My Writing Process (Lately)

I’m sure you’ve seen this meme floating around the blog-o-sphere lately, and Fran Wilde roped me in tagged me to participate. So here we go!

Photo courtesy of Takashi of Flickr


What am I working on?

What am I not working on should be the question… Let’s see. I have two (soon to be three) short stories in circulation. I have a young adult science fiction novel that I’ve been querying off and on. I’ve drafted another YA SF project that I’m letting rest while plotting out a sparkly new story—the first one of my books that has built-in series potential, which is scary exciting. I’ve also drunk the Kool-Aid and joined Pinterest. I’ve decided to create boards for all my published stories, though I only have two going so far. It’s been a lot of fun!

 

 

Why do I write what I do?

For reasons. Oh, you want a real answer? Well then. It’s fair to say I’ve always wanted to be a writer, even if I wasn’t willing to admit it. I consumed copious amounts of books growing up, but it was usually speculative fiction or romance. Combine that with being a life-long learner, here I am.

I love writing about the unknown and exploring what-if questions in my work. As a fan of action movies and video games, I try to include action-adventure elements in my work. I’m also a romantic at heart, so sometimes that creeps into my stories as well. My background in social science research also informs some of the topics I explore. But at the end of the day, I want to write good words that mean something.

 

How does your writing process work?

My ideas usually start with a scene or situation, and I have to then figure out how that person got to that point and work my way backwards and forwards in time to construct a story around that event. I may do some exploratory writing at this stage or I may not. Once I have my starting point (or at least what I think is my starting point), I start writing. I get maybe ten percent of the way into the novel, then I put on the breaks and start outlining the book. This helps me identify story arcs, acts, and the information that needs to be layered in at the appropriate moment so the book all hangs together. Once I have a full draft, I try to let it sit before it is time to revise revise revise. I’m a chronic underwriter, so usually I have some fleshing out to do at the stage. Then I have a bunch of wonderful people who read for me and tell me what I’m doing wrong. I usually have to revise some more before I’m ready to cross my fingers and send it off into the world.

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Thanks again to Fran Wilde for tagging me in this meme. Her first novel debuts from Tor in 2015. Her short stories have appeared or will appear in Asimov’s, Nature, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

 

 

 

 

Some Thoughts on First Lines

We hear all the time how important first lines are in hooking a reader’s attention. First lines must provoke curiosity, create anticipation, and move seamlessly into the sentences that follow. That’s not what I want to focus on today, but if you’re interested in the elements of good first lines, check out the following posts:

12 Ways to Open Your Novel from Fiction Notes

Writing That First Line from The Writers Alley

First Lines from Kidlit.com

Inspired Openings from Adventures in YA Publishing

Instead, I’m more interested in what the “right” first line gives to the writer.

by sippakorn of freedigitalphotos.net

Recently I found myself having trouble digging in to a short story I’ve been trying to write. I have a premise, characters, conflict, and even a rough idea for the plot. Sounds like I should be having no problem writing the story, right? Wrong.

I’ve started and stopped working on the story over the past few months, picking it up only to set it back down again. For a while, I thought my troubles in executing were because I hadn’t let the story simmer in my mind long enough.

Then I realized the real reason. My opening scene—particularly my opening line—wasn’t strong enough to hang the rest of the story on.

In the drafting stage, I don’t care about hooking readers. My only concern is getting to “the end”. And while I know what the shape of this story should be, my starting point is very fuzzy. Hence my troubles.

Starting points are a fundamental aspect of the architecture of a story. Everything that comes after the beginning cannot exist in the reader’s mind without the context the start of the story creates. Similarly, as a writer, each sentence I write affects the trajectory of the story. Where I choose to begin can have huge ramifications on what follows.

Even though I’d say 90% of the time I rewrite my first lines, I still need one—regardless of how imperfect—to help me write my story.

So what makes for a strong first line that facilitates the writer’s drafting process?

  • It should give you an organizational framework that dictates how you tell the story.
  • It should pose a question that you as a writer want to answer.
  • It must keep you writing.

Have you ever gotten stuck on your first line at the drafting phase? How did it affect your process? And how did you get unstuck?

How to Survive Your First Worldcon Part Two

Over Labor Day weekend, I attended my first Worldcon in San Antonio, Texas. I had no idea what to expect, and I’ve decided to share what I’ve learned so you’ll be better prepared if you plan to attend an event like this in the future.
Be sure to also check out Part One.

6. Stay in the Conference Hotel

It can cost more money to get a room at the conference hotel, but by staying there you quadruple the opportunities of meeting people. For this con, since I was traveling with my non-con attending husband, we decided to stay in the non-party hotel so he’d get a break from the convention atmosphere. Big mistake.

Our hotel was right next door, so logistically, it wasn’t a big deal. But looking at it in terms of elevator rides, morning coffee lines for the lobby Starbucks, drinks at the hotel bar or dinner in the restaurant—these are all opportunities to see and be seen. And serendipity may smile on you and put you in the path of someone who can help your career.

You know the old adage that publishing is a numbers game? Cons are no exception. Position yourself to best advantage, even if that means putting up with hotel room that backs to a con suite.

7. Panels Are Not Your Primary Objective

This might sound counter-intuitive, but bear with me. I spent my first day at the convention scouring the program and identifying what panels I wanted to see. And that first day, I went from panel to panel like a good little attendee.

There are two problems with this approach. One, you will not be able to maintain this level of focus for ten hours of programming each of the five days. Two, if you are attending panels, you’re learning, but most likely not networking. Granted you could approach panelists at the end of a presentation and if you’re lucky be able to introduce yourself. Or perhaps you find yourself sitting next to someone important. It can happen.

But you should be flexible enough so that if someone, especially if they’re higher up on the writing ladder, says let’s skip the next session and chat/get drinks/food/whatever….that’s what you should do. No matter what panel you planned to see at that time.

8. Be Prepared but Be Prepared to Leave Empty-Handed

We’ve al heard those magical stories of authors who attended a conference and came home with a book deal. And if that happens to you, more power to you.

But for the rest of us, you never know what could happen. You could have pitching opportunities and flub them or maybe no one will give you the chance to talk about your work. That’s okay, because you have to take the long-term view and know that slow and steady wins the race.

Knowing that lightning probably won’t strike though is no excuse not to be prepared to talk about your book (or whatever else you have going on). Think elevator pitch and practice it so you don’t sound like an idiot (I wish I practiced more).

Even if you don’t talk to an agent or an editor, your fellow writers may ask. You have to view these moments as opportunities to gain an advocate of your work if they like what they hear. They could be indifferent or unimpressed by your story pitch—but they’ll still recognize the fact that you are treating yourself and your story professionally.

9. Take Time for Yourself

This is important. Give yourself a break every now and then to recharge. There will be plenty of opportunities to hang out with other writers and meet new people.

 

But you have to be the best possible version of yourself to make genuine connections. Everyone will be operating on fewer Z’s, and some people might be hung over or have spiking blood sugar. But it’s on you to maintain your body and your well being.

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That’s it. That’s all I got. Hopefully it will be enough to give you a kick start for your next convention. Happy writing!

The Art of Layering in Our Fragmentary World

Infodumps are evil. Readers hit them, and their eyes glaze over. We’re lucky if they skip over them and keep going. Unlucky if they decide then and there to set the story or book aside.
We writers know infodumps are bad even if we can’t always avoid them in actual practice. Most advice tells us to break up the details and pepper them in the best we can.
Which is a helpful, but I’d argue an incompletesuggestion.
I’ve talked before about my writing process, and how my stories often begin as a skeletal first draft of dialogue and action, then I have to layer in everything else. In this case, layer refers to the iterative passes where I add in setting detail, character blocking, internal thoughts, and other expository “flesh” to the story.
Picture Source

Today I want to focus on the layering in of specific types of information: Description and Backstory.
But first, a digression (because it’s my blog and I can do what I want). Readers have a choice in how they spend their time. Books are in competition with video games, TV and movies, the black hole that is the internet, on top of demands of work and family. This isn’t new. With advances in technology and changes in how people spend their free time, people’s attention spans become increasingly fragmentary.
I have to wonder if this is related to readers’ intolerance with infodumps. They don’t have the patience to wade through them when in the back of their mind, they’re wondering why they’re wasting their time on a boring book when they could be doing X, Y, or Z…
In other words, you need to make your book worth the opportunity cost of other activities.
And that means conveying information in an entertaining way (however defined) all the time. So. Back to layering in details. We’re told to break them up and add them in as necessary, but it should go further than that. Here’s what I strive to do with my words, but your mileage may vary.
Description
Lush description can be wonderful, but so often, such passages have no movement, no underlying action, no impetus forward. It’s a hard balance to strike: having enough detail the reader can visualize your world, but not so much it slows down pacing.
Don’t explain/describe everything at once—Readers can tolerate a certain amount of uncertainty and that can even be a driving motivation to keep them reading. Just be careful to not have too much uncertainty because then curiosity will morph into frustration (and frustration means no more reading).
Readers are on a need-to-know basis—Some grounding details are necessary, but don’t overwhelm or bore them with things that aren’t quite important yet. Granted, there are things you’ll want to sow in to foreshadow or set up subsequent scenes, but you want to strive for natural inclusion, else those details will draw attention to themselves.
Rely on archetypes—Think of these as writerly shorthand. Use them when you want to get across a basic concept: Tree, house, cow, [insert your own noun here]. Most readers will have a mental image of these concepts in their brain. The key is to prime the reader by relying on that mental image, then gradually introducing details that confirm or disrupt that image as you move from a universal concept to a more specific one.
Think telling details—These are details that are evocative and appropriate and important for describing something accurately or setting the tone or establishing voice. But don’t waste words (and your reader’s time) on the obvious. Let the archetype do the heavy lifting, and include telling details as necessary. And sometimes, a tree is just a tree.
Backstory
Also something you’re better off peppering in as needed, this one is particularly insidious for writers because they spend so much time trying to figure out who their characters are and how they came to be that way, that it’s hard for them to decide what is and is not relevant for the reader.
So how do you determine what’s relevant? When the information:
Is key to understanding a character’s reaction/state-of-mind/worldview—This helps the reader identify where a character is coming from and may help to explain why they react in the way they do in the story. A character who has a history of abuse will probably react differently than a character who doesn’t, for example. Think of this type of information as an extension of character development. But extension is an important distinction—character development should be grounded in the story itself, the backstory just provides occasional context. 
Disrupts a character or reader’s assumptions for dramatic effect—Remember telling details? Backstory can function in the same manner, either confirming or clarifying character, or disrupting expectations for a dramatic twist. Look at the way JK Rowling handles Snape’s character in the Harry Potter series for how the judicious application of backstory can be used to increase tension, conflict, drama, and, interestingly, catharsis.
Obviously the worst thing a writer can do is bring a story to a screeching halt in order to convey whatever details are needed. But almost always the reader doesn’t need as much as the author thinks they do to understand what is going on. (This is where trusted readers are worth their weight in gold.)
Character archetypes can also come in handy here (hooker with the heart of gold, sad sack detective, fresh faced apprentice on hero’s journey, etc.) to help the reader tap into unconscious understanding of character—just don’t forget to round them out so they become more than just a caricature as you move from universal archetypes to specific characters only you can create.

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So remember, less is almost always more, unless it confuses the reader. Strive for clarity above all, and to a lesser extent, Donald Maas’s microtension—those unexpected but revealing details that describe your story world or provide a provocative hint at your character’s past. Such details create curiosity in your reader and serve as minihooks to help your story compete in a media-rich and fragmentary world.

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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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