2021 was a tough year for readers seeking signs of a return to normalcy and solace in a distraction from reality. It was also a challenging year for writers trying to string words together. Too often, our work that did find its way into print or on line got overshadowed by seemingly everything. Now is the time to remedy this! Writers: your readers, both new and old, need to reconnect with your insights. Please put out on social media your 2021 year-end retrospective. Oh, I see a lot of you cringing at the prospect of self-promotion. Here’s a bit of advice I wrote on SFWA’s blog as to how you might go about this without coming across as egotistical or grubbing for award nominations.
What's that you say, it doesn't feel like you're doing better work? Your in-box still collects all those disheartening rejections? No matter. Seriously. Here's the evidence: Pull out something you wrote years ago, way back when you first got the urge to write fiction and began putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, or whatever your early method was. Start reading through that piece. Do you see stuff in the first few pages, or paragraphs, or even sentences that makes you cringe? You would never make those rookie mistakes today, would you? Well there you have it! These are all signs that you've honed your technique, at least to some extent, given that you know at least some of what needs to be improved. Yeah, figuring out the best way to transform that early effort into a story you'd be proud of today is harder. But heck, I bet you have a few thoughts on how you can improve it. Now, I'm not saying that early piece is thoroughly professional, even with reworking. But then again, you never know. It just might be. I once sold an early story after it sat around for twelve years. That was how long it took me to figure out what it needed. Give it a shot! I wish you the best.
I had lots of fun talking about writing short stories as a panelist on Joe Compton’s Go Indie Now. You can watch it on You Tube and find out how creators of short fiction do what we do. Joe asked a bunch of insightful questions of Jae Lavelle, A.F. Stewart, Alexander Gideon and me.
It turns out we came to short story writing in quite different ways, ranging from starting with novels, poetry, etc. You see, there’s no single path to becoming a published author. You definitely don’t need to be an English major much less get an MFA degree.
We also talk about starting with ideas characters, themed anthologies, and a bunch of things we learned along the way. Check us out!
Dear Readers, The marvelous Catherine Schaff-Stump prodded me into revealing a few of my tricks for bringing dinosaurs to life in your imaginations. Hears hoping the writers among you may find something useful in creating wonders of your own. Oh, and hey, if you’ve never checked out Cath’s Abigail Rath series, you are in for a treat!
Writers fill my screen, their faces showing intense concentration as we sit silently before our laptops, each in our individual rooms, plying our craft. Three months ago, I would never have dreamed of writing fiction this way. Heck, I was never terribly fond of writing in a coffee shop with others at nearby tables, let along with a group of my colleagues in the same room.
Then came the pandemic and all of my words fled. Every single last one. After struggling for weeks, in desperation I completely shook up my long-standing writing habits. I’ve always found accountability to others to be a useful tool, whether on a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis. So I gave group writer sprints a try, reasoning that the result could hardly be worse than zero words. To my great surprise, my words came back.
How does a writer sprint work, you ask? A bunch of writers assemble via Zoom at a prearranged time and begin by saying what we each intend to write. Sometimes we’ll take a “Twitter pledge” to stay off social media, that great distracting bane of many writers and destroyer of productivity. Someone will set a timer and we’ll spend thirty minutes or so of silently writing. Well OK maybe with an occasional comment in Chat. Then we’ll all unmute and go around with brief updates as to how we each acquitted ourselves.Those who accomplished their goal for the sprint get applause, cheers, thumbs up, etc. Lather, Rinse. Repeat.
I have no earthly idea why this radical overhaul of my method works. Maybe it has something to do with an occasional cat waving its tail at a webcam or a dog come to beg for treats. Anyway, I’m putting it out here NOT to say you must adopt this method, or any specific method whatsoever. My point, instead, is that if what you are doing no longer seems to work, try something else. Whatever helps during this terrible pandemic is good.
We are all different people with many and varied approaches to our creative processes. My friend Jason Sanford has written an insightful piece on how the pandemic has affected a number of writers. Some keep chugging steadily along. (Awesome!) Some have been unable to produce anything. Some have had to abandon works in progress and begin afresh. The approaches are as varied as the writers and their creative endeavors. My point is to simply suggest that this could be the time to try a fresh approach.
New writers are often advised not to read reviews of their work. The theory goes that reviews are for readers, not for writers who can do nothing whatsoever to make amends for whatever glaring faults the reviewer finds in their work. Worse yet, a few bad reviews–or maybe only one or two–just might dishearten the newbie author to such an extent that they wreak havoc on further creative endeavors.
What this well-meaning advice neglects to address is how a new writer, or even a well-established author with numerous publications to their name, is supposed to resist the siren call of the review. In my own case, for the longest time, I wouldn’t even admit to reading reviews of my work because I thought it showed a character flaw. Over time, I came to see that a great many writers, maybe even most of us, do read published reviews of our work. I suppose we could justify doing so on the grounds that it’s nonsensical for us to be the only ones who have no idea what professional reviewers are saying about our body of work. A lot of us also read Amazon and Good Reads reviews written by readers. Again, it seems to make sense to find out what our fans, no matter how numerous or how sparse, think of our stories.
There’s another reason to read reviews. Writing is, inescapably, a solitary profession for long chunks of time. It can also seem frustratingly like casting one’s work into a black hole from which not a solitary ray of feedback escapes. Who wouldn’t want to hear something?
Besides, there are times when that feedback can be extraordinarily gratifying. Take for example, Rich Horton’s review of the my own story, “Conservation of Mismatched Shoes,” in the July 2019 issue of Locus. It’s his favorite story in the issue! Mark me down as thrilled. Thrilled, I tell you! This isn’t simply a matter of basking in his kind words. My reaction has everything to do with the fact that while writing this one, I really struggled to portray the teenage protagonist and her older brother. Rich Horton deemed it “[a]n honest story, convincingly characterized.”
I intend to keep on reading those reviews!