The Short Story Challenge: Part One: Embrace the Suck

Having been hit by The Attack of the 50-Foot Conscience, I foundered on the rocks of releasing my next work, a novella called Toward Darkness (book one of the Red Lands series).  In case you didn’t follow the link or read my previous post (as if), here’s the tl,dr version:  it became clear to me that every work, not just Blood for Blood (which I previously got all emo-angsty about -link) has a message, whether I try to write one in or not (this doesn’t just apply to me, and it doesn’t just apply to preachy ‘message-stories,’ but everything that’s coherent enough to have any kind of point at all).

About mid-May I hit a point where I was a little burned out in fiction writing, which isn’t surprising, considering I averaged 2,000 words a day for the first five days of May, which included working full time and traveling on the weekend.  That sort of burn out tends to inspire introspection and reflection in me, both good traits in a writer (in a person, period).  Unfortunately, it pretty much put the brakes on my fiction word count (that little meter hasn’t moved much after the first week of May).

I’ve still been writing.  I’ve written quite a lot of nonfiction (in fact, I have enough blog entries for the entire month of June already written).  I outlined a short story, with a premise that reflected my general beliefs.  I even hand-wrote a couple of hundred words of dialogue, and planned out the character voices of the major characters (their general speaking patterns and the attitudes that inform the way they talk).

But every time I sit down to actually write the story, I find something else to do.  Once, I just blamed fatigue, and got nothing done.  Most other times I end up here, writing about writing, like I’m doing now.  Except right now I’m not “supposed” to be writing the short story.  I actually sat down to write this blog entry because I had a bit of an epiphany tonight:  the reason I’m having so much trouble sitting down and writing this short story is because I’m scared.

You see, I’ve never written many short stories, and most of the ones I’ve written have either been flash fiction or garbage.  What’s the difference between flash fiction and standard short stories?  Flash fiction is short enough to survive the lack of a well-developed plot.  How much plot can you really do in 1,000 words?  Characters, ideas, imagery: those things are enough to carry flash fiction, much like poetry.  A good plot is good, but not absolutely necessary in flash fiction.  On the other hand, a standard-length short story lives and dies by its plot, just like everything else does.

And plotting something that short is just hard.   I mean, how do you do a well-developed plot in under 7,500 words?  It seems like a magic trick to me: I’ve seen it done, and I’ve even had it explained to me, but I’m not 100% sure I can pull it off.

I haven’t written a short story in – um, since I started this new phase in my writing, back in 2008 or 2009 … and actually, it was a good while before then.  It’s probably been five years, and the results back then weren’t exactly stellar (to be fair, five years ago none of my writing was worth reading).

So, um, yeah;  I’m scared.  But I’m going to do it anyway.  The words came to my mind (though I’m sure I’m not the first person to think of them), “You’ll never be good at anything as long as you’re afraid to suck at it.  You’ve got to do it to get good at it, and you’re going to suck at first.  So do it.  Embrace the suck, and get on with getting good.”

So that’s the plan:  Embrace the suck, and get on with getting good.

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Attack of the 50-Foot Conscience, or, The Dawn of the Short Story Challenge

Dean Wesley Smith has an excellent series of posts called “Think Like a Publisher,” about how independent authors have to, well, think like publishers if they want to get ahead and make money.  That makes sense.  After all, according to one study, half of self-published authors made $500 or less last year from their writing).

Keeping that in mind, I’ve been plugging ahead, trying to build up a list of books to publish (according to Smith, you aren’t likely to reach the critical mass that attracts viewers until you’ve got 20 novella or novel-length works out for potential readers to find), while investigating methods for building up a platform (You Are Not Alone by Karen Lamb was good, but somewhat dated.  I’m hoping Platform by Michael Hyatt will be even better).  I haven’t actually done any of the promotion methods (unless you count blogging semi-regularly), but that’s okay: until I have more than one book “up,” there isn’t really much point in self-promotion.

The thing is, I think I’m putting the cart before the zebra, so to speak.  In a lot of ways, I’m still figuring out what it means for me to be a writer.  Do I really want to pigeonhole myself into writing action horror and urban fantasy because that’s what the first two publishable-quality books I wrote were?  Do I want to make that a big part of my online identity as a writer, knowing that if I do, I’ll have to start over with another pen name if I switch genres?  Do I even want to have to keep different pen names straight?  I already feel a little sleazy with one (I’m currently writing under my middle name, which isn’t technically a false name, but it isn’t what my friends call me, either.  I do have a couple of minor academic publications under my first name, and I didn’t want to cross the academic research and genre fiction streams, so to speak).

And, most of all, what about my conscience?

Fiction should not, as a general rule, be prescriptive or didactic.  It isn’t always as bad as the Left Behind series (you can read the Slacktivist retelling here), but “getting the point across” too often kills the complexity, the ambiguity, and, generally, the emotional impact of the piece, pushing the reader or viewers away by clubbing them over the head with the message.

But every story tells a story, and every story has some kind of premise (I hesitate to use the term ‘moral,’ because the ‘moral’ of a story could be something very immoral, like ‘torture is okay, as long as they’re bad guys’ *cough, cough, 24, cough, cough*).  Granted, some stories are disorganized enough that any premise or moral tone is unintelligible, but that’s hardly something to emulate or brag about.

But if every story tells a story, don’t I have a responsibility to make sure my stories’ premises align with my own beliefs?  Yeah, I know, I talked about this before (link), and I thought I had it solved.  I think that may have been a bit of wishful thinking.  At best, it was a patch to buy me more time to figure the problem out.  By placing Blood for Blood within the context of a trilogy, I gave myself two more books to work out the moral, and I think, so long as I write book 3 well enough, I’ll have a good one (effectively, a rejection of the myth of redemptive violence, which I think will be especially effective, given that Benedict is the kind of vengeful anti-hero you’d often find in action movies).

There are a lot of sub-skills to master in order to be a good fiction writer – character voice, sensory descriptions, pacing – but the most important is finding your own voice as an author, and that means understanding what story you’re actually telling, and making sure the premises of your stories actually line up with who you are.

To that end, I’m setting my long-form fiction aside for a while and just practicing.  My goal is to write ten short stories this summer, working hard on improving specific points in my writing with each one (thanks to Dean Wesley Smith, again, for this idea).   Now, with only demanding 250 words a day from myself, I could easily take 2 weeks or more to write a short story, and it may take me longer than “the summer” to write ten of them. That’s fine; the point here is writing one short story after another, working on improving specific things about my writing, working on hammering out my voice in a series of small, contained experiences, none of which have the high-stakes stresses that come from pouring several months of my life into a novel.

I’ll be posting a bit more about my journey of self-discovery through writing as I go.  I’ll be touching on some varied and possibly even controversial subjects, including the role of profanity in realistic dialogue, sexual content, intentional/unintentional messages, and spirituality.  The point of it all is this: before I work to build up a platform, to build an audience, to get the world to hear what I’m saying, I need to be sure I know what I’m saying, and just as importantly, that I believe what I’m saying.

The New Look

Frequent visitors to my site have probably noticed a few changes.  I’ve already talked about the second Word Count meter.  Now I’m going to talk about  the new layout.

I never was 100% satisfied with the previous layout, “Rusty Grunge.”  I thought it looked good, and the color combination was appropriate for action horror, urban fantasy, and dark fantasy.  On the other hand, my subtitle wrapped awkwardly and there wasn’t a good place for a cover.

After viewing, well, every other author’s blog out there, I decided it was pretty important to showcase my books visually, in a way that the site visitors wouldn’t have to hunt for.   I guess I could have just post-dated a blog post to 2099, so it would “always be the newest,” but honestly, I find that really tedious on other blogs.  It’s not so bad with a full-sized screen, but having to scroll past that same “announcement post” every time can be tedious on a netbook, tablet, or smart phone.

So, I found a new theme, Neo-Sapien.  It looks even more action-horror-appropriate than “Rusty Grunge,” and I really dig the Exosquad reference.

My next plan for the site is to add a few more “Pages” (tabs across the top), one  specifically giving information about books currently available and one about my game-related writings (I have a column over on RPGnet, though I honestly don’t spend much time on it anymore, between my family, my writing, and my day job).  I should probably revise my “About Me” tab, since I haven’t even looked at it in several months.

Anyway, I’m really enjoying this ride.  My next real task is finishing the cover for “Toward Darkness” so I can put it up for sale.  Wish me luck!

May Word Count Madness (Plotting and Planning)

Okay, So I want to apologize for not updating sooner, but I was caught in the midst of a whirlwind of creative mojo.  In the first five days of May, 2012, I wrote just under 10,000 words, while working full time, not taking any days off work.  I was absolutely blown away by how much I got written, and I am extremely happy with it.  Not only did I write some final text that’s going to end up in the novels, but I planned out two potential new series and did a great deal of plotting for Red Lands Book 3.

In the intervening days, my writing has slowed, but I’m still more than meeting my 250 words/day goal, even not averaging in that amazingly productive first week.

As you may know, my writing process doesn’t involve a lot of rewriting (unless I absolutely have to, I only edit, not rewrite.  I fix errors, whether typographical, factual, or plot-based, but I don’t go in an polish all the originality out of my prose.  I’ve done that in the past, and it created a dry, soulless style that even my own family members couldn’t stomach … and if you think reading it was bad, trying writing it), nor does my writing style include a lot of formal outlining.

What I tend to do is get somewhat inspired about an idea or topic and write a large number of notes, typing as quickly as my clumsy fingers can fly, including dialog snippets, occasional full scenes, descriptions, plans for the long term, etc.  I’d say better than half of these ideas die off in the development stage, because they don’t have enough complexity and depth to really engage me (and if I’m bored or unhappy when writing something, the reader will be too).

Somewhere in the developmental phase I tend to write two ‘plot summaries,’ one based on Algis Budrys’ seven parts of a story, the other based on Don Miller’s definition of a story as “someone who wants something and overcomes obstacles to get it.”  Between the two, they keep me focused on maintaining a solid, flowing narrative, with an active main character (one that things don’t just happen to, but who makes things happen), with solid motivations, who overcomes hardships and even makes sacrifices in order to get what he (or she) wants.

How far they’ll go, and how much they’ll risk or give up, is often what makes the story worth reading.  Or writing, for that matter.

A New Goal, a New Day

As you all know, this is the year I got serious about writing every day.  I set a daily word count goal of 250 words a day (91,500 words per year), which I knew I could meet.  Now, 250 is not a lot of words per day, but I knew I’d be better off setting a small goal that I could meet than a big one that I might not.  After all, success breeds enthusiasm, which breeds more and greater success, but failure breeds discouragement (you can see more about my reasoning here).  I wanted to succeed, and that motivation-boost was more important than the raw numerical output.

Well, everything was going just fine until a couple of weeks ago.  You see, right around the end of April I met my yearly writing goal of 91,500 words.  At that point, I wasn’t sure if I was going to make a new word count goal (equal to the number of the days remaining in the year times 250, plus the 91500 I’d already written) or just enjoy being “over 100%.”

Well, I basked in my success for a few days, but by the end of the month, a malaise of demotivation (and not the funny posters) started setting in.  Fortunately, I knew the cure: setting another quantifiable goal.  Specifically, 250 words per day for the rest of the year (May-December), plus the 91,500 I’d already written.

So, now you see the new goal (in the upper-left corner of my blog).  I’ve left the old word count up, however, because it’s fun to see how much further I’ve gone than my original, New Year’s Resolution goal.  I’ve learned in life that consistency is the key to any victory, and I’ve finally managed to apply that to my writing, thanks to an achievable goal, a spreadsheet, and a little word count meter (thanks, Svenja Liv).  This consistency of writing has allowed me to finish a number of unfinished projects, which has given me the inventory necessary to actually start indie publishing as a business, not just a far-off dream.