit my $500 fundraising goal! Thank you SO much to everyone who’s donated amounts small and large. I am beyond appreciative for your consideration and generosity. I know that there are any number of causes and fundraisers to donate to — from friends who are trying to do cool things to actual charities working to make the world a better place in variety of ways. It really means a lot to me that you’d look my way and kick in a bit of cash.

I’m currently at the top of the leaderboard, which means that there’s an excellent shot one of my short stories will receive a critique from a Clarion alum or associate! I’m thinking that “The End of Belle Avenue” will be the story I submit — it’s nowhere near ready, but once I’m done with my 50,000 words I’ll go back and edit the stories that I’ve completed. I think I have a fairly good handle on what I want it to be, so shaping it in the second draft should be possible.

The bad news is that my current word count is about 15,000 at this halfway point, which means I’m 10,000 words behind where I should be. This means I’ll really need to step it up for the next three weeks, writing roughly 2,060 words a day until August 2nd to make sure I hit my mark. It’ll be a challenge, but I’m really keen on making this work. I have 17 writing days until the end of the Write-a-Thon (I’d like to think that I’ll get some work done when I visit Ryan at the end of July, but who am I kidding?), and each one of them will need to be quite productive. There’s no more room for error.

This means, of course, that I will need to reconfigure my life for the next month or so to be significantly more writing-oriented than ever before. The past few weeks have seen me making really good progress on this front, but now I’m going to have to knuckle down and really put the old nose to the grindstone.

Currently I’m writing a couple of short stories that I hope to have done in the next day or two: a rather fluffy little story that’ll go up on SoFurry and Weasyl when it’s done called “Too Much Universe” (it features a fair bit of growth) and another one that will be published in the APA for its Summer 2014 issue called “SEA Change”. After that, I’ll try to work on two more short stories at once — the commissioned story that a friend has asked for several months ago and a werewolf story that’s been percolating in the back of my head for some time. There’s no shortage of ideas; just the lack of patience with my current level of writing ability in bringing those ideas to life properly.

I’ll try to be better about scattering excerpts from my projects here and elsewhere through the next few weeks so you’ll have a better idea of what I’m working on. Of course, it’s not too late to donate for the Clarion Write-a-Thon if you’re so inclined! Please visit my author’s page here and feel free to pledge .001 of a cent per word ($50 if I hit 50K) or simply donate what you can. Every little bit helps, and I really appreciate anything you can spare! Even though I’ve hit my personal goal, the Write-a-Thon’s goal of $20,000 is a long way off. I’d like to help them get closer in any way I can!

 
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Posted by on July 15, 2014 in Writing

 

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How Our Writing Gets Better

Writing 150There’s a bit of an ongoing kerfluffle in the furry writing community about critics of stories and the role they should play. From my admittedly limited experience with the subject, it seems like the argument has been broken down into two camps. Some folks feel that furry literature should be subjected to the same standards as any art form; critics should be able to call out bad writing wherever it might be found. Others feel that critics are useless; they’ll never be happy with the quality of writing found in our humble little corner of the SF/F fandom and are really in the game to make themselves look or feel better by putting others down. After seeing some of the more vitriolic and controversial reviews out there, I have to admit that I could see why someone would think that way. But that’s a problem with the critic, not criticism itself. It’s important to make that distinction. Good criticism is an essential element in the growth of any art form; we need to have a way to share our opinions about where our work is at any given point, and keen eyes to point out what preoccupies us as a community, what we talk and dream about, and how well we all communicate what we’re trying to say.

In case you haven’t guessed, I’m for the critics. A good critic provides a valuable service to the artistic community he talks about. All art is essentially communication, and writers are trying to say something in a way that moves past language by using language extremely well. It’s a difficult thing to do, especially since the combination of words that might hit us where we live might just make someone else roll their eyes. In order to be successful as a writer, we need to know the effect our writing has on someone else. We may have picked up a few tricks that navigate past the defenses of our audience, but it’s by no means a sure thing. The more sophisticated our audience, the more important it becomes to use the right trick at the right time in conjunction with the right combination of other tricks. Critics can help us know whether or not our gambits have worked, and they can help us gain exposure to an audience dazzled by a multitude of choices. As writers, we want the time and attention of our readers, and critics can help us out by telling our potential readers which writers are worth paying for.

In order to do that, though, critics have to be honest, fair and respectful. Honest because any reader savvy enough to read a critique in the first place is very good at smelling bullshit in the first place; fair because it does no one any good to judge a book the same way as any other book — each work has to be judged by its own measure; and respectful because art communities are small and fragile things, and it’s far too easy to tear ourselves out of them. A good critic never tears into a work unless its creator can handle it, and the work is truly disrespectful to the time we’ve spent on it. I don’t think there are many furry works that qualify for that, but I’m admittedly a novice when it comes to reading our fiction.

And that brings me to the next point, one that a lot of anti-critic people like to point out. We’re a genre of hobbyists for the most part; we simply don’t have the resources to match the quality of output of professionals. That’s true. We’re all hobbyists with (hopefully) day jobs, and that means we can’t put the same time and effort into writing, editing and promoting furry fiction as we could if we were getting paid for it. Critics should be aware of this, and be fair about it. At the same time, it does the fiction itself a disservice if we’re not trying to make it the best we can. For writers, that means refining it until we’re happy with sending it out into the world. For editors and publishers, that means catching mistakes and issues that the writer may have missed, further refining the the story until it has the shine of professional work. For critics, that means telling the audience which works have been taken care of properly and which have been rushed out perhaps before they were ready. The audience gets to know what’s really worth their precious attention, and the writers and editors get to know what needs to be improved on their next project.

The strive to get better at what we do extends to critics as well. I’ve seen far too many critics of furry fiction try to make a name for themselves by tearing down the works of others. What’s worse is they do it without a sharp and critical eye. They don’t actually know the craft of the writer, though they might think they do, so they end up missing a trick deployed well and focus on a difference in style. They mistake this for poor writing, and put together a slickly-produced essay with all of their best put-downs and call it a day. This isn’t about the work; it’s about themselves. Critics should never attempt to establish a personality cult; their attention should be on the work, and they should help their audience to make informed choices about the work. Anything else is a waste of time.

I know that most of us are in our infancy with this sort of thing. Writers coming up are still learning the tools of the trade, and what it means to be professional. Editors and publishers are learning about the tremendous workload necessary for producing a good story, making it the best that it can be. And critics are still learning how to contribute to the conversation in a meaningful way, directing audiences to the best that the fandom has to offer and telling writers and editors about gaps in their process wherever they may be found. But we’re all in this together, and we all want the same thing — for furry fiction to stand on its own as a worthy, accepted part of the greater SF/F umbrella. And we can’t do that if we’re trying to step on the faces of the people we should be helping to rise above the pack. A lot of critics have made this mistake, and it’s left a bad reputation on this entire part of the community.

However, saying that criticism is worthless because so much of it is bad is a mistake. It’s just like a reader saying that all furry fiction is worthless because they have yet to read a book that’s grabbed their attention. When a critic has missed the point of a certain story, or given it an unfair review, the writer, editor or publisher is well within their rights to have a respectful, personal debate about it. The critic needs a check and balance as well, after all. His audience won’t respect his opinion if it’s all flash and no knowledge. Worse yet, he’ll burn down the relationships with the rest of the community that he’ll need in order to do his job (or his hobby) effectively.

Everyone in this process should be striving to get better at what they do, whether they’re a hobbyist or have designs to make this a living. And every link of the chain should be trying to encourage every other link to strengthen themselves. I know that this hasn’t been the relationship that critics have had with their counterparts in the rest of the community, but I really hope that it can be established moving forward. It’ll be much harder to develop the quality of our work if we don’t.

 

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