Category Archives: Process

2015: The Stats Post

So I just sent off my first submission of 2016 today, which got me thinking about submission stats and how Sunil Patel always makes me feel more hopeful about things when he talks about his submissions. I usually do these things as a tweet storm, but I figure this is a bit more accessable, so here we go:

In 2015, I submitted 7 different stories to 19 different markets for a total of 45 submissions. Of those stories, 3 were wholly written in 2015, 1 was written in 2014, 1 in 2013, 1 in 2011, and 1 in 2010.

(I’ll note here that the story written in 2013 had been sitting, mostly abandoned, for almost 2 years before I pulled it out to show to my writing group.)

My most-submitted story went out 12 times in 2015, making it my 5th-most-submitted story and is also tied for 1st place in most-form-rejections received with 11 (sharing that spot with my Most-Rejected Story).

From my 45 submissions in 2015, I received 41 rejections (with four subs still pending, with an average waiting time of about 69 days). Of those rejections, 30 were form, and the other 11 were personal. This brought my total lifetime rejections (as recorded in The Grinder) to 126, with 32 of those being personal (a bit over 1/4 personal!).

Fantasy & Science Fiction led the charge in sending out personal rejections, being responsible for 4 of my personal rejections in 2015. They were followed by Shimmer and Writers of the Future (for the purposes of my numbers, an Honorable Mention is counted as a personal rejection) with 2 apiece.

Most markets I submitted to in 2015 responded within two weeks, and in most cases, a rejected piece would get turned around and sent back out within a couple days. I cannot make any meaningful correlation between response time and type of response, even for a single market.

My conclusion from all these data is simple and is applicable to all writers: write and submit more stories.

I hope this glimpse into my rejectomantic cauldron has been useful to you.


On Deadlines

I need deadlines to finish my stories. Like, I need deadlines.

So, because I figure that if you’re reading this blog, chances are that you’re a writer who needs deadlines, too, here are some deadlines.

If you’re working on a short story of under 7000 words, your deadline to finish a first draft is Sunday, May 31st. (If you’re reading this in the future, your deadline is 6 days from now. Right now. What are you waiting for?)

If you’re working on a novella or novelette under 20000 words, your deadline is June 10th to finish that first draft. I know that’s only 16 days from now, but you can do it. Keep up that momentum.

If you’re working on something longer than that, you have 2 months. That puts you at July 25th. I know it may seem impossible, but try anyway. At worst, you’ll get to hear that nice sound that deadlines make when they go whizzing past you.

And so you don’t think I’m bullshitting you, I’m holding myself to that May 31st deadline to finish the story I’m working on right now.

Good luck!


Dr. Bulletpoint or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Outline My Stories

If you’d asked me what kind of writer I was just a few months ago, I would have said, without reservation, that I was a discovery writer.  (This despite the fact that, in a loose way, I had outlined much of the novel I had written a few years earlier in Wikidpad.)

Now, though?  Well, for one thing, I’d say that outlining and discovery writing are not a binary, one or the other, but a spectrum.  Like gender.  The very act of writing an outline is indeed an act of discovery writing.  More to the point, though, I actually learned how to outline effectively by being made to outline a story (actually five stories, though I’ve only written one of them so far) in Mary Robinette Kowal’s workshop.

Previously, I would just sort of plunk away at a story, generally going from one idea to the next, and if I was very lucky, I knew the general shape of what I was building towards.  And that method can still work for me.

But.

(And this is a big “but,” which I like, and cannot lie.)

But this method presupposes that I have all the time I want for my writing (or that I have a deadline—in undergrad, deadlines were generally a pretty effective way of getting me to finish a story).  I don’t now.  I have a full-time job.  I have a family.  I have many obligations, and I must shoehorn my writing into the crevices between those.  And if I can sit down and have an outline telling me where I’m going next, I won’t waste as much time noodling and staring at an empty page wondering what the fuck I’m going to write next.

This covers the “why” decently, but not the “how” of outlining, or at least of the outlining process that I learned from Mary.

The how starts with a sketch.  A hundred words, give or take (at least for a short story), that covers the basic beats of the story, beginning, middle, and end, along with which MICE element(s) come up.  During the workshop, I managed to bang out five of these in about an hour and a half, with a little twittering and cat-wrangling in the middle.

From the sketch, I pretty much went straight into a bulleted list with each point being a beat of the story (plot, character, emotional).  This is the stage where I can really start to work out the problems of the story; the initial sketch is just the shape of the story, but this is where the detail starts to emerge.

From the list of story beats, then I make another list, with each point being a distinct scene in the story.  If the first ~100 words were a rough sketch of the shape and the first list was starting to pencil in the details, this next list would be the next stage of pencils if not an initial inking.

What Mary suggests, following this scene-by-scene breakdown, is to make a copy of this list and stick it in the live document you’re writing in, and then remove sentences as you actually write those parts of the story.  While this may seem too rigid of a process for some people, I’ve found that it still leaves me plenty of freedom.  Just because you’ve written an outline doesn’t mean that everything you write must follow it to the letter.  (I will say, however, that if you find yourself diverging too far from your outline as written, it might be prudent to re-outline the as-yet-unwritten parts.)

Will this process work for 100% of people 100% of the time?  No.  Nothing ever does.  But this works for me, and it might work for you, too.


Math for Writers

So I just finished an intensive weekend workshop taught by Mary Robinette Kowal (and can’t quite believe that I’m back at the keyboard already).  I got a huge amount out of it, and I hope I can get back on my game enough to talk about it more here, but that’s for another time.  For the moment, I’ll just say, first, that if you get a chance to take one of Mary’s workshops, you really really should.  Your writing will thank you, and you’ll make some new friends.

Second, I wanted to share something that came out of the workshop that we talked about in detail, and which I then condensed into this handy (not a guarantee) formula.  If you want to know about how long a story you’re going to be writing, given an outline, just remember:

Ls=((C+L)*750)*M

In other words, the Length of your story (roughly) will be the number of Characters (C) and scenic Locations (L) times 750, further multiplied by the number of major elements of the M.I.C.E. Quotient (M) that you are focusing on.

This is, of course, a very rough calculation, based on the assumption that each Character or Location adds between 500 and 1000 words to your story, per major M.I.C.E. element focused on.  It shouldn’t be seen as some magical target goal that you must hit exactly and should never go under or over (especially since I’m using the middle-ground figure of 750 words, rather than either extreme).  Rather, it’s for planning.  If I want to put five characters and seven locations into a CE story, but I only wanted it to be 4K words, this would quickly tell me that I either have to adjust my goals or make some major cuts.


Plug: The GameMaster’s Apprentice

Full disclosure: I know the person behind this Kickstarter personally, and I like to see my friends succeed whenever possible.

When I’m writing or running a game, sometimes (often) I run into situations where I need more information, and I need it fast.  Often this means that I need an NPC or side character.  If I’m writing, this inevitably means opening a web browser, looking up a list of names associated with a culture/language/region, and then opening Wikipedia and falling down a link hole, never to return.

That is sub-optimal.

That’s why I’m excited by The GameMaster’s Apprentice.  It’s a deck of cards that can help keep you off of the internet when you should be writing.  I suppose you could also use it for its original purpose of saving face with your players when you’re running a game and they go and do something you weren’t expecting.

In addition to knowing Nathan, the project’s creator, personally, I also know his work.  As he mentions in the video above, he worked on the Serenity RPG, which is a system that I absolutely love using when I want to run or play a swashbuckling adventure game, whether I’m in the Firefly universe or not.  At the time of this writing, the project is a bit over 50% funded, which is great, and if this looks like a useful tool to you, I’d encourage you to back it yourself.


Tolerances

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.


Late Starter

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).


Writing Your Story Now

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.


The Fruits of Re-Writing

There is a story that I wrote back in 2005 (almost 9 years ago, now, if you can believe that) which, at the time, I thought was quite good.  Hell, George Scithers, editor of Weird Tales at the time told me that it was “Damn good.”  (Words I’ll never forget.)  I think, in retrospect, that he was saying that the story itself was good.  The writing may have been the best of my abilities at the time, but it does not hold up well today.

(You can actually find an early draft of this story online still if you know where to look, though I’m not going to tell you where.)

There is a website that I wrote back in 2009, which isn’t quite so long ago, but it feels like it was ages ago, since I was still in college at the time.  It was alright for what it was at the time, because all I could really do was some HTML and CSS, and when I learned a few tricks with PHP, it got to be a little better (though not much).  Still, it was clunky: if I wanted to add a page link to the menu, for instance, I had to add it to the index file for every single page.  Until I learned about the date() function in PHP, I even had to make sure I touched the site on the first of every year just to update the copyright notice at the bottom of every page.

I don’t make any bones about where to find that website.  You can get to it at www.HilaryBisenieks.com.

But the site you’ll find there today isn’t the site that I first wrote back in 2009.  Yes, it has the same copy, and yes, that copy is a bit out-dated in some places or incomplete in others, and yes, if you hadn’t visited the old site in a long time, you might not notice the difference visually, since the layout is about the same.  But those things are like the story; the underlying code, the HTML, CSS, and PHP that let me make a change just once and have it apply to the whole site, that’s the writing.  It’s mechanically better.

The other day, I took another look at that old story, maybe inspired by my work re-writing my website.  I cringed a little (I did a fair bit of cringing trying to sort through all the tables I used to lay out my old site and find the actual content).  The re-write isn’t done yet, and I’ll have to put it in front of my betas a few times before I let it out into the wild, but it’s getting there.

George died a few years ago.  I wrote about the influence he had on me as a young writer at the time of his death.  I hope that the new version of this story lives up to the potential he saw in those early drafts.


Sit or Stand

Rounding out what I didn’t expect to be a series on the tools and environment of writers, I thought I’d talk a little bit today about the physical aspects of a writing environment.  For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to assume that you’re writing on a computer, because that’s how I do most of my writing.

As with everything else, there’s a huge range of options available to a writer when they’re thinking about making a writing space.  You can go with the sort of stereotypical laptop-at-a-coffee-shop thing that a lot of people think of when they picture a writer at work (or at least what they think of when picturing an undiscovered/”aspiring” writer at work), but I find that coffee shops are a pretty terrible environment to work from for any serious length of time because there are too many variables that are outside of your locus of control.  That said, by all means experiment with your setup, because everybody is comfortable with different things.

Rather than going into all the minutiae of an environment in excruciating detail, I think that we can break a writing environment down into three categories: sonic, body-position, and equipment.

I like to write with some music on.  In the past, I didn’t have a dedicated space for writing, so having headphones was essential because it let me create my own little writing bubble even when I was in a shared/common space.  Sound is a vital component of a writer’s environment, whether it’s background/ambient music, white noise, silence, or something in between those.  I have at various points used a dedicated writing playlist of songs that I know well enough that they won’t distract me, and on occasion I’ll change out some of the tracks on it to better suit the mood of the piece I’m working.

Body position is one of those things that a lot of people may not think about as much, which is detrimental to a lot of writers.  Being comfortable is important, yes, but you need to tune that comfort to not be harmful to your body in the long run.  This does to some extent come down to the equipment that you use, too, but I’ll touch on that part in a minute.

For short writing sessions stolen from otherwise wasted moments, maybe in a coffee shop or on a bus/plane/train/boat, just plonking away on your laptop isn’t too bad, but even as I write this, sitting slumped over on my couch at home, I can feel my neck starting to crick.  Ergonomics are key for your regular writing space.  Find a chair that’s comfortable, and a desk that allows your arms to stay pretty much parallel to the floor, then get your monitor at the right height so that the top of the screen is level with your eyes when you sit up and look straight ahead.  Better yet, ditch your normal chair altogether.  Some people like sitting on those big inflatable exercise balls, which purportedly helps work your abs while you sit, but for my money, a standing desk (and a tall chair for those times when you can’t be bothered to stand any longer) is the way to go.  I switched over to a standing desk at work a year ago, and although I do still spend a portion of my day sitting down in a tall chair, I find that standing while I work leaves me feeling physically better at the end of the day.  (If you’re going to commit to the standing desk route, get a good mat to stand on, too, or you’ll quickly give up on the whole standing thing.)

There are a lot of articles on the benefits of standing desks that you can find if you like, but I’d recommend just trying it out for a little while.  You don’t need to lay out a ton of money for a standing desk (though you easily can).  I’ve been eying a solution to convert a regular desk to a standing desk that can be pulled off for about $22 and a little bit of work, though I have yet to commit to even that expense at home.  What I’m really saying, though, is that you should experiment to find what’s most comfortable for you.

The final part of the writing space equation is the equipment that you use: mouse, keyboard, and monitor.  Please, for your own benefit if you’re using a laptop as your only computer, at least get an external keyboard and mouse so that you can elevate your screen to be at a comfortable height, but consider getting another monitor, too.  Some people like to have huge monitors so they can have their notes/story bible/wikipedia up on-screen along with their writing without having to click back and forth between windows, while others like a multi-monitor setup for the same reason.  Do what you can afford and what feels best for you (honestly, I could just delete all of this and leave it at that, but I’m not going to because this is my blog, and you don’t tell me what to do).

Keyboards alone could have their own post, but I’m not going to bore you with that.  (The same likely goes for mice, though that’s often more gamer-focused.)  Some people really like laptop-style keyboards with very short key-press distances, while others prefer older-style keyboards which require a much farther keypress.  Experiment.  Never assume that what’s best for you is what you’ve always been using just because you haven’t tried anything else.  I really like my split keyboard (one thing that Microsoft is actually really great at), which I’ve found helps minimize wrist pain when I’m typing for hours at a stretch without a real break.  I also changed up my mouse, going for a trackball, because of wrist pain.

Wrist pain sucks, guys.  Avoid it.  Especially if you want to write for anything resembling a living.

So, I think that’s it (at least for the moment) on writing spaces and tools.


%d bloggers like this: