Sunday, December 21, 2008

Creating conflict

I'm going to talk about plotting for a bit, and what I've learned so far. To most accomplished writers out there, this is going to be obvious stuff. To a newbie like me, it's an element of storytelling that I always have to keep in the back of my mind.

The simplest, most standard plot involves a protagonist who faces almost insurmountable odds to achieve a goal, and he either overcomes those odds to succeed or (less often) does not overcome the odds and fails. In the story I'm currently working on, I use a subset of that. My protagonist's greatest desire and greatest fear come into conflict, and she must choose either to achieve the former or avoid the latter -- but not both. When thinking about many of my favorite short stories and novels, this structure is there.

I was realizing this afternoon, though, that I unintentionally have set up many of my stories that way. In one, the protagonist must face his greatest fear in order to achieve his greatest desire. In another, the protagonist faces her greatest fear as a consequence of achieving her greatest desire. (In a side note, in the first story I wrote, the protagonist had neither a greatest desire nor greatest fear, which is probably a big hunk of the problem with her character.)

I have yet to sell any of those stories, but I figure that as I started this only six months ago, I have nothing to worry about. I have two rejections so far, and two stories out and another one just about ready for submission. We'll see how they do.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Bad news for Denver news

Scripps Howard announced yesterday that it's putting the Rocky Mountain News up for sale. If no buyer is secured by mid-January, Scripps will consider other options. The common opinion seems to be that "other options" means shutting down the paper.

Now I don't work for the News. I work one floor up, at The Denver Post. The rivalry between those two newspapers has been long and sometimes bitter. You'd think the Post staff would have thrown a newsroom party at the news that we have, essentially, won the war.

You'd be wrong.

Post staffers are sad and worried. Sad because all the grunts who put out the Rocky each day -- the reporters, photographers, editors, designers, etc. -- will lose their jobs, and no one wants to see that happen. There's a respect, I think, for the Rocky staff. And we're worried because, well, But For the Grace of God Go Us. It could have easily been the Post on the rocks. We're not doing great financially -- few newspapers are -- but we dodged the bullet this time. We might not next time.

I really really hope that someone comes along and rescues the Rocky because those people on the fifth floor don't deserve to watch their hard work go under, and because competition between the Rocky and Post has made both papers better.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Very first rejection

The e-mail was relegated to my junk folder from some unknown user named "Fiction Editor." My heart started pounding, blood thudding in my skull. This was it, why I had been checking my inbox for every day for more than two months. I was suddenly scared to open the message, but I did anyway. The anticipation was too much to bear.

It said exactly what I both expected and feared it would: Your story has been rejected. It was, however, a personalized rejection not a form letter, which I appreciate.

I'm disappointed yes, but I'm not so naive as to think my first story submission ever would end in a purchase and publication. So, it's back to the drawing board. I'm going to go through the story to see whether any improvements can be made, then send it out again. I could put it away in a drawer for a year or two and then give it another go, but if I did that, this story would collect dust for all time. I think it can be good enough for publication, so I'm not going to give up on it just yet.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Happy Election Day!

The lines at the polling place for me and my husband weren't too scary today. In fact, we were able to walk right in and get our ballots. That surprised me. I expected people lined up out the doors. So, yes, I did my civic duty, although I'm keeping my choices to myself. All journalists should be publicly unbias; it's too bad that so many don't bother.

And, on a side note, we must be doing something right with how we're raising our children. I asked my 4-year-old this morning who was running for president and he said, without a second of hesitation, "John McCain and Barack Obama." I'm such a proud mommy. But then he asked me what Barackobama's last name was. Heheh.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The internal editor

My internal editor is always switched on. I suppose that's a hazard of my profession as a copy editor. I edit not only at work but also in the "real world." If a book I'm reading for pleasure is poorly edited, I have to put it down because I'm too distracted by the desire to mark it up with a red pen. I also mentally edit e-mails, billboards, menus. The whole world is one big mess of misused punctuation and poor grammar in need of fixing.

Because my editor never shuts off, I also edit my own writing as I'm writing. I'm starting to see what a detriment that is. I can't continue with my train of thought until I have fixed the commas in the previous sentence. My editor says find a better word, tighten that wording, that sentence sucks and you must drop everything and fix it right now! So I do. Then I wonder why I managed to write only 500 words when I had been aiming for 1,000.

I don't think I can turn my editor off, however. Not after 10 years of constant companionship. Maybe I can ignore him (yes my editor is a him, I don't know why). Or better yet, I can write so fast that I outrun him. I'll give that a try, and maybe I'll finish my current rewrite by the Nov. 7 deadline for my critique group.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Early voting ... or not

My husband and I went to the local library today to cast our ballots. That was the plan. Until we saw the 50 people lined up outside the library doors. Because I had only 90 minutes until I had to leave for work, we decided to brave the lines early Tuesday. It serves us right for putting off the early voting until the last day, but I really didn't expect more than a handful of people doing the same thing. The turnout for this election is going to be enormous.

On the good side, however, I got a book in the mail today that was recommended to me right here in this very blog early in the week: "The 10% Solution" by Ken Rand. It's short -- about 90 pages of big type. (But the last thing you want for a book about how to shorten your writing is a long book.) So I'll read it tonight and tomorrow and then tackle the editing on my current story. See what happens.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Verbs, verbs, verbs

I ran across an article yesterday by James Van Pelt on writing mistakes made by rookies. Because I qualify as a rookie, I read what he had to say from start to finish. One point in particular caught my eye, which is that rookies rely too heavily on linking verbs: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been.

Immediately after reading that, I opened the story I'm currently working on and looked specifically for those verbs. What I found shocked and horrified me. Every other verb had a "was" attached: was driving, was speaking, was walking. Ack! I had no idea I even did that. I changed all that I could to simple past tense: drove, spoke, walked. Suddenly my story lost 100 words. That's an issue with my own writing I'm now aware of and can avoid. Thank you, Mr. Van Pelt.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Boo!

Halloween's a comin'. My boys have chosen to dress up as Jason, and one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. My baby girl will be a devil. We're likely going to Boo at the Zoo tomorrow morning because I'm working Halloween night and won't be able to take them trick-or-treating. That's one of the major drawbacks to working in journalism: The newspaper comes out every day, so there are copy editors working every day, too. That really cuts into family time. I've asked off for Christmas Eve, but I'll likely work Christmas Day and Thanksgiving.

I've been reading a lot of short stories lately. I haven't even picked up a novel since I finished The Thin Man. I have recent issues of Asimov's and Fantasy and Science Fiction on the dresser by my bed. I intended to pick up one of the mystery magazines the other day -- Ellery Queen or Hitchcock's -- but didn't get around to it. I'd like to read some stories in other genres. I mean, who knows ... maybe I'll be interested in writing a mystery at some point.

I've finished the first draft of "The Other Body" and am now trimming every bit of fat that I can find. I want to get it down to 7,000 words, which is a cut of about 800 words. I can usually do that without damaging the flow of the story, and I usually manage to improve it. So far I think I can honestly say that every story I've written is better than the one before it, and I'm excited to see what I can do next.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Well I was wrong

My gut was wrong ... no rejection e-mail this week. No acceptance either. Still waiting for another week. I guess that's a lot of what this writing thing is all about: waiting.

I took the kids this morning to Kaiser's free flu-shot clinic. I was expecting a mad house (apparently so was Kaiser based on the police officers directing traffic), but it wasn't bad at all. We were in and out in half an hour, and that was including 15 minutes in the waiting room after the shots to make sure there were no severe reactions. My arm is sore now, but it's worth it to avoid a week of fluish misery.

Monday, October 13, 2008

This will be the week

I have a feeling in my gut that between now and Friday, I will get my very first rejection letter. Actually, in this case it's a rejection e-mail, but close enough. I suppose it will be a badge of honor in a way -- something I can hold up and say, look I too submitted a story. The question is, what do I do next?

The natural next step is to send the story out to another market. And I might. But I'm also weighing some advice that was given to me by someone who has broken into the professional markets. He suggested I not submit anything for a couple of years. That way I can just work on improving my writing and at the end of those two years, I'll see where my early stories went wrong and be able to improve them. Then I can send them out.

That's good advice, and I appreciate that this particular writer took the time to give it to me. But by the same token, I feel a bit that not sending out anything I write is like giving up. It's saying, I'm not good enough, and that's a grimy sort of feeling.

I think I'm going to run my stories through the critiquing process and judge on a case-by-case basis what to do with them. I think I have a good enough eye to see whether a story is as good as it can be. If it's not, I'll hold it back from submission. So when I get my first rejection letter, likely this week (gut feeling), I'll read back through it to see whether I can make it better. If not, it'll go into a folder for a months. Waiting, but not forgotten.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A tough revise

I'm having a hard time revising the story I intend to enter into the Writers of the Future contest. This is the third rewrite on this particular piece. Maybe that's why it's tough. I'm bored with it. I wonder whether that's a normal problem with writing: You work with a certain block of material so much that eventually, you just don't want to look at it anymore. I'm thinking I'm going to put this story away for a couple of weeks and work on something else. Maybe by then I'll be able to generate some excitement for it.

I picked up the Oct/Nov issue of Asimovs this morning. I'm starting with the novella by Nancy Kress. I loved her Hugo nominee and Nebula winner "Fountain ofAge."

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Cold rainy Saturday

The forecast here in Denver included some possible snow, but so far we haven't seen any. It might come tonight after the temperature drops. It's already a chilly 40 degrees out there.

I'm working on two stories right now. I'm revising one based on a few well-thought-out critiques and will be sending it off for the Writers of the Future contest in the next month or so. The other story I'm working on is in first-draft mode, and boy I love it. This one is probably my best effort so far in my short writing career. Here's how it starts:

Eddie lost control of his other body somewhere between the gas station and the grocery store. Instead of picking up skim milk and beef jerky, he detoured to the nearest Wells Fargo and proceeded to rob it. Where the black ski mask and gun came from, Eddie didn't know.

He slumped in his booth, sipped his decaf and hummed to the music piping into the mall; white Christmases were overrated, no matter what Bing Crosby said. The restaurant smelled of grease, salt and too many bodies packed in a small space. Some kid was launching fries at his back like soggy missiles. He hoped his other self didn't get arrested. That would be tough to worm out of.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

One Denver, One Book

I finished reading "Pride and Prejudice," which I'm surprised I really enjoyed. It's far out from my normal tastes and took some extra work on my part to understand the 19th century prose, but the story was fantastic.

But, as I have closed that book, I was in need of another. I remembered the One Book, One Denver program had this year picked "The Thin Man" by Dashiell Hammett, and I decided to give it a try. I have never read a mystery. Ever. (But until "Pride and Prejudice" I had never read a Jane Austen, either.) So this will be another way of branching out in my reading material. I've gotten through the first chapter (I just bought the book a couple of hours ago) and I do like Hammett's style. I also like that the chapters average about five pages each, which makes for easy cutoff points when kids interrupt my reading. That happens quite often.

You know what I've never read? A mystery fantasy. Hmm. There's a story idea.

On a side note, Paul Newman died last night. Very sad. He was one of the great actors. I tried to tell my 12-year-old who he was, but the only thing I could think of that Kodey has seen that had Paul Newman in it was "Cars." He was the voice of Doc. I have to get him to watch "The Sting" with me some night.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

More on characters

As I said in my previous post, I've always been a plot kind of gal when it comes to my writing. When it comes to my reading, though, I love great characters. They're the reason I keep turning the pages. I need to find out how they cope with and triumph over the challenges and conflicts that are set before them.

Here are some of my favorites:

-- Ender Wiggin. He's great in "Ender's Game" but even better in "Speaker for the Dead." My favorite scene in that latter book by Orson Scott Card has nothing to do with the Piggies. It's when Ender first meets the Ribeira children and he tames the youngest one, Grego, and gains the trust of the others. They so desperately need a father figure, and Ender needs a family, too. It's a beautiful scene.

-- Lawrence and Temeraire, starting with "His Majesty's Dragon." Lawrence is a Naval officer and Temeraire is the dragon he accidentally "impresses" (to borrow a term from Anne McCaffrey). I love watching their friendship bloom and how they become a fantastic, inseparable team.

-- Harry Potter. The best part for me is watching him grow from a boy to a young man. But as far as characters go, he's not my favorite. I love Snape. He hates Harry as an extension of Harry's father but he works for the good guys. Or does he? That slippery fellow keeps us guessing to the end.

-- In a nod to TV, I love Sydney Bristow of "Alias." My favorite part: her on-again-off-again relationship with Vaughn. I was never so happy as when I saw at the end that they had ended up together.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Building a character

I'm finding the hardest part of writing for me is character building. It was recently pointed out to me in a helpful critique of the first story I wrote that my main character had the substance of a soap bubble. It's a long, hard journey from bubble to a strong, deep character.

I think my problem starts with my writing background. For the past ten years, I've been writing fanfiction. That's a great medium to build general writing skills, but the characters and the world are already established. I don't have to bother with giving much depth to, say, Buffy Summers because my readers already know her inside and out.

For the story I'm flirting with right now, I'm trying something new. Before I even wrote one word, I sketched out some details of the lives of both of my main characters. Some of it is important to the story, such as their professions and religious leanings. Some isn't -- one character has a few trophies from fishing tournaments on his bookshelf. I'm viewing this story as an exercise in character building more than anything else, and I hope it's turns out to be valuable in my development as a writer.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

When Heinlein kicked my ass

Here are, in abbreviated form, Robert Heinlein’s rules of writing:
1. Write.
2. Finish what you start.
3. Rewrite, but not excessively
4. Submit
5. Resubmit

The first time I gave this whole writing thing a try was about ten years ago. I wrote a short story, which was really more of a cathartic way of dealing with a tragedy in my extended family. I researched markets and settled on the one magazine that I was going to give the honor of printing my masterpiece. (Note: sarcasm.) I got the rejection letter a few weeks later, and rightfully so as the story was pretty awful.

So, I had made it all the way to No. 4 on Mr. Heinlein’s list -- and then I got no farther. I wasn’t heartbroken or insulted. My reaction was more to say, “Huh,” and throw the rejection letter in the trash. But I didn’t resubmit. I didn’t write any other stories. That was the end of my writing career.

Now here I am a decade later, trying again. I’m a better writer, but I’m not suffering from any delusions of grandeur. I know I’m not as good as I can be or as good as I need to be. So here are Jennifer’s rules of writing:

1. Write.
2. Finish what I start.
3. Accept critiques and criticism without discouragement.
4. Rewrite until it’s as good as I can make it.
5. Don’t give up.
6. Become a better writer.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

First submission!

OK, this is the third time I've started typing this post only to have the entire text vanish from the screen. It better not happen again.

A few days ago, I sent off my first ever story submission: "Unrequited" to Strange Horizons. I should be getting my very first rejection letter back in about a month or two. My husband tells me to think positively, but I figure I'm thinking realistically so that I'm not totally crushed when my story isn't accepted. My dad, whose judgment I trust and respect, told me the story is "brilliant." That's the word he used. Boy did that put me on cloud nine. Now, if only the editors at Strange Horizons think the same way ...

I also finished another story yesterday: "Cowboys and Moon Men." I had the first sentence in mind and wrote it, and then started writing more, and ended up with about 3,300 words. I think the story is a lot of fun. The first graph:

Like any good Western showdown, this one starts with a cowboy, a six-shooter and a girl. The cowboy, that’s me. The gun is mine, too, a real pretty one with a pearl handle that I picked up in Kansas City. As for the girl, well, let’s not rush things. You’ll get to meet her in a bit.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Finished another story

Stories with the first draft done: 3
Stories waiting for critiques to come back: 2

I finished the first draft of To Pay the Devil last night and handed it over to my Dad, who has promised to give me an honest opinion. Dad is the most prolific reader of sci-fi and fantasy I know, which makes this a little nerve-wracking. But if it passes in his opinion, I know it must be good. I do feel that with each story I write, I'm getting better.

The first graph: It didn't look like a lake of gold, but as John Briggs had never seen one before, he was reserving judgment. If it were, in fact, the lake of legend, it would mean the end of the sleepless nights, the sick twist in his gut that had been his constant companion for years. It would mean he could finally buy back his soul.

Today is Day 2 of DragonCon, and I'm not there for the first time since 1999. I understand why the Post ordered a vacation blackout during the conventions, but that doesn't alleviate the Labor Day weekend depression.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Let the insanity begin!

While driving into downtown Denver this afternoon, I saw police on most street corners, security guards at the entrances to parking garages and a whole slew of protesters marching down 17th Street near Broadway. And the convention hasn't even started yet! It's going to be such a mess this week. Simple things like driving and parking will suddenly become a challenge.

The Post is running several extra pages of coverage every day. I'm the politics wire editor for the duration, which means I make sure we don't miss anything important that other papers and wire services have covered. It sounds more interesting than it is. We have an army of excellent reporters in the trenches, so I doubt they'll miss anything big.

Media party was yesterday at Elitches. I couldn't go. Had to help put out a paper.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

My first post

73 degrees and cloudy in Denver today. Some sprinkles were coming down as I was on the Post's roof about an hour ago.

I've never bothered to blog before because, well, I just didn't feel like it. Good reason, huh? Also, what was I going to say? The kids went to school today, I washed the dishes before work. Exciting stuff. But now I have a long-term goal to write about, which is (in case you didn't read my bio) to break into the publishing business. Yeah, I know, me and about a zillion other people. So what makes me different? I work hard and finish what I start, as a journalist I have a lot of writing and editing experience, and I take rejection pretty well. I'm sure there's more, but let's start with that.

Where I'm at: I've finished the first drafts of two short stories (one is waiting in the queue in the critique group Critters and the other is awaiting comments from my sister) and am working on a third. They're all in the science fiction and fantasy genres.

Favorite news of the day: When Joe Biden got the call from Barack Obama, who was asking him to be the Democratic candidate for vice president, Biden's wife was getting a root canal. He was in the dentist office. Talk about strange timing.