Graphite and Ink

Elementary school was all about the pencil. When it wasn’t about the crayon, that is. In that stage of learning the technical fine points of printing and cursive writing, the ability to erase was crucial. But somewhere along the way, in junior high or high school, the pencil became inferior to the pen. Erasers were for wussies. Much cooler to put up with the noxious fumes of whiteout for those (few) mistakes.

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The Power of the Notebook

When I say notebook, I am referring to the paper kind not the PC or Mac kind.

Notebook

I have a friend, also a writer, who I get together with from time to time to write with, chat, share creativity, etc. We were supposed to get together today actually, but I’m sick and wimped out (sorry Cate, we will get together again soon, promise). Anyway, whenever we get together, I drag along my laptop while Cate is much more partial to pen and paper.

I type faster than I can write by hand, my hand writing is borderline illegible, and my ideas don’t always come out in chronological order so I’m a big cut-and-paste user. It’s so easy to go back, do a quick fix, then pick up where I left off. And herein lies the problem. As I’ve alluded to in the past, my quick fixes tend to turn into an endless cycle of touching up and rewriting. This often leads to losing the thread of an idea before I get to the end of it.

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Walking Down the Street Naked

There are many things (in the order of gazillions) that separate good writing from bad writing—avoiding words like gazillion, for one—or at least that separate writing that gets read from writing that doesn’t. One, big difference keeps popping up wherever I look.

Susan Shapiro describes it as the humiliation essay. She has a long list of people who have kick started careers with honest accounts of their most difficult, humiliating, or scary experiences/secrets/obsessions/etc. Brené Brown calls it vulnerability, a requirement not only for rewarding work or creativity, but critical in all aspects of life.

We all respond to this bald-faced honesty. We want to see that someone else has the same humiliating flaws we do—preferably, without admitting that we share in them—even if that someone is fictional.

In Make Good Art (notice I’ve linked to it in two consecutive posts. If you have seen it, I highly recommend you watch it on YouTube), by Neil Gaiman  refers to it as ‘walking down the street naked’. The most apt description, I think. It basically boils down to this: The thing you’re afraid to write, because you might have to change your name and move out of town if anyone ever reads it, that’s what people want to read the most. Continue reading

Review of a Classic: The Highway – Ray Bradbury

Some time ago, I received feedback on a story I had posted on a writing forum. The story I posted, Conditioning Phase, is among the first I ever wrote, and though I’ve since gone back to the story and can see the mechanics of it leave a lot to be desired, one of the reviewers on the forum seemed to really like it and compared it to Ray Bradbury’s work.

Of course, I had heard of Ray Bradbury, a famous, 50s era, sci-fi author, and was thrilled to be compared to him. It was a good confidence boost early on in my writing attempts. But, confession: I’d never actually read any of his work. Not even the so-well-known Farenheit 451.

Farenheit 451 might have been on the reading list of my one university English class. I can’t recall for sure, but I remember the entire reading list was dystopian themed: A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, etc. It’s very possible Farenheit 451 was there too. The thing is, I didn’t read any of those books. I was a first-year engineering student in a class of first-year engineering students, 90% of whom were only in the class because it was mandatory (I’m assuming about 10% of the class had some genuine interest in English Literature. I could be wrong). Continue reading

More Ezine Reviews – A Lesson in Patience Part Two

As promised, here are some pros and cons for three more ezines where I have submitted work. Hope some of this info is helpful to other aspiring writers out there (first three reviews here):

Every Day Fiction:

This was the first site I submitted a short story to. And yes I just ended a sentence in a preposition. It’s allow these days. EDF publishes a new flash fiction piece every day with a 1000 word limit, which can be good or bad depending on your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. I personally found keeping my story under 1000 words to be a challenge, which was actually part of my motivation for submitting to this site. Any genre goes as long as it is fiction — non-sci-fi writers take note. See their submission guidelines for more detail.

The biggest draw back I found with these guys was the turnaround time. They were averaging an 80 day response time when I submitted about a month before Christmas. I managed to get around this by responding to their special submission request for holiday-themed stories, but it certainly came down to the wire when they requested some last-minute edits. On the up side, they have an author admin page (that they actually keep updated) so authors can see that their submission is moving through the selection process.

This brings me to the biggest pro of this site. They actually give fairly detailed feedback (perhaps why the turnaround is so slow??) which I think is awesome and very helpful to new writers. I did however find myself drawing a line in the sand when they wanted be to water down my ending from the implication of sex (not even an actual sex scene) to ‘perhaps a simple kiss’.

I wasn’t trying to be stubborn or ‘protect the integrity of my art’, but looking at it as a business transaction, I felt that less remuneration equaled less input. They only pay a token $3; this is a get-your-work-out-there option. So, I agreed to some grammatical and minor stylistic changes — and appreciated/learn from some of the points they made — but refused to change the ending. I figured if they then decided not to publish my story I could live with that. They accepted the story anyway.

Conclusion: a great option for newbies and I’m glad I gave them a go, but I doubt I’ll be back.

Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine

These guys recently rejected one of my stories, but I recommend giving them a try. The pay is higher than token, 1.25 cents per word up to $20, and their response time is good, a couple of weeks. They have excellent — and humourous — submission guidelines, including an awesome article on common writer’s mistakes, A Comprehensive and Totally Universal Listing of Every Problem a Story Has Ever Had, which I strongly recommend it to any writer of any genre.

These guys are on the to-try-again-list.

365 tomorrows:

My most recent acceptance, A Swirl of Chocolate, will be published on this site. They don’t pay, but since they are only looking for flash of 600 words or less I decided they were worth a try, and could at least offer some visibility. The submission guidelines don’t tell much, but from reading some of the stories published on the site, they are fairly flexible aside from the word limit.

Their response time is slow, and communication is lacking. Unlike every other acceptance I’ve had, which included a back and forth regarding publishing dates, copyrights etc, these guys sent me my acceptance notice via a no-reply email — weird. I’ve resorted to communicating with them through twitter.

Since this one is still in the works, I can’t say whether I’ll submit to them again. The communication thing is annoying, but on the other hand they are a good option for extra-short flash fiction that may not find a home elsewhere.

That’s all for now. As I test the publishing waters in other places I’ll share my thoughts.

Online Publishing – A Lesson in Patience: Part One

I’m very happy to say that I have now had the privilege of having my work accepted by a few different online-fiction sites. I’ve received a few rejections too, but whatchya gonna do. Overall, if there is one thing I am learning from the process it is patience.

Some e-zines will get back to you in a matter of days. Though I’m finding these sites are few and far between…and a quick response is that much more likely to be a rejection. Often it’s “If you don’t hear from us in a month or two, then you can send us a query.” And even after a query it may take a while to hear back.

For the most part, I’m ok with the waiting. At this juncture, I’m just looking to get my work out there for people to see. I understand that there are only so many slush readers with only so many hours in the day. I even find that knowing I won’t be hearing anything for a while sometimes makes it easier to say to myself ok, forget about that for now and focus on the next project.

A slow turnaround, however, can certainly be the last nail in the coffin if there is something else about the site that I have a problem with. Although I am grateful for all the acceptances I’ve had so far, there are some cases where I know it’s unlikely I’ll be submitting to a site again even if they have accepted my work in the past. In other cases however, the experience has otherwise been so positive that a bit of a wait is worth it, and I may try again even if I’ve been rejected–after my ego recovers, that is 😉

For any short-fiction writers out there who might be interested, I decided it was time to share what some of the pros and cons have been for different sites I have dealt with so far. Note that I only have my own experiences to draw on; maybe your experience has been, or would be, completely different. Also, submission guidelines, pay, etc are always subject to change with time.

I have six sites I want to mention. I’ve decided to break this up into two posts so that I can give you more than a couple of bullet points on each one without writing a novel for a single post:

Mad Scientists Journal:

The recent publishers of Mabel’s Mission, these guys were a pleasure to work with. They are quick to reply to questions — and very enthusiastic — are very clear about what they want for submissions, and are professional but not overly formal. Their response time is good, a couple of weeks. The real wait comes between acceptance and publication, about three months in my case, but that is not unusual. Editors are often planning publications some time in advance.

They pay $20 for short stories and $10 for flash fiction which isn’t huge, but some sites like these, which give away free fiction online, don’t pay at all. Also, MSJ does consider the payment to be an advance on royalties–if there are any. They are fairly new and not yet generating that kind of income, so I wouldn’t factor that in too heavily.

The only potential downside — and it could be a strength depending on the kind of writing you do (I happen to love it) — is that the theme of the magazine is quite specific, essays from the world of mad science. They do, however, accept some exclusive fiction of other genres for their quarterly anthologies. So, if sci fi and mad science don’t sound like your thing they still might be worth a look. Check out their submission guidelines. They use Submittable, a submission manager that allows authors to see/track their submissions’ progress.

I will definitely consider submitting to MSJ again in the future. I also enjoy just reading the stories they publish. The writing quality has been good and consistent in what I’ve read so far and the mad science theme brings out the mildly-twisted side of writers. Personally, I find that entertaining.

Scifia:

When I first found this site I thought it looked great and their subtitle Alien Minds, Alternate Worlds is right up my alley. They pay a flat rate of $25 dollars per story, ok, and claim to have a response time of four weeks, not bad. They also lay out quite clearly what they are looking for — see their submission guidelines.

Well, claim is the operative word. Two months after I sent in my submission, crickets. Maybe not so great after all. At the very least, not very professional. I follow them on twitter and did see a tweet mentioning a backlog, so I plan on sending a query and giving them some patience rather than withdrawing my story. Who knows, if they accept my story and are pleasant throughout the contract/publishing process, maybe they will win me over. However, the fact that they are not keeping their website up to date regarding their backlog/response time irks me. As I said, I don’t mind waiting, but I like to know (ballpark) how long I’m going to wait. They also use Submittable, but don’t seem too worried about keeping that updated either.

Daily Science Fiction:

Ok, I’ve sent one story into DSF and they rejected it. But, putting that aside, they deserve a mention. This site publishes a new story every weekday. Though the content is available for free, they pay professional rates — 8 cents a word. I’m sure the definition is variable, but professional is generally considered 5 cents and up.

Their submission guidelines are not as clear as some other sites, but that seems to be because, genre-wise, they are more flexible. From reading a number of their published stories it’s clear that they are pretty much open to anything under the speculative umbrella: sci-fi, fantasy, slipstream, supernatural, or just a little weird — I read one where there just happened to be a friendly poltergeist in a guy’s apartment. Otherwise, there was nothing really sci fi about the plot. If you’re not sure whether your story fits the genre, I recommend giving it a go anyway. There’s nothing to lose. They don’t have the same mechanism for authors to track their submissions, but they confirm receipt promptly via email and respond within three weeks.

DSF is on my to-try-again list.

That’s enough for now. Part 2 to come.

 

The Ticking Clock

Every aspiring writer (or anyone with a personal goal of any kind for that matter) has the same problem. I don’t mean that all of our problems are the same, of course they are not, but with the potential exception of the fully-actualized human being (if such a creature exists) we all share one problem in common. You know the one.

We feel the urge to procrastinate, and the longer we do it the worse the feeling gets. All the while the clock ticks. Before you know it, it’s supper time. Oops, where’d the day go?

We comb books and blogs (and there are a ton of them on the subject) for quick fixes. We look for that technique that, if we could only find it and master it, would solve the problem. Though we know that no such thing exists, we keep looking and over time find puzzle pieces here and there that add to the picture of our own individual ‘block’ and what works for us to overcome it.

A puzzle piece fell into place for me while reading a particular passage, from Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, called We’re All Pros Already.

The War of Art looks at the urge to procrastinate (he refers to it as ‘Resistance’, an apt name) and how to deal with it from many different angles. This particular passage is a reminder that not only do you have the skills you need to push through the but-I-really-don’t-want-to feeling, but if you’ve ever had a job, or any responsibility for that matter, you already know how to use them.

I am very glad that a friend handed this book to me (thank you C.E.). It’s one of those rare finds where I knew from the first page that it was worth my while. Whether reading it when I should be writing actually counts as ‘Resistance’…well, I won’t go there.

It occurred to me that back when I had what some would consider a ‘real job’ I was not defeated by procrastination the way I am now. Not that I didn’t procrastinate, I did. But when it came down to it, not only did the work always get done, I was even efficient. Whereas now I struggle to complete a to-do list full of tasks I really want to do, back then I was actually one of those people capable of handing in a project before the deadline—even though I might abhor the task set before me. Discounting my first two years of university that is, which brings be to my next point.

Sometimes we have to relearn lessons. If you don’t use it, you lose it. After reflecting on the differences between my approach to work then and my approach now, I came up with the following list of changes, or backslides, in my attitude.

One

Now: But I like writing (running, swimming, french, piano, insert self-improvement activity here) it shouldn’t be this painful. Maybe it’ll be easier tomorrow (on the weekend, after the holidays, when the weather improves etc, etc).

Then: If it sucks now it’ll still suck later, just get it over with; then at least I can stop agonizing over it (I know it sounds cynical, but it’s also accurate).

Lesson: It’s ok to be uncomfortable. Yeah, nine years in the military and I still had to relearn this, sheesh. Possibly I forgot this one on purpose. Anyway…though the ultimate goal for us all may be to attain a psychological state where getting started on a task isn’t painful or scary—a state I believe you can get closer and closer to, but never actually reach—in the meantime it will be uncomfortable. Suck it up. It won’t kill you (if it will, disregard and rethink your course of action) and you might even feel good afterwards. Or during, I’ve often been surprised by how much I can enjoy just about any task once I’m on a roll.

Two

Now: Staring at task A. I should be doing B by now. I should have started this sooner. Maybe if I just got C out of the way. No, C will take too long. Maybe I don’t have time to do all of these before X. I’m hungry. What time is it? Crap! It’s been half an hour already.

Then: Make list (in head, on paper, doesn’t matter). Pick item. Do it. Maybe I don’t have time to do all of this before X; at least this one will be done (half done, outlined, anything is better than nothing).

Lesson: Focus on this task for as long as you are doing it. Then move on to the next one and keep plugging. There are various ways to approach this: 1) Priorities: If I could only get one thing done today what would it be? Do it first. 2) It will take as long as it takes: I’d rather get one thing done today than start five things. Conversely, 3) Pick a time: I will work on A until (5min from now, an hour from now, 5:30pm at which time I must get in the shower if I’m to be ready to go out on time). Take note, set a timer, whatever you need to do. Now relax, you don’t have to think about it again until the deadline arrives. Then move on to the next thing. Not finished? So what?

Three

Now: Not sure how to do this, I might screw it up….stuck.

Then: Not sure how to do this, I might screw it up. Ok. If I screw up then I’ll know better for next time.

Lesson: It won’t be perfect; do it anyway. Once it’s out there in the world you can learn from the feedback. If you finish with time to spare, even better. Your brain will continue to chew on it while you do other things. The brain is cool like that, give it the time and likely it will formulate improvements you couldn’t see while looking too closely. If you can’t finish early, that’s ok too. Better to have a finished product with room for improvement than ten never-finished-because-they-weren’t-perfect products.

Four

This takes a lot of practice. It is one that I have learned, forgotten, relearned, and forgotten again… and again…and again…

Lesson: What’s done is done, relax and get over it (closely linked to the above mentioned “you’ll know better for next time”). This generally works best if you have a time of day when you mentally shift gears and let all the crap go. This could be when you walk in the door in the evening, when you’re in the shower, yoga class, anything that works for you. The important thing is to practice it regularly. Note that I said ‘relax’ then ‘let it go’, not the other way around. I think that what a lot of people don’t realise is that the relaxing comes first. Not after the novel is finished, or the kitchen is renovated, or everyone’s had some time to forget how much I screwed up X, Y, or Z. Relax first and the letting it go part will come naturally.

You may be thinking wait a sec I thought we were talking about procrastination, not meditation. How many times, whilst procrastinating, have you found yourself thinking of your past failures? Or how disappointed you are with how long your current project is taking you and the road bumps you’ve hit with it so far?

That’s what I thought.

I am currently relearning all of these lessons and many more. Feel free to join me.