It’s a…it’s a…it’s a THING!
This past weekend, I went to the Bay Area Maker Faire, billed as “The World’s Biggest Show and Tell.” There were a lot of really interesting things there, way more than I could have seen in a whole week, and one of those things that I missed (because I went on Saturday, and it happened on Sunday) was Adam Savage’s talk. Luckily, we live in the information age, and it’s already up on youtube. You can watch the whole thing on your own, though most of it is a question and answer session, but I’m mostly interested in something that Adam said in his semi-prepared speech at the beginning. To paraphrase, he said that what separates novices from experts is knowing where you need tight tolerances and where you can get away with loose ones.
Adam was talking about this in the context of making things, but that, especially, resonated with me as a writer as much as a maker. Precision of language is something that can make or break a story. Knowing where you need to be precise and where you can be more vague is the difference between holding a reader’s attention and either boring or confusing them. If a character, Bob, has been sitting in a chair and then leaves the room, you only need a loose tolerance in your language to tell readers that the character stood up from that chair, walked to the door, opened it, and left the room—you can just say “Bob got up and left the room,” or even just “Bob left.” That’s a pretty loose tolerance, but readers don’t need any extra verbiage to get the intended meaning from that sentence.
You would need close tolerances, though, if Bob left the room without getting out of his chair: “Bob, still seated, rolled his chair across the room and out the door,” or “Bob half rose, still gripping his chair, and shuffled out of the door.”
The important part in both of those examples, though, is knowing what level of precision is required and keeping your language compact while meeting the informational requirements of your sentence.
All of Adam’s 10 Commandments of Making can be seen in the video below, and I think most of them can apply beyond making things, but this one lodged in my head particularly.
Ok, time for a writing prompt, because I don’t know when the last time was that I posted one. This exercise is inspired by an exercise I did way back in my freshman year of college (thanks, Gary!) where my class was asked to base a story around a picture selected from a book of pictures of mid-century America. Rather than a picture, though, inspiration comes from a graph (yes, I know that graphs are pictures of data).
Specifically, your story should draw from any of the graphs at Spurious Correlations: a collection of curious statistical correlations generated by a computer from publicly-available data.
Of course we know that correlation does not imply causation, but for the purposes of this writing exercise, it might well be more interesting to assume a causative relationship between the data.
If you write anything that you want to share, post it (or a link—if you try to post a novel in the comments, it won’t make it out of moderation) in the comments.
The phrase “In late, out early” is one that you’ve probably heard more times than you can count if you’ve ever taken a class on or listened to a podcast about writing.
And you’d try it yourself, really, you would, but you’re scared. I know I’m too scared to take that advice as far as I need to often. Yes, I’ve chopped off a first chapter or two, moving them to my scrap text files in case I need something from them later, but I’m always worried that I’ll take off too much, and my readers won’t be with me, when usually I’m too timid. Yes, you can come in to a story too late, but I’d wager that what most people would think was way too late in their own writing is just about the right place to start for actual readers. Because you need to trust your readers.
They’re not dumb.
I just started reading Wesley Chu’s The Lives of Tao, and his first chapter is daring in its execution of coming in late. If I wrote that book, I don’t know that I would have been able to start so late because I’d be afraid that my readers wouldn’t get what was going on at all, but as a reader, it works for me 100% just getting thrown into the story. Of course, part of trusting your readers is letting them self-select. Your story will never be all things to all people. If you’re writing space opera, no matter where you start, you’re unlikely to hook a reader who just isn’t into space opera (though you’re substantially more likely to hook them if you go in late than if you start with a huge infodump).
So. Be brave. Start your story where things start happening and not a moment before. And if you’re interested in seeing a great example of “in late, out early,” you can check out the first chapter of The Lives of Tao here (Amazon).
I’ve mentioned Duotrope’s Digest here before, I’m sure. It’s a website/service that helps you keep track of your submissions and collects data on markets so that you can get some sense of how long you’ll be waiting on any particular submission, as well as how likely you might be to get your piece accepted.
When I started using Duotrope’s Digest, the service was free, though they were always accepting donations (and I would donate whenever I could), but last year they went paid because they were struggling under upkeep costs. You can pay by the month, but the most economical way is to plunk down $50 for a year of the service, which I think is a good deal for all that the service offers: submissions tracking, detailed statistics, a searchable database of markets. And so I’ve paid. I’ve got a lot of submissions logged there over the years, and that alone has been enough to keep my business.
Now, though, there’s another option. (Actually, they’ve been around since sometime after Duotrope went paid in 2012, but I only found it, via Cat Rambo’s Twitter, very recently.) The (Submission) Grinder is, well, pretty much the same thing as Duotrope, though at the moment, they only track fiction markets (which is most of what I’m writing and trying to sell anyway, so that don’t make no nevermind to me right now). They’re also free and aim to stay that way.
So, other than not needing to pay and only being able (at the moment) to track fiction markets, what’s the difference?
The first, and most noticeable difference to my eye is that the Grinder’s submission tracker includes fields for tracking if and when you’ve been paid and when your piece has actually seen publication. Beyond that, they also keep track of which markets have been recognized by SFWA and which have been nominated for or have won Hugo or Nebula awards, which is pretty snazzy.
So which should you use?
If you only write fiction and currently don’t use either service, you really can’t beat free. If you already use Duotrope (and/or you write more than just fiction), you may as well get your money’s worth. However, if you’re a Duotroper and a fiction-writer, especially one who likes getting paid, it may be worth your while to contribute your data to the Grinder–it’s not much more work, and it helps them provide more accurate statistics. And, hey; it’s free.
In my last post, I wrote about the process I’m going through right now of totally re-writing a story that I first wrote almost nine years ago, and that got me to thinking about a common trap that writers fall into (and I’m as guilty as anyone).
Writers, especially new ones, often have a story, the story, that they want to write but which they hold off on because they feel that they aren’t good enough yet to do their story, their perfect, precious story-baby, justice. This is a noble thought, sort of. Except that if you can’t write any of your stories now because you’re not good enough, there’s no way for you to put in the work to get good enough.
I feel like this idea often comes out of some strange belief that once you write your story, that’s it: there’s nothing left to do. But that isn’t true at all. Writing the story down is often just the first step in what can be quite a long process of edits and re-tooling, if not re-writing altogether.
There’s nothing to stop you from revisiting a story, even years later. Sometimes you’ll write something, and it just won’t quite work. Maybe you can’t figure out what the problem is, or maybe you know exactly what the problem is and know that you don’t have the skill to fix it right then, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to fix it later.
So if you’ve got that story that you don’t think you can write yet because it needs to be perfect, maybe instead just give it your best shot now. It might not be perfect, but you won’t be able to see where it isn’t working until you’ve gotten it down.
Hopefully it won’t take you nine years to get back to it.