Thursday, February 27, 2014


Onion Starts

So much of life is about choosing. I’ve blogged about it before, talking about “saying yes” and “saying no.”

Down here in Central Texas, spring is nearly upon us. Now that I know I won’t have a fellowship, it’s time to plan both my garden and my writing for the rest of the year.

While I put my Michener application together and took the GRE, my novella revisions got pushed onto the back burner. Instead, I focused on shorter works and exercises. In November, I did my own personal National NovelWriting Month (NaNoWriMo) challenge, writing a new story “start” nearly every day. The whole exercise was wonderfully fun, and I ended up with 27 story starts. Of those, there are about a dozen that I think I can turn into viable stories.

In January and February, I participated in a flash fiction contest with one of my writers’ groups. A couple stories from that are already in submission and I’ll be sending a couple more out next week.

Looking over what I’ve produced over the winter and thinking about what I want to accomplish this year, I can see that I have far too many open projects.

It's time to hunker down and face the hard part. Choosing. While Heinlein famously said “finish what you start,” adhering too strictly to that rule doesn’t allow for the kind of writing exercises and noodling in my journal that are an important part of learning how to craft a story or build a character.

Still, choosing is hard! Even the most cursory writing exercises produces images that stick with me, or lines of dialogue that keep whispering in my ear. Reading them over, I can’t help but think,  with a little water and sunlight something could really grow from this start.

But time constrains us all, and I’ve come to understand that not every start has to be finished. As long as I’m being productive in terms of completed and submitted stories, then there are some things that I can set aside. In other words, as long as I continue to finish things, I don't have to finish ALL the things.

But, once I commit to a story, I have to finish it, because choosing is hard but finishing is harder.

I finished the first draft of a story yesterday, and it wasn’t pretty. I mean I just limped across the finish line. It felt like I was writing garbage. I’m reading it over and revising it today, and while the last third is a bit of a morass, it’s not nearly as bad as I thought it was when I was miserably wading through it. 

Things almost always get harder in the middle. Quitting one project to start something shiny and new is the trap to avoid. Each project comes with unanticipated demands, requiring me to stretch and learn in new ways. Choosing, and the commitment to finish, is where we grow.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Taking the Shot

Of course the unspoken inverse of that quote is that you miss many of the shots that you do.
Back in December I applied for the Michener Fellowship, which is a fully funded MFA program for writers here at the University of Texas. 

Today, I got their form rejection in my inbox. This is not unexpected. Nearly 1,000 people apply for just twelve spots.

Still, it sucks. 

Yet, I'm glad I applied and here's why:
  • I had to step back and assess my work as a whole to put a writing sample together. It was illuminating to read my stories over in light of what they said about me as a writer.Whether I decide to apply again or not, I think this is something I'll keep doing.
  • Writing a statement of purpose made me think about what kind of writer I am and what kind of writer I want to be. Most of the time, I'm necessarily focused on a particular project and on carving out the  time I need to complete it on a day-to-day level. It was useful to step back and think about the big picture.
  • Applying is an act of faith regarding the pursuit of my writing as something important and real. Right now it's less than a career, but more than a hobby. Some disappointment along that road is the cost of a meaningful pursuit.

So, today I'll mope a little and commiserate with friends. Tomorrow it's back to the work. I've got lots of stories to write this year.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Reading Women: Science Fiction edition

Check it out!
It's been a busy week here and a bit chaotic with weather disruptions, but I've managed to keep writing. I’m working on a spate of shorter stories and filling up my submission queue. It feels good to have new batch of stories out there making the rounds.

I also managed to get some reading done. I just finished Ann Leckie's excellent Ancillary Justice, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Here's what the back cover says:
Breq is both more than she seems and less than she was. Years ago, she was the Justice of Toren--a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy. An act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with only one fragile human body. And only one purpose--to revenge herself on Anaander Mianaai, many-bodied, near-immortal Lord of the Radch.
First, this is just a straight-up fun read, and a great example of genre writing with real intelligence behind it. But, what I really loved, was how Leckie plays with gender. Breq has trouble distinguishing gender and simply refers to everyone as "she" by default, which kept me guessing about some of the characters and feeling a little off balance - but in a good way. Because 99.99 percent of books default to "he" in issues of gender. I can't describe how refreshing it is to read a science fiction novel where the default is "she" instead.

Then I read E. Catherine Tobler’s excellent post about how much women writers get read compared to men, I checked my Goodreads profile to take stock of what I read last year. I was surprised to find that my ratio was about 70 percent male authors to 30 percent female.

So many of my favorite genre writers are women from Mary Shelly (whom some call the mother of the science fiction genre) to Leigh Brackett, Ursula K. LeGuin, Octavia Butler, and Nancy Kress just to name a very few. So many books that inform my writing are by women, I'd just assumed that I'd been reading men and woman equally.

Luckily, this is a problem that's easy to rectify. There is, and has never been, any shortage of great women science fiction writers.* Here are a couple great places to find out about them.

Books That Prove Science Fiction Just Got Harder from io9, in which the majority of hard science fiction books listed are written by women including such masters as Lois McMaster Bujold and C.J. Cherryh

For a more exhaustive list check out Jessica Strider's post over at Sci-Fi Fan Letter.

But wait, there's more! The fine folks over at Lightspeed recently ran a Women Destroy Science Fiction Kickstarter campaign, and it sure looks like there's no shortage of people who want to read science fiction written by women. They blew through their goals and unlocked both the Women Destroy Horror and Women Destroy Fantasy stretch goals. These are going to be amazing anthologies and there's still a few hours left to pledge few dollars and get in on some special extras.

So what's your ratio? Are you reading women writers? If you aren't how many worlds are you missing out on?

* There are also a great many women writing fantastic fantasy and horror, but that will have to be a blog for another day.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

To Count or Not to Count? Keeping Daily Word Counts

Abacus Seller, photographed by William Carrick

Lots of writers keep a daily word count, logging or tweeting about it as a personal or public way of tracking their efforts. Many writers find this useful and inspiring. I’ve tried it off and on, and it’s not for me.

Many people write quite a bit faster than I do and others write slower. Others have a much longer or shorter process from first to finished draft. Noting a simple number, even if it’s just supposed to be proof of ass-in-chair, naturally invites comparison in a way that feels counter-productive to me. Don't get me wrong; daily word counts work for a lot of writers. They can be an excellent way to track effort and inspire consistency.

And I do want to track my writing, so I decided to design something that will work for me. Essentially, I want a metric that can:
  • Help me understand my process better, so that I can improve it.
  • Help me better estimate how long it will take to finish a particular project.
  • Inspire me by reminding me of how much I’ve accomplished each day, and showing me how far I’ve progressed on a particular project.

My Process: My Metric
My process continues to evolve. In my quest to balance spontaneity and plotting, I have been spending more time outlining. My outlines have become a weird hybrid of brainstorming, outlining, and drafting. They include scene fragments and dialogue along with the plot points. Then there's also all the noodling I do in my journal. These words are often meta thoughts about theme and tone of the piece I'm working on, nothing that will make it into the draft. The above represents a lot of story work and a lot of words. Recording the number of words spent on this doesn't feel meaningful to me, and counting them – especially the handwritten material in my journal – can be onerous.

After the outline is built with it's thumbnail sketches of scenes, the first draft may only take a couple days, then it’s time for revision. In the first revision I'll hack out whole scenes and rework parts of the outline. I'll write new words and rework many more. Often on revision days my net "new" word count is 0. Unacceptable!

So, I've decided to try using the Pomodoro Technique, not only to accomplish my writing, but to track it. I started keeping track in a paper journal, but have moved to a table in Word. It's an informal list of my Pomodoros for the day and short description of what I accomplished in each 25 minutes.

I've written about the Pomodoro method before and why I like it so much for writing (by breaking everything into manageable chunks, it allows me to make an end run around the natural resistance I feel when tackling big projects)

I can always fit in at least three Pomodoros into my day and I've had a couple days where I've managed seven and eight (albeit scattered throughout the day). Marking these down on my tally sheet with a note about what I accomplished is proving rewarding, and I hope, before too long, the information will help me improve my process.

I wrote this blog in 4 Pomodoros (100 minutes):
  1. Free write and drafting: finding the idea (budded off two potential ideas for other blogs cut and pasted into separate doc),
  2. Organize and overlay a kind of outline, plus more writing and beginning to revise,
  3. More revising, read it aloud and clean it up,
  4. Add Links and pictures, proofread.