Sunday, October 25, 2009

Do It Your Way

Just got back from Icon in Iowa City, Iowa. Actually, this year, it was in Cedar Rapids, half an hour from Iowa City. The Author Guest of Honor was James C Hines, who writes very funny stuff, has just had his fifth book hit the stands, and who was a nice guy. I like comedy. I hoped to learn a lot about writing comedy from him. I didn't get to as many panels as I wanted. I didn't learn how to be a comedic genius. But I did learn a few things.

The first panel I went to was 'what aspiring authors should know'. This small group became a discussion. Some of the other up-and-coming writers started bemoaning that they had to work according to the format demands of the market they are aiming for, and if they send it to another market later, they have to go through and change things, like underlines to italics, or the tab at the beginning of each paragraph to five spaces… Mr Hines asked if they were working with Word, because it is possible to use the Find and Replace function to make those changes. I added my 2 cents to that by saying that I work in MY favorite font, MY favorite font size, My favorite color … until I was ready to submit, then I highlight everything, change the format to whatever the editor wants, even save it as an rtf file, if that's the kind they want. In other words, work the way you want, and learn the easy ways to change the formatting so that submitting isn't onerous.

I'd like to go a little further than that, and explain a bit more of how I work. If I do an outline, it's probably in the form of a table, using black 12-pt Arial letters. Column 1 will have the number of the chapter, column 2 will have what I expect to accomplish in that chapter – discovery, where they learn some important clue about the story plot or the characters; or danger, where they have to face something that could end their story (and these tend to get worse as the story progresses). The third column is a thumbnail of what I expect to happen in that chapter. Of course, once I start writing the rough draft, the outline is merely a guideline. Something I thought would only take one chapter winds up taking 3, so what part of the outline will I ignore?

The rough draft is done in 14-pt, probably Arial, and each day's work is a different color. I really like colors. Plus, if I open it up and find the last color was lime green, and only has 3 lines to it, then I know I need to push to get a larger chunk done this time in sky blue. Second (B) draft is 18-pt, Bookman font, in bright red. This is where I add every adjective in the book, where I explain everything in minute detail, so that everything that might possibly need explaining is explained. Draft C is 16-point, Comic font, in true green. I do a universal Replace to highlight pronouns in yellow, 'to be' verbs in pink, 'ing' verbs in cyan … That acts as a reminder to look hard and make sure this word is used properly, is the best word I could chose, and so on. This is also where I start trimming my word count, removing obvious redundancies and such. Draft D is 14-point, blue, and since my computer doesn't have a font that starts with 'D', I just pick one. This is where I try to tighten my prose as hard as I can.

Draft E is my 'final' polish, and comes out in 12-pt, double-spaced (for the first time), black, and Times New Roman, which is acceptable to most editors. If I get some idea that it still needs work, Draft F goes back to 18-point, a different font, and another color. I really like color.

But that's me. Other people don't bother with an outline, can't stand color, whatever. Whatever works for you is the way you should do it. Be yourself.

Which is basically the same idea that was presented in the other panel I wanted to talk about, but I've run out of time. It's going to have to wait until next week. See ya then. Trudy

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Lock, Stock and Story

This week, I was reading some of my newsletters – I hate when those things pile up – and I came across announcements for two contests that looked interesting. The deadlines were kind of short notice – one reason why I hate letting my newsletters pile up – so I would have to send something I had already written.

I went to my list of stories, and found that the one I was thinking of sending to the first contest had already been submitted to that contest last year, and the story I had thought of sending to the second contest had also been sent to that contest last year. I started looking at the rest of the list, to see what I might have that was near the proper word count. I had time for a couple quick re-writes to trim out excess words, if needed, but not enough time to start from scratch.

My list seemed short. A dozen stories, was that all I had? That couldn't be right. So I combed through my files, looking for all the stories I had written or was in the midst of writing that had not yet been added to that list. Yes, this list had started as a list of where my stories had been submitted, but I needed to know what I had available and in the works. By going through my files, I re-discovered stories I hadn't worked on in years!

My list is now 53 stories long, and I can remember at least 2 other stories I've worked on but don't have listed yet, so I must not have been very thorough in combing my files. (I'm suffering from a bad head cold, so the brain isn't functioning well … one reason why I've been doing 'organizational' things rather than creatively writing.)

I think this 'inventory' is a good idea. Some of these stories I added to the list were ready for submission, but had been overlooked for some time. Others were little more than an idea or a half-baked rough draft. I found a way to designate which ones are ready to be submitted, but now that I have this list, I can decide on my next project much more easily.

Writers are told that when you think you are done with a story, you should set it aside for a time and then come back to it with 'fresh eyes' for a final polish. I try to give my stories a rest between each draft, but obviously, I sometimes forget them for longer than I intend. With this list, I can keep the inventory 'rotating', and hopefully work more stories to the 'ready to be submitted' stage.

Do you have a list of your inventory? Or do you have a lot of stories that have been set aside and consequently forgotten? I don't need any more competition out there, but still, figure out what you've got, and where you're at with each one. Maybe there's a contest waiting for one of your stories.

Next week is Icon, in Iowa. We'll get home on Sunday, but I don't know if I'll get a blog written that day. So, see you in a week or two. Trudy

Sunday, October 11, 2009

More on Story Length

Last week, I talked about story length. I've continued thinking about that during the week, especially since I've been kind of 'bom-barded' with new information on the subject of short-shorts.

I regularly receive a couple writing newsletters, but I don't necessarily get to read them as soon as they land in my mailbox. As I was trying to catch up this past week, I found several items that pertained to short short stories. There were two that pertained to something a little different than the normal 'flash'.

One announced a contest where a person was supposed to write an 'opening' sentence that hinted at and told an entire story in and by itself. I struggled with that concept, but the examples the author gave were wonderful, and I finally got the idea. It was an intriguing exercise that I might actually try … someday. As I've said, the shorter the format, the less comfortable I am with it. So the idea of writing only one sentence that hints at an entire story, while opening another story is more than a little daunting to me. I'd have to get used to the idea before I could dare to try it.

The other concerned a single sentence, too, but it was more along the lines of a sentence that stood on its own, telling the reader something unexpected about the writer. A memoir sentence, I guess you could say. The winner was thanking the newsletter for announcing the contest, since without that announcement, she would not have submitted her 1k-sentence.

Now, it's personal preference, of course, but I feel a 1000-word sentence is just too long. I have difficulty finding the nerve to try to write really short stories, but I am appalled by the thought of a sentence that contains 1000 words. In regular manuscript format, that one sentence would be four pages long! Faulkner always did drive me crazy. Halfway (or less) through one of his sentences, I have forgotten what he said at the beginning of the sentence, and therefore I am hopelessly lost. So, when it comes to sentences, I usually feel that brevity is better.

To recap, my comfortable style seems to be long stories with short-to-medium-length sentences. It's always a good thing to know your own style. Even then, sometimes a person can surprise him- or herself. For instance…

A couple months ago, I woke up with a micro-story completely written in my head. This was a surprise, because I had not been trying to write micro, or even flash. I jumped up and got it typed into the computer. It's exactly 100 words. I didn't know I had it in me.

So, on the theory that a person's skill grows when they try things outside their 'comfort zone', I will try to write shorter fiction from time to time. Maybe I'll even share some of it with you. It might be the way to go with this 'death by banana' mystery my son's got me trying to write. (That should teach me to ask a teen for ideas!)

See ya next week. Trudy

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Long vs Short

I used to know what I wanted to do. I wanted to write books. With a hundred thousand words to play with, I had room to explore characters' personalities, time to develop sub-plots, bumps and twists – all those things I found so fascinating in the books I enjoyed. I would write books.

But a lot of the advice I got from people was that I needed to get some short stories published first, to give me some 'credit' in the industry. That would be a challenge. First of all, how short was short? I found the 'official' short story length was between 2,000 and 10,000 words. Gak. Obviously, there would be no room for sub-plots, and personalities would need to be hinted at, rather than explored. Definitely a challenge, to one who was used to 'running off at the keyboard'.

It took some work to get my mind wrapped around telling a story in less than 10K. Once I started to get the hang of it, I found that mine tended to hover right around 5 to 6K words. I discovered how to choose verbs, adjectives and adverbs to reveal my characters' personalities. This helped me write my novels more tightly, too. The sprawling first novel that had finally ended at 150,000 words had already been trimmed down to 120,000 words, but with my newly-learned habit of frugality, I got it down to 90,000 words. So that was a side benefit noone had told me about.

Then somebody told me about flash fiction, where the entire story is 1000 words or less. That was where things were at, they told me. Was I up for the challenge? The prospect was daunting. There could be no wasted words. In fact, it seemed to me, each word would need to do the work of at least three words. This was completely beyond my ability, I thought. I have tried. I've written two pieces of flash, actually, each 500 words. Whether or not they are any good, I can't tell, because it seems like I'm just getting started reading them, and they end. It's not a size I'm comfortable with. Yet. Maybe I could get used to it.

Like most writers, I have a lot of stories in my head, waiting to get written. How do I know how long to make them? I can't say, this will be a 7,000 word story, or this is an 85,000 word novel. I can only determine that there is enough complexity to the plot and sub-plots to make it a novel. If I don't have that, I'd better make it a short story.

I still enjoy writing novels more than shorts. See ya next week. Trudy