Category Archives: Story Problems

I think this advice for writers is unsound (#SFWApro)

So I recently stumbled across an article Dean Wesley Smith wrote several years ago, about killing the myths of publishing. One of the myths, Smith says, is that you must rewrite something to make it good — in his view you shouldn’t, unless an editor asks you to [edited for clarity]. It’s fine to throw away a draft, then start over fresh and improve it, but actually going back and editing your work is giving in to the critical side of your mind, which is composed of bad advice from writing classes and editors and how-to articles. Instead write it, polish it (small changes are okay) and either submit it or self-publish it. Even if it sucks, editors and readers won’t hold it against you next time. And no amount of rewriting will ever fix a bad first draft.

Smith acknowledges that every writer is different, not every writer does things the same way, but I think that’s just boilerplate — the whole point of the article is that you should do it this way. That if you’re doing it the other way, with rewrites and self-editing (aside from edits requested by an actual editor who can buy it), you’re doing it wrong. And obviously this method works for him, as he’s published a lot of stuff. And for several others, whom he mentions in his article. But as a fundamental rule, it’s a pile of bollocks. Smith isn’t myth-busting, he’s myth-propagating. I’ve been reading variations of “don’t rewrite” and paeans to the first draft being pure unfettered creativity and the logical editorial side of you can only strangle your pure creative spirit as long as I’ve been reading about writing (which at this point is a while).

No question some writers can write awesome first drafts. I will agree with Smith that not every writer has to rewrite (although I suspect no-rewrite writers are rarer than he thinks). But “famous writer does X” isn’t always proof that’s how it can, or should be done. Stanley Weinbaum sold the first short story he wrote, A Martian Odyssey, and it remains a classic. That doesn’t mean most of us can write and sell a classic story first time out, not even if we tried (as Lewis Carroll put it) with both hands.

Besides I know for a fact that bad first drafts can be rewritten into something good. I’ve done it often enough and the results have sold.  Smith’s argument I should just have published the originals or submitted them … that I find dubious. It’s possible, as he says, that editors may not remember them or hold them against me (I’ve not been an editor so I can’t say) though if I’d done that with, say, Wodehouse Murder Case. I rewrote it a lot before I started sending it out. And I improved it. If I’d sent in the first draft to Azure Valley and they’d rejected it, I couldn’t have resubmitted the revised version that sold.

Readers? Smith argues that as readers are free to sample your indie stuff, they simply won’t buy the book if it sucks — no hard feeling. But what if the book opens well, then bogs down mid story? Or simply ends without wrapping everything up? Sampling may not reveal that. And if I someone puts my stuff down after sampling because it sucked, are they likely to sample my next book? Some people will give authors multiple chances, I almost never do. Case in point, I won’t make any effort to read more how-to’s from Smith.

For a better discussion of revision (and the Heinlein quote Smith uses to buttress his case), visit io9.


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My week in review makes me think of that TV series Hindsight (#SFWApro)

One of the things I liked about VH1’s Hindsight was that after the protagonist travels 20 years into the past and fixes her big problems (her train-wreck first marriage and her dead-end job), she has no idea what to do next. Knowing what was wrong in her past doesn’t show her what path will lead to happiness (her best friend points out that she’s no worse off than anyone else). Which is sort of what I felt like working on Southern Discomfort this week.

The one part of the book I still haven’t outlined is Joan and Maria journeying to Caer Gwalchmai. It has to be less than the relatively simple “waltz through the Otherworld and get the magic McGuffin” sequence in the last draft, but I’m not sure what. This week I got a clearer idea of what I don’t want: it shouldn’t be just a struggle fighting through supernatural forces and monsters. My gut says that’s wrong, and I trust my gut. However I’m not sure what the alternative is. A series of traps and wards they have to circumvent? Maybe. Or something I haven’t yet thought of. Quite possibly. I’ll keep pushing until I figure it out. And start on the earlier chapters while I’m thinking, so I don’t waste too much time staring into my navel for inspiration.

I did not get as much work on the novel done as planned because of those two assignments I mentioned last week — a History Magazine article assignment and a trial run as a writer for Screen Rant. I got the History research collected and managed to bat out a rough draft (very rough, but it gives me a sense of how I want the piece structured). And I found the photos I need online.

The first Screen Rant column, as I suspected, took much longer than I wanted it to. If I’m going to stick with the gig (assuming they like my work), I’ll have to write much more efficiently. But that was the case with Demand Media: the first few articles were crawling, then I found my rhythm. I’ll also have to structure my time so that I don’t work on them over the weekend — this one will have to be wrapped up Sunday. The writing’s done, except for proofreading, but I have to enter it in the system, which will probably take a bit longer. And I have to find illustrations and crop them which will be a pain. But then again, writing about comics and getting paid for it is pretty damn cool, so onward!

I applied for a couple more freelance jobs, and that was about it for work, even with more than the usual number of hours in. Of course that’s partly because reading White Flight was slow going, because the book’s so packed with information. And I got stressed and tired Wednesday which made hump day less productive than I’d planned.

To end on a high note, here’s a look at Plushie after his new cut. Adorable, is he not?


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Filed under Nonfiction, Short Stories, Southern Discomfort, Story Problems, The Dog Ate My Homework, Time management and goals, Writing

I totally did not see these plot twists coming (#SFWApro)

Plot twist the first: after a big get together last weekend, TYG came down with a nasty cold. As of today, it appears I’ve caught it too, but in much less virulent form (that’s how it usually works with us). I felt like all I want to do is nothing, but I’m not hacking or sneezing any. So yay for small mercies.

Plot twist the second: I routinely submit query letters to various non-fiction magazines, but my success rate is so low I’ve often wondered if writing and finishing more fiction wouldn’t be smarter. But this week, guess what? I got a go-ahead from History magazine for an article proposal. After the initial panic at having committed myself (I’m so used to working without deadlines or obligations these days) I took a deep breath, relaxed, and enjoyed the moment.

PT the third: I also apply for freelance gigs through the Journalism Jobs website, usually without much success. But this week I pitched Screen Rant on a gig writing about comic books, and they liked my stuff. It’ll be a trial run at first to see if it really works out on both sides, but writing about comic books (list-style articles) is like a dream job. More details when I have something posted.

This, of course, leaves me with the challenge of adjusting my schedule for the new assignments. That’s tougher than you’d think, simply because I don’t want to give up time on fiction — but most probably, work on short stories will take the hit. Next to actual paying gigs, Southern Discomforts is the top priority, lesser projects will have to go on stand-by.

Speaking of which, this week’s replotting went reasonably well. I have a rough outline of how things should happen and how everyone reaches their endpoints. I do not have, however, the scene by scene breakdown that I wanted; my vague outlines tend to fall so far apart midbook that I have to give up and start over, and I don’t want that. I’ll continue scene-by-sceneing it but I may start work on the early, well-detailed chapters as well. But I’m still concerned that I may be losing some of the sense of Pharisee as a community outside the plot of the story. I’ll have to watch that as things progress.

I delivered my next And column, though it’s not out yet, and got another 12,000 words written on Undead Sexist Clichés: The Book (not how it will be titled, but it’s the simplest way to distinguish from the same name blog-post series). I also took care of getting a second opinion on one household project (major repairs not necessary for a while, whoot!), and took the car in for its annual inspection.

A good week. With surprises that were mostly pleasant ones. I’m as happy as a plush dog chewing on a stick.


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Filed under Nonfiction, Personal, Short Stories, Southern Discomfort, Story Problems, Time management and goals, Undead sexist cliches, Writing

Old problems, new tools (#SFWApro)

So as of Tuesday I had a reasonable outline plotted for the first half — though with the cuts to the last draft, it may only be the first third — of Southern Discomfort. But as I tried to reach beyond that, I hit a wall.

I have increased the pressure on Maria (reflecting lessons learned from Whispers Beyond the Veil) and I’d like to keep her under pressure. Getting arrested by the feds does that, except Gwalchmai’s threat level drops at the same time. I need to fix that. But given Maria has no power of her own, I need reasons he won’t, or can’t kill her. Having her arrested took her off the board in the last draft, so he stopped worrying about her — but like I said, that reduced the pressure too much.

Another challenge is that while my betas wants a higher level of magic and danger — which I think is the right call — I have lots of character stuff I don’t want to lose, or need to add. Liz and Susan trying to make sense of Pharisee. Joan learning about her heritage. Maria discussing her complicated racial makeup (dark enough to pass for a light-skinned black woman, and with one-eighth black ancestry). The relationship and power structures in Pharisee are important too: I spent way too much of the opening of the last draft talking about them, but if I don’t deal with them I’m short-changing the book. Getting all of that in may be a challenge (“Listen, before that dragon attacks, explain to me again about the racial makeup of the Pharisee County Commission?”).

So I spent Thursday employin the methods I don’t normally use. Writing different events down on index cards I can shuffle to change the order. Mind-mapping ideas — start with one concept (visit to the Hither Country, say), then see what ideas it sparks. Plus just sitting and thinking. It did generate some useful ideas, but nothing that helps me see where everything fits in the plot. So I took a break today, to resume on Monday and Tuesday as January ends.

I worked on some sort stories too. I started the next draft of Oh the Places You’ll Go! based on writing-group feedback. I also read A Famine Where Abundance Lies to the group, and the feedback helped there too (the takeaway: I really need more supernatural overtones earlier in the story). I worked on Trouble and Glass and decided (after doing a few pages) not to rewrite Atlas Shagged. Everyone who reads it likes it except the editors I submit it too (even some of them like it) so I think I’ll include it with a couple more stories in another ebook.

I found a couple of online freelance job openings and submitted a resume and writing samples. I submitted two magazine queries, and I have a couple ready to go next week. Those two are to high-profile markets so I want to reread and proof them once more to ensure they sound good.s too.

I checked up on a couple of stories that had been out for a while. Sigh — one was rejected last year but the No email got lost. The other publisher no longer exists. Back out they will go — in fact Schloss and the Switchblade already went out. But  Philosophy and Fairytales had a couple more sales. As Kristine Kathryn Rusch has pointed out (not a link to that specific post), one advantage of self-publishing is that you don’t have to worry about your book going out of print — you can keep it available as long as you want.

So that was my week. Plus getting outside a little. Here you can see part of the American Tobacco Trail near our house (photo by me, acknowledge if you use it)


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Filed under Personal, Short Stories, Southern Discomfort, Story Problems, Writing

Trusting to instinct (#SFWApro)

My ongoing revisions of Southern Discomfort have reminded me of something I’ve known for years. When deciding which path to follow I should trust my instincts.

I don’t mean in the sense of ignoring my beta-readers’ recommendations — while there are some I am ignoring, their criticisms have been mostly right. I’m talking about not listening to my own inner critic.

Inner critics can, of course, be notoriously negative and insecure. But I’m not talking about the inner voice that whispers “your work is crap! You suck! Give up and devote your life to landscaping!” (that is not a direct quote, but you get the idea) but the voice pointing out specific problems. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’ve found the voice is usually right.

I first noticed this working on the second of my several unpublished novels (what can I say? Even a good internal critic can’t fix everything), Let No Man Put Asunder. I’d worked through one crucial scene and found that I was completely blocked. My gut just clenched when I thought about writing anything further. Eventually I realized it was because my gut knew I’d blown the scene. I went back, rethought it, rewrote it, and finally it clicked (unfortunately it’s lost along with most of the manuscript, which is why it’s taking me forever to rewrite it again).

As a general rule, if my gut tells me something is a problem, I should fix it. Even if none of the beta-readers makes the same objection, it’s worth fixing. For example, in the opening scene of Southern Discomfort, a soon-to-die character makes reference to his wife being out of town. Three drafts back, she played a large role in later events. Two drafts back, she played a small role. This last draft she disappeared completely. And all through the last draft, that bugged me. It felt very Chekhov’s gun — a man’s murdered, he has a widow, but she’s not at all talked about? Or demanding action from the cops? None of the beta readers brought this up as a problem, but still …. so in the current draft, Richard Cannon is single. Problem solved.

It’s different for stuff I’m right on the fence about. I debated having an epilogue showing how Pharisee and the various characters had turned out a year or five years later. The consensus view from my betas was that no, it ends at the right place. Not unanimous, but my instinct is not complaining.

Instinct is not, of course a miracle worker. I’ve written lots of stories I thought were awesome, no negative reaction in my gut — but either editors or beta readers pointed out problems I hadn’t even considered. That’s why I beta stuff, and listen to the feedback. Case in point, I hoped Oh the Places You’ll Go was in pretty good shape, but the writing group pointed out lots of problems and lots of stuff they’d like to see added. I’m now working on that.

Still, my inner compass is an invaluable aid to getting my stories going in the right direction.


(photo courtesy of Pexels, used by permission. Source is Unsplash)

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Don’t you just hate it when your critics are right? (#SFWApro)

This was a more productive week than I’d expected. I’d been called for jury duty Wednesday, but didn’t have to go, so that was a day added back into my schedule. Huzzah!

The extra time, along with a lot of the scheduled time, went toward working on Southern Discomfort. I had gotten most of the conceptual and character changes worked out, so I figured I’d start replotting. Working everything out, chapter by chapter, scene by scene. Tracking the characters, the events, the significant emotional moments. And as I got to around chapter five or six, I had to admit my beta-readers were right, this is very slow and talky (although I only had one of them who couldn’t get into it at all and begged off).

I very much see Pharisee County as a character in its own right. I wanted to explore the community’s character, how it’s been shaped by having two immortal elves running things behind the scene for 300 years. So there are several scenes where the various outsiders (forensic expert Stone, FBI agent Rachel Cohen, Maria, Julie Stanbrook—who’s going to be Laura Rubiero in the current draft, I think) talk to one person or another about local history, politics and power dynamics. I think it’s interesting stuff … in small doses. As much as I’ve put in, it slows things down to a crawl. It’s precisely the kind of emphasis on politics and worldbuilding over story that I complained about in Black Wolves, as I feared when I read it.

To make things worse, there’s no tension in the scenes. The outsiders want information to help them make sense of things, but there’s no sense that it’s vital or urgent. No real conflict with the people they’re talking to. Again, not good. But that’s why we rewrite, isn’t it? Though it’ll take more replotting than I thought to fix things. Some of the scenes I can drop, some I’ll shift until later, but I think I’ll need to come up with some new danger or threat to make up for the lost material.

On the plus side, my mind is starting to see the plot path or a plot path. I’m managing to find newer, tenser scenes, though of course as I diverge from the previous draft, my outline is getting vaguer and less certain. Assuming it holds all the way to the finish, I’ll probably have to go over it a second time before starting to write, to get the same level of detail as the earlier scenes.

Well, if it was easy to write good stuff, everyone would be doing it.

I also started work on my next And column. And wrote a first draft of Angels Hate This Man, a new fantasy story. Plus I redrafted Trouble and Glass. I completely changed one key character and much of the set-up so the fact this draft is even remotely coherent is pretty impressive. I definitely need to keep working on stuff that involves actual writing than plotting. It seems to help my focus.

I made my 35 hours for the week, though I’m giving myself a small mulligan: I spent about 90 minutes today staring at the computer, realizing President Shit-Gibbon has been inaugurated and not being able to think of much else. I have now unfriended one person on Facebook (racist rape apologist) and “taken a break” from two others (I don’t want to spend lots of time arguing on FB and their posts are … bullshit).

For some visual flair, here’s a striking cover by Russ Heath. Marvel’s horror mags from the Silver Age tended to have crappy stories, but the covers were striking, as you can see.


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Filed under Short Stories, Southern Discomfort, Story Problems, Writing

Stereotype? Outlier? Or just normal human variation? (#SFWApro)

real20cool20killersSo there’s an early scene in Southern Discomfort (which may not survive into the next draft) where one of the supporting black characters is reading Chester Himes’ The Real Cool Killers (all rights to cover image reside with current holder) It’s part of a series starring Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, two black Harlem detectives (one book became a good movie, Cotton Comes to Harlem). It seemed like a natural idea to have a black character reading black fiction, but then again, I wondered, is that stereotypical — like black readers don’t pick up some of the same books as white people?

This a question that bugs me a lot when writing outside my usual racial comfort zone. In the real world, people are what they are: a real black woman may Terry McMillan or Robert van Gulik. Reality justifies itself. In a novel? The questions of believability, plausibility, cliché character or No Black/Woman/Gay Person Acts Like That become pertinent.

This is less of a problem, of course, if you have a wide range of black/gay/women/Japanese characters in a story. There’s a fair number of black characters in Southern Discomfort, so I doubt my handling of race will be judged on what one elderly gentleman picks to read. Or a black teen having a poster of Pam Grier on his wall. But still, I could easily make some sweeping error about my black cast — several beta readers pointed out that one apparent lynching should generate a much more horrified reaction among the black community (and in the next draft it will). I don’t think there’s any convenient rule of thumb for this, it’s just something to tackle on a case-by-case basis.

The boundary between stereotype and authenticity can be confusing too. Writing on the Science Fiction Writers of America website a few months back, Megan Leigh discusses “strong female characters” and says ” Another common feature of so-called strong female characters is having them shed traditionally feminine traits in favor of masculine ones. These women don’t want children, are interested in sex more so than love, and are typically callous when it comes to emotions of any kind. Why do we feel that for a woman to be strong she needs to be more like a man?”

I find the assumption this is being “more like a man” dubious. I know quite a few women who don’t want children and don’t particularly like them. And I know (not in the Biblical sense) women who are very interested in sex without love. Maybe they’re a minority, but I don’t think they’re “more like a man.” And I don’t think the more conventional treatments (women are innately nurturing about babies!) are in any danger of fading away (as I observed in another post on strong female characters). It’s the old idea that some female characters are just men in drag — and the same problem, of defining what women are “really” like. Although perversely I agree with Leigh in the sense that no, not wanting children isn’t a measure of strength, just a personal choice. Depending on culture and background, the choice not to become a mother can be an act of courage and defiance, or it can be just a cliched gender-nonconforming character.

As Leigh points out, having a variety of female characters can fix that. And with some female characters, just like male characters, their love life or their views on children may not even come up in the story. Cohen’s in Pharisee Georgia as an FBI agent; Maria’s a wanted fugitive; their opinions about marriage and sex don’t come up. It’s the only novel-length fiction I’ve written that doesn’t have a romance subplot.

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