Friday, July 03, 2009

A Story a Week

Last year at WorldCon 2008 in Denver, or ‘Denvention’ as it was called, I attended a writing panel hosted by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith. They said that they had a “guaranteed” way of getting published which amounted to this:

1) Write a new short story or the chapter of a novel each week.

2) Without rewriting, send out that new short story to a publisher once it is done.

3) Keep sending it out until someone decides to publish it.

The last two steps are somewhat reminiscent of Robert Heinlein’s advice to writers, which was to “Write. Finish what you write. Submit what is finished. Keep submitting until its published.” Heinlein also added that you shouldn’t rewrite any story you said was finished unless a publisher specifically said they would publish it if you rewrote it. Both Kristine and Dean said that they took up this challenge after hearing about it from other writers and by the end of the first year following it they had started to publish their work consistently. Since I want to see my work published consistently as well, I decided last year to try this process myself.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out for me as of yet. I’ve not yet been able to sustain a complete new short story each week. To be completely honest, I didn’t actually start trying “for reals” until March of this year. Even so, the times I’ve finished a new short story and sent it out within a week have been rare. I’ve recently started thinking about why it is I’m having difficulty in meeting this challenge.

One reason is my schedule. I work a full time job that’s about a forty-five minute to an hour drive away through L.A. traffic. I get up every morning around 5:00 AM and write for an hour and a half before I have to start getting ready for work. In that time I can usually scratch out a couple of pages of handwritten notes in my journal, do a bit of research online for whatever story ideas I have, and punch out two pages on whatever story I’m working on. The two pages a day is something I heard from another favorite writer of mine, J. Michael Straczynski, creator of the TV show Babylon 5 and one time writer for the Amazing Spiderman, amongst other things. Now, I don’t know the type of schedule Kristine or Dean were working under while they were facing this challenge, maybe they had even less time than I did, but it sometimes takes me a little longer than a week just to finish some stories. And I’m so bad at typos and grammatical errors and conceptual misstatements while I write that it’s too scary for me to contemplate sending those drafts out without going over it more than a few times. In fairness, both Dean and Kristine said that they reviewed their work for such things before sending it out, but I still have to imagine they had more time than I regularly do.

More importantly, my process of writing a story is that is best described as ‘writing the story in order to discover the story.’ When I get an idea for a story it usually starts out very small and specific. A bit of dialogue. An idea for a character. A combination of some things that happened that day with something I feel strongly about (see my previous entry on Three Things and A Belief). I’ll then turn on my computer, or take out a piece of paper, and start writing about that fragment until I run into something I don’t know. It could be something as fundamental as why the character wants what they want to a question as trivial as “What do Japanese bus driver uniforms look like?” (They look a lot like MTA bus driver uniforms, by the way, except they wear white gloves and official looking caps as well). I’ll then save what I’ve written, find out or figure out what I don’t know, then come back to the story and carry on. This process will eventually lead me to figuring out what the story REALLY is about, quite often taking me in a completely different direction than I started. It’s at this moment, when I KNOW the story, that I start over and write again to completion. For me, this early writing is like doing improv for an actor, or working in a sketch book for an artist. Or even better, it’s like chopping down trees and mixing cement before I start building the house. It’s not the building the house per se, but I can’t build the house until I have the materials to do so.

I still want to get to the point where, every week, I start and complete a new story and send it off. Since trying to work under these provisions, I’ve noticed that I’m getting more stuff done in any given time period. Also, I’m slowly becoming inured to rejection (‘slowly’ is the operative word here, I still hate to see a story come back, but these days I don’t stew over it and simply send it off to someone else). I’m also working hard to have more of the story nuggets or seeds I’ve described handy. Adding to them for part of the writing session, figuring out what I need to know, so when it becomes their turn, when their week comes up, all I need to do is write them out.

Maybe if I keep doing that, I’ll get to the point where a story a week won’t be so hard.


Blogger slcard said...

Good advice.

April 26, 2010 at 12:12 PM  
Blogger Erick Melton said...

It is. Now to follow it...

April 29, 2010 at 12:46 PM  

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