Category Archives: Writing

In Which the Author is Alive and Writing

In lieu of an actual update, I wanted to share a page out of my current work in progress, which has just started to come together in my mind. Hashtag am writing.

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On Cover Letters

Not every market I submit to asks for a cover letter, but they’re nice to include anyway, even if it’s only something as short as

Dear [editorial horde/slush pile heroes],

Thank you for taking the time to consider for publication my story, [title], which is about [length] words long.

Best,

Hilary

Some markets do ask for cover letters as a way to pre-screen those people who haven’t even bothered to read their submission guidelines, and I always think it’s nice to give thanks to the heroic slushers and editors who are at least looking at my first 13 lines. Other than crafting amusing ways for C. C. Finlay to reject my submissions, should he need to, though, I don’t usually put a whole lot into my cover letters. I’d guess that you don’t either?

So, a story about how a well-crafted cover letter can be a good thing.

In the 80’s, my dad worked as an editor at Amazing Science Fiction Stories. Working at a magazine means a lot of things, and not all of them are totally exciting. One day, it fell to him to separate cover letters from rejected manuscripts, put the cover letters in the round file, and put the manuscripts in their return envelopes (those being the days before widespread computer ownership, when a writer would want their manuscript back, rather than having to type it out again). As this was not a job that required much thought, he would scan the cover letters before tossing them.

It was in so doing that he ran across the cover letter of an as-yet-unpublished author named Lois McMaster Bujold.

He read the cover letter.

He re-read it.

He thought to himself, “This is the greatest cover letter I’ve ever read. It has got a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is an author who is going places.” And then, rather than tossing it, he date-stamped the cover letter, stuck it in a sleeve, and took it home with him.

Despite this, they did not end up publishing the story to which the cover letter was attached. It appeared in print some years later, after Lois had begun to make a name for herself.

Some years after taking home that cover letter, my father saw that Lois was going to be a guest at an upcoming convention, so he made sure to bring the cover letter with him, still carefully preserved, and sought her out.

He told her the story, showed her the cover letter. To this day, I believe that my dad can claim to be her first Fan. He still buys all of her books new.

This isn’t to say that you must labor over your cover letters, workshopping them with your writing groups, turning them into works of literature in their own rights. It’s only to say that maybe you should think twice before you totally phone it in on your next cover letter (or skip it entirely).


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!


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.


Spurious Writing Prompt

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.

Correlation: 0.915876

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.

I can think of an xkcd for almost any situation.

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.


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).


A Call for Readers

Today (finally), I finished the story of which I offered a very brief teaser recently, so, you guessed it, I’m now making a call for beta readers.  Read on if you’d like to beta a 3700-ish word (hopefully at least a little bit) scary story.

Continue reading


In-Progress

Not much today except that I’m hitting my stride on a new piece that’s been clawing to get out of my brain for a few weeks now.  So, in lieu of a substantial blog post, I’ll leave a little teaser here from the first draft.

It was only for a second as I scrolled down, and when I went back and looked again, it refused to reappear, but for a moment, there was the suggestion of a shape, a distinct outline of something, among the un-data.

(I will probably be wanting a few beta readers in the near future, so if you’re interested, hit me up in the comments or via the tip-line.)


Watch This Space

Ok, yes, you haven’t seen anything from me in a while here.  I’ve been busy.  I do have news, though.

Some of you may remember, a little over a year ago, that I announced the impending publication of one of my stories.  Well, “impending publication,” as I have come to learn, can mean something a little different when you’re working in the world of small-press publishing.  I am proud to announce, however, that this time, I mean it.  My story, “Green Line,” will be appearing, for free (to you–I still get paid), in Stupefying Stories SHOWCASE by the end of the month.  I will, of course, announce its appearance as soon as it’s live.  You’ll be able to read the story there for the next three months, and if you want it to keep after that, it’ll be available in an e-book collection after that.

The first issue of SHOWCASE can be found here.


Cranky Old Man: Editing Software Edition

Before I go any farther, know this: I am not anti-technology by any means.  For one, I blog.  Okay, I don’t blog as much as I could, but I do blog.  In three places.  I use twitter.  I have my own dot-com website.  I do IT support for a living.  For goodness’ sake, I put Linux on things for fun.

With all that said, I think there are some places that computers don’t belong, and one of those is editing.  I don’t mean that you shouldn’t use computers to enter changes on a manuscript or even that you shouldn’t review your work on a screen (I work better when I have physical margins to scribble in, but that’s personal preference).  What I mean is that a computer shouldn’t be doing your copy-editing or proofreading for you.  Ever.

I’m getting onto this now because I’m active on the NaNoWriMo forums, mostly in the technology section, and the other day I saw someone asking about a program that could show them when they were repeating words/phrases too often.  The first reply suggested a service called Grammarly, a paid, cloud-based editing/proofreading service which is apparently used by a number of colleges and universities in the US and Canada.  The OP on the thread replied that they had visited the site, which offers potential customers the chance to try the service out, and plugged in a few paragraphs of one of their pieces, only to have it report over forty “critical writing issues,” which seemed to put them in something of a state.

Curious about what this thing could tell me about my own writing, I copied one of my short stories over onto the site and hit go.  This started a progress bar that crept across the window, with text flashing by below it telling me what it was checking for.  After a minute, I was directed to a report page telling me that I had over fifty critical writing issues and a few dozen word-choice suggestions.  Below that, the piece was rated on a scale of 0-100–I think I got around a 20 (weak, needs revision), followed by a breakdown of the critical issues, divided into a number of sections and sub-sections.  Since this was the free trial, they weren’t going to go into specifics of where the exact issues were found, but the breakdown was enough for me.

Now I’ not sour-grapes about this assessment of the piece–I plugged in a story I’m getting paid for, so someone besides me liked it enough to offer me money to print the thing.  The top section of the breakdown checks your work for plagiarism against a database of apparently billions of sources, and while I’m interested to see what in my story (which is currently waiting to see press) was considered unoriginal text, I’m not nearly interested enough to pay money to find out.  What got me, though, was the last section: Style and Word Choice.  This section, broken up into writing style and vocabulary use is where over half of my issues came from.  And not just in the one piece.  I ran several other stories and essays, and an early draft of the start of this post through the thing, and every time, over half of my “critical issues” came from writing style.  Of course, naturally, my first reaction was to say to Grammarly, “Hey, fuck you!  Who are you to judge my writing style?”  As one does.  Then I got to thinking; how many people, how many writers run their text through this thing and change their stuff by slavishly following the style suggestions set forth just so that they can cut down the number of critical writing issues that they have and boost the score given for their pieces?

This thing is killing writers’ voices.  Worse, since my guess is that it’s mostly used by aspiring writers, not professionals, it’s potentially killing the sorts of new voices that are critical to the growth of every genre.  While I don’t think a computer program is really suitable for assessing any sort of writing, it’s especially ill-suited to assessing creative writing.  Based on the free assessment available at their website, Grammarly thinks that Joyce’s “The Dead,” forty of the finest pages of prose ever written in English, is weak and needs revision.  Dickens’ “The Signal-Man” doesn’t fare much better.  Neither does the first chapter of The Hobbit.

I don’t know how Grammarly does its math in terms of assigning a score to a piece of writing.  It may weight apparent plagiarism more heavily than, say, a comma-splice, which is fair, since the first one can have some pretty serious ramifications, whereas the second is likely only to get Dr. Bradshaw to write “Major Error” on your paper.  Then again, that’s its own major consequence.  Nobody wants to disappoint Bradshaw.  Still, in this pre-Singularity world, I don’t think that whatever fake intelligence there is in Grammarly’s algorithms should be the be-all and end-all of editing.  Even feedback from a human editor, whether that’s your friend, your mother, or a professor, should be taken with at least a grain of salt.  Everyone’s tastes are different from your own to some degree; the difference between another person’s editing your work and having a program look it over is that the program will give you back instant, numerical feedback–instant gratification.  It can be very easy to fall into the trap of just trying to raise your score without thinking too hard.  If you’ve been in school for most of your life, if you are still in school, then this is especially the case.

The ultimate problem with things like Grammarly is that they offer an easy way out for budding writers who want to get “better” without putting in the work.  There is no easy way.  I’ve been writing with the aim of being a professional writer for most of a decade, and I’ve gotten a lot better in that time (I cringe sometimes when I read early drafts of my earliest stories), but it’s taken me time and work to get to where I am now, and even now I know that I have a lot more potential to grow my writing.  I don’t know if I would have made this much progress in this time frame if I had been presented with something like Grammarly that would give me a score and tell me, “here are the ways you can boost your score.”

And let’s not even start with the fact that a computer can’t make sense of a story, let alone appreciate it.  At least not yet.  Your writing can be mechanically flawless, but your story can still be total shit, and Grammarly will never tell you.  Likewise, your writing can be “perfect” by whatever math Grammarly uses and have no soul.  You could start with some soul to your piece, even, and I can see that easily getting lost in the quest to make everything “right.”  You are the author, at the end of the day, you write what is right.  You can go back and change that in a later draft, but let that be your own decision, not something dictated to you by a soulless program.  Get your story down first, then make it the best story you can manage.  Make somebody cry or laugh or cheer, then worry about the mechanics, and if adhering to those mechanics takes that spark from your story, then fuck ’em.  Any editor worth anything would rather have a story that took liberties with grammar and standard English construction but made them feel something than a mechanically perfect story that left them bored.

That is all.


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