Writing Quote: Let it rest

Today’s quote is a little advice about putting some distance between yourself and what you write before picking it up to review it again:

Sleep on your writing; take a walk over it; scrutinize it of a morning; review it of an afternoon; digest it after a meal; let it sleep in your drawer a twelvemonth; never venture a whisper about it to your friend, if he be an author especially.

~A. Bronson Alcott

The only part I must disagree with, though, is the advice not to let your “author” friends see your work.  That strikes me as either a little paranoid or a missed opportunity to get some valuable feedback.  That, after all, is why they have writer’s groups.  (Some day I may yet join one, when I have time to dedicate to it.)

Happy Writing

Breaking In (Part 1): Periodicals & Short Stories

I call my blog “The Undiscovered Author” because I haven’t been published, so take these thoughts for what they’re worth.  It’s been a lifelong goal to get published, and though I’m usually told that my writing is good (how good depends on who’s talking, and there’s a lot of latitude there) I’ve yet to break in.  Part of that has to do with how infrequently I’ve actually made specific efforts to get published.  As my dad likes to say: you can’t win if you don’t play (but then, my dad is talking about the Lottery and, statistically speaking, you can’t win that even if you do play).  That said, I’m going to offer a few thoughts on what it takes to get published.  This is basically where I stand now, and what I perceive to be my challenges.  It is the first in a miniseries about how to “Break In” to publishing.

First, let’s be straight about what I mean by “getting published”.  There are basically two parts to the publishing world: periodicals and books.  Periodicals include everything from newspapers to magazines.  For someone like me, who writes speculative fiction (sci fi and fantasy, especially fantasy in my case) “periodicals” means short story mags.  These magazines, likewise, fall into two categories: print mags like Asimov’s , The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction or Analog and online zines such as Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld or Jim Baen’s.  There are challenges inherent in both of these formats.  The online magazines have much faster response times (measured in weeks) and are rumored to be much more receptive to new authors (a rumor I can neither confirm nor deny, at this point).  But they mostly have very tight length restrictions (SH has an outside limit of 9,000 words with a preference for stories under 5,000 while Clarkesworld has a hard limit of 8,000 words), and their pay tends to be slightly less than that of the print magazines.  The print magazines, meanwhile, have response times measured in months which can tie up a story that is ultimately likely to be rejected for a long time before it can be shopped at another venue (if you obey the rule prohibiting simultaneous submissions, as I intend to).

The challenge for me, personally, is that my short stories tend to hit a length of between 6,000 words and 12,000 words.  I’ve written some longer and few shorter.  At that rate, only the shortest of my stories are viable for publication at the online zines.  My current story runs up to just under 10,000 words, which puts the story in the range the SFWA defines as a Novelette.  Basically, that puts this particular work just outside the range of most online zines (though potentially not Baen’s).  However, there are some pending edits that I will need to make to this story.  I’ve got a few thoughts on what I need to do to to improve it, but I’m not quite ready to start that work.  I’m not sure how that will affect the length.

I don’t intend to disclose, at this point, who I will decide to submit to first (I’ll report when I’ve been rejected by a venue, but not which venue did the rejecting).  If this particularly story does get accepted somewhere, however, I’ll announce that here as well as the magazine that will be publishing my work and any other details I can provide.  That’s if and when, mind you.

I’ll be honest in saying I don’t have much of a plan, at this point, for getting this story published beyond (a) polishing the story as bright as I can make it before sending it off and (b) submitting it, waiting for acceptance or rejection and then submitting at another market if rejected.  Though, I am approaching this a little more seriously than that.  I’m trying to make sure I’m well-read in the venues in which I intend to submit, to make sure that I feel my story actually fits within the corpus of their publication.  And I’ll be thoroughly familiarizing myself with the individual submission guidelines of each market before I submit anything there.  These are common suggestions from the professional markets.  As a new writer, however, there are few other options I am aware of on what to do, either before or after submitting, to increase my chances of publication.

Ultimately, writing a really good story is all I really can do to improve my chances of getting my story accepted.  But even so, those chances are still slim.  The submission guidelines of one market I was looking at pointed out that they receive 400 – 500 submissions per month and yet only purchase 4 or 5.  In other words, you have about a 1 in 100 chance of being on the lucky side of that coin-toss.  You’ve got to have more than just a good story if you want to beat those odds.  As a new writer, the deck is already stacked against you.  To shuffle it in your favor… you’ll have to write a great story.  I mean, transcendent; a story so good its existence brings the very angels out of the heavens to sing its praises.  Since that’s not going to happen, you can try to play the odds, but if you write science fiction and fantasy, like me, there aren’t a hundred different markets to send to.  Instead, you send the story off, one-by-one, to those you can then start over by writing another really good story and sending it off, too.  Write enough of these and send them off and eventually the odds may fall in your favor.  When they do, you’ll have a new tool in your arsenal: you’ll have published author cred.  Once you have that cred, as I understand it, the odds shift in your favor just the tiniest bit.  Hey, it may not be much of an advantage, but it’s still an advantage.

All that aside, my real goal, it must be said, is not to break into writing short fiction for periodicals, but to write novels.  On Monday, I’ll start sharing some of my thoughts on what I’ve learned about what it takes to break into the novel-writing world, from the point-of-view of someone who has yet even to complete writing his first novel.

Happy writing.

Continue to Part 2: Writing Novels

PM Class for the Week of 2/22

A quick update from my PM class.  This week most of the time in the class was focused on an organized debate over the assertion that “The best person to lead a project is someone with deep area knowledge” with the idea that “deep area knowledge” was expertise in the specific field in which the project takes place.  So, in other words we might suggest that the best person to lead a software design project is someone with programming experience or the best person to lead a nuclear plant construction project is a nuclear engineer or the best person to lead a cross-disciplinary multi-function change initiative at a corporation is, well, there’s where the argument breaks down.

A formal “Pro” and “Con” team were tasked with presenting the two sides of the issue.  The nuclear plant example came from the Pro team and was an excellent example of a project needing someone with deep area knowledge.  But a Nuclear Plant project hardly exemplifies the average or common project.  On the Con side, the rebuttal made another very valid point: is the best person to lead a home construction project a plumber?  Or an electrician? Or a carpenter?  You don’t want someone who has deep experience in so narrow a field, but someone with general knowledge of the industry.  Both sides effectively argued, however, that whether you are looking for deep area expertise or general industry knowledge, what is crucial for project success is expertise in Project Management.  That means understanding how tasks must be organized, how to allocate resources, and how to communicate everything about the project to the project team and other stakeholders.

It’s this multi-disciplinary approach that I find most interesting about Project Management.  There’s a lot of overlap, conceptually, between effective Project Management and effective Leadership.  I think I could bring a lot to the table in that sense, if given the chance.

In the end, in my opinion, the two debate teams were at a draw.  It was clear from the examples presented, in my opinion, that there were situations where the best leader was also someone with very specific expertise in their field.  But it was also evident to me that there were situations where hiring someone with such a narrow field of expertise could be detrimental to a project.  The old adage goes “if you give a man a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail”.  A person with deep area expertise is like a man with a hammer, but unless you’re working on a project where every problem really is a nail (and those projects do exist, though they are not the majority), this person’s narrow perspective may not be the most effective for the project.

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A Beautiful Weekend

It was a beautiful weekend around here.  I managed to spend a good chunk of my Saturday outdoors enjoying the beautiful weather (and taking a hedge trimmer and saw to some trees to trim them back before they catch spring fever; now I can walk under the shade of some of our trees without having to crouch).  In the evenings, the wife and I spent some time enjoying the Olympics, and duking it out on the Wii.  (I am quite happy to report that Wii-playing did happen this weekend!)

We’ve been really impressed with how well Team USA has done at the Olympics, though I admit I’m a little disappointed that Brother Canada has not fared so well.  I’d totally vote for a few more medals for them (at the expense of Germany, in my opinion; but Dear Wife might disagree because she has German heritage).  On Saturday while at a pizza joint, Curling was on.  We had a few jokes at the expense of Curling; the folks at the table next door called it Shuffleboard on Ice. 

In other news: I’m regaling you with weekend exploits largely because I’m bored.  Little of interest to talk about at work.  Let me amend that: nothing of interest to talk about there.  I’ve not written anything substantial in over a week, and my brain is going into shut-down mode from the recent overload at school.  Luckily it’s almost Spring Break.

But I’ve got to be spending this free time figuring out my career plan.  More on that tomorrow.

Distribution In, Distribution Out

A common catch-phrase at school is: “Point Estimates are for Suckers”.  The reason they say this was highlighted by something my Decision Modeling professor said in our last class: “A point estimate is basically a 0% confidence interval.”  For those of you that don’t have a background in statistics, what this basically means is that we can gauge the likelihood that the true value of something we are trying to estimate lies between two values.  This is called a confidence interval.  So, a 90% confidence interval means that we are 90% sure that the true value lies between the two ends of that interval.  For instance, I could say that I am 90% confident that the gas mileage of my car lies between 20 mpg and 35 mpg.  Basically, this is a calculus equation finding the area under the curve for a given range of a given distribution.

If, however, we posit a guess of an exact amount (say, 28 mpg in my example) we have selected a range that has a length of zero.  The area under the curve for a single point is infinitesimally small: the value under that point approaches zero.  In that way, our confidence that our point-estimate is right is 0%; our confidence that the real value is something else entirely is near 100%.

Which is all an argument for using distributions and meaningful confidence intervals in our modeling instead of pure point estimates when dealing with inputs for which we cannot and do not know the exact value.

The folks who are forecasting revenue at work struggle every day to deal with this problem: they get input from the sales and channel representatives who supposedly know the likelihood that this deal or that deal will succeed.  If it succeeds, we’ll get a certain amount of revenue (an amount that, itself, ought to be a distribution).  If it fails… we’ll get none of that potential revenue.  How ought they forecast revenues, then?  If they could model the inputs – the likelihood of sealing a deal, the value of that deal – as uncertainties and distributions, then they could generate distributions at the end that give a range of likely revenue scenarios.  I wonder if providing confidence intervals like this would make decision-making at higher levels in my company better.

Anyway, that’s the update from Decision Modeling for this week. 

This week, I need to spend a little more time really focusing on my career planning.  I’ll report on how that goes, as time permits.  As for writing… well, my brain has been just dry this past week.  We’re almost halfway through the semester, and my brain just needs a recharge break before writing ideas start percolating again.

Quote: Writers Write

It’s time for another edition of Writing Quotes.  This week’s quote comes from novelist and short-story writer Sinclair Lewis

It is impossible to discourage the real writers – they don’t give a damn what you say, they’re going to write.

~ Sinclair Lewis

That’s the truth of it, of course.  The old childhood rhyme goes: “Sticks & Stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!”  The rhyme is only a half-truth, but for those of us who write, our familiarity with words makes us stronger, because no matter what words are flung our way we can channel those and write them down.  The writers who succeed, ultimately, are those who can bear the criticism and critique, who can accept it, and grow and improve.  And keep writing.

I do wish I wrote more, but I have never been more than momentarily discouraged bad negative critiques or criticism.  Ultimately, I have always taken those in and told myself: “nevermind; you can still learn more, you can do better.”  Ultimately, the criticism does make us better.

So, happy writing!

Undiscovered Update: How are we doing?

It’s now been nearly 3 months, about 13 weeks, since I started the blog here, and I thought I’d share an update of where we’ve been so far.

When the blog began, I had just started the rewrite process on this short story that had been languishing on my harddrive for some two years.  Yesterday I blogged about some of the feedback I’ve gotten.  I could still use a little more, but that was a huge step in the right direction for me. 

Along the way, I’ve put up 80 posts, and I’ve written about my writing process, the industry, my classes, and even my job and my family.  Most of those posts are over 250 words, which is well over the 250-words-per-week minimum that I promised myself I would do.  Enough so that I feel comfortable expanding my promised weekly target, just a little to 750 words per week, minimum.  I’ve still written in excess of that pretty much every week, but I want to save myself a little potential anxiety once projects start coming due and finals are on the horizon.  (Until I’m out of Grad School, time is never a certain factor.)

Traffic on the blog has been a sort of rollercoaster.  It began off very low and slow, with 3 hits on my first full week, going to 19 on the second and dropping to 5 on the third.  It was back up to 21 on the fourth week, but then something crazy happened: on the fifth week, I shot to 111 hits.  Looking back, that was the week I first announced my blog on my Facebook, so I got a number of hits from Facebook friends who were curious.  The sixth week I dropped to 70 hits, and it’s stayed around that level ever since: 60, 77, 69, 57, 73, and 75.  As I write, this week is on track to wrack up a similar number of hits. 

So, there’s been a small amount of growth since my first few weeks, but not much since then.  I’ve had a few hits here and there from other curious folks who followed me back from comments I left on other blogs, but there’s not really enough going on here to hold anyone’s interest in the long term, yet.  If I’m going to be successful in this endeavour, however, I’m going to have to change that. 

At this point, I’m uncertain how I’ll accomplish that.  Frankly, I’m not well-versed in the ways of Search Engine Optimization, or other techniques to drive traffic to your blog.  And I don’t want meaningless, one-time accidental traffic, anyway.  (A fair number of the hits I get, oddly, are to my post on that night we came home to a strange smell in our house, and later discovered a leak in our pipes.  You’d be surprised how often people google with questions about “gas leaks” or “septic leaks”, but WordPress’s stats tell me those are some of the top search terms for finding my blog.)  I remain hopeful that I’ll slowly build a pretty decent core of readers that come back here week after week because they like my writing.

Related to that, though, is the fact that so far the only example of my writing here is the blog itself (and one little Haiku I wrote for my wife on Valentine’s Day).  I consider msyelf a fantasy (and to a lesser degree, science fiction) writer, yet I have virtually no examples of my fantasy or science fiction writing here on this site.  Granted, that’s party because I’ve used all my available writing time to try to write this short story that I’m hoping to get professionally published.  I haven’t had time to put up any free or short bits here on this site.  In time, I hope to change that, but please bear with me.  Mission one is to improve my writing to such a degree that it’s actually worth reading, and is enjoyable.

Anyway, that’s where we stand, here at the Undiscovered Author.  From time to time I’ll share similar updates with how things have progressed, behind-the-scenes-like, here.

Thanks for reading, and happy writing.

First Draft Review

I got the first bit of review (and so far, only) on my story back yesterday, with comments from my friend Clint.  He’s a writer himself, one with perhaps a little more experience than I, and with a particular ear for dialogue (as I recall, he’s worked in television, in one fashion or another).  It was good to read his comments.  As much as I feel that this “first” draft is a huge improvement over the prior version of this story (I call this a first draft largely because the story is so different, and improved, from what I wrote before – with new characters and a slightly different plot), those comments do suggest I yet have quite a bit of work ahead of me.

In my opinion, the most important issue brought up by Clint’s read-through is characterization.  It was his opinion that the main character was somewhat weak on characterization, and that he couldn’t connect with him.  This is particularly problematic as it relates to the twist ending of the story, as it dampens the twist by sapping it of some of its potential energy.  I thought, as I read his comments, back to the first step I took in rewriting this story.  I thought of each of the characters and wrote a short bio, from their own perspective, and branched out from there.  In so doing, I created a few additional characters who appeared as new connections from the original characters of the story.  But when I go back over that file, I realized that the main character’s bio is actually the shortest of the group and, frankly, the least interesting.  The longest bio actually belongs to the last character to appear in the story.

This was, in part, a strange result of the way I went about doing this.  I started with the main character’s bio.  What I had in mind, still, was the story I had originally written, but I knew that wasn’t where I was going.  Still, I didn’t yet know where I was going.  So, as I wrote the bios, I let the story come out.  With each bio, more of the back story came out so that, as I got toward the last few characters, what was going on was a lot more interesting than where I started.  By the end, my point-of-view character ended up perhaps less three-dimensional and nuanced than one would like a main character to be. 

So, I’m thinking that one thing I need to do is revisit that very first bio, for my main character, and see if there isn’t something else going on.  What makes my main character interesting or compelling?  What will allow him to connect with readers?  And then, how do I take that new insight back to the story and incorporate it into the story?

Another area Clint brought up was dialogue.  Some of it, he said, was a little stiff.  Now, I intentionally wrote one particular character with awkward dialogue, but as I think on it, I realize I don’t want that to jeopardize the story as a whole.  And Clint’s comments weren’t specific to that character, anyway.  I realize that dialogue is probably one area where I need to work, and improve my skill (as I’ve blogged about before).

He had some other interesting thoughts on the overall content of the story (and touched on its length in an unexpected way).  Overall, I thought his comments were very useful.  Luckily my self-imposed deadline is still a ways off; I have quite a bit of work to do to finish polishing this story up.

Incidentally, I’d still love to hear some other thoughts and opinions on the story.  One or two more, at least, would be wonderful, so I’m open to hearing from you readers.

Finally, in a P.S., Clint mentioned that a friend of his, who grew up on a farm, remarked that some of my use of horse-gear in the story was incorrect.  The main character in the story rides horses pretty regularly and is quite familiar with them but I, on the other hand, learned everything I know about saddling up horses from tortuous sessions wrangling data out of Google, and have never been on a horse except once, as a child under very controlled circumstances (I did not truly ride the horse so much as be on its back as it walked in a circle).  So, if any of you out there know more about horses, and could point me to useful resource on all things saddling and riding horses, I’d be pretty appreciative!

Happy Writing.