Saturday, February 20, 2016

Up Against Rule Number Five

Last week, I wrote about having found my writing process.  The manner in which I'll take an idea and turn into into a story I feel comfortable submitting for publication.  
Well, this week, I need to start working on the business side of the writing process.  This is because the first story I submitted this year, the one that helped me finalize the process I described last week, was rejected by the anthology I was invited to submit it to.  And now I'm facing the dreaded...
Fifth Rule.  
I'm referring to Robert Heinlein's Five Rules for Writers.  Anyone who is a science fiction writer, and I would think just about anyone who is a writer, period, will be familiar with them.  To make sure we're on the same page, they are: 
  1. You Must Write.
  2. You Must Finish what you Write.
  3. You Must Refrain from Rewriting (EXCEPT to Editorial Order).
  4. You Must Submit what you Finish.  
  5. You Must Keep Submitting what you Finished UNTIL it is Sold.  
These rules are about the writing business more than they are about the process.  Rule number 3 touches on process to a degree, but I've interpreted it to mean that you don't keep tinkering with a story forever and ever.  Once the story is done (and learning to recognize that IS a big step in developing one's process) then stop playing around and send it out.  
Revision is often a way of keeping from facing the rejection one can see coming.  I understand that.  You have to get it out and move on to something else.  
But...  When it's rejected, what then?  
The short answer, which I've heard more experienced writers give me in panels, via their blogs and in the books on writing I've read over the years, is to put the story into a new envelope and send it off someplace else.  Simple.  Neat.  Easy to do.  You could probably even keep a stack of envelopes, with stamps affixed, already addressed to the magazines you want to submit to.  
Only, it doesn't work that way for me.  Once a story gets rejected, I have a very hard time sending it out someplace else.  And here are my reasons...
  1. There's a part of me that doesn't believe a story rejected once will be accepted anywhere.  This comes from a suspicion, or maybe belief is a better word, that I've had since before I sold anything that any story "really" good enough to be accepted one place will be accepted wherever it is submitted.  
I'm not talking about a murder mystery being rejected by a publisher specializing in young adult romance fiction.  But if I send a science fiction story to an outlet that publishes science fiction stories, and if it's good enough, it should sell.  Simply.  
I know that's simplistic.  But it remains my gut feeling to this day.
Reinforcing this belief is...
  1. Every story or comic book I've had published has been published on the first submission.  My experience has taught me that, if a story or script has been rejected, it'll keep getting rejected by every other publisher.  If something is going to be published, it'll be published by the very first editor that sees it. 
There is only one exception to this experience of mine, but it is one that kinda proves the rule.  The story I had published in Analog last year, Robot Boss, was one that I intended to submit to them from the moment I started working on it.  It "felt" like an Analog story to me.  When I had it ready to send, though, I already had a story under consideration by them.  Since their guidelines said they only wanted to consider one story at a time from writers, but I really, really wanted to send it out, I decided to send it to another magazine.  
"I'll send it to 'This Magazine' (name withheld to protect the innocent).  By the time they reject it, Analog will have decided on the other story.  I then send it to Analog and they'll accept and publish it."  
That was my thought process.  And that's pretty much what happened.  And I didn't send it to some publication complete wrong for the story.  I very much felt it was suited for the pages of Analog and figured it would just end up there.  
  1. The "Market" these days is confusing to me.  I'm told I should read the stories published in a magazine or outlet before submitting to them, but I barely have time to get my stories written.  And when I check the submission guidelines, I always find that my stories are too big or long for ninety-nine percent of the places out there.  How can I "Keep Submitting" if the listings I have only show one, two or three places that'll accept a story as long as I normally write.  
This is something I have to deal with, but it is a frustration of mine.  My average story comes in around six to seven thousand words.  Most guidelines I've checked out want stories less than five thousand words, and some even specify word counts of three, or even two thousand words or less.  
I do try to make my stories as compact as I can.  And I sometimes will try to cut a story down just to fit it in under a word count, but I'm never pleased with the output.  Does my natural pace of writing a story cut me out of the majority of outlets or publication?  Should I ignore word counts and submit anyway, thinking that if the "really like it," they'll ignore their own guidelines?  That doesn't sound like a recipe for success either.  
But just lamenting about it isn't a pathway to success either.  I think what I'll do is wait for the moment.  I'm schedule to have a new story ready to submit by the end of February.  When I submit that one, I send the rejected story off to...  The most likely place I can find.  I will do what I can to find a suitable magazine and figure out the business side of writing as I've tried to figure out the process side.
If anyone can find me a missing Rule Number Six that might be of any help, let me know.  

Saturday, February 13, 2016

My Writing Process. Or, How to Become an Imperfect God.

I published my first piece of fiction way back in 1990.  It was a story called, "Random Access," in a magazine, now defunct, called Anthropomorphic Science Fiction.  
I was working on two stories at the time.  One was about a computer controlling the thoughts of people by removing certain memories.  The other was a sappy story about finding one's true love, inspired by the relationship I was in at the time.  Neither of them were going anywhere, but I worked on them diligently as best I could.
One night, though, my girlfriend asked me to stop by the church where she volunteered.  During our conversation she informed me that she had decided we weren't right for each other and was breaking it off with me.  
Oh.  Ok.  I understand.  
On the long drive home, I kept thinking to myself that I was taking it surprisingly well.  There was no noticeable pain.  I wasn't angry.  Not even disappointed.  Maybe I was more mature than I realized.  Maybe I realized, deep down, she was right.
When I got home and walked into my bedroom, I could see the two most recent manuscripts for the stories I was working on sitting there, side by side, on my writing desk.  
"That's one story."  
It was an epiphany.  I threw the two manuscripts in the trash.  I turned on my trusty Macintosh Plus.  I spent the night writing a story about a man in some near future, having just been jilted by the woman he loved, visiting a psychologist that was actually a sentient computer system.  The computer replayed his memories of the relationship and selected those that would ease the man's emotional state if deleted.  When the man objects, the computer forces the man to relive the break-up, in the coffee shop.  The man gives permission to have his memories altered.  
The next morning, I made one change, moving one paragraph before the another.  I printed it, stuck it in an envelope.  I sent it out.
A few weeks later.  I got my first acceptance letter.  
I spent the next couple of decades trying to figure out how I'd done that.  
I came to realize that I had experienced a sort of prodigy-flash.  I followed a process of writing a story without realizing it.  I had zipped through my method for creating a story in a light speed rush.  So fast, that I didn't see or feel the steps I had taken.  
I believe that it is important to be able to know one's process.  You can't call yourself an artist if you can't.  You can't create consistently if you don't.  Other people may believe otherwise.  This is for me.  
I've published some more short stories in recent years.  I've watched myself as I've done so, taking note of the things that helped me get the story done, and those processes suggested to me that lead me astray.  I think I can finally say that I "KNOW" how stories come out of me.  
And here it is.  The Erick Melton Story Writing Process: 
Step 1: Write a Fairy Tale. 
I got this from a panel at a science fiction convention on outlining.  According to the panel's moderator, it's the method writers at Pixar use to outline their stories.  They write outlines that read like fairy tales.  They start with "Once Upon a Time...", go through, "And then, one day...", and a series of "And then..."'s, until they reach, "The End."  
Starting this way alleviates me of the burden of writing dialogue and scenes for characters I don't know yet.  It allows me to discover who they are as I make stuff up, without me being critical of how it sounds.  And it points out the parts of the story that really excite me, as well as those points I need to improve or cut.
Once I have my fairy tale done, I can start working with it.  
Step 2: Snowflake the thing.  
I got this from a website I found years ago, called Advanced Fiction Writing, created by a man named Randy Ingermanson.  It's a method for growing a novel bit by bit.  There are several more steps to the Snowflake process than I've written here, but they're enough for me when writing short stories.  
1) Logline - This is a single sentence, about 15 words or so long, that summarizes the story.  It is also useful as your "elevator pitch," the one sentence you give to an editor or agent to tell them about your project before they get out of the elevator you happen to be sharing.  
2) Paragraph - A five sentence paragraph, giving greater details to story I want to write.  For me, each sentence correspondences to one part of a three-act structure.  An Opening.  An inciting Disaster, not the protagonist's fault.  A Building Disaster, created out of the protagonist's efforts to fix the situation.  A Crisis of Faith, where the protagonist must decide to either persevere and carry on (Keep the Faith) or where they try something completely different (take a Leap of Faith) in order to succeed.  And finally, the Conclusion.  
3) Character Outlines - Pretty much what it is.  A list of the principle characters, their Goals, their Motivations (different from Goals), background and storyline. I also designate who the Protagonist, Antagonist and Impact Character are here.   
The "Crisis of Faith" I mentioned above is an adaptation from another tool I used called Dramatica Pro.  It's an application that asks you questions to build a story.  My "Crisis of Faith" moment comes from one of the questions they ask, which is whether the main character remains "Steadfast" to his beliefs as to how he should succeed, of if he takes a "Leap of Faith," to reach to his goal.  Changing "Steadfast" to "Keep the Faith" made that choice clearer in my mind.  
"Impact Character" is also a concept from Dramatica Pro.  Protagonist and Antagonist are pretty clear.  Protagonist is the "Hero" of the story.  The Antagonist is the person trying to stop the Hero from getting what she wants.  Impact Character is someone trying to influence the Hero in her quest, often trying to change how the hero does something, even while supporting them in their goal.  
The best example I can think of right now is Obi-Wan "Ben" Kenobi from the original Star Wars trilogy.  He wants Luke to destroy the Death Star, just like everyone else.  But he wants Luke to use the Force to do it.  Think how the Star Wars storyline would change if Luke keeps his targeting computer on, and sends those proton torpedos down that shaft using his piloting skills.  This shows the importance of the Impact Character.  
Step 3: Write the Story.  Pretty much says it, right?
Step 4: Rewrite it using Scenes and Sequels.  
The concept of Scenes and Sequels can be found in various sources.  Mr. Ingermanson has his own article about them on his website.  I think of them as pulses.  Decisions and Results.  They break down like this: 
Scenes: Goal.  Conflict.  Disaster.  
The Hero has a goal in that moment.  Something or someone tries to stop him.  His effort results in one of two things.  "Yes, but..." scenes end with him getting what he wants, but with unexpected complications that create new difficulties.  "No, and..." scenes end with him failing to get what he wants, and with something compounding the problem, making it worse.  
Sequels: Reaction.  Dilemma.  Decision.  
The Hero reacts to the disaster, or to the inciting action that starts to story off.  A problem is created that the Hero needs to solve.  She reaches a decision as to what she needs to do, setting her goals, which creates the next scene.  
There are writers that will use their scenes and sequels to outline their story first.  I tried doing that.  It didn't work for me.  It does work, though, when I'm trying to improve a draft to make it better.  
This comes from a teacher I had in college, a man named Dean Hess.  It came from a class on directing he was teaching.  Someone asked him about all the "rules" the book we were reading had about how to direct a scene or a play.  The student wanted to know how you remembered all those rules when you were actually working on a play.  
Dean tried to answer the question a couple of different ways before waving his answers away.  "It's like this," he finally said.  "Artists create the way God does.  You just do what you think is right.  But since we are not perfect the way God is, we make mistakes.  When you feel that something isn't working, that's when you take the rules and look at what you're doing through them.  When you see what the problem is, you fix it, put the rules away, and go back to being God."  
Step 5: Polish it. 
Step 6: Submit.  
Step 7: Become God for a new story. 

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Before I Die...

Driving home from work this week one day, I found myself listening to the "TED Radio Hour."  It's a show on NPR based on TED Talks, a series of really fascinating lectures on all sorts of topics.  If you don't know about TED Talks or the TED Radio Hour, you can click on their names for links to find out more.  I'm sure you'll find them interesting.  
This day's episode was about Rethinking Death.  It was snippets of TED Talks by people talking about some facet of dying.  By coincidence, I had heard from my sister the day before that her cancer, which they thought was gone, had returned and spread to different parts of her body.  When I heard the theme of the show I felt compelled to listen.  
The segment which I took the greatest personal interest in was from a talk given by an artist in New Orleans named Candy Chang.  It was after losing someone that she turned the wall of an old, abandoned house in her neighborhood into giant chalkboard.  On the board she stenciled the beginning of a sentence.  "Before I Die, I want to:."  There was a blank line following for someone, anyone, to pick up a piece of chalk and complete the sentence with something they want to do.  

Before I die, I want to...  Win a Hugo and/or Nebula Award for some piece of fiction I wrote.  

Listening to her talk, it quickly becomes clear that the question isn't about dying itself.  Death is something we try to avoid, and is something that we don't want to talk about.  But considering it brings you in touch with your life.  The things you think will complete you.  The things that make you happy.  The things that express who you are.  

Before I die, I want to...  See a baseball game in every professional stadium in both Major League Baseball and the Japan Professional League.  

I am afraid of death.  That's the honest truth.  I sometimes have trouble going to sleep because, increasingly as I grow older, it seems like a dress rehearsal for the day when I'll close my eyes and not open them again.  A reenactment of my death before it happens.  I will snap awake, jump up in bed and will say, "No!" out loud, as if to deny the existence of death or my inevitable participation in the process.  

Before I die, I want to...  Ride a rocket into Earth's orbit.  

But this question, with its inherent acknowledgement of our limited time on this planet, doesn't draw my attention to that moment of slipping into oblivion.  It makes me think of the activities, the events, the things, and the people that I enjoy.  It makes me think of my dreams and aspirations.  It makes me think of good stuff that makes me smile.  It makes me day-dream.  

Before I die, I want to...  Go to Japan at least three more times, in the Spring, the Fall and the Winter.  

I might not get to do all of these things.  When I woke up the next morning after listening to this talk, I filled a page with the things I want to do.  Some of them, such as "Before I die I want to be the invited Guest of Honor at a science fiction convention," depends on other people making choices about me.  But like they say about making your own luck, it also depends on me doing the things I've already promised myself that I would do, that I want to, that I enjoy doing.  In this case, it's not a wish for the doing, but a wish for the recognition of my doing.  That's something we all want, no matter what it is we want to accomplish while we have the time.  

Before I die, I want to...  Find "her."  

It's appropriate that Ms. Chang started this project in New Orleans.  This is the same place where funeral processions turn into parades celebrating the lives of the people being remembered.  It's a life affirming question.  And the answers can...  Should give direction to life we're living now.  

Before I die, I want to...  Be invited to give a TED Talk of my own.  

When the doctor gave my sister the news the state of her health, she naturally asked him how much time did he think she had.  His reply was that he couldn't tell her if she had until tomorrow, next week, next month or next year.  He had no idea how much time she had left.  
I thought about this reply after my conversation with her.  His answer is appropriate for anyone asking such a question.  Whether they are sitting in a doctor's office, or sitting at home watching TV, or while running the marathon they always wanted to run, or boarding the plane for the dream vacation they've been planning for half their lives.  We assume that we'll continue on, emotionally.  But we don't know how long that is.  
Which makes the completion of the sentence, "Before I die, I want to..." a signal.  A indicator light on our personal dashboard telling us that something has to be done before the trip is over.  Or it should.  At least that is how I'm trying to respond to it.  

Before I die, I want to...  Become the person I think I ought to become.  

Before I die, I want to...  Publish my novel.

Before I die, I want to...  Walk the Shikoku Henro pilgrimage. 

Before I die, I want to...  Say, "I do," to someone.  

Before I die, I want to...  Really, really feel alive.  
That is the best way to finish that sentence.  And the best one to live one's life.