A writer should have a secret. This advice was given to me years ago when I was first learning to craft fiction. Readers love surprises, the theory goes, with an important caveat. The writer must lay the groundwork so that the reveal comes as a surprise, but then the reader thinks, ‘yes of course, even though I didn’t I see that coming.’
Real life, being messier than fiction, also requires writers to keep secrets from their readers and even other writers. There can be exciting news but it’s not yet time to announce it. Frequently, it’s not the writer’s place to disclose the news. Maybe the author sold a new story or book, learned their work will be republished, or accepted a business opportunity, was asked to appear at an event, got nominated for or won an award, received a favorable review, or racked up impressive sales figures. You get the idea.
The writer may be sworn to secrecy until the project or event is announced and everyone sends their congratulations. If the writer seems pleased but not giddy with excitement, this may be because they’ve had weeks or even months to absorb the happy news.
Keep in mind, those of us with intense imaginations (we are writers, after all) have already envisioned the exciting event in considerable detail. By this, I mean not only what we’ve achieved but sometimes the possibility of the project crashing and burning. Thus, simply finding out how things turn out can spark relief as much as anything else.
Might these musings be a long-winded way of hinting that you may want to watch this space? I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.
Hey writers, how many books about the craft of writing fiction are on your shelves? Mine contain 58, not that I’ve read every word of all of them. I’ve only dipped into parts of some. There are general how-to’s and more specialized ones on plot, character, dialog, scenes, point-of-view, structure, suspense, emotion and such like. There are others devoted to a specific genre like science fiction, mystery, etc. Some (maybe most) give the ambitious reader exercises to try at home. Many dissect sentences and paragraphs that achieve superior results.
And now you’re waiting for me to get to the book I hate.
First, I think it important to tell you why I reacted as I did. This one came into my life recently. That means it had some tough competition, like Nancy Kress’ BEGINNINGS, MIDDLES, & ENDS and Donald Maas’ THE EMOTIONAL CRAFT OF FICTION, and books covering a broader range of artistic endeavors like David Bayles and Ted Orland’s ART & FEAR. The latest one that didn’t measure up was written by a professor who is overly fond of quoting his own work. Even when he drew examples from other works, many of his examples left me indifferent. He also exuded impatience at encountering the same weaknesses again and again in succeeding classes of students taking his courses. My sympathies were with his students. Worst of all, I’m searching to come up with something–anything–I learned for my investment of time and money.
While pushing onward through his chapters, I wondered what my reaction would have been if I had read this one years ago when I was a newer writer. Would his points have impressed me before my forays into 57 other books on writing? Is my response largely because his work is more suitable for Creative Writing 101 whereas seminar material is more my speed?
Lastly, why am I telling you this? The reason is simple: As writers, we find ourselves on a seemingly never-ending quest to improve our story-telling skills. Rather than growing annoyed at a writing manual that doesn’t work for us, lets go find something more tailored to whatever it is we’d like to learn, whether that’s working in a specific genre (romance, detective stories, historical fiction, etc.) or tackling a specific format (novels, short stories, screen plays, or multi-volume series) or developing ways to write despite adversity in our lives.
Do you have a book about writing that you found particularly helpful to the point that you return to it for fresh guidance?
I tell you this now so you can get in on the ebook for a discounted pre-publication price. My story, “Etruscan Afterlife,” combines an ancient sarcophagus for two people with a mechanism for uploading the human mind and thereby escaping death. It will be in The Reinvented Heart along with stories and poems by some incredible writers such as Jane Yolen, Naomi Kritzer, Fran Wilde, Seanan McGuire, Lisa Morton, Xander Odell, and Beth Cato. Paper copies are expected to be available in May. Still undecided? Check out this review! Kudos to editors @catrambo and @@jenniferbrozek
Throughout a writer’s career, opportunities come along. It’s almost always gratifying to be asked to write something, especially when it’s unexpected. New writing-related projects hold out hope of growing an author’s readership. I don’t know a single writer who thinks they have more than enough readers. For lots of us, our first instinct is to say yes.
Some projects are no-brainers. Others are require serious thought. For me, unexpected offers have included solicitations to submit stories for themed anthologies and to work in a different genre or medium. That’s how I’ve written a screenplay, a game, and branched out from science fiction and fantasy into essays, detective fiction, alternate history, and horror. Other opportunities have involved teaching, mentoring, judging, collaborating, and presenting at an in-person or on-line event.
Here’s my advice: Be open to these offers and be careful! First do your due diligence in looking into the business proposition. Also, be sure, to stop and consider what else is on your plate. Many writers–including me–have more current projects and hoped-for future projects than time in the day. There usually isn’t a sure-fire way to decide if a shiny, new opportunity should get to shove something else aside, especially when the upstart arrives during a particularly busy period. Sure, FOMO is powerful. Nevertheless, you really don’t want to say yes, only to have to back out when the realities of over-commitment set in. Nor do you want your personal life and obligations to suffer.
Ah well, if nothing else, this is a better class of problem for a writer to have. It also illustrates that few writing careers proceed as planned or imagined. Best of luck to you!
For a short time, the stories Analog readers voted the best of 2021 are yours to read right here. I’m so honored to have The Last Frontier on this list with these fine stories. I had a great time creating an alternate timeline featuring a woman in the Apollo space program. Hope you’ll give all these stories a read!
With the recent cold snap and pandemic seemingly everywhere, I’ve been huddling indoors making plans for all the places I maybe could visit when warmer weather hits. I’m mostly planning trips around science fiction and fantasy conventions, so my first task is looking at where I might be going: LA, Chicago, Atlanta, and New Orleans, if the universe cooperates. This led to updating my bio, which means figuring out who I am as a writer.
Don’t worry, the dinosaurs will always tromp through a fair number of my stories and essays. Nonetheless, I am branching out. Recently, I took a stab (pun intended) at writing a murder mystery as well as a screenplay. Sure didn’t see either of those coming. I’m also looking into a collection of my short fiction, some of which is out of print. Stay tuned!
I’m pleased to announce that I had a couple of stories and several articles published in 2021:
- The Next Frontier: an alternate-history novelette about the 1960s space race in the July/August issue of Analog (link is to current issue, not previous one)
- The Holy Wars of Mathematics: A Secret History of the Calculus of Chicanery appeared in 99 Tiny Terrors. It’s my first published flash fiction (under 1000 words).
- Monumental Thinking was in the January/February 2021 issue of Analog, is my take on suitable replacements for statues being torn down these days. (Link is to current issue, not previous one)
- Astounding Analog Companion: Q & A in which I talk about writing alternate history
- My first SFWA blog post: Reasons to Publicize Your Award-Eligible Works
My Virtual Appearances:
- World Fantasy Convention panel on dreams and nightmares in fantasy and horror
- Go Indie Now panel on alternate history
- Go Indie Now panel on writing short stories
Most Enjoyable New Novels I Read:
- Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Garcia Moreno
- Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
- Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse
- The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin
Most Unexpected Pleasure:
- Being solicited for a hot new anthology to be assembled next year. I can’t tell you or they’d have to shoot me. (Wait…is this how that sentence is supposed to end?)
- June excursion to the Big Island of Hawaii in June. Have a look at some of my photos from it.
- August runner-up: time spent at a lake in the Adirondacks
Best Educational Opportunities:
- Virtual Humans to Mars conference: three days of inspiring, uplifting presentations by remarkably clever humans from all over the world. You can attend in 2022 and find out how these people from around the globe are making future trips to Mars a real thing!
- Close Runner-up: The Rambo Academy classes for writers at all skill levels featuring many different aspects of our craft. They even have gift certificates if you are stumped by what to give the writer in your life.
Best Pandemic Antidote:
- Occasional flower deliveries for creating beautiful arrangements via ReVased.com. Have a look at some of my creations here and on Instagram.
Most Fun New Series:
- Tie: WandaVison, For All Mankind (season 2)
Things to come in 2022: Watch this space for new announcements:
- Etruscan Afterlife is a short story appearing next year in The Reinvented Heart, edited by Cat Rambo and Jenn Brozek (preorder now!)
- Branching out into two new projects I can’t disclose yet!
- Moar dinosaurs!
What were some of your favorites in 2021?
I’m beginning to think new story ideas are a way to procrastinate on other works in progress. This is the second time in two months that getting bogged down in a complicated, research-intensive piece has led me to start work on something shorter and seemingly easier. Of course, the ease or difficulty when I set out to write a new story can be awfully misleading. This one, however, takes place in a setting I’ve used before with an antagonist I’ve also spent a good deal of time contemplating. Wish me luck!
Also, I will go back to that other work in progress. Those characters are getting impatient!
There’s nothing better than a short, sharp slice of flash fiction to get the mind working. 99 Tiny Terrors is an anthology that the reader can dip into for something deliciously dangerous in a short amount of time or spend an afternoon trolling through blood soaked stories from all over the world including Canada, England, Germany, Greece, Ireland, India, Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, the United States, and Wales.
It features stories from the devious minds of Seanan McGuire, Ruthanna Emrys, Meg Elison, Wendy N.Wagner, Scott Edelman, Cat Rambo, Tim Waggoner, and more. Oh and I’ll be in it with a piece that has the longest title I ever wrote: The Holy Wars of Mathematics: A Secret History of the Calculus of Chicanery.
Check out the kickstarter!
Ideas for stories come easily to me. However, not all writers and would-be writers can say the same. If you struggle to come up with ideas, or perhaps ideas you think are good enough to sustain an entire story that people will want to read from beginning to end, let me assure you it’s not an impossible feat. In fact, it just might be easier than it seems.
Here’s how a new story came to me a couple of weeks ago: I was staying with a long-time friend at a cabin near a lake. Naturally, as you might expect, we got to talking about mutual friends and acquaintances. A couple of those people had done things that I could very loosely use in a story. Next, since my friend and I are both kayakers, we went out on the lake. Since she knows the waterways quite well, she led me through a series of channels when the water was unusually high for August. Still, there were challenges like getting around a beaver dam and one narrow, brisk channel where we wanted to go upstream. We finally reached a calm, lovely pool. Some days earlier, we had visited the house where John Brown once lived and is buried, now a historic site. I had had no idea he even lived there! I did know that several forts in the region played key roles in the French and Indian War.
I put these disparate elements together into a new story, one I had no notion of writing before my visit. Notice how I’ve shifted from talking about story ideas to story elements—setting, backstory, characters, events. That’s how I cobble together a bunch of my stories. It’s nothing like starting off with a killer idea.
Now here’s my challenge if you are struggling: What events—be they historic or simply fascinating incidents—happened near where you live now or once lived? What about them intrigues you? What have you seen, done, and experienced in these places? Who else was with you? What else can you throw into the mix, especially an obstacle or two? I hope that before you know it, you’ll be in the middle of a fine story that only you can tell.