Over the Shoulder and Down the Road

the-road-to-your-destiny-by-stealth37-nice-wallpaper-1600x1200In other words, looking back and looking ahead. :)

2013 was a great writing year for me. I started the year by completing revisions on One’s Aspect to the Sun, which then came out from Tyche Books in November. So far it’s been getting wonderful reviews and readers really seem to be enjoying it, which makes me very happy. That was my big news and my big accomplishment, but there were other writing accomplishments, too.

My story, “ePrayer,” came out in Third Person Press’ newest anthology, Grey Area, which also added another notch to my editorial belt. Grey Area was partially funded through our Indiegogo campaign, which was quite an experience in itself–time consuming and sometimes frustrating, but ultimately satisfying. Also with Third Person Press, we read submissions and made final decisions for our next anthology, Flashpoint, so we’ll be moving on to line edits for those stories soon.

I finished a short story for submission to another anthology, and that story became the jumping-off point for my NaNoWriMo effort. NNWM was a win, and although that story is far from finished, I’m pleased with it and will continue to work on it.

I also put two other novels into submission, in March. I’m still waiting to hear on those, and, to tell the truth, I’m getting impatient. Having been through the experience of waiting a long time for a publisher and eventually pulling the manuscript, I’ve vowed not to do that again. That’s a blog post all by itself, though, so I’ll talk more about that another day.

I worked on yet another novel manuscript, which is very close to being finished. I had planned a “novel swap” with a writer friend, but it didn’t come to be. I just couldn’t seem to finish the last few chapters in a way that satisfied me. With luck, he’ll still be willing and we’ll get to that this year, once I wrangle those chapters into shape.

I did preliminary revision work on two other unfinished novel manuscripts, and did some background work on Nearspace, the setting for One’s Aspect to the Sun. Yes, there are more stories to be told in that universe. No, I don’t have any details to share with you yet.

All of which is wonderful but…I could do more.

Once upon a time, I used to start more stories than I finished. Over time, I learned that this was, at least in part, due to starting to write too soon. I’d get an idea and start writing before I had let it “simmer” long enough in my brain. I don’t get along well with outlines, but I’ve learned that I do need to be able to see the structure of the story in my head before I start writing that first scene. That scene usually comes to me full-blown, so it’s very, very tempting to just “get it down” quickly. But as I said, I learned not to give in to that temptation, and finished more stories.

However, I find myself in the position of having a lot of unfinished manuscripts on my hard drive again. I’m not sure what the problem is now; partly trying to juggle too many projects, partly spending too much time on “writerly” things that are not actually writing, partly my propensity to procrastinate. (There, I’ve admitted it!) This time they are mostly novels, as opposed to short stories, thanks to NaNoWriMo, but still…they need to be finished. I came close to finishing that one I mentioned earlier, but didn’t quite make it.

Last year I set just one goal for myself for 2013; I would publish a novel. I’ve decided to make 2014 the Year of Finishing. I’m not saying I won’t start anything new this year, of course, but I really like many of these stories that are languishing only partially complete. I want to go back to them, finish writing them, and make them shine.

I also hope to blog more consistently this year. Last night at our New Year’s celebrations I threw two hopes into the resolution box: more consistency and less procrastinating in my writing life overall. With some luck and determination, they should combine to produce more finished manuscripts in the months to come. Stay tuned and we’ll see what happens from here.

Photo credit: Stealth37

The Five Stages of Novel Revision

Pick an emotion…any emotion…

The other day I watched a video by James Andrew Wilson, called The Emotional Stages of Writing a Novel. It’s both funny and true, so if you’re a writer (or even if you’re not) you should go and watch it.

Having recently been asked by an editor to revise a novel*, I think there are several stages to that process, as well. Here they are:

1. Elation Disappointment Disalation? I don’t know what to call this stage. Someone likes your novel and has said nice things about it! They think it has promise! Hurray! But you have to change things. It’s not perfect. The road ahead is paved with hard, hard work. Wah! It’s wonderful and horrible at the same time. You need a drink, some ice cream, or (insert favorite comfort item here) while it all sinks in.

2. Despair You don’t know how to do this. You can’t do this! Those changes won’t work! They’re too hard! They’ll wreck your novel! You can’t cut that subplot because then no-one will understand why the vagrant had to be blind. You can’t cut the busboy character because wasn’t it obvious that he was the one who saw the murder and reported it anonymously to the police? And how can the novel work at all without the circus? *headdesk*

3. Planning Okay, you just need to take a while and think about this. Think, and make a lot of notes. Maybe buy one of those huge whiteboards and diagram the entire novel on it. No! Better still, paint a wall of your office with chalkboard paint and diagram it there! Also, print out all the editor’s comments and highlight them with different colors according to level of importance, then glue them onto giant pieces of bristol board and brainstorm revision ideas around them! Oh yes, the pieces are all going to fall into place now…

4. Actual Work Half the time allotted for the revisions has now flown past. You’ve started seven different methods for working out how to fix your novel, but they’re all too much work or are too confusing. Finally you sit down with a printout of your novel and a red pen, and start reading and making notes. When you’re done, you start typing in your changes. It takes you all the rest of the time you’ve got and you have to alienate your family and friends to get it finished, but you do it. You think it stinks.**

5. Collapse You’ve sent in the revision just in time. By now you hardly care if the editor likes it or not–all that matters is that it’s done and you don’t have to look at the horrible thing any more…at least until the editor emails you…

*more details on that another day
** or you think it’s brilliant. Don’t worry, that won’t last.

The 1901 Eaton’s Catalogue

One of the coolest finds in the saga of clearing out my grandparents’ house (for me, at least) was this: the 1901 catalogue from the T. Eaton Company Limited. It’s actually a reprint of that catalogue, produced in 1970, which accounts for its exceptionally good condition. However, it is a faithful reprint of that catalogue, and what I love about it is the wonderful window it opens into the past. I mean, historical/steampunk writer’s reference, anyone?

Browsing through the catalogue is a ton of fun. It’s also an eye-opener in many ways. Yes, we seem to have some weird ideas about what constitutes the ideal feminine form these days. However, this is obviously NOT the first time in history that that has been true. Wasp waists, and oddly low-hanging, ample bosoms seem to have been the ideal of the day. One would think, looking at the corsets in the catalogue, that everything north of the waist would have been pushed dramatically up…but perhaps it’s a function of artist’s license, as well. At any rate, I am prfoundly thankful that I was not shopping from this section.

It’s also kind of mind-boggling to think that almost everything in the catalogue had to be drawn by hand, from all of these household items, to flowers you might want to order.

But what really struck me as I thumbed through it today was this little section: “Paper-covered Books for Summer Reading.”

As you can see, it’s a minuscule selection, when you compare it to the sprawling websites offering books for us to order today (there are other pages to order books in the catalogue, but it’s still a pretty limited number). There’s also nothing to tell you what any of the books are about. You want to know what House of the Wolf by Stanley J. Weyman or What Gold Cannot Buy by Mrs. Alexander are about? Pay your money and take your chance.

Which brings me to my real point. These books are “Printed on Heavy Paper” and cost “7 cents each; postage 2 cents extra.” When I read that, I can’t help thinking about all those .99 ebooks out there. Comparatively, that means that they cost about fourteen times the 1901 paperbacks. (Yes, yes, I know that some folks are going to accuse me of comparing apples to oranges because ebooks have no cost for physical materials, shipping, etc.–but bear in mind that those costs are a relatively small percentage of print book costs today.)

When I browse through the catalogue and see that most other items have increased in cost anywhere from twenty to fifty times (or more!)…I really wonder how we have come to this point. It seems such a devaluation of years of hard work on the part of the writer to say that the story is worth less than a dollar. When we’ll pay two to three times that without blinking for a cup of coffee, and ten to fifteen times that to watch a two-hour movie, it seems to me that something is severely skewed.

I think we need to think about this both as writers and as readers.

Summer Project

So, that Bare Knuckle Writer really knows how to pull the strings and make me dance, whether intentionally, or not. She’s got me blogging more often (almost, like, regularly), and yesterday she threw down a gauntlet. (Yeah, she’s a little confrontational, but in a very endearing way.)

You really should go and read her entire post, because it’s fun and quirky as usual, but here’s the gauntlet part:

Every writer’s got one. That project whose time never comes. All it needs is a little love, but somehow it keeps getting pushed back in favour of new things and shinier ideas…This is its time. Dig that thing out, take it out to the back deck or the beach or the patio with you, and get to work.

And…she’s right. Of course she’s right. Who doesn’t have one (or more) of those projects, whether it’s a half-finished story, a novel, or something else? Honestly, I have more than I care to admit, but I’m not going to think about that or I’ll start crying into my keyboard. Or start a new chocolate binge. Possibly both. But I digress.

After reading the challenge yesterday, I printed out the manuscript you see in the photo above. It’s so close to being done that you can almost smell the done-ness on it. One more line-edit pass, that’s all it needs. It’s already been rewritten, revised, substantively edited and mostly line-edited.

Why has it been lying around for so long in this state of almost-finished-ness? Because it’s a bit of a strange project. A bit unclassifiable. A mash-up of genres. In plain words, I have no idea who might want to publish it.

But that’s not really the point, is it? The problem of what to do with it is not a problem until it’s done. So I’ll finish it. And then I’ll worry about what to do with it.

Sounds like a plan. BKW, I hope you’re reading this.

Self-Editing For Dummies

By Kadellar (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsOh, calm down, I’m not really calling you dummies. But after thinking about my post the other day regarding the dearth of attention paid to editing lately, I realized that some portion of the blame must come to rest on the author, as well. The better we are at self-editing, the lesser our dependence on outside editors to catch all those little things that are dragging our stories down. Which, of course, puts us in a better light–both when editors and publishers read our submissions, and when our work (eventually, hopefully) finds its way into the hands of our readers.

So–how do you become a better self-editor?

1. Practice. Repeat after me: the first draft is not a finished work. Yes, you may complete your first draft in a rush of adrenaline and endorphins and think it’s the best thing anyone has ever written, anywhere. It’s not. Never send out something until that first fine rush has ebbed and you start to doubt. Once the doubt is there, you can start looking for all the things that are wrong, and begin to fix them. And fix them, and fix them, and when you think they’re fixed, see #2, below.

2. Other Eyes. My friend Steph has a great post over here about the necessity and value of first readers. The more eyes you can get on your work–knowledgeable, practiced eyes–the more chances you have of finding those things that editors will (or should) only fix later anyway. So those problems won’t be there to trip up your readers later.

3. Tools. Don’t underestimate the value of your word processor’s built-in spell-check and grammar-check; at the very least, they should make you slow down and look at possible problematic areas of your work. But they’re only the very minimal basics. One tool I love is Cliché Cleaner. Run your work through this handy little program to find clichés, overused expressions, and internal repetitions. It’s amazing how much one tool like this can help you clean up your work. You may have your own favorite cleanup tools–just don’t forget to use them.

4. Distance. Remember that first rush we talked about, that comes with completion of your first draft? One way to avoid falling victim to its siren song and sending your story out too soon is to get some distance from the work. Let it sit until it’s no longer totally fresh in your mind–a week, a month, even longer if you have the luxury. There’s nothing like coming back to it with some heightened objectivity to clear away the tint of those rose-coloured glasses.

5. Humility. No matter how competent or skilled a writer you are, you will always benefit from remembering that you are not perfect and neither are your early drafts. Expecting that your work will need polishing allows you to see its flaws more easily. Accepting that others will spot problems that you haven’t seen will make you more open to using their suggestions wisely.

For more advice on good self-editing, I highly recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King. Got your own self-editing favorites? Share them in the comments!

Image courtesy of Kadellar (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Where Have All The Editors Gone?

Okay, okay, I know that all the editors have not gone away. I know that there are many dedicated editors out there slaving away in the word mines to help writers wrangle their manuscripts into things of beauty. I do not want the entire Internet editorial community to descend upon me, angrily wielding their blue and red pens as weapons of vengeance.


I detect a noticeable lack of editorial input in far too many of the books I read these days.

If you follow me on Goodreads or take note of my occasional reading update posts hereabouts, you’ll know that I am not a snob when it comes to reading. I read traditionally published books, I read self-published books, I read e-only books, I listen to audiobooks and self-produced audiobooks. If it sounds interesting to me, I don’t quibble about the format or the provenance, I’ll give it a try.

In fact, I will even cut some slack to the authors who are self-pubbing, to a certain extent. If the writing and plotting and characterization and ideas are strong overall, I can forgive a few little grammatical or syntactical missteps. I usually find it a bit sad when a story fails to reach its full potential due mainly to a lack of editing, but it won’t make me bail on the story.

But traditional publishers, I have to say: I hold you to a higher standard. I expect that you will have given your authors the benefit of proper editorial input. You are supposed to be the “gatekeepers”, after all; the setters-of-standards. This is not to say that I expect to love every traditionally published book–there’s no accounting for taste, and there are plenty of (IMHO) bad tradpub books. But regardless of how far they fall short of my expectations in story or plot, I expect them to be line edited.

And I am disappointed, with increasing frequency of late.

I expect words to be used properly. “Occupied” is not the same thing as “preoccupied”.

I expect you to weed out repetitions. When the word “faience” comes up five times in three pages, it’s kind of noticeable.

I expect that characters’ names will remain the same throughout the story.

(Sadly) I could go on. But I won’t. Maybe I’m just in an editorial frame of mind lately, having recently finished an intense bout of line editing for Unearthed. And I won’t say I caught everything there, either. But if traditional publishers want to continue to publish good authors–if they want to be thought of as some kind of legitimizing force in publishing, I think they owe their authors something. And their readers, too.

I think they need to spill a little more corrective ink on those manuscripts. Or soon there’ll be nothing at all setting them apart. And then where will they be?

Image courtesty of jppi.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle (your words)

Something old can turn into something new, with a little work…

I’m pretty big on “living green” wherever possible, and lately I’ve been thinking about how it’s possible for writers to get more mileage out of their writing projects by recycling, too. That’s because I have a project underway that’s taking something old and making it into something new.

Writers have always had the option of reprints–re-selling something that’s already been published, to a new market–but we don’t always think of doing so. In part, perhaps, because many markets specifically say “no reprints,” we are more likely to be thinking about the next new thing than something we might have published a few years ago. That kind of thinking can make us miss out on opportunities, though.

Another kind of recycling involves taking short stories and building on them for larger projects. This works in reverse, too–sometimes a section of a novel can stand alone as a short story or novella, or provide the seed for a tangential story. Everything does not have to be brand spanking new and shiny all the time.

My current project–and this is the first time I’ve mentioned it to anyone, anywhere–involves taking an old ebook project and revamping it with a new twist. Much of the already-written text is completely reusable, but the new product will (if all goes according to plan) be fresh and new for a new audience. I’m getting kind of excited about it, since I’ve actually had time to work on it lately.

What about you? Do you have something “old” in your writing folder that you can reuse or recycle? Maybe there’s buried treasure on your hard drive, so take a look!

Image courtesy of kathaer at morguefile.com

Tales of Tales ~ Part 7: Common Ground

Staying on the science fiction side of things, today I thought I would talk a little bit about “Common Ground,” another story in my collection To Unimagined Shores.

I actually can’t recall the “inciting incident” or the idea spark that led to this story. It’s based around a colony ship arriving at a new planet to find that it’s not as empty as the colonists expected. It also has a lot to do with parenthood, and I suspect the idea first came to me not long after our daughter was born. I do vividly remember lying awake one night thinking about the story and how excited I was to start writing it. There was a particular idea in it that, at that time, I thought was one of the best things I’d ever come up with. It’s a magnificent feeling, when you know you have a great story idea and it’s just waiting to come to life under your fingertips. The wonderful feeling doesn’t always last, and the story doesn’t always turn out to be as fabulous as you thought it was going to, but those moments of excitement and the feeling that you really have something are priceless.

“Common Ground” was published at Nuketown in 2001. Later, in 2003, the aliens from “Common Ground” formed the basis for one of the alien races who showed up in the novel I was writing for National Novel Writing Month, “One’s Aspect to the Sun.” I had obviously enjoyed writing these aliens. They were one of the first really well-developed alien races I’d created, and they have stayed with me. Years later an editor would tell me, “You really do write great aliens.” She wasn’t talking about these aliens in particular, but I’m quite proud of that comment, and it makes me strive, whenever I create an alien race, to make them very believable.

Once past the end of the garden we saw the cave. A dozen yards distant the shrouded entrance gaped blackly in the rock wall. And under a natural outcropping, half obscured by shadow, stood three aliens.

My stomach churned. My own breath made a hollow whistling sound in my throat. These were the creatures who had our babies. I could not even see them clearly yet, but a fist of fear tightened in my chest.

One of them held up a hand, but we had already stopped. The others were armed, not overtly menacing but standing easily erect, perhaps five feet tall and garbed in wrapped shirts and loose leggings.

The apparent leader gave a short speech, the words a tumbled gibber of growls, yips, and barks. It ended on a questioning note.

It’s the last day to enter my contest to win a copy of To Unimagined Shores. Click the link to get all the details, and take a moment to enter. Or if you can’t wait, you can buy a print or ebook copy (in multiple formats) from thirdpersonpress.com, amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords.

Image “Planetfall by Moonlight” copyright 2010 by Sherry D. Ramsey

Tales of Tales ~ Part 4: Signs & Portents

So far I’ve been talking about some of the fantasy stories in the collection, so today I thought I’d move over to one of the science fiction stories.

“Signs & Portents” first appeared in Oceans of the Mind, which was a professionally-paying, .pdf-format magazine that published quarterly issues from 2001 to 2006. They were one of the first, as far as I know, to really make a strong attempt at an entirely electronic-based publishing format, and they published some great stories from wonderful writers around the world.

As writers, we’re often asked where we get our ideas. I don’t always have an answer for a particular story, but I do remember this one. Have you ever had the experience of glancing at a note or sign, and reading something quite different than what is actually there? Then you look again and realize that what you thought you saw wasn’t right. Well, there was a period when that seemed to be happening to me a lot.

At about the same time, there was a story going around about a fellow in the nearest city to where I live, who appeared regularly on a street corner, bearing a sign protesting this or that. I don’t know that I ever saw him myself, but an image of him had built itself up in my mind.

So, somewhere in my brain, these two ideas collided (hey, just like in a particle accelerator, which figures largely in the story), and “Signs & Portents” was born. This is the way a lot of my stories seem to happen—two unrelated ideas that meet, shake hands, and decide that they would work well together.

The Sign Man in “Signs & Portents” was one of my favorite characters to write, although he’s not the narrator nor the main character of the story. But I enjoyed figuring out who he was and what he was doing on that street corner, and why his signs were so—well, if I say too much I’ll give things away.

Three days later, my head still bandaged, I walked toward the Sign Man’s corner. He was quiet today. The army fatigues were gone, replaced by a wrinkled blue plaid jacket and paint-speckled olive polyester pants. The ever-present placard read “SPACE SHUTTLES—AS IF!”.

I walked right up to him and just stood for a minute. He fixed me with a placid stare. His eyes weren’t mad at all today. They were quiescent spheres of polished granite.

“How did you know?” I said finally.

“Spare some change?” he asked.

“How did you do it?”

“The space shuttles aren’t real, you know,” he confided. “It’s all just entertainment. Hollywood jerking us.”

“Your sign,” I said. “I saw something on it the other day. A warning, maybe.”

“I’ll sell you the sign,” he offered, tapping today’s placard, “for a dollar.”

I steadied my voice. “No, not this sign. Another sign. A few days ago. It said, ‘Near miss on 24’. I was nearly killed on route 24 on my way home.”

If you missed the earlier blog post, I’m currently running a contest to win a copy of To Unimagined Shores. Click the link to get all the details, and take a moment to enter. Or if you can’t wait, you can buy a print or ebook copy (in multiple formats) from thirdpersonpress.com, amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords.

Tales of Tales ~ Part 3: Winter Bewitched

Today I’m thinking about the story, “Winter Bewitched,” another tale in my collection To Unimagined Shores. This one was described by a colleague who critiqued it as a genre noir story in disguise. It’s set in an unusual fantasy setting, but it is a detective story at heart.

In a chicken-and-egg sort of conundrum, I can’t recall whether I saw this piece of fantasy art first and that inspired the characters of the scribe Jalia and her shapechanging companion, Gemmel, or if I had the characters in mind and went looking for a piece of art to help me visualize them. In any case, this is how they exist in my mind (except that Jalia has no magical abilities, though they are depicted here). The art is by Kay Allen, a wonderful artist who had a gallery at epilogue.net for many years but who seems to have disappeared from there. The only place I can find some of her art now is at artwanted.com, and this picture isn’t there, so I’m very grateful that I saved a copy of it for my reference.

I initially wrote this story for a winter-themed anthology (themed anthologies again!), which did not pan out, but it was included in the first Third Person Press anthology, Undercurrents. The original title was slightly different, but one of my editors suggested that perhaps it gave away the end of the story, so I followed her wise advice and changed it. However, now I always have to stop and think to remember which is the actual title.

We were six days out of Salabad when we crossed the sudden border into winter. One moment the air was warm and dry blowing down from the steppes, and then a frigid breeze sprang up, a rime of frost appeared on the trail ahead, and the sky darkened to the colour of yesterday’s gruel.

I reined in the mare to slip my warm Surcyian cloak over my head, and Gemmin scampered ahead. When his paws hit the frost he turned back, a look of unmistakable dismay on his feline face. Three leaps took him from the ground to my shoulder. He kneaded his long toes into the collar of my cloak as a lock of my hair blew over the crown of his head, giving him a comical auburn topknot.

Enchantments, Jalia, he nuzzled into my ear, in a tongue few mortals would have understood. Gemmin was most comfortable conversing in the words he’d taught me, the language of the strange, inaccessible place of his birth.

I nodded. “A witch, a curse, the usual sort of thing,” I told him. “If you can believe tavern tales told by a half-drunk barkeep.” We were still in the steppes, and at least another fortnight’s travel from the higher altitudes where snow might normally be expected.

Jalia wrote it down? Gemmin asked.

“Of course I did. What kind of scribe lets a good tale go to waste? At any rate, a frosty ground means we’ll have to find lodgings for tonight, whether we can afford it or not. I doubt we’re still being pursued. It was only the price of a meal, after all.”

Jalia beckons trouble always, Gemmin chided me, his whiskers and hot breath tickling my ear.

I’d like to write more stories about these characters; their relationship is complex and is a lot of fun to write. Perhaps someday soon one of them will come knocking on my brain with a problem they need to solve…

If you missed the earlier blog post, I’m currently running a contest to win a copy of To Unimagined Shores. Click the link to get all the details, and take a moment to enter. Or if you can’t wait, you can buy a print or ebook copy (in multiple formats) from thirdpersonpress.com, amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords.