Being Clever versus Being a Good Storyteller

Over the weekend I went to a reading for a local speculative fiction author. In the course of his talk, he said something that resonated with me.
That with his first book series, he was trying very hard to be Clever and write Very Important Stories. But now, a few books later, he’s focused on good storytelling, no matter the milieu he’s working in (I’m paraphrasing here).
I found this to be an interesting distinction he made, and it echoed some of my internal (but not quite fully formed) thoughts about my own work and what I need to be focusing on if I want a career in this field.
Case in point: One of my short stories that I have been submitting since early 2012 has been shortlisted or bumped to the second round at SIX pro or semipro markets. But it still hasn’t found a home, and I have to ask myself why. I’ve settled on the fact that it is my “cleverest” story, given its subject matter. It asks a lot of the reader at the beginning, but it also rewards you once you get to the end. (Yeah, that kind of story.)
The first couple of times it was shortlisted, I chose to be encouraged, thinking I just haven’t found the right market. But after six (six!) times being a bridesmaid, well, I think it’s time to reevaluate things.
Perhaps I’m a little too in love with my cleverness, and as a result, I’ve forgotten the number one reason for writing a story for publication…. Readers.
I’m not saying cleverness is a bad thing. Instead it’s a matter of emphasis.
Putting story and the reader experience first does not mean you can’t also be clever. In fact, being clever in that context can be an amazing thing.
But the flip side? When being clever is your primary goal, sometimes to the exclusion of all else? That’s where you tend to lose people. (A semi-related aspect of this is when beautiful writing overwhelms a story to its detriment—see the recent article Literary Talent versus Story Talent.)
I think this is a particular problem in SF/F because Ideas!and Science! are often an integral part of the story. A nifty idea can make up for a lot of sins in craft, character development, and plot. Almost to the point where that nifty idea becomes a crutch.
My story has a nifty idea, and it also commits a few sins of good storytelling. And that combination has netted me a whole lot of close-but-no-cigars. So where do I go from here? I’ve got to figure out a way to present my nifty idea within the context of good storytelling.
That can be a hard gulf to bridge for any writer, beginning or seasoned. But letting the story rest and getting some new eyes on it will go a long way. At least I’m hoping so.
Warning signs your “cleverness” is getting in the way of your story:
  • Focusing on your “nifty idea” to the detriment of other story elements.
  • Reader feedback saying they didn’t understand aspects of your story.
  • Infodumps that are necessary to explain things to unenlightened readers.
  • Telling yourself the above is okay because you’re writing for a select/smart/in-the-know audience which consists of you and maybe five other people.
Have you ever been guilty of letting your ideas take over your story?

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Invisibility of Progress

Improvements in writing ability are often hard to detect. So much of what is “good” is contextual—dictated by a particular project, the audience you’re writing for, or even market trends.

I’ve talked before about How Do You Know if you are ready for publication. Although it’s related, that’s not exactly what I want to talk about today.
Instead I want to focus on all the invisible things writers do in the hopes of bettering their craft, expanding their professional network, and positioning themselves for success to the best of their ability.
Image courtesy of Penywise of Morgue Files
Objective measures of success in this field are pretty self-explanatory. You’re either published or you’re not (however you choose to define it). When you’re “not” published, chances are you’re doing a bunch of things other than writing in the hopes they will pay off in some small way in the future.
For example, I haven’t sold any short stories since last fall. If you are looking at my output objectively—well, there isn’t any by that definition. Instead, so much of what I’m doing these days is invisible. And I’m still trying to figure out what that means.
These invisible activities include:
Reading slush for Masque Books – Beyond occasional mentions here on the blog, it’s something I do to strengthen my ability to evaluate projects, diagnose writing problems, and gain insights into the editorial process. I won’t be able to learn these things overnight—this requires a commitment of months if not years to see the benefit from this type of activity.
Joining an invitation-only critique group – The meetings are intense and panic-inducing. I’m learning tons, making good connections, but as with any critique group, feedback is only as good as the projects I bring to them. Workshopping novels (and short stories to a lesser extent) can be a long process outside of development time.
Submitting to higher-tier markets – I have three in rotation right now that I truly believe in. And I’ve been aiming high. My sales last year gave me the confidence to target higher-tier markets. Personal rejections? Check. Second-round bumps? Check. Agonizing ‘You just missed the cut’ notices? Oh yeah. And the worst part is, all this means longer response times.
When non-writers ask me about my writing these days, it’s hard to explain how all these invisible activities fill up my time and contribute to my work. But they do mean something. They are valuable. They just go largely unseen because they don’t conform to objective measures of success.
I just have to believe they’ll add up to something that cannot be ignored one day.

What aspect of your writing life is invisible?

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Rough Crit

Criticism is hard to take sometimes. But if you are actively seeking it out, there’s no better way to improve and hone your craft in my opinion. It means you take your work seriously and want to grow as a writer.
It also means you are guaranteed a rough crit session from time to time. So here are some tips for how to survive an in-personcritique when it seems like your colleagues or fellow workshoppers are out to get you.

During the session:

1) Don’t get defensive

I repeat: Don’t get defensive. Getting defensive leads all too easily to getting angry, which can lead to things being said that cannot be unsaid.
If you find your hackles rising, find a way to channel that feeling into something productive. Me? I’m a notetaker. I write down all the bad things someone raises about my work during critique sessions. Even the things I don’t agree with. Something about the process of notetaking adds a crucial bit of separation between me and what’s being said, allowing me to compartmentalize the negative stuff and move on.

2) Don’t try to justify

We’ve all been in that situation where a writer says something like, “Well, what I was trying to do in that scene…” or “My intentions were…” et cetera. This often leads to a lengthy monologue where the writer explains why the story is the way it is, refuting every issue raised during the session along the way.
This is a waste of everyone’s time. If you try to justify what you wrote—preferring your words to a reader’s honest reactions—you’re basically saying your critiquers’ reactions to your story don’t matter. Which begs the question why you are soliciting critiques in the first place.

Note that this does not mean you can’t ask someone for clarification about why they felt the way they did about your work. You can. But be wary if you find yourself protesting too much.


3) Don’t take your bad crit out on others

I’ve been in roundtable critique sessions where a writer responds to a harsh crit by being harsh in turn out of spite—not raising legitimate issues with the work under consideration. Don’t be that person.
If you can’t be civil in the aftermath of a rough crit, excuse yourself, take a time out, do whatever it is you need to do to find balance. It may not seem that way when your critiquers are tearing apart your work, but they are trying to help you. Don’t do something that will jeopardize their future good will.


After the session:

1) Give yourself some time

If you aren’t ready to dive into the negative feedback, that’s okay. Read a book, work on another project, do whatever it is you need to do to be in the proper headspace for processing feedback.
Taos Toolbox had a very large critique component. I deliberately refrained from looking at what my colleagues had to say about my work until I got home. Why? Because I knew if I looked at the written feedback it would distract me from my main goal of the workshop: making real connections with fellow writers. I didn’t want my interactions tainted by the critiques—that’s the one who got too heavy-handed with their line edits or that’s the one who hated my MC—instead of getting to know them on a more personal level. It also gave me time for their suggestions to sink in, and when I got home, I was more open to making changes.


2) Understand who is giving you feedback

In other words, not all critiquers are created equal. Just because someone writes a lot or well doesn’t mean they automatically give good feedback. Similarly, just because someone doesn’t have a lot of publishing credentials doesn’t mean they won’t have any insights into your work.
Some things to ask yourself when weighing feedback:
How much experience does this person have with critiquing?
Do they write in my genre?
Do I like their style/storytelling abilities?
Are they a writerly type to avoid? – Inexperience, ignorance, and ego can all be problematic


3) Understand what you are getting feedback on

You’d think this is a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised. Whatever you submit or send in, right? Here’s the thing. You know, consciously or unconsciously, what kinds of questions you have about your story. And whether you ask for specific feedback or not, the issues your critiquers raise can surprise you.
There’s nothing worse than expecting macro-level feedback and getting your story put through a line editing meat grinder. Or expecting help to polish a final draft, only to have your story premise dissected. That’s not to say those things can’t be helpful—usually they are. But if you aren’t expecting it, those kinds of crits can be devastating.
So double-check your critique expectations. If there’s a large deviation between the feedback you expected and what you actually got, ask yourself the following:
Did I specify my critique expectations? 
Sometimes it is as simple as saying your story is an early or a final draft—often that will cue the critiquer to respond accordingly. Other times, you may need a second opinion on a problematic element (say structure or characterization). You want to make sure you tell your critiquers that. It may not help—they could forget or get distracted by another aspect of your story, but at least you know you tried to get the right kind of feedback for your story.
Did I inadvertently trigger one of my critiquer’s hot-button issues? 
People will respond in unexpected ways to your work. If you hand an atheist a Christian romance, well, that could lead to a very interesting critique. People with different worldviews and life experiences are great to have in a writing group—but those very differences can lead to surprising results in practice as well.
It usually comes down to knowing the people you are exchanging work with. As someone who’s spent a lot of time reading and writing romance, I can be very critical of those scenes. One of my writing friends is an interior designer, and often her comments pick apart descriptions of interior spaces and architecture. Similarly, scientists get cranky when you fudge scientific details or resort to handwaving in speculative works.
So if a critiquer is overly sensitive to an aspect of your story, ask yourself why. Usually it is because they have firsthand knowledge or expertise on a particular subject. Instead of getting defensive, use their knowledge to strengthen your work.
I hope this post results in less stressful and more useful critique sessions. For more on this subject, check out 5 Ways to Get Good Revision Notes.
Happy writing!

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What To Do When Writing Gets You Down

Writing is hard. Once you think you have the basics of craft down, you then have to deal with constant rejection, wait times that never get shorter, and the insecurities that pop up at least once a day.

But it’s important to remember that it’s okay if you can’t always put on a happy face day in and day out. Writing is work. There will be not-so-good days. The trick is being able to move past the bad and stay productive.

First, Give Yourself Permission to Feel Awful…

…Then Move On

If you can do this, the rest of this post is superfluous. Seriously though, you knew that writing would be tough when you first started out, and it doesn’t get any easier later on. But something in you had to keep writing anyway. And that spark is essential for dealing with the inevitable bumps in the road. It’s natural to feel disappointment at times; just remember why you started writing in the first place.

Distract Yourself with Something New/Different/Comforting

Break out the chocolate, if you must. Your favorite food or adult beverage—in moderation, please. Watch a movie, take a walk, try something new. These are all good strategies to distract you from whatever’s bothering you (a string of rejections, a story that just won’t work, whatever). Take a break even. Read something in a different genre from what you’re trying to write in. Artist dates are also a great distraction from whatever has you down—and also feed into your creative mindset too.

Analyze Why You’re Upset…

…Then Harness The Emotional Impulse Behind It

This requires distance. It can also force you to confront things about yourself you may not like. After all, things like shame, anger, and jealousy aren’t exactly a barrel of laughs.

Do you feel ashamed after a rough critique of your work? Anger over a rejection you thought was a slam-dunk? Jealousy over the success of another writer? Try to pinpoint why you feel that way.

For me at least, I feel ashamed when someone calls me out on something in a critique that I consciously or unconsciously know is an issue in my story. This tells me I need to listen to my gut, that nagging voice in my head that says you need to fix this.

Anger, I’ve come to realize, is going to be a part of the writing process for me. Maybe you’re wired differently. Each rejection I receive makes me angry in some way, even if I can see a story’s flaws in hindsight. But I try to funnel that anger—that energy—into the next piece I write. The one that will succeed where the last one failed. Just remember that you are writing out of anger, which can require adjustments once you’ve had a chance to cool down.

Jealousy is a tough one, and people more qualified than me have discussed it elsewhere (see Everyone Gets Jealous, Even Published Authors, Pros and Cons to Comparing Yourself to Other Writers, and A Writer’s Antidote for Envy). Just remember that writing is not a competition, even though it can seem that way. If you don’t like what you’ve achieved so far, work to change that—start a new project or use a new strategy to get your work out there. Find a positive way to achieve your definition of success.

Don’t Forget To Celebrate What You’ve Accomplished So Far

It’s so easy to get tunnel vision and forget where you came from. You know, back when you couldn’t write your way out of a scene? Don’t forget to take time to look back at what you’ve accomplished. Writing is one of those fields where visible successes (like story sales and book deals) are few and far between.

So you need to unearth those smaller, less visible successes—the ones that demonstrate how seriously you take your writing and how it’s impacted others. Things like joining a crit group, a compliment from a writing colleague, a blog post that made an impact, a completed story draft. These are not insignificant successes, and they should be acknowledged as such. I had the illustration for my story in the Memory Eater anthology framed and hung in my office, not only because it’s the first of my stories to receive its own illustration, but also because it’s a constant reminder of what I’m working for.

So if you are feeling down, I hope you’ve found some strategies to feel better about your writing. What’s helped you beat the blues? var gaJsHost = ((“https:” == document.location.protocol) ? “https://ssl.” : “http://www.”); document.write(unescape(“%3Cscript src='” + gaJsHost + “’ type=’text/javascript’%3E%3C/script%3E”)); try { var pageTracker = _gat._getTracker(“UA-15029142-1”); pageTracker._trackPageview(); } catch(err) {}

Trunking Stories

It’s official. I’ve decided to trunk one of the first science fiction short stories I’ve written.

This isn’t a story I never finished or abandoned halfway through. This is a story I completed, workshopped, submitted, revised some more, and collected a handful of rejections on. I haven’t exhausted all markets for it, but it’s time to set it aside.

This was a tough decision for me. I’m not one to give up easily. I do think any idea can be salvaged. But that still doesn’t mean something is publishable, or a least publishable in the way I want it to be. Or that the time spent fixing the story isn’t better spent on writing new ones.

My story had an off-putting epistolary structure, a future world never explained only inferred, a main character who had no real character arc. Feedback from readers and editors ranged from “It started too slow” to “It ended too soon.” “It was too experimental” or “too predictable” and so on. Suggestions for improvement were wide-ranging as well, and at least one revision pass I did made the story even worse.

But even when confronted with this evidence, I still spent time tinkering and trying to place the story. Why? Well, maybe it’s because I’m stubborn. Maybe it’s because I’ve read too many times how subjective this business is and maybe, just maybe, the next market will be it. Or maybe it’s because I’m nostalgic, because it was my first and I’m inordinately proud of my effort despite knowing that it isn’t what it needs to be.

If there’s anything that first story has taught me, a neat concept is nothing without proper execution and characters the reader cares about. You need to have the whole package. If you don’t, it’s time to go back to the drawing board or set the story aside.

Having writing a half-dozen stories since then and started a handful more, I can see the improvements in mechanics, storytelling, character development – nearly all aspects needed for a successful short story – that I’ve made in my craft. It’s time to move on.

As Orson Scott Card says in How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy:

[Y]ou should send out, today, the best work you are capable of doing today. Of course you’ll do better a year from now. But a year from now you should be writing the story that you care about and believe in at that time – not reworking this year’s story. […] Because the more you fiddle with your story, rewriting this paragraph or that one, the more likely you are to make it worse. There are things you instinctively do when the story is in its first rush out of your head that are truer and better than anything you’ll come up with as you second-guess, revise, intellectualize. (2001 edition, page 105).

Learning to let go is HARD. As writers we store up everything we experience — emotions, factoids, ideas – and then slowly mete them out as we write. But to purposefully abandon something? It can go against our very nature. The trick is knowing when to set a story aside, and for how long.

In When Do You Trunk a Story? SF author Juliette Wade explores different reasons for trunking a story: no market for it, it isn’t good enough, it isn’t your first priority, and so on. In When do you walk away? And how do you know when to come back?, Wade talks about what happens when a trunked story calls out for your attention despite the passage of time.

I do think time and experience can do wonders, not only in improving your craft, but honing your ability to see how stories work. Or what Martina from Adventures in Children’s Publishing calls identifying “What Isn’t On the Page”:

I wonder if that’s the difference between rewriting that first manuscript twenty times and writing ten new manuscripts? We can stare at the page and edit it until every word is different, but that doesn’t necessarily show us what we’re missing. […] If we’re hitting a wall with a particular story, it may not be because of what’s on the page. It may be what isn’t there. We may not be able to see that without a long cooling off period. […] Sometimes, it’s time to move on, to let ourselves discover a new world populated with compelling characters and untapped possibilities. Maybe we need to consider that a gift we can give ourselves–the gift of moving forward. But before we give up, we owe it to ourselves to sit back, look at the page, and consider what isn’t there.

And I suspect, if you can’t answer that question, it’s time to move on.

Happy writing!
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