Short Story & Willow Update (or why the best bar stories never get published…)

Last week our home routine changed again. Daniel has started kindergarten. His transformation into a bona-fide student went so smoothly, I’m surprised he wasn’t standing at the school’s doors at 6am with his new bookbag and lunchbox, calling out impatiently, "What time is it? Will school start soon? How about now? Now? Now?"

Thank God it went so smoothly. Much better than his summer school program back in June, when he got being mistaken for a Mexican boy and put on the wrong schoolbus. I would go into more details about this, but I’ve realized something: there are just some stories that are only meant to be told once, in the heat of the moment. Told any more times after that, and then the power of it wanes. When Daniel did not get off his bus and I spent the next two hours trying to piece together what happened, my emotions became so churned, that when we finally found Daniel (safe and sound, and in fact taking great delight at his impromptu ride) I headed down to the bar where my book club was meeting, where I spat out the most vitriolic, obscenity-laden, ear-blistering diatribe railing against the ignorance and ineptitude of the whole Madison bus system.

Then, afterwards, when the room still ringing from my profanity-laced hollering and the group, in all their wisdom, got me a well-deserved Mike’s Hard Lemonade, I found myself thinking, wow. That was good!

I have since told the story since to other people, but it’s not the same. For one thing, I’m calmer and had a chance to think about it. And I’m also owing up to part of the whole mess, so the story loses its emotional impact. ("If we hadn’t lost the wristband he was supposed to wear…") And even if I did get upset about it ("Never mind that even if he did wore the wristband, they would’ve ignored it; much like how they ignored the wristband of the Mexican boy they claimed was my son…) it pales against the initial blizzard of frustration and rage I felt.

The profanity was the best part. I never swear all that much in public, and even among friends, I occasionally use a tame ‘hell’ or ‘damn’. But that night, whoa, I swear, the bar we met at got few more cracks in their ceiling from the words I was using (and I don’t regret it one bit—in fact, according to Time Magazine, it’s actually good for women to swear now and then. Acts as a pain reducer. Who knew?).

On the plus side, I did sell two stories in August. (Don’t worry, what I wrote above is related. You’ll see.) One will be published in October, the other sometime in Spring next year. So I crossed them off my list and took a look to see what other stories I had floating around the magazine markets.

Only two.

There’s one story that’s currently at Writers of the Future, so I should be hearing from that sometime this month. There’s another story that’s a rewrite request that I’m waiting to hear back on hopefully by this month as well. But as far as new stuff goes, I got nothing. Nada. Zip. Which means I better get some new stories out there to circulate, stat.

It’s not like I don’t have any stories to send out. I did a ton of writing back when Daniel was in summer school, so I actually have several finished stories sitting on my hard drive. Thing is though, these are all first drafts of stories. I wrote them as fun freewriting exercises and just never had time to go through them again. Or I figured I’d do some research first before I return to revisions. Then there’s one story I wrote a long time ago. But when I started the second revision of it, it started to get too wordy, too long-winded. The second draft was killing the story, so I set it aside to think on it some more, then promptly forgot about it.

Ever since I started writing, I’ve been of the opinion that good stories need to be revised twice, three times, four, maybe even five or six times before it’s ready to send out to markets. And I still stand on that. I’m working on a short story now that I know I’ll need a heavy duty revision for—it requires some research for it to be just right. It is a jewel that will need some good polishing to make right.

But I’m also wondering if my story-writing has improved as such that I can take some stories I wrote, do a general pass for spelling, grammar and punctuation, and just send them out. No toying with plot or point of view. No countless freewrites to figure out what the story’s theme or playing around with words to make it more lyrical. Just make sure it flows well, then send it out.

It’s a risky thing to do. I’m a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to revising stories (and that’s the last time you’ll see me use the word ‘perfectionist’ when describing myself). I don’t want my stories to be merely good. I want them to be great. But who am I to determine if a story is ‘great’ or even ‘good’? The only way to find that out is to let someone else read them. But I can’t do that if they’re only sitting on my hard-drive. And there’s a possibility that the more revision I’d do, the less effective the story gets. There are some stories that do require carefully planning and revising, and there are some stories that are best when they were written in the heat of the moment, so to speak. Those stories work so well the first time, to rewrite them again would be an injustice, just like the school bus mix-up story. When I told it to my book club, it was perfect. I can’t recapture that again. (See, told you it was related.)

So here’s what I’m going to do. Starting this week, I’m going to start submitting a story a week. That means it need to be pulled off the hard drive, given a once-over to make sure it looks good, then find a market and send it off by Friday. If I do this for five weeks, it gets me five stories out in the market field. (I wanted to start this last week when September started, but with all the first day of school fun, I was pretty busy). So my goal is to have five stories submitted to markets by October 9. I’ll put a progress meter on the blog to show how I’m doing.

This isn’t something I’m doing for money or for show. It’s just a simple way for me to get some stories off my hard drive and out circulating until they find a place where they belong. Oh, yes, Willow is going along quite well. I just finished editing chapter seven, which ended on, I think, a wonderfully sinister note. I’ve been trying a new style of revision using Word 2007 comment feature—as I revise, if there’s something I’m really stuck on, instead of spending precious time trying to figure it out, I comment it with a couple of questions and continue on with the rewrite. The next time I open Word, I go to the comments first. Not only have I figured out the problem by then, but it also pulls me back into the story. I’m kicking myself for not doing this sooner—it would’ve saved me a whole lot of backtracking.

But I will get Willow done. Darn it.

When to write and when to polish (and when to wax poetic…)

So last week I was listening to the Adventures in Scifi Publishing episode where Shaun Ferrell interviews Neil Gaiman. Towards the end of the podcast, About 30 minutes in, to be exact, Neil said something that troubled me a little. It’s part of the advice every writer gets nowadays–to write, and write every day. That part, I have no trouble with. What Neil said next, though, did. He said, and I quote:

“It’s much, much better to go off and write 10,000 words filled with glorious mistakes than to think for three weeks and write a 1500 word little jewel, then polish that jewel for the next month or two until it glows, and you have one perfect little thing. While, someone else has written 30,000 words that probably won’t be usable, but they’re 30,000 words better now. They’ve made 30,000 words worth of cool mistakes that they won’t be making again.”

This bothered me because At first, I was pretty irate. Who does Neil think he is? How dare he–an established, well-known famous author with several books under his belt–tell me–a part-time secretary, full-time mother trying to juggle writing time with housework/preschooler’s naps–how to be a writer? It’s easy for him to say “write something every day”. He doesn’t have kids running through a tiny two-bedroom apartment throwing train tracks everywhere and complaining every five minutes, “I’m bored. This is boring. I’m boooooored.” (By the way, can you guess what Daniel’s new word of the day is?) Don’t he realize that I got to take whatever time I can get? I don’t have the luxury to pick and choose what I work on. Hey, if I was an established, full-time writer, I’d sit on my butt and churn out stories every day, revise a few more stories, find markets for them, send them out, and still have time to clean the house, cook dinner, read to my son, fly to the moon, solve crime, negotiate for peace in Sudan, stop global warming…

Mind you, now, these were the very first thoughts that came to mind when I heard Neil say that.

I’ve been thinking about it ever since. At this very moment, I am juggling two revision projects–one of which I’ve been revising over and over since last November, trying to get it as perfect as possible before sending it to…well…actually I need to find a market for it. Granted, it’s not a 1500 little jewel–it’s more of a 12,000 honking big jewel I’ve been polishing for quite some time. And since I’ve been revising it, I’ve done little else in writing–just that and Willow, really. Haven’t worked on any new stories or essays. Haven’t sent anything new out. In fact, this Agony Booth recap I started a week ago is the first new anything I’ve done since…since…

What was the last story I worked on?

Of course, I can make excuses. I can say that I was so stressed out at the beginning of the year with preparing our house for sale that it sucked my creative juices dry. The only way I could stay sane was to edit my existing stories, and it helped me out to focus solely on them. Actually, I won’t make that an excuse. That stressful time really did help me focus better on my story.

But at the same time, one can only revise and revise and revise without getting worn down. I need to have that spontaneous feeling again of whipping up a story out of thin air. I need to get back to the delight of wondering what word I will put down next. And I’ve been taking steps in doing that. I’ve been pushing myself to do more freewriting. Actually, I’ve been attempting to ease myself into it since July, and so far, it’s been a bit better. I just need to figure out timing and all.

When I first started this post, I was going to dispute Mr. Gaiman’s statement by saying, “You can write, write, write all you want. But what use is it if all those words are sitting on your computer, never to be polished into a story?” However, now I have to admit; he’s right. I need to start writing again, and by writing, I mean writing new stuff. It’s in the new stories that you learn how to write better because you are constantly working with new material to play with.

But I would further add that writing should be balanced with revising. At some point, you do have to take a story and polish it. You don’t see editors asking for first drafts of stories. They want something that’s your very best. And to be really honest, I like my stories to be jewels. It’s how they stand out. At least, I like to think they do. And then you have to submit. Because after all that work, if it’s still sitting on your hard drive, what good does it do you?

Write. Revise. Submit. Finding the balance between the three. ‘Course, there will be times when you can do only one. You may get so drained out of a family crises that you may just want to just revise something. Or not work on anything at all. That’s the best thing about writing–it’s pretty flexible to whatever circumstances you’re in.

Now if the whole Obama/McCain election was just as flexible, we’d be in good shape.

Status update on Willow

My desk is clean. The whole house is clean. The boy is currently watching Diego. I got some free time on my hands. I could work on a new blog post (all right, I’m writing it now, yes. I know that. But there’s a reason for all this. Bear with me, okay?). But I could also work on some short stories. Since so many got published within the last month, I need to get some new works out there. I could work on some essays–I got some ideas in mind to try to get into Chicken Soup for the Soul.

Or…

I can quit dilly-dallying and start editing Willow.

On the “I should be Writing” podcast a few weeks ago, Mur Lafferty talks about pre-writing writing. It’s doing work on your book like outlining or character sheets, but not actual writing. However, it’s just as important, because it lays the groundwork for your book. Without it, you’re lost, or at least constantly changing your world without any set guidelines. I feel like I haven’t been working on Willow at all, just fiddling around with the storylines. But although it didn’t feel like work, it was very needed work.

Over the past few months, I’ve been writing out all the storylines, both major and supporting, of Willow by character. It felt somewhat convoluted, as I did each plotline according to each character, and in some cases, there was a lot of repetition. But I wanted to see how the storyline looked from each character’s point of view. In some cases, what one character did made me change the storyline of another character. Doing it this way, I was able to see the big picture of the book. It also made me realize that I’ll have to rewrite many, many chapters.

Ah, the fun of being a writer.

As of last Friday, all the storyline plots are done. I still need to organize them in a way that’s easy to read (I’m going to have lots of fun with my Storylines software this week), but I think that I’m done cementing the storyline to how I want it. Which means that, sooner rather than later, it’s time to dive back into the pages of Willow.

I suppose this post can qualify for psyching myself up for it. Although I’ve looked at my book while I worked on the outlines, I haven’t ‘touched’ it per se. Now that the actual plotline groundwork is laid, it’s time to look at the book and figure out how to clean it up to how I want it. I’m still trying to figure out how to do that. I know it will involve a whole lot of notes–it will also involve going through each chapter and figuring out what stays and what goes. I may even need to write new chapters. And which word processor should I do this all in? What I’m using now, RoughDraft, was nice for the first draft, but this will be an extensive rehauling. Should I utilize my Word 2007 for it? Should I look for another writing program? yWriter, for instance? Any writers out there with any ideas?

Hmm…don’t know yet. But I do know this–if I’m going to edit Willow, then now’s the time to do it while my schedule is free. So this is my accountability statement: that starting next Monday, March 17, 2008 I will start my major editing of Willow.

Hey, that’s St. Patrick’s Day! A Day of Green for a Willow book. That’s a nice sign, don’t you think?

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