Writing Update and…Short Stories Reconsidered?

[Part of a continuing series on where my fiction writing is at.]

Another update today on my writing and a little introspection further down the page.

I’m a little over half way done with a second draft of my new short story, “P.” I’m going to hold back on the title reveal until the second draft is in the can. That’s partly  because I don’t know if I’m satisfied with the story’s working title. Also, I would like to get the second draft (for me, always the hardest draft) done and off to Beta readers before I start promoting it. I just want to make sure the piece hangs together and works, before I start promoting or talking about it.

Which brings us to…

The Other Stories
I have three other stories I’m submitting now to magazines. I’m going to keep submitting those until they reach about 20 rejections. (This is based on some earlier feedback on my “rejection tolerance”). Then, it’ll be time to think about retiring (“trunking”) the ones which pass that threshold. So far, none of them have reached it. There is one, however, that’s getting close.

So much for the writing update…On to more interesting matters…

Short stories—reconsidered?
I may be getting a little “burnt out” on short stories. I have always felt I’m a writer who likes to write long. I have a lot of difficulty keeping my tales to the 7,500 words (or less) standard limit for short stories. I simply want to expand on scenes, characters, etc. to what I consider a “natural” length. Even my short pieces tend to be long: “The Ghul of Yazd” was over the 7,500 word limit for a short story.

In addition, many of my ideas tend to be for longer pieces. If you’re looking for someone to blame for this, blame my characters or Russian novelists. I can’t seem to stuff the best characters into a 7,500-word story. They just won’t have it. They’re always there in my head saying:

“What about this, Darius?”

“Oh! Don’t forget me in that scene! I would be fabulous!”

“Oh, and what would I do if you only placed me in that situation? Just imagine it!”

leo_tolstoy

I also blame Russian writers for this. I do. In high school, I got hooked on Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and the like (those wordy bastards!). And as you probably know, they write very long, dense books. Their influence on me was huge. These books (The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, etc.), in fact, are one of the reasons I became a writer. (But that’s a post for another time).

So, I blame them collectively: my characters and the Russians. I can’t say I’ve decided to act on this impulse to write long, but it’s there. Right now, I have a couple more short stories I want to get done, including “P.” But that doesn’t stop me from pre-writing or researching or thinking about how to plot out a novel…

Now does it?

See you next time,

Darius

Done with New Short Story

Hi, Everybody. Getting ready to take off on a trip for the long weekend, so I’m going to keep this one really short.

I’ve just finished a first draft of a new short story. It’s kind of late here, so I’m not feeling up to the whole “title reveal” thing tonight. It’s simply just another story done and I wanted to let you know. ecuador-andes

A basic overview of the story: It’s about 8,300 words and a bit too long to sell to a typical fiction magazine. I’m hoping to shape and sculpt the piece and remove some of the fat—and I have an idea just where that is. Namely, any part that doesn’t move the plot forward or develop a character. I’m hoping that simple cutting operation will get it down to around 6,000 words. A big part of the problem, you see, is that I’m finding more and more that I like to write LONG. But, I’ll address that whole thing a bit later here on the blog.

A few more details about this piece: It’s set in our world in the present day, mostly in Peru. It does contain some fantasy elements, so I’m calling it “urban fantasy” since that seems to be the hot genre these days.

That’s about it for now. I’m off to the Appalachian mountains tomorrow morning for some fresh air and hiking. When I come back I should be near a final second draft for the piece and ought to be ready to do the title reveal.

See you soon,

Darius

Keeping the Writing Going

[Part of a continuing series on where my fiction writing is at.]

Just a quick post today on where my writing is at.  P

“P” –This is a short story that’s become a bit long. It’s a fantasy story set in South America in the present day and it’s now up to 7,200 words. I have yet to write the last couple of scenes. After that’s done I think I will cut, cut, cut to get a solid, gripping read of about 5,000 words. A great length for selling to magazines.

I’m pleased with PARTS of the piece so far. Especially, the main character. I’m not as pleased with certain scenes and transitions. So, those will either have to be massaged or cut entirely. But that can wait until I have a final first draft.

I hope to wrap it up in the coming weeks.

3 other finished works—These works, which you can find on my Works in Progress  page, are still being submitted to magazines. I’ve learned one very important fact from submitting them: unlike speculative fiction magazines, “literary” fiction magazines tend to accept simultaneous submissions. This means you can send a piece out to as many venues as you like and wait to hear back. The DOWN side is that “literary” journals tend to take longer to get back to you. So, in a sense, you don’t really gain anything since you still have to wait a LONG time to hear back. Ah, the travails of the writer…

Finally, I did take a few minutes to update my Works in Progress page, so take a few moments to check it out.

OK. Enough from me, I’ve got to get back to work and back to writing fiction.

See you next time!

Darius

The Craft: Are You a “Plotter” or a “Pantser”?

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

I’ve been thinking a lot about something that came up at RavenCon earlier this year. It’s a question of primary importance to all writers: Are you Plotter or a Pantser?

First, a word of explanation. What is a Plotter? And what a Pantser?indexing plot

A Plotter
A Plotter is someone who who has to plan out each story, scene by scene, before they dive in. The most characteristic element of this way of storytelling is having a detailed outline of every plot point before you sit down to write. This is often done by writing each chapter (or scene) down on an index card and then shuffling or rearranging the cards until they have a consistent, logical flow. This often means the first cards set up a conflict, the middles cards describe rising tension and the final cards give us the climax and resolution. (See the photo for an example of this.)

A Pantser
A Pantser is someone who dives in before knowing how the story will develop. To borrow an old phrase, they’re “flying by the seats of their pants.” A good example of this, I’ve heard, was E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. A vision of a character at the Barabar Caves came to him and he just started writing from there without much of a plot in his head. (I could be wrong about this, so apologies to any Forster fans out there!) Somehow, with the way he was wired that was all he needed and the plot just sort of fell into place from there.

I’ve asked a lot of other writers what the best approach is. And most people seem to say: “You have to find out which one you are.” And there’s only one way to do that: trial and error. Eventually you’ll find out.

Am I a Plotter or a Pantser?
So, I’ve written lots of different stuff at this point. Novels, novellas, short stories. And what have I found? Well, I’m still working it out. But with each story, I’m leaning more and more toward being a Plotter.

Take my latest short story, “P” (I have not added a working title yet, as draft 1 is not done). The story started out as many do: just a character in a situation. And then…Bam! Something happens to this character. Action! But then what happens next? You see, it starts as just a scene, not a story. There’s no backstory to this character.  There’s no ongoing conflict. So, your subconscious starts building it out, starts fleshing out this character and their world. But there’s no order to it. No structure. Your mind starts filling in more and more. And that’s good and well, but it can lead you down blind alleys or to dead ends.

I’ve found that it’s best to stop a moment and do what I call the “CSP+K” prewrite. That is a template for a short story in which I list:

  • C: The Characters
  • S: The Setting
  • P: The Plot
  • +K: The Knowledge I need to write the story. 

In the CSP+K, I used to describe just the basic plot, but increasingly I write the whole plot structure down, point by point. I didn’t use that blown-out approach when I began writing “P.” I wrote the first chapter or two and realized I was headed in the wrong direction. So, I completely stopped the writing process that day and dove into my plot.  I switched chapters, added in small chapters to create bridges and deleted other chapters that did not move forward the plot. I basically took the time to make sure everybody involved—meaning the characters—knew  exactly what was going on and where we’re headed.

With that done, I copied  the basic chapter outlines over into my manuscript. As I write in the manuscript, I delete these short explanations of the action and fill them in with real action and dialogue. If that’s not being a Plotter, I don’t know what is.

I’ve also noticed I’ve done this in other works. Some say it ruins spontaneity.  But so far, I haven’t found that to be the case. I actually write MORE freely because I’m not worried about my story going off the rails. The plot points serve as guide to make sure I don’t go too nuts. But then again, I’m not a Pantser. And what might work for them, would never work for me.

Find What Works for You
At the end of the day, don’t take any of this too seriously…in the sense that this is a system I’ve found that works for me. You might be a Pantser and this would be horrible advice to follow for you. Or you might be a different kind of Plotter, in which case this system wouldn’t work for you either.

My advice? As always: Get Black on White. Find what works for you through trial and  error. Write and keep writing. That’s the only way to find a system that works for you. It might not be easy, but it’s the only way to find your voice and write what you want to write.

Good Luck and until next time…

Keep reading, keep writing,

Darius

Thinking Orson Welles

Last week, I strolled into Bookman, a used bookstore I used to frequent back in the day. Thankfully, it hasn’t changed a bit (unlike the lately and dearly departed Acres of Books, a favorite of Ray Bradbury). At any rate, I picked up a number of good books there, including a short biography of Orson Welles the-lady-from-shanghai-orson-wellesby John Russell Taylor.

As a kid of the 80’s, I don’t know much about Welles. I remember being introduced to his work in an album about the Apocalypse, which I now think was an audio recording or soundtrack of the documentary, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow. I tell you, for a young kid, listening to Welles recount the prophecies of Nostradamus with all the lights off was creepy stuff.

I have only seen one of his films, Touch of Evil on the recommendation of a friend and it was good as far as it went. But after reading the biography, I’m going to have to make a point about seeking out more of his stuff.

Coming to Hollywood as a young man, he was given total creative control over his first film, Citizen Kane. But after that, things changed (for various reasons, not least Welles’s talent for alienating the people with the money) and Hollywood execs let it be known they wanted more control. Unfazed, he decided he didn’t need the studios. He would just make money as an actor and then roll that into his next independent production in which he would retain creative control. As Taylor notes, it was almost unprecedented at the time.

“…This was Welles’s normal way of financing his own creative ventures, and even then, when he was a very well-known actor much in demand, it seldom worked out very well…in Hollywood in 1942, at the height of the studio-factory system, it was a very eccentric way indeed of proceeding.”

Welles struggled with the same thing most artists do: How do you maintain control over what you create? How do you find the money to allow you to create what you want, how  you want? Orson found his solution: Use the funds from his acting, his voiceover work, hell, even commercials (for wine and frozen peas) to subsidize what he loved to do: make movies.

For me, it’s not that different. I’m not a great actor or pitchman. I have a 9-to-5 job like most of you out there. It’s a fine job and it pays the rent and helps with lots of other things. But most importantly, it gives me the work-life balance I need to put everything aside (including financial worry) every now and then and just write. Every creative person has to find that thing that will support them and allow them to create unhindered, unedited and without constraint. I’m glad Orson found his way and it’s nice just knowing that others out there have had to do the same thing to make ends meet.

What about you? Are you a writer? Or creative type? How do you find the funds to do what you do? Feel free to share in the comments section below.


PS…The Wellesnet website has some great clips of Orson Welles from throughout his career. The site also has a look at the recent celebrations marking 100 years since his birth. See you next time!

What I Learned at RavenCon

And I’m back. Sorry for the delay. There has been, let’s see, a writing conference, vacation and now, work. So, I haven’t been able to feed ye olde blog as much as I had hoped. Let’s change that, right now. common_raven_2

Today, I want to talk about my time at RavenCon, my local fan/writer Con here in the Mid-Atlantic U.S. It was a great time, I met some old friends, hopefully made some new ones and had a great time. But for the blog I want to just focus on what I learned. Since this was my second time at RavenCon, I was able to breathe a bit more, slow down and enjoy the sessions a bit more. I looked through my notes from the Con the other day and here are my top four takeaways in no particular order.

1. Choose your panels based on who leads them

Back in college we had a saying for how to pick the right classes: “Don’t choose courses, choose professors.” That meant don’t choose courses based on subject matter, but who led the courses. Go for the professor that is a recognized leader in a field or who has a reputation as a great teacher. Instead of choosing subject matter that’s interesting or fills a specific need.

Now, this strategy doesn’t always make sense. But I was sitting there and looking at the packed RavenCon schedule and I decided to “choose a good professor” over subject matter and ended up at a panel hosted by Jack McDevitt on “How to Make Sure Your Story Gets Rejected.” That title didn’t really impress me. But Jack, a very seasoned writer, shared some great insights on what to submit and how and where. He didn’t hold back, sharing some past success and failures. What’s more, he was very friendly and accessible after his talk. Picking the professor really paid dividends in that case.

I followed the same  strategy for the rest of the Con and there were a couple of “busts” here and there, but it worked well over all.

2. My “rejection tolerance” is too low.

One of the great things about RavenCon is that it’s small enough that you can actually get picked to ask a question during the Q&A session after each panel. At one session, I asked Lou Antonelli how many rejections for a manuscript is too many? That is, how many rejections does it take for him to consider putting a manuscript aside and not resubmit it? He said that he writes down what happens to each manuscript on a piece of paper with about 10 columns each and that at about halfway through page 3—or about 25 rejections—he decides to “trunk” the piece and not resubmit it. Mind you, this guy is a top short story writer, too. My tolerance for rejections is at about 10 per piece before retiring something. If anything, my tolerance should be at least 25 rejections per piece, or higher, since I’m just staring out.

3. Submitting to mags that accept simultaneous submissions could get you published faster and give you more feedback.

I also learned that for someone at my level—someone just starting to submit stories and see them published—it might make more sense to send my stories to magazines that accept simultaneous submissions. To explain briefly: there is a pecking order in speculative fiction magazines just like in everything else. The more established magazines tend not to accept simultaneous submissions: if you send them a story you can’t send it to anyone else while they have it. They also get a lot of submissions, so they simply can not offer feedback or advice. Lower down the totem poll, some magazines will accept simultaneous submissions: meaning you can send  it to them and to other magazines at the same time. Another writer on a panel (I forgot who, sorry!) said that for starting writers those magazines might be best because you get answers back from publishers faster AND they get far less submissions so may be willing to share feedback more readily.

I haven’t had anything accepted yet by a mag that accepts simultaneous submissions, but I have sent my manuscripts to quite a few. I will definitely consider sending  them more in the future.

4. Agents and publishers are at Cons to work—and find new talent.

During another Q&A session, an agent from the science fiction publisher Tor was answering a question. This led to an interesting exchange where a simple fact came to light: agents and publishers at Cons are (generally) working when they on the floor of the Con. Meaning…they’re looking for looking for new ideas and new trends in publishing. They also want to reconnect with established talent and, in some cases, find new talent.

All the publishers and agents I heard talk said they were open to being approached (politely) by new authors with manuscripts they are ready to share. Just remember: ask them if they’d be open to receiving  a new manuscript and have your 30-second “elevator speech” about it ready to go. The upshot: don’t be shy about approaching these people if you have something to share with them. They may not look like it, but they’re at work.


That’s it for my report from RavenCon. I hope you aspiring writers out there found it especially useful. A final note: I’ll be going again next year to RavenCon and I highly recommend it. If you’re an aspiring speculative fiction author in the Mid-Atlantic, it’s really worth the trip. Before that, I’ll be heading to DragonCon in Atlanta this September. Hope to see you there! Until next time…

Keep reading, keep writing,

Darius


PS…I’ll be back with my next post on May 22. See you then.

Back in 15 Minutes–Or So

Folks,

After my RavenCon adventure, I’ve taken off on vacation.

I didn’t want to leave you all hanging indefinitely on the blog. I’ll be back in 15 minutes…which in writer time means a few days or a week. Then, I’ll update you on all the happenings at RavenCon. And where I’m headed from here.

Until then, I wish you many happy returns, that you find a great  new book to read and–for the writing inclined–that you bang out a really great new chapter.

As for me, I think I’ll order another Pina Colada…

See you soon,

Darius

To RavenCon!

Not much for today’s post. Just wanted to let you know I’ll be at RavenCon from April 24-26 this year. I won’t be on any of the panels or anything like that. But if you hang out at the writing workshops or sessions, you can’t fail but run into me. Just ask around for Darius Jones. cropped-cropped-cropped-RavenConBannerAnd please say “Hi!”

I went last year and it was great fun and a great learning experience. It was my first Con ever and it was great to connect with other writers at my level and with those above my level (that was particularly useful!)…And to hear a bit from editors from places like Tor on the sort of things they’re looking for in manuscripts these days. (Here’s a hint: make it gripping from the start and don’t let your reader go!)

If you’re a fiction writer who is involved in the speculative ends of things, I can’t say how important it is to attend a Con to get yourself acquainted with what is happening out there in the real world. Which sessions are people drawn to? What are editors thinking about the changes in the publishing industry? What are other writers trying to do?

So, put down the pen for a weekend and come join us!


On the Work Front—Retiring a Work?

So, I’ve decided to give the manuscript of my novella, “AFTA” a bit of a rest. It chocked up relatively few rejections. Only about six. But markets are thin for a comedy-horror novella…So, I’m thinking of giving it a rest and thinking about it. At the end of that process I will either:

1. Resubmit it as is.

2. Tweak the manuscript some more and get it in shape to go through the process again.

3. Put it away for good.

I’m not sure which way to go with it yet.

BUT…I do have three stories done that I’m shopping around right now to publishers. So, I do have stuff out there. And I do have three to four solid short stories I plan to write in the near future. All of them are “speculative” to varying degrees. After that, the horizon opens up a bit and I have to consider which stories I have in the idea stage have the most potential. But all that can wait until after RavenCon. Hope to see you there and…

until next time…

Keep reading, keep writing,

Darius

The Craft: Shot Selection

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

Well, it’s spring. And that means it’s time for some basketball and some musing on the art of writing fiction.

Way back when, I used to play basketball. And one of the first things you learn is that you don’t shoot every time you get the ball. What you do is quickly assess the situation and either go for it or pass it on to the next guy. That’s called “shot selection.” NCAA/BASKETBALL

Guys that don’t have good shot selection tend to throw up anything and don’t make many shots. A more effective strategy is to pass when you know the defense is tight—to an open man in the hope he’ll get off a better shot.

So, what the hell does this have to do with writing?

Simple. I’ve noticed lately that I’m a bit too quick to throw up anything to see if it will make it in. That is, I’m far too willing to pick an idea that is half-way there and flesh it out into a full story, edit it and submit it. I don’t stop to think—“Hey, maybe I shouldn’t try to do this right now”—and pass on taking the shot.

OK. End of extended sports metaphor…

So…this means that henceforth, I’m going to focusing on developing (writing, editing, submitting) drafts of stories that move me, that I want to write. That I have to write. Rather than stories I think are clever, or have a neat idea or will find a home somewhere.

What prompted this was a book I found as I was browsing in a used bookstore last week called The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam. There’s a discussion on the first page of the preface where Halberstam asks a more seasoned writer: “What makes a best seller?” The author considers the question for awhile and answers:

“A book that burns in your belly—something that has to be written before you can go onto anything else.”

That’s great, isn’t it? All those secrets that marketers and publishers and agents want to know boiled down to one cold, hard fact.

Well, that’s what I want to write. And I have a few short stories—maybe 3-4 that are burning in my belly right now. Nothing more, nothing less. I want to get those done and in the submission process. Then, take a quick look around me and assess what else is burning in my belly—be it a novel or story or play—and write that and only that. I want to put the emotion and the desire first. Not second or third or somewhere further down the list. And I don’t want to worry about what will follow.

That’s the only way to do it. Always has been, always will be.

See you next time,

Darius

Works in Progress–Next Up

[Part of a continuing series on where my fiction writing is at.]
Lots of stuff going on in life and work. So, this post is going to be particularly telegraphic. Here we go.


How They Did It at Kazansky StationGood news here. Last time I posted, I was 2/3 of the way through my dreaded second draft of this story. Well, I finished that off. Even ran it through the third draft. And this weekend I plan to do a final draft and proofread it. Then, it’s off to publishers. Moscow street

I’m really pleased with where this ended up, especially when I consider how displeased I was with the first draft. I just thought it was done a bit hastily and was sloppy overall. The third draft is much tighter and—most importantly—says exactly what I wanted it to say in the way I wanted to say it. And that’s all any writer can hope for.

The Man with Storms in His Eyes—This story got rejected and I haven’t had a chance to turn it around and resubmit it. I will do that this weekend.

AFTA—This horror novella got one more rejection, but it’s still with another publisher awaiting a decision. I hope it works out.

Breakpoint—This story is still out there with a magazine awaiting an answer.


That’s it! A short and sweet post. Just enough to keep you updated while I get back to the writing.

See you next time,

DJ


PS. I just realized I haven’t blogged for a month! I totally forgot my last blog post. I guess things HAVE BEEN HECTIC. Jeez. No more of that.

So, sorry, readers. I apologize. I will do my absolute best to make sure that doesn’t happen again or warn you if it does. So, look for the next post 2 weeks from today.

See you then.