Recently another writer asked me (via email) how do I know my stuff is good enough for anyone to publish? She labeled the email “Stupid Question #37.”
Rather than being a stupid question, it’s one that cuts to the heart of what it means to write.
No one wants to pour your heart onto the page just to have some faceless editor send you a form rejection on an otherwise blank email, right? No one wants to publish a piece of fiction you’ve bled your soul into just to see…well…to see nothing happen.
Why am I doing this? you might begin to think.
How do I know I don’t suck? Or do I suck? Yes, that must be the answer. I totally suck.
The human brain is deviously twisted to the idea that success means the world is merely humoring us, and that normalcy has returned when the wall of failure slaps us in the face with the truth.
The problem, of course, is that “good enough for someone else to publish” is a question that’s out of a writer’s hands. The answer doesn’t exist until someone else, specifically an editor, says so. Editors often surprise me. They hate things I like and like things that I hate.
All a writer can do is finish. Tell the story you’re working on today as well as you can tell it, then get it in front of as many eyeballs as you can. After that, it’s up to other forces.
I’m thinking about this because I’m getting ready to head to Los Angeles to be a return winner at the Writers of the Future. This should be fun, of course. Very little beats getting steeped in a community of writers. The question above made me flashing on an L. Ron Hubbard bit about what “good enough” means—which was, as I recall it: “any art that evoked an emotional response in a reader is good enough.”
It’s the season for conflict. No, not Trump vs. Clinton. I’m talking Nanowrimo fans and their opposition, a group that for the lack of a better term I’ll call the, anti-rimos.
On one hand, you’ve got something like 29.394 billion writers of various skill levels pounding out words at a 50,000 word pace for the entire month. On the other you’ve got folks like my friend Myke Cole, who is an outstanding writer, and who dropped this very valuable mini tweetstorm last night.
"You can't edit a blank page" is insidious, because it's mostly true. Left unsaid is this: 1/4
As you might know, I come from a background based on the idea of writing as quickly as you can. Many of the big names who tutored me suggested that writing fast helped accelerate the learning curve. Write fast, they said, and don’t go back over things a hundred times. Some advocated plotting, others advocated writing deeply into the dark, but both groups of these very successful writers counseled rapid writing. This would lead you to suspect that I’m a fan of Nanowrimo. You would be at least partially wrong.
Both ideas (write fast vs. take your time) can have problems.
Luckily, in this case you don’t have to select the lesser of two evils. Instead, you can squint your eyes and see through to the truth of the matter.
Which, to me, is that the most important thing to think about when it comes to writing is to realize that, no matter who you are—no matter how practiced you are, or how new you are, no matter if you’ve got every award known to humankind, or if you’re a twelve-year-old trying to finish your English assignment—every time you sit down to write, you’re really doing one simple thing—telling a story.
Read that again.
No matter who you are, your goal when you sit down to create is to learn how to tell the story you are working on in the most effective and efficient fashion you can.
Those two words, effective and efficient, are both important. They are the crux of the problem. They are the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. Those two words whisper divergent theories, and divergent urging. Those two words send people of creative bent into mind-bending moments of self-reflection that can be paralyzing at times when things aren’t working particularly well. These two words drive writers to drink. To drugs. To quit. To begin again. To scream at the top of their lungs. To wake up in the middle of the night in puddles of sweat.
The words effective and efficient can suck the life out of artists.
So, let’s talk about them for a bit.
By effective I mean that it is important to the world that you tell great stories filled with deep characters, vivid worlds, and interesting plot lines that are well crafted. This is the whole “do good work.” thing. If your result is not “good” as defined by the commercial masses, then it won’t be read. Us writers all know this as we grab our swords, or our blasters, or our chisels and mallets, and head into the fray to hack away at the stories we’re working on. That’s the problem, right? The semi-snobbish anti-rimos’ creed of “do only the good work” feeds into another semi-truth, that being the idea that an artist is her own worst critic. Which again can serve to cause paralysis. “What is good?” is a tough enough nut for us to crack even after we’re done with something, better yet while we’re smack dab drowning in the middle of the morass that is “in process.” Get too tied up in convincing yourself that what you’re writing is “good” and you may not finish squat. I wrote about “Good” once. Perhaps it would help to review.
By efficient I mean that if you’re trying to make your living at this thing you’re almost certainly going to have to write more than one book every manymanymany months. So a writer wants to move quickly enough that you can be happy as you keep doing it. Writers get hungry, too, you know? And a writer has to pay the landlord or the bank to keep a roof over her head. Write too slowly, and you’ll almost certainly never be able to quit the day job. Yes, there are examples of writers who finish one book, and then that one book feeds them for life (Harper Lee, anyone?), but there are a lot more examples to argue that nothing is as debilitating as churning on something forever, never to finish. So, yeah, a productive writer, in general, needs to be like a shark, constantly moving forward. Heinlein’s Rule 2 is “finish what you write” for a reason.
This whole “two-sides” thing is so insidious. It’s divisive. It’s put forward as an “or” thing—like either you’re with us or against us, like Batman or Wonder Woman, like chocolate or vanilla.
But here’s another truth to consider: the beauty (and terror) of this whole gig is that you get to choose what the balance of these things means to you. Not only do you get to make this decision, you have to make it. No one else can do it for you, and to not make this choice directly—to not even see it as a choice, or at least accept it as personal trait or preference—is, in my opinion, the source of a great deal of pain for a lot of writers. Among the things that frustrates us is that what we need from this balance between effectiveness and efficiency as writers and as basic human beings will change, sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly, sometimes even daily, depending on a wide set of things.
The problem here is that the question how fast should I write? is the wrong question. The issue of speed is the wrong perspective.
Want to be George R.R. Martin? Realize he’s been a very fast writer at times. Realize that Stephen King set The Dark Tower aside for years because he didn’t know how to tell the rest of the story…but when he got back to it, he moved like lightning.
A peek under the hood and into the catacombs of the Secret Society of Ultra Published Writers That I Happen to Know: the fact is that most writers I know write at speeds that are highly variable. I have written the core of a novel in three weeks. I understood how to write it the minute I sat down. I have also written a novel that took, effectively, 15 years to learn how to write. My new story “Ten Things” took about three hours when it flashed into my mind fully formed. My Derringer nominated story “The White Game” took an entire week of intensely immersive work (or 35 years, depending on how you want to talk about it).
That’s the way with stories. They come as they come.
And that’s the point I want to make. Story is not about writing speed. There is no “wrong speed,” only wrong results—and of the wide range of “wrong results” that are possible, the wrongest of results is to not have any result at all. This is the point that things like Nanowrimo address.
For me, the turning point on my thinking about how to resolve this whole effectiveness vs. efficiency thing has been to ignore it completely. To see it as the wrong question. For me, the turning point was when I began to choose stories and ideas that matter to me, and then take whatever time it takes to write them well. Come to work every day. Write words. Maybe I throw them away or maybe I keep them, sure, I measure my words because I’m curious and because the rising number says I’ve been coming to work every day. But mostly I don’t care about the numbers. Mostly, and this is what I think Myke’s tweetstorm is really saying, I care only that I’m learning how to tell the story I’m working on. When I do this, no matter how short it takes, or how much one person likes it or doesn’t, the piece I end up with is something I’m proud of. Something I’m happy with. Maybe some other people will say it’s good. Maybe they won’t. But when I come to the table every day, and when I create words, and when I use those words to understand how to best tell my story, it winds up being what I want it to be. The point is to work as quickly as you can to write this particular story you are writing. And then LET IT GO.
The message behind Nanowrimo is that it’s possible to write a novel in a month. It says to a writer that they should drive out fear of failure—which is a message I adore. The message behind the anti-rimos lies in Myke’s last line, and that is that there is a difference between writing and typing. This is completely true. There is a difference between typing and writing.
The key is to use every opportunity you have—including the use of Nanowrimo—to discover what that difference is, and make it work for you.
I’m clearly going to have to write faster. I mean … seriously. It seems that science might be catching up to my fiction.
Why do I say that, you ask?
Well, I’m doing this science fiction series that’s an intergalactic thing based on three short stories I wrote for Analog some time back. Given that the entire series is titled Stealing the Sun and that the first paragraph of the story is about the idea of why Alpha Centauri A (part of the Alpha Centauri triple) was selected for being … uh … stolen, I think it’s safe for me to let that little plot-point out of the bag. So, the whole driver of the action and events surrounding my story (stories) is about efforts to harness the energy of a star, and the effects of that on many things, among them, the planets in the system.
“I’d say we have no good explanation right now for what’s going on with Tabby’s star,” Jason Wright, an astronomer at Pennsylvania State University, said earlier this month during a talk at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute in Mountain View, California. “For now, it’s still a mystery.”
I mean, heck yeah I can tell you why the Mega-structure star is fading—it’s because some intelligent species (or not so intelligent?) has tied a multi-dimensional wormhole to it, and is beginning to explore the universe with its resultant Faster-than-Light travel.
I mean, isn’t that obvious?
Luckily, in a few short months when my books come out, you guys who now know the truth will be able to read a work of fiction built around these now-true facts.
I have been working on Starfall, which is book three of the Stealing the Sun series. The story is set on a distant planet and told through the eyes of aliens–which makes this a particularly fun book to write, though a bit more difficult than most. I’m finding the process interesting for several reasons, among them is discovering and learning about the many perceptions my characters have about life in general. These kinds of things probably fall under the category of world building, though, for reasons that will become more obvious in a jiff, the topic this post will focus on is perception of gender.
No. I’m not going to pound my chest here one way or the other. This is not an identity book, nor is this post meant to be about identity politics (though I know it’s possible some will want to make it so).
However, I need to start by saying that the idea that gender assumptions are deeply embedded in my own writing has become abundantly clear as I’ve knuckled down to scope the alien characters in this book. In the process of trying to see the world through totally alien eyes, I find myself asking why such a creature assumes certain roles are female, or, more appropriately, why they assume certain others they meet are male–even before they could possibly assess such things. It’s an interesting process. The act of asking these things of myself is adding depth to my work, because (while I’m sure I’m missing some) when I actually notice these assumptions I go back and re-work entire sections to more appropriately tell the story. This is hard work. I mean, I can’t just say “he was standing by the rock” (which is lazy storytelling anyway). Instead I have to work harder to actually describe things.
And then, yeah, sometimes I have to ask myself why it’s a “he” rather than a “she” (or visa versa). By that, I don’t mean the classic western PC version of gender diversity. I mean literally “what part of this alien society and culture created this gender assumption?” If I can’t come up with one, then I know it’s just me–and only then do I chastise myself for letting my own pre-assumed biases affect the work.
It’s a fascinating read, especially if you like language.
But here’s the money quote from the end that I’m thinking about today.
“One perspective on bias in word embeddings is that it merely reflects bias in society, and therefore one should attempt to debias society rather than word embeddings,” say Bolukbasi and co. “However, by reducing the bias in today’s computer systems (or at least not amplifying the bias), which is increasingly reliant on word embeddings, in a small way debiased word embeddings can hopefully contribute to reducing gender bias in society.”
Language, like most other things in our social world, is a closed loop system. The inputs create the outputs, which in turn become new inputs.
Is my work on this manuscript helping this debiasing? I have to admit it’s cool to hope so, but I have no idea. All I can say with any certainty is that actively working to remove as much casual bias from my work as I can is making the work better. More precise. More engaging.
So I suggest that even if you get upset at the idea of gender roles and biases being socially important to the modern day consumer of entertainment (or especially if?), the fact that working to remove them from your manuscripts can make your work stronger is a good enough reason do it.
And, maybe, in the process of working on making your work stronger, you’ll come to wonder about it says about you and the world around you that you have to work so hard to do it.
Your life, too, is a closed-loop system system, you know? The inputs create the outputs, which in turn become new inputs.
Today I got to partake in Heinlein’s Rules #3 and #5. For those of you who read my little bloggy thing and are unfamiliar with Heinlein’s Rules, these are five simple but difficult pieces of advice given by (naturally) Robert A. Heinlein. They consist of:
– – – – – – –
1.) You must write.
2.) You must finish what you write.
3.) You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4.) You must put the work on the market.
5.) You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.
– – – – – – –
#3 is, of course, the most controversial—but that is “merely” because people often have difficulty coming to a place where they can be comfortable the simplification inherent in the idea. The point, for me, is to work on the piece until you believe in it, and then let it go.
Today I got back copy edits on my short story “Blind Leaps” (which I think is slated to run in a soon-to-be released anthology (that I’ll announce for sure if/when it makes proper sense). There is no contract on this, yet, though. So one shall never say anything is absolute until such things as ink dries on a contracts…and even then, one never says never until such thing as a book appears!). These were turned around promptly. Yes, this is a weak application of the rule, but it still applies at present. No contract, no guarantee.
In addition, earlier I had received an invitation to submit a rewrite on a story, complete with a bit of discussion on why the editor was left dissatisfied. I looked at his comments, looked at the story, and said “you know, Ron, he’s right.” So I broke my expected plan for the day and gave a couple hours to an actual rewrite of a previously submitted story, and turned it back around to the requesting editor.
The work was not hard. The story was not long (but it’s longer now).
There are some out there who might say “of course you would submit a rewrite to an editor that suggested they would look at one.” And in general, that’s true. But not 100% of the time. If I didn’t agree with the comments, I wouldn’t have done the work. If I hadn’t agreed with them, I would have moved right on down to #5 and submitted it elsewhere. I have two reasons to think that way. The first is that this is my work, and I have to believe in it. The second is that even with this request, there is no guarantee. It’s always quite possible the editor will look at my effort and still not like it, so if I spent the time to fix it to some editorial spec that I didn’t agree with I would be stuck in limbo if the story comes back.
So, yeah, edit to editorial request—but only when you agree with it.
See how that works?
I note, however, that I chose to give about half the day to this larger rewrite. This is half a day that I could have used on something else, and in fact had already planned to use on something else (which has now been pushed back a bit).
In the middle of everything else going on, Lisa Silverthorne and I have embarked on a short story dare. For the past six weeks, each Monday we’ve alternated giving ourselves a prompt, and written stories (due midnight Sunday). This process is modeled after Heinlein’s Rules, and was advocated by Dean Wesley Smith back in the stone ages when Lisa and I were first learning. Dean (and Kris Rusch) called it “Dare to be Bad.” It was quite controversial in its day.
Sometime later, I think Mike Resnick talked to Dean about the transition to the next level, which he called “Dare to be Good” and which is an interesting topic to consider, too. There’s a different mindset to “Dare to be Good” … some of which might just get touched on below.
I’m writing this today because for the first time in our little jaunt, I was late on a deadline—I didn’t finish the story that was due last Sunday until this morning. My tardiness will not absolve me of my deadline for next week, of course. So I’ll just have to suck that up.
But it happens.
Given that we did six stories in six weeks for a recent anthology workshop and now are on this streak, I can say that while I’ve always found the act of writing a short story interesting, the act of writing a series of short stories in such a relatively short period is even more so. As they say, you never really learn how to write, but that instead you only learn how to write the story you’re working on and then you have to start all over again. I described it in a recent email to Lisa as feeling like you’re a perpetual beginner.
That said, one of the things that this 11+ story jaunt is reminding me is that a lot of what I’m fiddling with is information flow, and that there’s a lot more to basic information flow than just putting words and thoughts into a stream that makes sense. There’s a flow associated with getting to know a story. A feeling, maybe. In addition, so much of a short story’s basic structure makes a lot more sense once I’ve figured out what the piece is about (What it’s about to me, anyway. The reader is welcomed to consider what I write to be about whatever they want it to be about).
I find that I often struggle with a manuscript until I decide what a story is about, and then it often tends to come together quite quickly after that point. It is, unfortunately, more complicated than that, of course. Sometimes issues are related to characters I don’t know, or situations that are skewed some way, or knowledge I don’t have. Sometimes it’s other stuff. Sometimes it’s because I’m having a confidence meltdown.
The issue with doing anything creative, or anything uncertain is that when things go haywire, the cause could have a thousand root sources—and you feel like you have to find the exact root cause before you can make things better.
Such is life, right?
Sometimes it’s a mix of several things.
This was, for example, among the problems with the story I missed my deadline on—I didn’t really know what the story was about (or, in reality, I was changing what it was about like it was oil on a hot skillet…at various points I was writing like it was about three different things). However, I had also made a basic rookie mistake at about the 3,000 word mark, but charged on to 4,500 words and gotten myself stuck on plot points. I beat my head against that barrier for a full day until I finally stopped the insanity, threw away the 1,500 words that sucked, and ran a different direction. A day later the story was “done.”
The point that’s relevant to you, however, is that I think this is the way of all life.
So many people think they know what they are actually doing—they think there’s a process for accomplishing something, and you just sit down and do it. I ran into that all the time in Corporate America. But then you ask what happens when “X” occurs, or “Y” and you find that mostly people just kind of wing things until they work.
And if they miss a deadline, then they might have to listen to the boss bitch a bit, but they still go to work the next day and try to make it up. If you make a mistake, you just try again.
Writers, though—some writers, anyway—can get caught up in the quest for quality and get tied up into knots. They worry. They fret. It’s a double-edged blade: write fast and you’ve been told it’s going to be dreck—but slow writing is often due to the fact the you have no idea what you’re doing, and so it can make you feel incompetent, like you’ll never write a decent sentence ever again in your life. And if they hit a bump, they think the spigot is broken.
The spigot is not broken, though. Not forever. Life goes on. I fixed my problem by letting myself take a step back and look at it from a bunch of ways, but then basically just reminding myself that I can do this, diving in, and trying on ideas that felt right until I saw the light—or at least a light that I liked. And then I charged on.
That’s what I’m carrying away from this stint, though.
Build your craft. Trust your craft. Work as fast as you’re comfortably capable of working.
But create something you’re proud of, regardless of whether it “sells” or not, create something you’re proud of.
You’re capable of more than you might think you are.
And, in the end, if you hit a snag—a real snag … a thing where when you look at something you think it’s truly garbage, then sure, give yourself permission to blow a deadline, and go back. But don’t let the fact that you missed a deadline keep you from hitting the next.
Or enjoying the process.
So, yeah, Dare to be Bad: leap into this big goal of a story a week. Have fun. If you write something that doesn’t work, it’s not a big deal. But Dare to Be Good, too: if you know something isn’t working, give it room to breathe until you can do something you’re proud of.
Wherein Ron shows you some of his not so tricky tricks on how he makes his prose “better” and proves it with (of course) data … ’cause, I’m a numbers nerd at heart, you know?
Today I’m going to use the 27K novella (*) I’ve recently finished to discuss a few “simple” things one can do to shore up their micro-prose.
(*) The work in question is an urban fantasy titled “The Bridge to Fae Realm.” It should be available on or about May 1 as part of the Uncollected Anthology project. Stay tuned!
I’ll start by saying that I’m a very big proponent of fast writing—meaning that I encourage people to break whatever barrier they have to just sitting down and making words happen. Yes, sometimes those words don’t work. I often throw away a lot of words. But I almost always find the stories I draft in quick burst are much stronger than the stories I struggle over. There are exceptions, of course, but just go with me on this—I’ve been fiddling with my “process for a quarter century. I know me pretty well by now. [grin]
However, I’ve also learned that when I write quickly, I often let my prose fall into flabby patterns. You know what I mean: weak or passive sentence structures, generic word choices, and reliance on words that filter the story rather than tell it. Since I know these things about myself, I try to make my “last” pass through a manuscript be one where I specifically look for three indicators that suggest I may have missed opportunities to make my micro writing better.
These three things are:
1. The word “felt”
2. The notorious “ly” endings
3. Clustering of the use of “was” and other forms of the verb “to be”
Let me show you directly what I mean.
CASE 1: THE WORD “FELT”
My “final” manuscript weighed in at 27,127 words (115 double-spaced manuscript pages). I did a search on the word “felt” and found 46 of them. When I reviewed those 46 cases, I decided that 23 of them (fully half) were simple filtering that represented missed opportunities for making the reader’s experience better.
Here’s a fairly simple example:
Original: He wanted to pull away from her, but he felt pursuit from something he couldn’t see, and suddenly he was thinking…
Final: He wanted to pull away from her, but the raw fear of pursuit from something he couldn’t see made him flash on…
The astute of you might find that I resolved an “ly” in that example, too. Now, I’m sure other writers would do something different. That’s what makes us who we are, right? But the point I want to make here is that by using word “felt” in that sentence I was relying upon the reader to insert her own idea of what my character was feeling. The pressure of pursuit, after all, can carry many nuanced forms, “raw fear” being only one of them. I note, though, that when I fell upon the specific of “raw fear” it also helped me roll out the rest of the sentence.
Bottom line, though, Before my review I had 46 cases of the word “felt,” and afterward I had 23. The modifications I made in these adjustments added about 100 words, and in each case made the situation more vivid and appropriate to what I’m trying to accomplish with the passage.
CASE 2: “LY ENDINGS”
Like I think most writers do, I work hard while I’m drafting to keep these prose weakeners out of my work even in first drafts. But they are insidious little buggers. When I searched for “ly” in my final manuscript I found 328 of them. Wow. Almost three per page. Of course, that counts real words like “fly,” so it’s not a true count. But still, I’m always a bit sheepish when I look at a manuscript that I think has been written with moderately strong prose and find this kind of … well … weakness.
You get the drill by now. I went back and examined each case of “ly” to decide whether I was missing an opportunity to make my work better. As a result, I dumped 137 of them (leaving me with 181 cases of “ly” in the final manuscript. The rewrites as a whole added about 75 words (but to be honest, the corrective action for many of these was just to remove the offending words—which for me are often the words “really” and “actually” … which I tend to use like others might use “literally”)
Here’s another fairly simple example:
Original: The moon shined on them so strongly it made Jon remember …
Final: The stark moonlight reminded Jon …
Five words instead of eleven, which is much easier to read, and which is important at that time of the story because tensions are high and I want the reader running as hard as my characters are. In addition, I hope you’ll agree that the picture of “stark moonlight” is much more visceral than “shined on them so strongly.”
CASE 3: CLUSTERING OF “WAS”
This is a more sensitive one for me—or a more subjective one, at least. Maybe. As those around me know, I’m an engineer, not a linguist (smile). All I really worry about here is the fact that when I use the word “was” in clusters, I’m often bogging the story down and I’m often taking the voice of the piece away from my characters.
So when I search on “was” or other forms of the strange little verb “to be,” I’m really mostly interested in places where I see big clusters. I’ll take the time to resolve others, too, of course, but after having done this on a few manuscripts I tend to look at them almost more from the perspective of pacing than anything else.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
Jon sighed. This was too damned crazy.
It wasn’t fair. Really, it wasn’t. He had finally got his act together after dealing with all the shit from his mom, who made his life hell before drinking herself to death, and after dealing with the fallout of his own goddamned stupidity. He was finally figuring it out. He had a job, now. He was paying his rent. And on top of that, he had the music thing that was at least halfway happening even if it would never wind up anywhere near where he had once planned it.
Sure, he was living paycheck to paycheck, but at least he had that much.
Jon sighed. This was too damned crazy.
It wasn’t fair. He had finally got his act together after dealing with the fallout of his own goddamned stupidity, and after dealing with all the shit from his mom, who had made his life hell before drinking herself to death. He was figuring it out. He had a job now. He paid his rent. And on top of that, the music thing was at least halfway happening even if it would never wind up anywhere near where he wanted it to.
Sure, he lived paycheck to paycheck, but at least he had that much.
Again, another writer might have done something different, but this is what I did. It dropped wordcount by just under 10%, and streamlined a cluster of seven “was” constructs down to four. Arbitrary? Maybe you think so, but by looking at these things and actually thinking about them I can tell you why I chose to keep what I did.
That makes me happy.
For this manuscript, I started with 536 instances of “was,” and I ended with 401—an “improvement” in 135 cases.
If you’re with me this far, well, I’m impressed. But the bottom line for me here is always to step back and ask myself if I made the manuscript better. In this case (as with pretty much all of them, right?) I think that answer is a resounding yes. I’ve got a story and a presentation I’m proud of, which is the part I can control.
Of course, the real test happens after a story gets published—because at the end of the day it’s always the reader who gets the last say.
So, yeah … remember that thing about how quitting the day job to write full time will help with the work load? Not happening. This writing gig, it turns out, is just about the same as any project-oriented corporate job I’ve ever had—the multitude of projects overlap forever, and the base skillset for “surviving” is to figure out which issues to freak out over right now and which to freak out about later …which, in writer reality, means finding ways to be okay with not doing all the other things I really know I need to be doing as I go along (which in the role of being an indie publisher, is pretty much a bottomless pit of tasks … Yes, my brain says, I need to do All the Things).
In all seriousness, the sensation can be a real problem if you’re like me.
This is because I feed off achievement. I like to see things getting done. Back in the days when I was working to develop technology, I used to tell people that I didn’t really care what I did or what I worked on—I could work in a bread factory for all that mattered, as long as I had goals and deadlines. This is probably technically a lie, but it’s got that truthiness about it that is so in vogue right now.
If you’re of a psychological makeup like mine, and you find yourself with a glut of creative projects that are all kind of at the middle of their existence, you can be in for some real discomfort. Creative projects that are in the middle of their existence always feel squishy, you see? The “deadlines” are different, and the fact that they have a creative element to them makes these projects petulant. Sometimes these infantile little creatures seem to alternate between screaming at you for pushing them too hard and laughing at you for pretending you know when they’ll be done.
Over the past three weeks, for example, I’ve been juggling the following projects:
• An urban fantasy novella that has grown like a sea monkey and is due to launch May 1, he says, sneaking a sly pre-announcement announcement into the mix. (Seriously … I’m done! 27K words is it, I say. Anything else goes into a Book 2, he says, making a potentially sly pre-pre announcement).
• Two short-short stories
• A 5K contemporary fantasy short story
• One 7K+ word short story that’s in collaboration with John Bodin (yes, be prepared for 6 Days in May, available at book dealers near you soon!)
• A final pass rewrite of a 40+K short SF novel that will be book 1 of a 5 book series.
• A new short story I’m committed to write for a short story in a week dare cycle I’m doing with Lisa Silverthorne, due Sunday night but still sitting there only with my mischievously chuckling prompt sitting on the page.
And those are just the items related to word creation.
If you’re an indie publisher—which I am for my longer work—there’s more. A lot more.
In my case, that “more” has included all the support processes for launching the projects related to bullet item 1 and 4 above: things like cover design, copy editing, interstitial creation, developing what I’ll laughably call “marketing plans” and all the other stuff it takes to make something I’m going to be proud of in the end. Since I don’t actually do all that work myself (why, yes, that is my wife over there in the corner laughing her behind off at the idea of me copy editing my own work, why do you ask?), and since I often use beta readers, this also means I’m juggling these projects around a lot of “dead time” waiting for other people. Which, of course, has its own form of passive-aggressive stress.
Oh, and don’t forget submitting stories to traditional short story markets.
Gotta keep all the irons in the fire, right?
Anyway, as I’m writing this, I’m sitting here on the back patio thinking about what I have to do and remembering my friends at the day job. When they heard I was leaving to be a full time bohemian, they basically asked what a writer does all day, thinking (I’m sure) about how cushy it all sounded. And, you know, I get it. Been there, done that, still watching it unfold before my very eyes at times. Life in corporate Anywhere can be really high-paced and really high pressure.
But this writing gig isn’t any less hard. It’s a hell of a lot of work. And, yes, it is stressful, too. Have I mentioned how all this work I’ve done is essentially unpaid until the market decides if it’s worth the notorious cup of Starbucks or not? No pressure, though. Just get that novella done, all right? (full disclosure, I am not the usual writer. I am insanely lucky to be financially secure enough to take this kind of “risk” without having any real concern about needing to pay for dinner tomorrow–so, for me that financial tightrope is only scary in the normal human way, not the Please Keep Me Safe way).
But in the end what this job doesn’t have is that meeting where you sit down with the boss and listen to him or her tell you what to do.
So, yeah. I can handle that part pretty well.
The challenge, however, is to remind myself to step back and take a look at the mountains every now and again. When I do that, this job really doesn’t suck.
The truth of the matter, though, is that I could say that even back when I was in the corporate pit, too. So I suppose you can take from this what you will.
In the meantime, just in case you need it today here’s a mountain to look at. Complete with moon.
I sat down a couple weeks ago to write a story for the Uncollected Anthology project—which is a really cool publication process run by a collection (an “uncollection?”) of really great writers. When I sat down to write this story, I figured it was a 4,000 word short story. Then I did some research and decided it would be much better as a nice, crisp 6,000 worder.
I started to put it together, and decided that no, it was clearly a 9,000 word short novelette. Then one of the characters took a bit of a flip, and a new story blip arrived, and I figured it would top itself out at 12,000.
This afternoon it sits at essentially 11,000 words and appears to be on its way to at least 14,000. I’m beginning to wonder if I’m committing novella.
Now that I’m beginning to settle into Arizona, I’ve been attending a local writers’ club. These are hobbyists, mostly—people who want to have fun putting words on the page. They give each other prompts, and they read each other what they responded with. It’s a good time.
This last session, one of them asked if the members wanted to grade the session. He explained that we could give each work a numerical ranking that spanned from poor through average and into very good, and then the writer would know if her piece was in some fashion “good.” He meant well, hoping it would help us get better. And he was shot down.
We talked about this for a few minutes thereafter and, as I was walking home, the conversation got me to thinking.
Just what is “good?”
I recently read a great piece from Ursula Le Guin about how a writer goes about making something “good.” If you are a writer, I strongly suggest you read it. If you are not a writer, I suggest you read it anyway because it’s a good piece of advice, regardless.
But I do want to make a point of the differences in these questions. My question is not “how does one make something good” but is instead, “when do I know that what I’ve created is actually good?”
The abrupt and mostly true answer is: you don’t.
At least not always, or at least not the way you might be thinking about it, anyway. It is cliché that a writer is her own worst judge.
It’s probably fair for “us creative folks” to consider it unfortunate that a person who creates something does not get to be the final arbiter of whether that thing is good or not. The writer (or painter, or film maker, or photographer, or …), instead, must be subjected to the seemingly arbitrary nature of an audience in order to make this decision. This is how it is in the big ol’ commercial world.
An audience will let you know exactly where they stand on your work, good or bad, or just merely “too short” (yeah, inside-ish joke there). And, yet …
This isn’t quite true.
As I was walking through the February winter here in Arizona, slogging through the 80 degree sunshine, downhill both ways, I thought about the question and I thought about Le Guin’s essay. I decided that she touches on the “what” part of this question in a sleight-of-hand kind of way. Here’s her quote:
The important thing is to know what it is you’re making, where your story is going, so that you use only the advice that genuinely helps you get there.
This whole creative thing, you see, is a shell game in which your goal is to keep looking under all the cups until you find that magic thing that tells you what you’re actually making. Until you’ve done that, there really is no way to know if you’re succeeding.
Let’s get something straight here first—merely the idea that you are making something is enough for you to begin and to finish. In other words, what you make does not have to be good. In fact, while you are making it, it cannot possibly be good. This is because while you are making something, there is no “good,” there is only what you are making and whether what you are making winds up being what you intend to make or not. This can be very frustrating at times, because your inner psyche will not always tell you what it is that you are making until towards the end of the process (read Le Guin’s comment there…note that nowhere does she say that the image of what you are doing actually happens when you start—only that in order to do something “good” you need to know this).
Sometimes you know what you’re going to do when you start—but not too often. Sometimes you have no idea what you are doing until right before the very end. These last are the stories that surprise you, or the stories that make you realize you started in the wrong place, or that make you understand that the entire first draft must be scrapped in order to write the real story. They are also the stories you finish and step back to say … “wow, I wonder where that came from.” Yes. It’s insidious as all hell.
Regardless, speaking for myself only, there is no “good” in the work of creation. What there can be, however, is a form of pleasure in the act of creation itself, a sense that I’m making something that no one else can ever make because they are not me. Then … and only then, really … comes this thing where I understand what my work of the day is trying to say (*). This is when I decide if something is good—or, as I’ve grown to consider it: when I become proud of what I’ve done.
That’s the key.
If you’ve enjoyed the process it was worth doing. And if, by its end, the work has made you feel something important, then it’s “good” because then you can be proud of it—even if no one else likes It, though I suggest that if you do something that makes you feel something in some way, there will be other people out there who like it. It just won’t be 100% of people, because in that sense (the commercial sense of the consumer) the term “good” means something different to everyone, and, let’s face it, there is no writer of any worth who has ever written anything that everyone considers good.
There will always be someone out there who will say TLDR, or “weak,” or whatever.
(*) Realize that what you think you are saying or doing in a piece of art is not necessarily the same thing as what everyone else will think you are doing. People bring their own biases and frames of reference into everything. At the session in question, I read “After.” This is a 200+ word story that appeared in both Analog and 16 Single Sentence Stories. After hearing it, the group discussed it for a few moments, and of the eight others there, at least three separate veins of thought existed about it. This is, in reality, one of the coolest things about being a writer. People pick things that have meaning from their own palate, and apply it to what you bring to them. Sometimes everything lines up, but not always.
Do your best.
Read Le Guin’s piece and work hard to make something “good”—whatever that is to you. And when you do that work, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll work harder to decide what “good” means to you, and you’ll have your standards shift around like mine have and like most dedicated writers I know have.
“Good,” you see, is weird. It isn’t about how long it takes: write fast, write slow, it doesn’t matter. Dig into a work, or throw it to the wind, no one cares—not even you, really. Looking back on something you’ve made, what you care about is whether you gave it the proper due, whether you did your “best” in regard to the piece and whether that effort makes you feel good in some way or another. In the end, “good” is whatever moves us.
I realize this can sound borderline pretentious. But, while pretension has its roots in the segmentation of “good,” this is idea is not pretentious of itself because this idea is the antithesis of segmentation. It is about letting the creative spark happen as it will happen, about recognizing that spark—or at least trusting that spark (sometimes over every other fiber in your body), and about conveying that spark in a way that makes you feel something. It’s about playing, it’s about valuing the thing inside you that makes things, whether that thing you are making is a happy little poem, or a splash of color you threw on a canvas that made you feel good, or a novelette that gets published to quickly disappear, or a story that gets optioned, or wins an award, or a picture you planned out and captured just as you thought it should be (or the quick digital flash that caught the love of your life in one of those perfect moments of pure accident).
The key is to be able to see what a piece says to you at the right time, or even better to be able to feel it. The key is to know that what moves you will move others. They key is to get used to the fact that what you and your work have to say matters, even if it only matters to you. Because if something you’ve made matters to you, if you understand what it means to you, then you can be proud of it.
And as a person who creates things, that is what “good” means to me.
In that light, here’s an interesting way to spend 50 minutes: