The world of writing is a big old labyrinth without a map, guidebook, rules … logic (sometimes), you get the point. So here is one writer’s pause and reflection over a year’s worth of world crafting.
Last year I upped my game a bit in the writing world. I worked hard on the lessons flash/short story form teach about construction and took more chances on submissions. This paid off. I had twenty-two submissions over the calendar year of 2017 with three-and-one-half (I’ll explain in a moment) accepted for publication. The half comes from being asked to expand on a pitch and write a test draft, which ultimately didn’t make it in. Alright, so the three-ish doesn’t sound that great … but compare to that 2016 when I had thirty-nine submissions with only three acceptances. This increase was due to several factors. One, by working with a writers group I got better at the core craft. The stories I am churning out now are stronger and more focused thanks to their feedback and support. Two, I have gotten better at selecting the markets I was sending to instead of the scatter-shot of the first year. Three, luck. Never discount luck when submitting.
Alright, now anyone who knows me is well aware I like a meatier story. Novel length is where my plotting side goes to. Applying the lessons of short story format I have found it a bit easier to approach newer ideas on formation, and editing is a touch easier. But this is simple improvement that happens with time … let’s get into the nitty gritty in no real order of importance.
Lesson One: there is a story in everything! Some are flashes, some are shorts, and some are too large to be contained. The trick is realizing when you’re shoe-horning a big scope tale into a flash and instead of cramming, let it breathe! This year I grew frustrated with a short story that I have been trying to get out into the world for about two years. Every time it comes back. I asked my writers group to no-holds barred give it a rending and let me know what was triggering the rejections. The verdict came back from my trusted readers: There is more than one story in here–either cut back to one or expand on this other one. I scratched my head for MONTHS over this feedback as I couldn’t decide what to do. Then … Christmas came, and on the Eve at the stroke of midnight I lost my beloved silvermuzzled border collie, Ashenpaw. In my grief I wrote another story of an angel dog, joining Ion’s “Chain Lightning” … and it dawned on me. There IS more to this story. A whole lot more. 2018’s project is now to forge a full novel out of my vision of what happens when our beloved dogs pass on.
Lesson Two: a writers group is invaluable. Writing is a grueling and lonely craft. Suffering the lows together helps. In the shorter format acceptance percentages average close to 1% or LESS. That means you are bound to see a lot of rejections even if you rock! This can be for many reasons: wrong tone for their collection, another story like it, editor had a bad day etc. Could have nothing to do with your skills. So you have to be able to gauge how you’re really doing. A good group will share success and failures, give honest and valued feedback, and ultimately teach you to start finding your writing self. Not every piece of feedback will work for you. 😉 Not everyone is Hemingway or King … which leads me to three.
Lesson Three: there is a lot of information on How To … out there, you CAN’T follow it all. So don’t! Learning how to critically evaluate these tidbits is important. But we can’t (and shouldn’t) all write like Hemingway! What makes for great King suspense/horror doesn’t work so great for Tolkien fantasy fans. The key is finding the elements you like to read and want in your stories then learn how to implement them. Good beta-readers in a writing group are awesome for this. You’ll be able to see what come across and what trips them up. You will also find loads of articles out there about adverbs/adjectives, ellipsis, dream sequences, prologues, dialog tags (said vs bookisms)–I could go on for an Illiad length saga. The point is everyone has an opinion. You won’t be able to satisfy everyone, nor should you try. Learn the basic rules, then learn how to stylistically break them. Good fiction isn’t written with pristine grammar. After all, in common English we break the rules all over the place. A grammar correct book can be boring. The key is to present your work in a way that the prose doesn’t get in the way of itself–see, I don’t mean free reign to do whatever you want, the result must be clear to readers. Again, betas who know you will help here. I’m not everyone’s cup of coffee in that I tend toward the purple-prose end. But this is my natural writer’s voice. In revisions I catch the areas that nag, but leave the rest because it suits my work. Style is something that comes with time. You can’t force it. Let it come.
Lesson Four: writing frequently helps, especially when you let the pressure off yourself. Do a fun short challenge. Use a random prompt and see what comes out of it. In a writers group do raw challenges with little clean-up time before posting to see what comes naturally. You learn a LOT by doing this. What comes to you first? How do you build a story (character, setting, threat)? What elements are you good at? What elements do you struggle with? These tidbits will aid you in identifying what your strengths are weaknesses are. Some writers are great at dialog, some are great at beginnings, some at endings, or actions sequences, or non-action scene buildings … etc. Use excercises like this to learn who you are as a writing. You can take these dabblings and expand them later if you love the idea.
Lesson Five: be fearless in your own space. Don’t restrict yourself. You have an idea? Explore it. You don’t have to show anyone if you don’t want. But you never know what comes from just exploring. A simple meandering story can turn onto a path you never would have thought of and spark a whole new adventure. Every page is a blank map of a world, don’t be afraid to simply wander for a bit. Editing is where you refocus after the discovery.
Lesson Six: be YOU. If you have a story to tell, tell it. Get it onto the proverbial page anyway you can, however long it takes. Don’t let anyone tell you not to. And if they do–they aren’t your audience. Writing takes bravery when we share our visions with the world. This isn’t easy, but if the story isn’t what you wanted to say it won’t come across right, from the heart. Keep your convictions. To me there is an older audience out there seeking animal-centric stories. I will write it, they will come.
Remember–there is no map, this journey is yours. Take the step, and the one after, and the one after that … see you on the road!