What I Would Have Done

I feel a post like this would be helpful for someone just starting to write, or for someone who is thinking about jumping in soon but they aren’t quite sure how to get started, living with fear of messing things up.

You learn a whole lot along the way, and I certainly still have a whole lot more to learn. In reality, you are constantly learning new things as a writer, and I really don’t believe anyone has anything 100% figured out. That’s what makes it art. You may even define art as anything where you strive for perfection but can never achieve it.

Anyway, as little as I know now, I do know there are a few things I would have done different from the start had I known better, or had I been able to go back in time and visit myself as a young man.

Write a Million Words

This is the threshold that you hear different writers speak about. It’s the threshold where bad work begins to become good. It’s certainly not an exact number, some may learn quicker, some later, but it seems to feel pretty damn close.

If I were starting today I would write a million words. I’d write real stories, not just nonsense to fill a word count. I’d struggle. I’d work at it. But I wouldn’t submit anything. I’d write that million and then set fire to the whole pile of stories.

Write Everyday

This is the most important thing a writer should do. It’s like shooting baskets, or hitting the batting cage, or practicing the golf swing, or any other sports analogy you can think of.

Writing everyday helps in two ways. First, there’s the process of practicing to get better at what you do. Second, there’s the process of trying to stay sharp. At first your jump shot will suck, but with practice it will improve. But take a few days off, and your game will become horrendous, and it will take more practice just to get back into form.

Submit, Submit, Submit

This is the last bit, but you can only submit stories after you’ve written everyday and written a million words.

A story a week is a feasible goal. That’s 52 stories in a year! There will be plenty of rejection and pain, but a few will find their way to happy homes, and you’ll be thankful that you held off honing your craft before you started submitting stories.

I wish I could back, write everyday, write my million, and then really start writing and submitting.

If you haven’t started writing yet, let this be advice to consider.

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Recommended Reading 12/27/2014

I had an idea to change this Recommended Reading post from the last time I did it back in November. I liked the idea of containing a short fiction work since shorter works sometimes don’t get the credit they deserve. I also think it’s good to look at both newer works and older works, that way people may find something older that they haven’t read, as well as the opportunity to discover something new.

Going forward, I will break up these Recommended Reading posts into three categories:

Something Older – Not necessarily classics, but books that are at least a few years old that have either stayed with me, or I’ve re-read recently and realized how great they are.

Something Newer – These are newer books (within the last 2 years) that I think are worth reading.

Something Shorter – Short fiction that stands out. I’ll try to keep the length anywhere from flash to novelette.

I think breaking the list down like this gives a good variety. Someone can then choose the type of book or story they are looking for accordingly. I’ll also probably limit them to one recommendation each per category, but try to make these posts more frequent.

Here is the list for today’s date.

Something Older Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler

This is one of my favorite novels. It may be my favorite overall, so I might as well mention it sooner rather than later.

Barney’s Version is a novel with incredible depth. You can re-read it over and over and marvel at the language, the complexity of the characters. It has everything–emotion, pain, crudeness, comedy.

Barney Panofsky is a wonderful character who is difficult to love, but easy to be fascinated by. He’s an aging man in Montreal looking back on his crazy life, all his troubles.

There’s a wonderful style to Richler’s narration which leads to great revealing moments throughout the story. The fictional footnotes employed are brilliant.

This is a novel to put on the bookshelf, one to go back to every couple of years.

Something NewerPlaying the Short Game: How to Market and Sell Short Fiction by Douglas Smith

I read this the other day after seeing a mention of it in the comment’s section on Dean Wesley Smith’s blog, which by the way is probably the best daily blog about writing.

I finished Playing the Short Game in about two days even during all the chaos of Christmas. It should be essential reading for anyone pursuing submitting stories in the short fiction markets.

The book isn’t about the craft of writing, although there’s enough on the philosophy of rewriting and how much to do, and that section is quite helpful related to craft.

The main focus, however, is the business of writing short fiction. Douglas Smith has firsthand experience. And the book covers just about every aspect–cover letters, markets to choose, copyright, selling to foreign markets, selling audio rights, reprints, etc.

There’s a focus on genre specific fiction, but there’s plenty to apply to submitting to non-genre markets too.

If you’re serious about writing short fiction this is the best read out there. I wish I had the chance to read it sooner.

Something Shorter “The Emperor of Mars” by Allen M. Steele – Clarkesworld

I read this one today actually, and it inspired this blog post. Steele (of no known relation) is always a terrific storyteller and he frames the narrative in this tale beautifully.

Told in the first-person, the focus is a third-party character and how he slowly descends into madness due to life on Mars.

Instead of turning dark, this tale takes a wonderful fun turn. It has great themes about the importance of fiction.

It’s a reprint from Asimov’s in 2010, but Clarkesworld has it available. Go check it out.

 

 

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Writing as Work

Any interview or biography of someone successful will no doubt mention a period of struggle. The successful person will overcome this struggle through hard work. With a very few exceptions of dumb luck, hard work is what helped the person become successful.

Just as a healthy diet and exercise are the only real ways to keep the weight off, hard work is the only real way to achieve success. I absolutely believe this.

I like reading about people with a blue collar approach to their work. Everyone from athletes to stand-up comics to business people who go to work every day and put in the hours, eventually they find some version of success.

When it comes to writing, I certainly treat it with this kind of blue collar approach. It’s important to treat it as work. You simply need to put in the time.

With that in mind, it shouldn’t feel like work. Okay, sometimes maybe. Certain aspects of writing are necessary evils, or less enjoyable. Mostly it’s the stuff around the actual writing–submissions, formatting, etc.

If you can’t enjoy any part of the actual writing process, if it all feels like work, then maybe you need a break of a few weeks to really think about your pursuit.

 

Treat writing as work, but don’t let it feel like work. Sometimes it helps to keep this statement in mind.

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Power of the Juice

I’ve talked about the juice before in one of these blog posts from a while ago. Hemingway talks about the juice in his Paris Review interview. It’s basically that feeling you get when writing when everything starts flowing, you’re not feeling anxious about the work, and words seem to come out with ease.

Some days the juice starts to flow quick. Other times, you struggle all day to get it going. With writing daily and in greater word counts, the juice comes a little easier. Only a little though.

When it flows nicely you don’t want to stop writing. Sometimes you don’t stop, you push beyond the word limit and break through barriers with ease. Other times you get distracted and you lose your grasp on the juice.

Yesterday, I had the juice going from the start on a short fiction piece, and I didn’t want to stop writing. But for some reason I put down the laptop. It was late. I yawned. I was well past the word count. I gave myself the excuse to go to sleep.

Leaving the story and heading to bed, I knew things wouldn’t be the same the next day. And I was correct. I struggled to get the juice going. I got the word count in, but it was no easy task.

But there’s something bigger than the difficulty of hitting my personal word count goal. It’s a theory that may need to be it’s own topic for a different day.

I believe that the best stories are written in the shortest amount of time. I don’t mean rushing through and just writing haphazardly whatever comes to mind. I mean getting the juice going and writing in one mindset. Writing at your normal pace from start to finish.

Part of the reason I struggled tonight compared to yesterday, was that I couldn’t find the same tone as I had the night before. The characters felt different, the direction of the story seemed elusive.

If I had been able to complete the story draft in the same night, rather than over two or three nights, I’m convinced it would be a more cohesive story. It’s not an absolute truth, just a theory.

I don’t believe I’ve seen a theory where writing in a short period of time provides benefits to the story. There’s nothing directly mentioned that I can think of. Let me know if you’ve ever read anything on a similar topic.

 

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The Coffee Battle

This is gonna be a silly one, but there is something here that requires thought. For some people, deep introspection; for others, a causal consideration.

If you read a lot of interviews with writers where they speak about process, you will find one thing that comes up more often than not–coffee. There will be a mention about the routine that involves waking up at 6:00 am, putting on a pot of coffee, writing, putting on another pot of coffee at noon, writing, etc.

With the popularity of single serve coffee I’m not sure if this has changed anyone’s process. Hmm.

I honestly don’t know how anyone does it. I love coffee, but I can only manage to drink about one cup a day without it having a severe impact on my sleep. I’m incredibly sensitive to caffeine, and for some reason, this has gotten worse as I’ve aged.

In the past I have gone into battle with coffee. Like any drug you acquire a tolerance, and one cup a day becomes two, then a full pot, then two pots, and before you know it you’re filling your bathtub with espresso just to get you through the day.

Inevitably, you’ll realize you’ve gone too far and you’ll cut out coffee, leading to severe headaches. Days and weeks will follow where you’re so exhausted you can’t even function.

With changes to my health I’ve recently cut out coffee almost altogether. I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence or not, but my writing has improved as a result. More production, clarity with ideas.

I think coffee makes me too anxious, leads me to distraction and the inability to focus on getting words on the page.

If you’re drinking five cups a day and writing at a good pace, continue what you’re doing. But if you’ve seen a dip in your production and you realize you’re drinking more coffee than before, you might want to cut back and see what happens.

Give it a couple weeks when you stop coffee to see what changes. The first days without a cup are brutal.

Full disclosure: I drank coffee today.

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Submission Fees

When I was submitting stories back in the early internet days, I remember payment was scarce. For paying markets you generally needed to submit the old fashioned way by postal mail.

Gradually, online paying markets started to emerge. It was great. And now there are all kinds of markets online where you can make money off of your short fiction. You submit online, it’s printed online. It’s a wonderful thing.

But more and more I stumble upon online magazines that ask for a submission fee. They say it’s for the cost of printing stories, getting readers, etc. It might be a nominal amount, a few bucks or so.

No. Just no.

That’s not how this works. If a magazine is charging writers for submissions, then they have a flawed business model.

This is how it is supposed to work. Struggling writer puts in his time and effort, works up some courage, sends off his work. He either gets acceptance and receives payment for his hard work, or he gets rejected, sucks it up, and submits the story elsewhere.

On the magazine end. Magazine reads through pile of submissions, finds the best stories that fit their model, publishes them. They make money through sales, ads, donations, Kickstarter, whatever.

Can you imagine having to pay to submit a resume to a company looking to hire you? “Oh, but our human resources department needs to spend time interviewing and hiring people, and that costs the company money.”

For some reason “literary fiction” markets seem to be the biggest culprits for this reading fee. What absolute balls to charge fees for a market that is generally low-paying compared to genre fiction.

Money flows to the writer, as the saying goes. Always. No exceptions. Never pay a reading fee.

Fortunately, there are enough markets without submission fees. Ignore the ones with fees, submit to all the others. The magazines without fees will attract the best writers and survive, as it should be.

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Digital Einstein

A story on The Verge discussed Princeton’s new Digital Einstein archive. The archive allows anyone to freely browse thousands of documents written by, or regarding, Albert Einstein.

I browsed over some of them, but certainly have not yet had a chance to look over everything. There’s plenty of letters from Einstein and family members. I found a particularly interesting letter from a head of an institution, to another program head. He says he does not recommend Einstein switching schools during his studies “even if he is a so-called ‘child prodigy.'”

There’s old report cards in the archive. A note recommends that Einstein look into private tutoring for French, history, and chemistry. There’s a comment from an inspector on a music exam after observing students playing violin:

One student, by name of Einstein, even sparkled by rendering an adagio from a Beethoven sonata with deep understanding.

There’s plenty of proofs that I’m sure will be interesting to those involved in math. (Couldn’t tell you). I also found some of his papers interesting. In one paper he discusses land formation based on glacier movement and friction.

I only had a quick look at some of the items. There’s plenty to go over. You could spend hours. For those interested in the life of Einstein, or science or math, this is a great free archive.

 

 

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