Finished the demon story

For the first time in far too long I finished a draft of a story and sent it out to the Incognitos and a couple other first readers.

The working title of this story is “the demon story” and it is special in that it is by far the oldest story still in my “active” folder. It has its roots in the very first story that I started working on when I started seriously trying to write fiction for the pro markets, back in the 1990s. I have versions of this story dating back to 1995.

It’s also unusual in that it’s the only story that I’ve finished a draft of and then neither submitted nor abandoned.

The usual advice—almost universal advice—is that you not endlessly rewrite the same story. You’re almost always ahead of the game to simply write the best story you can, finish it, start submitting it, and then go on to something new. At some point, if you can’t produce a submittable draft, your time is almost certainly better spent working on a story that you can finish.

For this story, I’ve made an exception. I like it too much to submit a version that doesn’t work.

However, I’m done with it for now. Hopefully, the critiques will tell me that it’s nearly working, and give me a few tips for improving it. If so, it’ll go out to editors very soon.

Another Champaign-Urbana writers group!

I just discovered another Champaign-Urbana area writers group for writers of speculative fiction, calling themselves All Writes Reserved. How did I not know this? In any case, it’s great to know that there’s another group of serious writers of speculative fiction in town.

Anyway, I’ve added five blogs to my feed reader—the individual blogs of the group’s members, plus that group blog, which I also added to the list of local writers groups on my Incognitos Writers Group page.

I’ll also try and get in touch with them and raise the possibility that we might do an occasional joint critique session or something. (Getting in touch with a group of people on the net is not as easy as it used to be, now that so many people insist on trying to hide their email address in a futile effort to stave off spammers. And, practicing what I preach, my email address is right there on my Contact page.)

When I’m unproductive

Statue of the Three Graces at Allerton Park
This statue at Allerton Park is called the Three Graces, but I like to think of it as the Three Muses.

I was pretty productive these past two weeks. I finished a major rewrite pass on a short story that the Incognitos had critiqued a while back, and passed the story on to a couple of first readers. I wrote several posts for Wise Bread. I did some preliminary investigation on a tech writing assignment.

I thought that was great, not only because it’s nice to get things done, but because it makes me feel like it’s okay to spend time on various less (or non-) remunerative projects, such as art, poetry, and Esperanto.

I’ve just come to realize, that this is a harmful way to think.

I’ve always had these recurring bouts of unproductivity. The previous several weeks were an instance of it: I sat at my computer and tried to work, but I didn’t get much done.

Back when I worked a regular job, these bouts were always terribly stressful. How do you tell your boss, “Sorry, I just don’t seem to be able to get anything done”?

I had several coping skills. Because of the kind of work I did, my managers never really could know how difficult a task was, so I could just say, “It’s turned out to be tougher than I thought.” Also, even when I couldn’t make any headway on my major tasks, I was almost always able to do something. I got in the habit of seeking out smaller, one-day tasks that I could do. That let me be productive (so I felt better) and gave me an excuse to be late with my main task (so I was less stressed).

Now that I’m not trying to work at a regular job, the stress level is much reduced. There’s no boss whose understanding of my productivity needs to be managed. There’s no job to be lost if that management goes poorly. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t still have these periods of unproductivity.

As I was saying, since this latest surge of productivity, I’ve felt free to spend some time on less remunerative projects, like doing some writing in Esperanto. And that brought me to a realization: It’s dumb to think that I shouldn’t work on stuff that I’m interested in, just because it’s not the most important work I could be doing.

I think part of the reason I’ve been doing it is that I thought it might motivate me to get my important work done. I know some people bribe themselves by withholding permission to play with side projects until they’ve done an appropriate amount of work on the main projects. But it has never been an effective technique for me. Maybe it helps a little when I’m just feeling lazy. But being unproductive is different from being lazy, and it doesn’t work at all for that.

More important, I think I’ve finally figured out that this behavior is actively harmful. These other things I do—drawing, poetry, Esperanto—probably help me be productive. They’re not a waste of time that I could be spending on important projects. Rather, they’re a pathway back into productivity. Being productive—even being productive on something that doesn’t earn any money or advance my career—is still being productive. And experiencing productivity after a period of unproductivity is positive. It leads to more productivity.

In the past, getting started being productive again has always been the hard part. Maybe this will help. Maybe, if I can be productive on some frivolous task (without agonizing too much over the fact that it is frivolous), I’ll be able to bootstrap that experience of productivity into productivity in other areas.

In the meantime, I’m being productive again in a wide range of areas. Go me.

Strategies for writing and revising

One cluster of particularly good bits of advice that I got at Clarion came from James Patrick Kelly. (That link goes to my Clarion journal entry for the day I wrote about it.) Among other things, he suggested that we should:

  1. Save all our rewrites until after Clarion (as a way of carrying some of the energy of Clarion forward),
  2. Do the rewrites in order of salability (and perhaps not bother rewriting any that didn’t seem salable), and
  3. Write a new story for every story that we rewrote. (Otherwise we could easily find ourselves at the end of the summer with five or six nicely polished stories, but totally out of the habit of writing.)

More recently, having gotten several stories critiqued by the Incognitos, I decided to put that advice into practice again. I made a plan to start revising and submitting those stories, in between writing new ones. But I decided that I’d write one more new story before getting going on to revisions.

I made that plan rather longer ago than I’d like to admit, because for quite some time now I’ve had real trouble getting a new story finished.

After two or three attempts at new stories stalled, I should have just gone ahead and gotten going on a rewrite. But, no. Without really thinking about it, I just pushed ahead on a plan A, even though it wasn’t working. That wasted a lot of time, I’m afraid. It was also really frustrating.

But, good news: I’ve finally finished a new story! I’ve sent it out to the Incognitos, and it’ll be critiqued at the next meeting.

And now, finally, it’s time to look at the stories they’ve already critiqued, pick the most salable, and get to work revising it.

Ten years since my Clarion

Ten years ago today was the first day of class at the 2001 Clarion. Steve Barnes talked about plot. (The stuff he talked about that day, together with some some ideas I got a few weeks later from Geoff Landis and some earlier instruction from Bruce Holland Rogers at his Flatiron Fiction Workshop, served as the basis for the article on story structure that I sold later that year to Speculations.)

Those six weeks at Clarion were great—only a handful of times in my life have I had that much fun. Clarion also had a huge impact on my life—everything I’ve done since then has been colored by the things I learned there.

I wouldn’t want to do Clarion again—it only works that way one time—but I would like to do another intensive workshop. Probably one aimed at novels, if I can get a novel written.

That’s for the future, though. Right now I need to write one more short story for my local writers group, then start revising some of the stories that they’ve already critiqued.

News on upcoming stories

The good folks at Redstone let me know that my story, “Like a Hawk in its Gyre,” will be in the February issue, which should be up in a very few days. They’ve got the publicity machinery rolling, with both a twitter mention and a facebook mention. I also got email saying that they’d sent off payment for the story.

In other news, I got the contract from Asimov’s for the story they’re buying. No word on which issue my story might be in, but Asimov’s pays on acceptance, so they said to expect the money from them in 4–6 weeks.

Tuesday evening was the incognito writers group meeting—fun as always, plus I got good critiques on my most recently completed story.

Now, of course, I’m at work on my next story.

First meeting of the incognito writers group

A few of us here in Champaign-Urbana are trying to get a local writers group going again. Caleb Wilson, Kelly Searsmith, Charlie Petit, and I got together last night at the Urbana Library for the new group’s first meeting.

I had suggested that we might want to talk about a name for the group, simply because I knew I would want to post about it and thought it would be handy to be able to call it something, but everybody else seemed to want to go straight to the critiquing. Kelly suggested that the group could remain incognito for the time being. That was good enough for me—I’ll just call it the incognito writers group until we decide we need a better name. [Update: I’ve created a page for the Incognito Writers Group.]

It’s really nice to have a local writers group again. The actual writing part of being a writer is such a solitary activity, it’s worth making the effort to generate some amount of actual interpersonal contact. And we’ve got an excellent selection of writers: three Clarion grads and an intellectual property lawyer. (I’ll resist making a James Watt joke.)

It’s a real boost to be around people who understand what it’s like to write fiction—people who understand the rush that comes from getting a bit of dialog just right (and the anguish from trying and failing), the absorbing intensity of world-building, the stoicism needed to keep persisting in the face of rejection. When those people also understand crafting a good story, writing vivid prose, and developing compelling characters, so much the better.

One other thing we didn’t talk about was opening the membership up to other people, but I suspect the group would be even better with a couple more people. If you live in Champaign-Urbana (or close enough to attend monthly meetings), write some variety of speculative fiction,  can demonstrate a seriousness of purpose (regularly submitting stories to markets, attending well-regarded workshops, etc.), and you’d be interested in joining, see the Incognito Writers Group page.