Rows to Hoe

The last six months have been a strange time for me. I won’t bore you with all the details, just take my word for it. For the literary among you, it felt like my whole life was moving in a widening gyre. The salient detail here is that I wasn’t doing much writing. Oh, I’d write that occasional blog post or chip away at a story here or there, but there was none of the sustained writing I was doing a year ago. I’m happy to report that that situation has finally started to correct itself.

I’ve been working on some new things recently. I’ve got a new Contingency Jones story in the works, along with a new Sam Branch short story and the beginning of a new Branch novel. I’ve been working on a couple of TV show ideas that might one day see the light of day. And I’ve been revisiting the machinima idea that I was working on last year. There’s been some revision to the scripts for the first five episodes. I’ve acquired a theme song for it, as well as looking around for some royalty free music to use as incidental music inside the episodes. I’ve also been doing some fresh video capture with my brother for the first episode.

I’ve also been, oh so very slowly, doing a little more work on the audiodrama idea I was working on last year. That one is harder because it isn’t just the writing. There’s a lot of moving pieces in an audiodrama that I don’t necessarily have total control over. Suffice it to say, work is happening on that.

In other news, I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman’s new book, Norse Mythology. It’s awesome and you should read it! Also, I’ve started to learn to code in JavaScript. Yeah, I knew you’d be excited about that. 😉

My Nonovels Experiment

photo credit: jdlasica via photopin cc

photo credit: jdlasica via photopin cc

So, I’m always looking for new outlets for my writing, and I recently ran across a site called Nonovels. It’s an interesting little site, made more interesting to me because it’s trying to do some really cool things. The guiding idea behind the site is fairly simple. A lot of people who won’t read novels, or simply don’t have the time to read novels, will read short stories. However, no one wants to read crappy short stories. Nonovels aims to provide solutions to both issues, while taking advantage of the explosion in mobile technologies.
A big part of the site is a set of training courses, most of them free, that center around short story best practices. The courses are primarily designed for beginning writers, but they do offer very sound advice. It’s the kind of advice that most fiction writers, me included, learn through extended, painful, trial-and-error. For example, one piece of advice they offer is to limit the number of settings you employ in a short story. This might be obvious to seasoned writers, but not so much for novice writers.

To be fair, like most writing rules, that one isn’t set in stone. Some writers can and do violate this piece of advice. I’ve done it. It is possible to sketch an authentic setting with a few well-written lines, but it’s not easy. As a guide for early forays into short fiction, though, that advice is invaluable. The other advice they offer on characterization, voice, point of view and so on follows the same essential principle: don’t overcomplicate things.

The other thing they offer, which is the selling point for me, is dealing with the entire formatting and submission process to turn the short stories into Kindle-ready products on Amazon. They take a percentage off the top of the royalties for this service and, to me, it’s worth it. Yes, I agree, the dedicated writer can do that formatting and submitting and cover creation. It is, however, time consuming and takes me away from the writing.

The base price they set on Amazon for Nonovels short stories is $2.99. I blinked at that, right at first, until I considered everything they’re doing in terms of managing submissions and offering training. Plus, it’s still a heck of a lot cheaper than any Kindle-ready fiction from one of the big publishing houses. What you’re really paying for is helping to develop a cohort of writers that will, with any luck, produce work that transcends the current crop of Fifty Shades of Terrible Writing and that Twilight horror.

Like most writers, I have ideas that don’t nest comfortably in a pigeonhole. That is great from a creative standpoint. Unfortunately, those stories generally prove difficult, if not impossible, to place in publications. So, over the next few months, Nonovels is going to be the place where those stories go to live.

I’ve got one short story live already. It’s a shiny, new Contingency Jones story called, “An Afternoon’s Work,” and you can get it over on Amazon. For Prime subscribers, you can borrow it free. I’m also working on a follow-up Contingency Jones story that I’m hoping to get finished and live sometime in the next few weeks, so keep your eyes open.
I’ll keep you all updated as this experiment moves forward and the Nonovels site develops and expands.

Are you on Nonovels? Got some thoughts on this experiment or the Nonovels site? Leave a comment and let me know!

Eric’s Year End Report – 2014

So, it’s been an interesting year. I set some goals earlier this year. Some I achieved, in part or in full, and some I failed to achieve. And one came out of the blue and I more or less made it happen. So, here’s the report.

I set a goal to get the new Branch novel out this year and I did it. I did it by the skin of my teeth, but I did it. Speaking of which, you should go get your copy of Rises: A Samuel Branch Novel. It’s available through your friendly, neighborhood Amazon.com in Kindle and print editions. It will be released for Nook, as well as most other e-readers, early next year.

I set a goal of getting three short stories published in magazines this year. I fell a bit short. I placed two short stories with Stupefying Stories, which is a terrific publication that you should show some love. One of my stories appeared in the August 2014 issue, which you can get here. The second story will, most likely, appear sometime early this coming year. Still, I’ll take my two placed short stories, be happy, and aim to place twice that many next year.

I had also planned on starting a podcast. I even recorded a preliminary episode that generated some positive response from the alpha listeners I shared it with. It just never quite came together. Some of it was a time issue. There are never quite enough hours in a week. Some of it was simple concern that, however good my intentions, I just wouldn’t be able to come up with enough interesting material to sustain the podcast over the long haul. The idea isn’t dead, but I’m letting it percolate a bit more before I either move forward or scrap heap it. I’ll let everyone know where I come down on that.

Another goal I had was to put together a limited run web-series. The plan was 4 episodes running 3-5 minutes each. This one really did boil down to me not having enough time commit to the project, paired up with my uncertainty that I could get the right resources in place, at the right times, to make it happen. I still want to do the series and, if Clotho, Lechesis and Atropos see fit to consent, I’d like to be announcing that the first episode is going live sometime in April. Pester me about this folks. Shame is a powerful motivator.

A goal I hadn’t set for myself, but ultimately wound up delivering on was a pretty substantive renovation of an old house. I tore out floors clear down to the joists and, in some cases, those came out too. I installed new underlayments, sanded down hardwood, put down new finish, and even helped to cut and install some tile. It was a pretty massive project that stretched out for months, but it’s all but complete now and I’m pretty proud of what I did there.

Overall, looking back, I can’t complain about this past year. There were some pie in the sky things I either didn’t get a chance to do (visit Crater Lake), or would have liked to have done but it wasn’t realistic (finish a second novel in addition to the new Branch novel).

Still, I did learn how inefficient I can be with my time. It’s a forgivable sin, I think. I’m certainly not alone in it. In retrospect, I can see how those inefficiencies contributed to my failing to reach certain goals (podcast, web series). So, right at the top of my list for next year’s goals is improving my time/self management. I’m going to take my cue from Lean Thinking and aim make persistent, incremental improvements. Some will be easy, some will be hard, but even small improvements often lead to big results. As I formulate some new goals for the coming year, I’ll keep you appraised.

Short Story Publication and Other Updates

photo credit: SpreadTheMagic via photopin cc

photo credit: SpreadTheMagic via photopin cc

Earlier this year, I mentioned that I’d set a goal to get three short stories published this year. I’m now one step closer to that goal. My short story, “Memory Makes Liars of Us All,” was just published in the August 2014 issue of Stupefying Stories. The issue is available over on Amazon, for Kindle, for $1.99. I also hear tell there may be a print version in the works, but I don’t have details on that. Either way, there are some great stories in that issue and you won’t want to miss it!

Getting that story picked up was especially meaningful for me. Of all the short stories I’ve written over the years, it’s one of my personal favorites. It took a long time to gestate. I wrote the first, much less sophisticated, much less polished version of that story years ago. It’s gone through a lot of drafts since that first effort. Along the way it’s lost some weight, about 3000 words worth. The original ending is gone, as is the original beginning. Also missing are so very many awkward sentences and stillborn ideas. It’s not a perfect story, no story ever is, but I’m very proud of it. I hope you enjoy it.

I also had an opinion piece that I wrote about America’s uneven response to the issue of big data collection picked up over at Global Comment. It isn’t just the NSA that engages in big data collection. We should all think hard about who we trust with our information. I’m quite proud of that piece as well and hope you’ll take a few minutes to read it.

On the Sam Branch front, my revised draft of Rises is out being looked over by my woefully underpaid, but supremely talented, volunteer editor. I’m letting Branch take a nap in my head while that happens, but the new novel is coming.

I’ve got some projects in various stages of doneness. There is a freshly minted short story in a first draft form, along with another that’s about halfway there. So, with any luck, I’ll be able to find homes for one of those. I’m still playing around with a couple of the non-Branch novel ideas I have, but I imagine that work will start on one of those very soon. I’ve also got a couple of other opinion/essay type things that I’m testing out in the uncertain world of submissions. If I get anywhere with those, I’ll let you know. Promise!

New & Free & Here- A Samuel Branch Short Story

I know it’s been ages and ages, more than a year, since you guys have seen any new fiction from me. Well, as promised earlier this week, I’m about to change that. Please find below, the all new Sam Branch short story, Becoming. Enjoy!

For Kindle users: Becoming (mobi)

For pretty much all other Ereaders: Becoming (ePub)

For those without an Ereader: Becoming (PDF)

In Which I Discuss Fiction and the Peculiar Consistency of Voice

photo credit: stephenscottjenkins via photopin cc

photo credit: stephenscottjenkins via photopin cc

A very long time ago, a lifetime ago it feels some days, I got it into my head that I was going to be a writer. Not merely a writer, I was going to be a writer of short stories and novels. So, I wrote short stories and started novels, most of which were truly awful, unoriginal, or plagued with the kinds of mistakes that all writers seem to make in the early days. I submitted the short stories to various markets. In most cases, I received the dreaded form-letter rejection and I still have all of them tucked away in a folder somewhere. Every once in a while, though, I found myself getting a scrawled note of encouragement from an editor.

In those early days, I didn’t recognize the significance of those scrawled notes. Intellectually, I knew they meant that I was getting somewhere. I knew it, but I didn’t feel it. I felt the rejection, of course. The fragile confidence of youth always recognizes rejection and I wrote less. Then life began to intervene. There were deaths in the family, college, relationships and I wrote less and less and less. Until, finally, I wasn’t writing fiction at all.

It was years before I turned back to writing fiction and I went big. I started with a novel and, by and large, have stuck with it since then. It’s been a hobby, a thing done between the paying gigs, and that seemed okay by me. Then, a funny thing happened. The holidays rolled around. Western society all but ground to a halt and I had some extra time on my hands. I had a lot of extra time on my hands. So, I wrote a few short stories. These were ideas that didn’t have a place in my novels, but persisted in reminding me they existed.

I discovered two things as a result of that little experiment. The first thing I discovered or, perhaps, remembered is the correct word, is that I like writing short stories. It’s fun. It’s also demanding. Writing short fiction forces you to excise all of those extra characters and subplots and interesting tidbits you can squeeze into a novel. The second thing I discovered is that voice is shockingly consistent.

In the process of looking for something else, I found an old short story I had written and submitted in the bygone days of 2003, buried in the depths of my email. I pulled the story out of the email and reformatted it into something readable. Then I read it. It wasn’t a great story. I wouldn’t even call it a good story, though it had the potential to be a not bad story. The interesting part about it, however, was that as I read it, I recognized my own writer’s voice in it. I could imagine writing that story, with very similar language, today. There was something in the cadence, in the word choice, in the particulars of description that I recognized as me.

It was like hearing a decade-old echo from a younger me that I barely remember sometimes. What I do remember about that much younger version of myself isn’t terribly flattering. I wasn’t an awful person, at least, not any more so than all 20-somethings are raging, self-involved psychopaths that substitute hubris for self-confidence. I’ve just reached a point in life where I felt like that person and the person I am now didn’t share anything. Then I read that story and realized that I did share something with my younger self. I shared a voice. I shared a sense of how language can be employed for effect. I could connect the writer I am now to the writer I was then and, by proxy, the person I am now to the person I was then.

It was a strange realization that voice, less polished and precise, perhaps, but still the same in its essentials, was so consistent. I just assumed that my writing had evolved in the same way that I had evolved as a person. The funny thing is that I was right, but not in the way I imagined I was right. The hardest, sharpest edges that made me problematic as a person were worn down by time and experience. The roughest, most flagrant errors that made my writing problematic were corrected by the same thing. It wasn’t evolution I was experiencing, but a process of refinement. The impurities, the flaws, the blemishes were being burned away, slowly, so very slowly, but they were exiting the picture.

The process isn’t over, it’s never really over until you die, but I can see it now. I haven’t become a different person or a different writer. I have become and am still becoming a purer version of both and that’s okay by me.

The Short Story: Pacing

Originally posted 2-27-2012

Pacing a short story may very well be the hardest element in the whole process because it has so much to do with what kind of story you’re writing. Short stories in the so-called literary category tend to have a slow, almost languid pace, beginning to end. Short stories that fall into the category of mysteries/thriller/horror tend to ratchet up the pace as they go, in order to build tension. Science fiction and fantasy short stories have no defined kind of pacing.

This is one area where the writer is largely on his or her own. The best way to get a feel for pacing is to read extensively within the genre that you’re writing. By extensively, I don’t mean a dozen. I mean hundreds of short stories. You need to absolutely immerse yourself. However, to give you a few examples of people that I think write extremely effective short fiction, regardless of genre, check out the following books:

Tim O’Brien – The Things They Carried

Neil Gaiman – Smoke and Mirrors

Ray Bradbury –  I Sing the Body Electric

James Baldwin – Going To Meet The Man

F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald

J.D. Salinger – Nine Stories

 

The Short Story – Technical Details

Originally posted 7-8-2011

Writers love to talk about the craft of writing. In some cases, they love talking about it so much that they never get around to actual writing. However, at the risk of sound like a businessman, there are some technical aspects that go into formatting a short story to make it possible to sell it.

Every outlet for short fiction provides formatting guidelines, which is something of a misnomer. The term guidelines suggest that there’s some wiggle room or that the things set out in the guidelines are suggestions. Wrong! Absolutely, fundamentally, wrong! The guidelines that magazines, the prime market for short fiction, set out should be considered sacrosanct. I cannot stress this enough. Unless your name happens to be Margaret Atwood, Chuck Palahniuk, Annie Proulx or Tobias Wolff, you can rest assured anything other than the most minor and accidental deviations from the guidelines will help to ensure your story’s rejection.

The very simple reason for this is that deviations create work for the magazine staff. As a generally underpaid and unappreciated group of people, the magazine staff isn’t looking to make their lives harder. While there are no absolutes in the land of formatting, there are a couple of assumptions you can make.

Margins should be set to one inch. This one is pretty standard. I think it’s even the default on most word processing programs, so you shouldn’t have to mess with it.

Double spacing. God forbid you forget to double space. Double spacing is standard, in part, because it makes the story easier to read. It is also standard because it provides editors with a bit of space to scribble instructions to those worthy souls that will take your printed masterpiece and make it appear in the magazine.

Your Name. God knows how people forget this one, but most guidelines call for your name to appear on the first page and in the header of every single page of the document. Some places only ask for the last name to appear, other’s your full name. Check the guidelines, but make sure your name is on that thing.

Use the right paper. 20 pound bond paper. It’s readily available in retail outlets and online.

Print in black. I say it again. Print in black. Any color other than black will almost certainly land your submission in the trash. The very simple reason is that it is unprofessional. It doesn’t make you stand out. It just looks gimmicky, like submitting a resume on pink paper.

So, there you go. Some technical basics that most, if not all, editors will appreciate. And don’t forget to read the guidelines.

The Short Story: Structure

Originally posted 12-23-2010

A short story can be structured in a myriad of ways, but experience dictates to me that the VAST majority of stories do not need complicated structures to work well. More to the point, I find that the VAST majority of stories that try to do “creative” things with structure fail to achieve the goal and are simply muddled.  There are exceptions of course, but the exceptions that work are few and far between.

So, on that note, I encourage people to write their stories following the stock plot structure, which goes something like this: exposition, rising action, climax.  If necessary, you can include the falling action and resolution, but I find that the falling action and resolution get folded into the climax in short form fiction. Of course, these terms are fairly hollow, in and of themselves, so here’s a short example.

 

Exposition:

Miriam had thrown the party of the year and she knew it.  She floated from guest to guest, basking in the glow of her success.  For the first time in ages, she not only was, but felt witty and at ease.  The mistakes of the past were washed away by the attentive eyes and the engaged conversation.  She made her way through the crowd, a passing word here, a light touch on the arm there, on the way to the wet bar.  The server smiled at her, his starched shirt impossibly crisp and his teeth impossibly white.

“Scotch on the rocks, please,” she said.

The server poured the drink and handed it to her.

“Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“Yes, have you seen my husband?”

The server shifted his eyes before nodding his head no, but Miriam caught the unspoken lie.

 

The above does most of the things the introduction portion or exposition portion of the story should do. It introduces our central character, gives setting, and builds up to the moment of rising action.

 

Rising Action:

Miriam had no conscious thought for her guests as she rushed from the room, almost knocking one of the catering staff of his feet as she shoved open the door.  She raced up the stairs of the million dollar home she had spent too much time alone in over the years.  Her eyes passed over the artwork and the antique silver.  Without even understanding why, she recalled the cost of each and said it under her breath.

“Thirty-eight thousand, twenty-two thousand, fourteen thousand,” she whispered.

She ran toward the master bedroom, her high-heeled shoes cracking against the hardwood with a sound like gunfire.  She stopped short of the mahogany door, her hand resting on the ornate brass handle.

 

In the above, I build up the tension by showing that Miriam is concerned and racing to see if she’s right to be concerned, but there’s nothing confirmed at this point.  Everything here is by implication, rather than explication.

 

Climax:

 

Miriam took a breath to try to steady her racing heart.  She braced herself for the worst, turned the knob and stepped into the bedroom.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” said John, holding out a glass of champagne to Miriam.

A breath she didn’t know she’d been holding exploded from Miriam.  She took the glass from John and drained it.

 

Here the climax is relatively straightforward and, as the conflict in the story was one built on assumption and expectation, can be resolved quickly.  While this little example won’t win any awards, it should help to clarify what is meant by exposition, rising action, and climax.  In this case, there isn’t any real falling action or resolution outside of the climax.

The Short Story: Getting Started – Part 2

Originally posted 12-22-2010

I said we’d talk more this time about setting. At the risk of being called out for oversimplification, outside of pure genre fiction, I find setting to be a matter of secondary importance in most short stories.  The reason for this is simple.  Unless it has a pretty specific and obvious allegorical meaning, the setting in most short stories cannot be developed to a sufficient degree to make it core to the story. This is less true inside genre fiction, where the setting (especially a previously existing one) can be a fundamentally important element.

Nonetheless, much like character back-story, the writer may have or need to develop an extensive understanding of the setting in order to render sketch coverage of the setting believable. Putting the story in a swamp doesn’t necessarily require that you go on at length about the flora and fauna, but at least a few descriptive sentences are necessary.  You could talk about stagnant water or decaying vegetation, the presence of methane from decaying vegetation.  If the larger geographic region is the southwest, Texas or Louisiana for example, it’s called a bayou rather than a swamp.  This is the kind of information you need to research and, frequently, the sum knowledge you’ll accumulate will eclipse the amount you’ll use.

Establishing setting, much like establishing a clear character, can also help to limit the scope and presentation of the story.  While an abduction story can be told in urban, suburban and rural settings, the way the story can be told is different in each one.  Police response, both the speed and size, will vary between these settings.  The purpose and reasons for an abduction will vary.  (again, some research will probably be necessary to give these elements some authenticity) Issues such as dialects, slang and the kinds of vehicles being driven will vary.  The characters in a story set in Washington, DC will talk very differently than characters set in rural Arkansas.  Vehicles in poor farming communities will be different than those driven in Beverly Hills.

The fundamental rule for setting that I follow is that the setting must serve the purpose of the story. If there’s a setting you’re determined to use, don’t try to bend an idea to fit it.  Wait for the right idea for that setting.

Caveat: I recommend avoiding dialects unless you are very, very familiar with them and expect your readers to have the same familiarity. Dropping in appropriate slang is usually sufficient.