The Craft: Rules for Writing, #4: Dedicated Time

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

We’ve covered a lot of ground on my rules of writing, but there are still two to go. Today, is another simple and easily explained rule, (just like the first one). Again, the trick is in actually doing it.

by Matthew Kirkland

It’s simply this: Dedicate Time to writing. If you want to make progress with your writing you have to dedicate time to the process, time when you’re not doing ANYTHING ELSE. That means no texting, no talking on the phone, no reading, no surfing the Net, no blogging, no TV, no hanging out with friends, no lounging at a café or bar. It sucks, but you have to do it.

It’s not easy, take it from me. When I started writing, I just did it whenever, however, whatever. I left the phone on (and would pick it up if it rang), left the Internet on, read a book, answered the door, whatever. And that was fine for awhile until one day when I was writing a really good section: the characters would be speaking great lines of dialogue, the action would be terse, the descriptions taut, the writing just humming along and then—Bam!—a knock at the door, a ring of the phone, an email alert and I would break away. I came back to the writing 5 minutes or 15 minutes later and the moment was gone. The writing was wooden, the dialogue  forced and fake and the action just froze and I was looking at a flickering cursor on the screen.

Well, after that happened a few times I had about enough of it. I was writing in the LBC at the time and I started tuning the world out and the writing on—at least from 10 to 4  everyday. First, I stopped answering the doors—”Let ‘em knock.” Next, I turned off  the phone—the  cell and the land line—literally unplugging the later from the wall. I turned off the Internet too. That doesn’t mean I always wrote successfully, or at all.  Some days, my discipline slacked, I left the phone on accidentally, I surfed the Net, I read a book instead, I lounged. But pretty soon I got to the point where everything  was OFF, and I would either write or do nothing. And there were a couple of days when I did just that: I stared at the screen, I walked around the apartment, but I didn’t write. I didn’t do much of anything, but that was a part of the process, for me, of becoming a more disciplined writer. I haven’t had a do-nothing day like that in years.

It’s also important that my significant others and friends get this and support it. All my close friends know that I won’t be reachable on Sundays during the day because I’ll be at a café writing. My cell will be with me, in airplane mode, and not receiving signals. I don’t have any friends at the café, so no one will strike up a conversation with me and if they do I can get out of it quickly with a few curt answers about being busy. I usually have the Internet on, I admit it. But I leave it on because it hasn’t been a distraction and I have found it useful to warm up my brain by reading some news and I will sometimes do a little research in a pinch. But I won’t go on my blog or Twitter when I’m writing. [Although I do send a little update out on Twitter when I start writing and when the day is finished, just to keep everybody updated.]

So, that’s rule #4. It’s simple, hard and true. If you haven’t carved out a dedicated time to write, try it for your next writing session. Turn everything off and just go.

I realize not everyone can follow this advice easily (those with toddlers, primary caregivers, etc.), but in those situations you have to ask yourself  how you can carve out a little time (babysitter? late night or early morning writing sessions?), turn everything off and get to writing. Steal time whenever you can.

Good luck. It’s not always easy.

“There Is No Space and Time.” I’m not so sure, but Richard Ashcroft sure seems convinced.

In an ongoing sub-feature of the blog, I’m highlighting each time a reader from a new country comes to the blog. This week, we have three new countries:

  • Paraguay
  • Antigua and Barbuda (I thought Barbuda and Barbados were the same thing. How wrong I was!)
  • United Arab Emirates

Welcome, Everybody!

How I Got My First Story Published

As reported last week, I finally “broke through the iron ring” and sold my first piece of fiction, The Hatchlings. It’s still up on the Fiction Vortex site, so read it while you can.

Tarantula Attack

That being said, I wanted to write this post to give aspiring writers an “after action report” on how this happened so that you can do the same because all I need is more competition. Just kidding. In all honesty, here is what went down and some advice.

First of all, dear writers, don’t get put off by rejection. I shared this story with three of my friends before sending it to a single magazine. They all liked it, I think a bit more than previous works, but it wasn’t something that really blew them away. After the feedback, I thought about changing some things, but stuck with that version more or less.

The next point here is that this story was less than 5,000 words and its genre was speculative fiction. This is a good piece for a first time writer as there are lots of markets for this length and genre. If you wrote a historical fiction novella (10,000 – 50,000) you would have a much harder time marketing the piece because there are simply less markets. Writing short in a popular genre is a great way to go for a beginning writer.

I turned to Duotrope and did a customized search for science fiction and horror magazines (the work is a horror short story set in the future). With the data on markets (in this case, magazines and websites) from that Duotrope search, I was able to rank the markets according to acceptance rates. My basic strategy was to start with the harder markets and  work my to markets with higher acceptance rates. But before submitting, it’s good to remember two things:

  • Magazines generally won’t accept stories that have been published elsewhere (including blogs). So, if you have a story you think is good, you might want to refrain from self-publishing it on Kindle or posting it to your blog.
  • Most magazines don’t accept simultaneous submissions. I.e., if you submit a story to one magazine, you usually can not submit it elsewhere. You must wait to receive your rejection from the original magazine before submitting it elsewhere. (BUT NOTE: some magazines DO accept simultaneous submissions, so always check this first.)

I hadn’t self-published my story, so the first point was irrelevant. But I had not anticipated the second point. So, my story spent plenty of time at each magazine. One great magazine had it for 147 days, that’s almost 5 months!! They did apologize for holding it so long and I did have the option to withdraw the piece, so the fault is partially mine as well. Another magazine had it for 51 days. And remember, these are days you can’t do anything with the story. It’s just out there, across the seas, waiting to become something.

So, what is the story doing for those two months? I have no idea, since I’ve never worked at a magazine, but here’s my best reconstruction:

  1. It goes into a big electronic system. Here, I presume, it gets tagged and may even have a word count limit auto-reject.
  2. It gets parceled out to “slush” editors. These people are tasked with reading and filtering out good stories from bad. I’d imagine this starts with the basic filters: Does the story meet the word limit? Is it in the right genre? Does the writer know how to spell? Does the writer know the rules of grammar? Is the manuscript formatted properly? And does it follow the magazine’s submission guidelines? If not, it automatically gets rejected in a matter of days or even hours.
  3. Past this basic, test, the story fights for its life in the slush gladiator pit. Some magazines require the story make it through two slush piles or slush editors before moving on.
  4. It moves up the editorial chain to higher editors who will read the stories that survived the slush piles. Sometimes, it’s put to a vote to resolve a difference of opinion. 
  5. A senior editor (usually the editor-in-chief) decides to accept or reject the piece.
  6. Another editor or staffer sends you an acceptance or rejection letter. Most likely, they reject it.

So, what does rejection feel like? I have to admit, like many writers, I never submitted my stuff because I didn’t want to be rejected. I didn’t want to face having something I poured myself into cast aside. But, then I woke up and decided I had to be writer and I had to submit my stories just like Heinlein said.

So, how did it feel? After all, The Hatchlings got rejected 8 times before it was accepted, so I got used to it. The answer: not as  bad as I thought. Here’s the first rejection letter I ever received (names have been removed to preserve anonymity. XX stands for magazine titles, X stands for personal names.):

Thanks for submitting “The Hatchlings,” but I’m going to pass on it. It didn’t quite work for me, I’m afraid. Best of luck to you placing this one elsewhere, and thanks again for sending it my way.
—————————
X
Editor

Yeah, that stung a bit at first. But the more I thought about it, it wasn’t that bad. This was one of the best speculative fiction magazines out there and the letter had actually been kind, humane even. It just didn’t quite work for them. I could take that. Couldn’t I?

The next day, I told my writer friend D— that I had got rejected by a top science fiction magazine. Here is a reconstruction of the conversation:

D—: “You submitted your work?”

DARIUS: “Yeah, to XX magazine. I got rejected.”

D—: “Dude, that’s awesome.”

DARIUS: “Well…”

D—: “No way. That…Is…Awesome. Hey, J— [his wife’s name], Darius just got rejected by a magazine…Huh? Yeah? [Muffled  shouts] Dude, that’s so cool.”

DARIUS: “Mm…Yeah? You think so?”

I have to admit, I struggled with seeing how “cool” it was at first. Anyway, I kept  submitting my story and I noticed something. Each subsequent rejection hurt less and less. And at the end of the process, I was just kind of curling my lip, moving the email to my Rejections folder and searching for the next magazine to apply to. Here’s another rejection letter:

Mr. Jones,

Thank you for submitting “The Hatchlings” to XX Magazine for consideration. Unfortunately, it does not meet our needs at this time.

Sincerely,

X

Submissions Editor

That’s not so bad is it? Professional, well put and lets you down easy. It even has a nice personal touch with a real  human signature line. You’d  be lucky to get such a nice letter when getting rejected from a job these days, if you get any response at all.

Despite the rejections, I kept submitting and I eventually got one of the most exciting letters I’ve ever received in my life, the acceptance letter from Fiction Vortex. I won’t reproduce that here, but it was nice.

Now that I’ve passed that milestone the goal is to get the next stories done, proofed and off to more magazines and start the process all over again. I can’t wait.

And I hope with today’s post, many more of you will be joining me.

See you out there,

Darius

My First Short Story Gets Published

My short story “The Hatchlings” was published today on Fiction Vortex. It’s the first time anything I’ve written has been accepted for publication. I heard the news a couple of weeks ago, but wanted to wait before it went live to share the news.

The story is set in the distant future. A man visits the planet Kaldar where a forbidden and brutal ritual, the Zakir, is conducted. He plans to gain the confidence of the Kaldarians, see the ritual and betray them by sharing his story with the rest of the galaxy. Needless to say, all does not go according to plan.

It’s very exciting, and more importantly, validating to have something you’ve written get selected for publication. Especially at a great up-and-coming speculative fiction website like Fiction Vortex.  I was so over the moon when I got the acceptance letter, I could hardly sleep. It was a rough day at work the next day, let me tell you. 

Originally, I wanted to do a long blog post, but today I just want to let you know the story’s live and encourage you to check it out. And if you can, please spread the word.

Today, I’ll leave it at that. I will only add that the story got rejected 8 times before finding a home on Fiction Vortex. So to my fellow writers out there, I have this message:

Be persistent.

,Darius

The Craft: Rules for Writing, Rule #3: The Elvis Principle

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

Alright, we’ve covered the basics. The two most fundamental rules for writing: Get Black on White and NO CRITIC. If you follow those rules you’ll pump out lots of raw material without stopping to criticize yourself.

But that’s just the start. What do you write about? What’s worth writing? And how do you keep going? I’ll handle those topic in greater depth later, but I want to talk about something even more basic today.

There’s a lot of advice out there for writers. “Show, don’t tell,” “Write what you know,” etc., etc. Workshops will critique your work to death. Another thing writers can be introduced to is writing like other writers. I’m guilty of this as well. Who doesn’t want to emulate their heroes? You can learn to write like Hemingway or Murakami or Bolano or even Shakespeare.

This brings me to the 3rd Rule of Writing: The Elvis Principle. As usual, I want to illustrate the rule through a story. I first heard the story in Memphis at Sun Studios, a place that has a darn good claim to being the birthplace of rock and roll. It was about Elvis trying to get a recording session with Sam Philips, the owner of Sun. Sam had lots of requests like this and Elvis was just a young truck driver looking to record a birthday song for his mother and hoping to use that as a pretext to set up a meeting with the owner. Marion Keisker, a secretary at Sun who first recorded Elvis, acted as Sam’s gatekeeper, talent scout and accountant. Elvis was pestering Marion to let him have a recording session with Sam, but she just wouldn’t budge. The conversation went something like this.

1956_september_23_sun_sam_philips_elvis_marion_keisker

MARION: Well, honey, I’d love to have you record with Sam, but I just need to more to go on. I mean, what kind of singer are you?

ELVIS: Well, ma’am, I sing all kinds of music. All kinds.

MARION: That’s fine, dear, but who do you sound like?

ELVIS: What do you mean?

MARION: Well, dear. You must sound like someone. Like Perry Como, or Sinatra or somebody?

ELVIS: Lady, I don’t sound like nobody.

And he never did.

Unlike anyone else. Elvis’s Comeback Special, 1968.

After that first meeting, Elvis left the office and Keisker took down his name. Later, Sam was looking for a new singer to lay down a track and Keisker mentioned Elvis. The rest is history.

What’s the point? It’s that nobody can write like you. No one. Only you know how to write you. Emulating others can be useful to start, but if you really want to break through you’ve got to write something new and different. Something distinctly you.

One could argue that Elvis was derivative, that he was just a white guy singing black music. That’s a very salient point and true in a certain respect, but he also poured himself into all his recordings and that charisma is what people keep coming back for.

There are a thousand influences on all of us every day, but we have to act as a filter and collection point of these influences. You meld and absorb them and create something wholly new. No one ever became a great writer (or artist) through slavish imitation of others.

That’s something to remember next time you pick up your pen or boot up your Mac/PC to start writing. How are you going to get yourself down on the page? How will you write like no one else ever has? How will you follow the Elvis Principle?


PS For more on Elvis and Sun Studios, check out Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis.


In a continuing sub-series, I’m  mentioning each time viewers from a new country visit the blog. This week we have a great new group that I hope is learning a lot about Elvis:

  • Taiwan
  • Switzerland
  • Turkey

Welcome to the blog, everybody!