My Top 5 2013 Blog Posts

December 31, 2013

I’ve been moderately good about updating the blog this year — lots of publication and story sale news, but also an occasional interesting post about other things. As the year winds down, I went over my blog posts of 2013 and picked out my favorites. That is, the five favorite entries that I wrote, not the 5 best I read on the Internet

#SFWAPro

#5: It Came from the Slush Pile

I was posting regular slush updates during the UFO2 reading period, and at some point came up with the following bit of wisdom:  “This doesn’t mean that you can’t sell us a zombie reality TV story about a road trip in space. But it won’t be easy.” I suppose I shouldn’t have been at all surprised to find a flash story that used all those tropes in my inbox shortly thereafter! I couldn’t include it in UFO2, but I offered the author, Rachel Winchester, an opportunity to publish it on my blog (and paid her for it. You all know how I feel about 4-the-luv markets by now).

#4: Getting Short Fiction Published

I’m kind of cheating here. This was linked from my blog, but actually posted at SF Signal. They interviewed me about all sorts of submission-related things, including what kind of bribes I accept (for the record: coffee, chocolate, and flattery.) The interview came out really well and is easily one of my favorite blog posts this year. I would also like to give a shout-out to SF Signal, who don’t only provide an amazing service to the SF/F community, but have been incredibly generous and helpful to me as a publisher, in promoting UFO books.

#3: Hijacking the Space Marines

There was an outcry earlier this year about Games Workshop bullying indie author M.C.A. Hogarth over the use of the term “space marine.” They claimed ownership of it as part of their miniatures game, despite the term enjoying a healthy and consistent usage in a variety of science fiction stories that predate their company. Fortunately mine was but one voice of many, M.C.A.’s books were restored on Amazon, and GW hasn’t taken any action against her, to my knowledge.

#2: How I Spent My WorldCon: An Illustrated Report

A lengthy post about what it was like to attend my very first WorldCon, and to go on stage to pick up Ken Liu’s Hugo. With pictures!

#1: 5 Practical Tips on Writing Humor

Once again, I leave my own blog to find my favorite article of 2013. I wrote this as a guest-post for the Dark Cargo blog, and was very pleased with the result. There are precious few articles that deal with humor writing in any sort of practical way (since it is even more difficult to try and teach someone to be funny than it is to teach someone to be a good writer), but I hope that my advice will be of some use to those interested in writing humorous SF/F in particular.

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On the Merits of Automation

July 7, 2013

Writing the first draft of a new story is always a lot of fun. You get to describe lush settings and exciting action, and have your characters say witty things. You don’t have to worry about the minor details, consistency, or proper punctuation. All of that comes later. The first draft is about getting your idea on paper.

Then comes the not-so-fun part of edits. By the time the story is finished, the author may have read it three or four times if they’re an expert (or think they are), and possibly as many as twenty times if they’re still learning the ropes or tend to do much of the heavy lifting in revision. After the first several reads it becomes very difficult to identify a basic problem in a story, such as an orphaned word left over from the previous draft or a bit of poor phrasing. Everything about the piece becomes so familiar, it is difficult to “turn off” that familiarity in order to hunt down errors.

Writers have different rituals for dealing with this. A very common and successful method is to put away a completed story for a week plus, so that you may return to it with a fresh eye, having forgotten some of the details. Other writers will read the story out loud, looking for spots where the prose sounds awkward. Others read the story from back to end, one paragraph at a time. This allows them to concentrate on the spelling and punctuation and not the plot or flow of the story.

The most effective method by far is to get another pair of eyes on your story. Swap with another writer of similar (or, preferably, greater) ability. Have them catch many of the little problems you missed, and you do the same for them later. This is my own preferred method. Every story I complete, I share with at least two or three critique partners. Each of them finds some issues with the story, which I consider before revising. Then it’s off to another couple of readers. Then and only then do I send the story out on submission.

Professional book and magazine publishers are big fans of this method as well. If your story is accepted, the editor may do some developmental edits with you, but after they’re done the story is always passed along to a copy-editor. A copy-editor is like a beta reader, but better. They are sentence-structure masters and punctuation ninjas, and can usually quote the Chicago Manual of Style (or whatever the publication’s preferred style guide is) from memory. A good copy-editor can make a tremendous difference in the quality of your book or short story.

Which begs the question — should you avail yourself of the services of a freelance editor *before* the story or novel goes out on submission, to improve your chances?

Sadly, in most cases the correct answer is no. Not because they won’t improve your work — far from it, but because it rarely makes sense financially. A good editor will charge somewhere around $30 an hour. It will cost $750-1000 to have an entire novel thoroughly edited. A 4-6000 word story may run you $50 or so, which is a huge percentage of what you can hope to earn from its sale, even if it’s placed with a pro-paying market.  There are editors who will work cheaper, and while a tiny percentage of them are brilliant people who’re just starting out, in most cases you won’t get the sort of professional a big New York publisher would hire working at deep discount rates.

So what should you do to ensure that a manuscript you’re about to send to your favorite editor or agent isn’t a hot mess?  In addition to the methods I described above, you can also take advantage of some automated tools.

Your first step is to get the most up-to-date copy of Microsoft Word  your computer can run. It does a fairly good job catching not only typos but also poorly constructed sentences and a plethora of other annoying problems. It constantly amazes me how many writers default to antiquated or free word processors in order to save a few bucks. If you plan on becoming a gourmet chef, you wouldn’t buy your knife set at a 99c store. You would get the professional quality tools.  Writing doesn’t require you to spend a lot of money up-front on supplies the way painting or sculpting does, so if you plan on writing for hours on end don’t skimp on the essentials — a comfortable chair, a good keyboard, and the best word processor program. For the record, I don’t own a Mac. There may be wonderful word processor options for the Mac that are infinitely better than MS Word, or there may not be. I just don’t know. But I have tried various PC options including Google Docs, OpenOffice and Libre Office and found the Microsoft product to be superior (which is a statement I don’t make easily as a huge Google fan).

The next step would be to try out Grammarly.

grammarly

When I first discovered this web-based service, I was highly skeptical.It bills itself as “the world’s best grammar checker” and claims to “correct up to 10 times more mistakes than popular word processors.” But can they really automate copy-editing? Certainly no software, whether it’s from Microsoft or from these folks, is a substitute for a live copy-editor.  The technophobe in me was curious, and I took advantage of the review account the PR people at Grammarly were kind enough to provide me with.

I loaded a number of manuscripts into Grammarly to see if it might be useful. Predictably, it did little or nothing to help improve highly polished manuscripts that were already copy-edited by a professional. The “errors” it found were mostly unorthodox sentence structure and dialog, places in the manuscript where text structure is intentionally less-than-neat. The software couldn’t compute the difference between bad writing and artistic license, nor should it be expected to.

The results were much better when I loaded unedited first drafts. It helped identify missing or misplaced commas, tense problems, and a few actual sentence structure issues that were in legitimate need of fixing. Given that it took only a few seconds to run the text through this software, it certainly didn’t hurt to fix some of the problems before sending the story draft to crit partners.

Since showing is better than telling,  I loaded the 1000-word chunk of text above into Grammarly after I wrote it, and without going back to do any edits. Here are the issues it identified and suggestions it made:

* The results were much better when I loaded unedited first drafts. <- Grammarly suggested I review this sentence for incomplete comparisons.

* Remove the comma here: “put away a completed story for a week plus, so that you may return to it with a fresh eye”

* Add the comma in front of  “as well”: “Professional book and magazine publishers are big fans of this method as well.”

* Remove the comma here: “They are sentence-structure masters and punctuation ninjas, and can usually quote the Chicago Manual of Style…”

* Reminded me to add a space after this period: “I was highly skeptical.It bills itself…”

Each suggestion comes with citations from the rules of English grammar which are often a good read, especially for those who aren’t already masters of the language. My overall takeaway is that this service is awesome for academic purposes, especially for high school and college students who are trying to improve their “proper” writing. It is less effective for professional wordsmiths, but  can still offer enough value to justify its price point. At $30 per month I wouldn’t use it on a recurring basis for one or two short stories that I write per month, but would probably buy a month’s subscription to run a novel-length manuscript through the software before showing it off to an agent or a publisher.

And while I stated above that it doesn’t pay to have your manuscript professionally edited by a live human if you plan on submitting it to publishers, you should absolutely make such an investment if you plan on self-publishing it. Too often, self-published books suffer from poor grammar and punctuation, and contribute to the already-tarnished image of self-published writers, hurting some really talented folks who are using the platform alongside the unedited masses.

There are many great freelance editors out there who are willing to take on new clients. The one I have worked with personally and can highly recommend is Elektra Hammond.

What live editors and electronic aides do you recommend?

 


Really? A Novel With a Message?

June 6, 2013

The following is a guest post by Luc Reid who recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the research for his upcoming novel “The Town at World’s End” — a story about a struggling town, based on real strategies for fighting climate change.

Balancing an engaging and entertaining story with Luc’s stated goal of laying out a clear and practical path for actual communities to follow is no easy task. I asked him to talk about the challenges of undertaking such a project and he was kind enough to write the insightful post below.

townworldsend

 

Really? A Novel With a Message?

By Luc Reid

Telling stories with an ulterior motive is not a well-respected activity. Samuel Goldwyn, then head of MGM Studios, famously told his producers “If you want to send a message, use Western Union,” and the sentiment carries over into fiction–with good reason. Human beings love stories by nature, but we aren’t naturally enthusiastic about being lectured to.

Yet every once in a while, a novel with a message works, or even becomes a classic of literature, for instance George Orwell’s 1984 or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Both of these books championed ideas and created debate and interest in their topics.

Other non-fiction-in-novel-form books, by contrast, have succeeded despite having very questionable literary value. Psychologist B. F. Skinner created a fictional vision of an intentional community in his novel Walden Two, which was powerfully influential and even inspired groups to go out and do their best to make his vision come true. That book remains a top seller, and yet as a story it falls somewhere between “Where’s the conflict?” and “Don’t quit your day job.”

Other writers have had similar story-challenged successes, like Ernst Callenbach’s Ecotopia and Dr. Eliyahu M. Goldratt’s novel of manufacturing efficiency measures, The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement–which as of this writing ranks at #1,269 on Amazon out of all books, despite having been written in 1984 and having no real characters to speak of.

These successes may seem surprising or contradictory of basic common sense about writing, but I think they teach us the same lesson as The DaVinci Code, Twilight, Slaughterhouse Five, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Lord of the Rings, 50 Shades of Gray, or Ulysses: that success for a novel isn’t a measure of a single, universal characteristic, or even a measure of how certain universal characteristics work together. Instead, the question is to what extent the novel hits a nerve or fills a need. That need can be romance, escape, enlightenment, intellectual engagement, wish fulfillment, or a way to increase plant productivity by 18%–it just has to be some meaningful and widespread desire.

I worry about my current project, a novel called The Town at World’s End, for which I’m currently running a Kickstarter campaign you can get to through www.TheTownAtWorldsEnd.com . It’s a novel about solving climate change on the community level, about how one struggling town transforms to stop contributing to the problem and build resilience. The thing is, climate change is an issue people tend to avoid if they possibly can. The novel paints a picture of a way of living that’s rewarding and sustainable, and I think the specifics of that lifestyle are very attractive and would enrich people’s lives–but will readers feel the same? Will people seek the book out because they want to find something positive and motivating about climate change, or avoid it because the topic is usually so depressing?

So far, having just launched the campaign the other day, the signs are very tentatively positive. I have a small number of backers, one of whom has even claimed one of the biggest rewards, the chance to name a city and a climate-related disaster that destroys that city.

Even apart from its climate change-related advantages, I intend for this to be a hell of a novel, and I have enough successful fiction writing experience that the prospects look good for that. Still, we’ll have to see. Regardless of whether you’re writing a standard epic fantasy novel or something unusual and possibly ill-advised, like my project, there are variables both of how strong the need is for what you’re providing and how well you speak to those who have that need. Good luck with your next story or book–and wish me luck with mine!


Five Practical Tips on Writing Humor

April 29, 2013

I wrote a very long, very detailed post on how to incorporate humor into your writing.

You can’t teach someone to be funny. However, most people are already funny; funnier than they believe themselves to be. Some of that can be harnessed and translated onto the page.  Check out this essay, which is posted as a guest-blog post at Dark Cargo.


Schrodinger’s Story

January 12, 2013

 

I enjoy every aspect of creating a new story, but one.

I like the brainstorm part, where an idea settles in, usually over the course of multiple days, before I ever type the first word.

The first draft is especially cool. Often the story runs amok and I discover things about the characters and the world of the story that I never originally intended. This is where, when I’m lucky, I write my best lines.

Revisions are cool, too. I go over the feedback from my crit partners and beta readers to nip and tuck at the story and give it the best possible face lift. Sometimes merely the act of letting the story sit for a few days and approaching it with a fresh eye will allow me to identify weak spots in the writing and fix them.

I enjoy sending the stories out on submission, and the thrill of making it past the slush readers and of an occasional sale. Rejections are OK, too. They’re part of the game.

Editorial revisions and copy-edits are fun; a competent editor will always make the story better and make me look smarter in the process.

And, of course, there’s nothing like the feeling you get when a story is published and I get to share something I created with thousands (hundreds? tens?) of readers out there.

There’s only one part of the process I really hate: the time spent waiting on feedback after the story has been polished enough to show to friends and critique partners, but before they get the chance to respond.

At this stage I call them “Schrodinger stories” because I don’t yet know if the story is alive or stillborn. It’s very difficult for any writer to evaluate the quality of their own work. Some of the pieces I think turned out brilliant get their heads bashed in during this round of feedback. There are clear problems, gaping holes in the plot, or trouble conveying what I want to convey to the reader.  Such stories may need lots more work, or even to end up in the “Come back to this one day later. Much later” pile.  On the other hand, there are stories I don’t have as much confidence in that sometimes come back with better reviews than I expected. Arguably my two strongest flash fiction stories published to date are “Spidersong” and “Nuclear Family” — both were written in one sitting, and both were stories I felt somewhat skeptical about upon finishing them.

The smart thing to do would be to move on to the next project, but I find it difficult to do so until I finalize the current work-in-progress and get it out on submission. So I usually find other things to do — editing, critiquing, and writing blog posts, to while away the time.

Can you guess what stage my latest story is in, presently? 🙂

 


Submissions Open for a One Sentence Story Mini Anthology

December 9, 2012

oss

Back in the spring, a bunch of writers on Twitter challenged each other to write the longest (and, of course, most interesting) flash stories consisting of only one sentence. This blog post explains the back story, features my own entry, and links to the stories posted by all of the other participants who chose to post their stories publicly.

Matthew Bennardo liked the idea so much, he decided to produce and publish an anthology of one sentence stories. For the next two weeks Matthew is accepting submissions, with guidelines outlined on his blog. Check it out!

 


Guest Post: Leaving It All On The Page by Michael Haynes

July 3, 2012

Michael Haynes has recently released a non-fiction eBook “Write Every Day: Hints & Tips Towards a Daily Writing Routine.” He blogs regularly about writing-related topics at michaelhaynes.info and writeeveryday.info

To “leave it all on the field” in sports means to have not held anything back, to have given your all. I thought of this concept last night watching — of all things — Saturday Night Live audition videos. Here I saw Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, John Belushi… All of them leaving it all on their chosen field. The camera was on just them but you could occasionally hear commentary (and very occasionally, laughter) from those who were watching the auditions. All of these people were skilled performers to have reached that point, but you could see on their faces just how important this moment was to them. It was absolutely fascinating.

From there, my mind jumped to my own closest experience to these auditions: in-person tryouts for the televised quiz program Jeopardy. Twice I’ve made it past the online test and been invited to travel to near(ish) cities for those in-person events. Several dozen other qualifiers were there each time and we all went through written tests, mock games, and mock interviews. You go through all this and then you’re thanked for your time and told that you might (or might not) get the call to fly out to Los Angeles to (maybe) be on the show sometime in the next eighteen months.

My first time I sort of winged it and suspect I did so-so, but not well enough to make it on. I didn’t make it to the program with my second try, either, but when I left the room from that tryout I felt on top of the world. Why? Because I knew I’d left it all on the field. I’d read up more on the tryout process before my second experience and had learned that you’re being judged every second that you’re in the room, even if it’s not obvious. So I made a point to be “on” at all times, even when the people evaluating us were supposedly away from the room looking at our paper tests. I’m not a naturally outgoing person and would normally just sit quietly unless someone engaged me, but I made a point to chat up other contenders throughout that period. Even now, though my eighteen months are over, I feel happy with how I performed that day.

When writing for publication, if you want to reach the top levels, you’re unlikely to meet with success doing things halfway. You have to leave it all on the field or, in our case, the page.

But what does that mean? To me, it means that when I go to send a story out for the first time, that I want to feel like the story is as good as I, right now, can make it.

To me, it doesn’t mean going through endless revisions, but it does mean taking a critical look at your own story and not just saying “Eh, it’s good enough.” Professional-level editors are rarely going to buy “good enough.” Readers of these publications aren’t likely to rush out to read your other works because they thought that one was “good enough.”

No one is going to have every story they write be brilliant. And as we grow as writers, stories that once represented our best effort no longer will. But when we’re writing something new, we should always be looking to leave it all on the page.