Looking back on 2011…and ahead for 2012

This morning I woke with a dull headache and a dry mouth, which I’m going to attribute to the small glass of plum wine I had last night. Still more preferable to around this time last year, when I had a throbbing right tooth that got yanked out right before I traveled to St Louis for a staff conference.

Writing wise, I had a huge publishing blitz at the beginning of the year, including a nonfiction article up at Fantasy Magazine and a reprint of Future Perfect podcasted up at Escape Pod. I also had the first ever honor of one of my short stories landing on the storySouth Million Writers Most Notable stories list of 2010.

After April, things went pretty quiet until I was chosen to attend the fifteenth class of Viable Paradise in October, the biggest highlight of the year. To raise funds for that, I wrote 12 short stories and poetry put them into a ebook collection called the Into the Mist-Stained Woods: A Calendar of Tales (more on that will be in a later post). But other than that, since the workshop, I’ve been writing and editing my novel, and that will be the biggest focus for 2012. But that doesn’t mean putting short stories on the back burner. Viable Paradise did teach me was to churn out stories quicker and trust that they’re good enough without spending months of work on them. It’s just the matter of sending them out.

I went to three cons in 2011: Oddcon, Mo*Con, and Wiscon. This year will most likely be the same, but I’m also looking into going to Chicon 7, seeing that it’s in Chicago and all. I hope to make it my first Worldcon attendence.

I also hope to do more blogging this year. Feels like most of my blogs are either about my own work or book reviews. I would like to change that. What would you, my dear reader, like to see more of?

Update on Willow (or Running the race as slow as I can…)

My friend Nicole recently ran the Chicago marathon. You can read her story, "Chasing Garbage Trucks (a marathon story)" at her blog, Five Penny Nicole. It’s really moving. Nicole is a fellow Chicagoan who also moved to Madison, so a lot of what she wrote resonated with me.

I mention this because as you can see, I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this month. Just putting all my energies into my current short story and Willow.  And even those have been going slow. With work and Daniel’s school, I just haven’t had any decent writing time. And I also admit, I’ve been slacking in writing in the evenings. We’ve been watching Babylon 5, and while it’s an awesome show, I haven’t been able to dedicate my usual hours of work in the evening. Sometimes I do write, but it’s hard to concentrate when I’m engrossed in the workings of the Sintari. So it’s getting to be that it takes me two, maybe three weeks to finish a chapter of Willow. And at this snail pace, it would be a miracle if I finish at all next year.

In Nicole’s blog, she talks about running when most of all the sprinters and experienced runners had taken off, leaving the slow runners behind. She talks about running on the sidewalk because the police had open the streets to cars again. She talks about passing empty water stations because the helpers had packed up to go home. And she talks about how despite that, she kept on running. She had made it her goal to finish the course, no matter what place she came in.

It’s not like I have writer’s block that keeps me from working on Willow. While it feels like I’m chipping away at each chapter, paragraph by paragraph, what emerges from all that chipping is some real good storytelling. I’m taking time to think through the logistics: atmosphere, description, believable action. It helps that I’m not in a hurry. Yes, there are times when I get frustrated. I feel that I should be further along.  Here it is getting into November and I only just now finished introducing all the players and starting the dive into the story itself…

But wait…I lie. That last line didn’t feel me with frustration at all. It filled me with glee. It’s got me rubbing my hands in anticipation. I want to see the book to the end, and the thing is, I’m enjoying what I’m writing. It’s not like it’s turned into a thing I have to slog into. This week, I’m putting in the details of a palace that’s based on African architecture. Do you know how much fun it is doing that?

So yes, I’m going slow. But it’s okay. My goal is not to write fast. My goal is to write Willow and finish, so that’s what I’m going to do. And for all you NaNoWriMo writers out there who feel like you’re flagging, like you can’t keep up with the daily word count, ask yourself this: did I sign up for this just to write anything, or did I promise myself to write and finish a novel?

If it’s the latter, then congratulations. You got yourself a goal. Now just keep writing until you reach it. Oh, and thanks Nicole for re-inspiring me. Now if you don’t mind, I got some writing to do!

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.

Weekly Cafe update and a little Writing News

Another bunch of links for you. I’m finding it easier to squeeze these kind of posts in between writing and real life.

First, an update on Willow: going slow, but I expected that to happen. I want the first three chapters of this book to really pull readers in, so I’m taking my time to make sure that it’s right. I’m planning to workshop the 1st two chapters at the Wiscon writer’s workshop, so I need to get those done by April 1.

And speaking of Wiscon, yes, I’ll be there, albeit on Friday only, due to some scheduling snafus. But the scheduling looks very good indeed. After the workshop, there will be a Cultural Appropriation 101 class that looks to be very interesting in light of some very interesting discussions that’s been taking place on LiveJournal. (I’m still working on my own thoughts of the matter, but there are a couple of things I still need to do before I set those thoughts into words.) I also plan to go to Odyssey Con April 24-26. Hmm…from writing workshops to geekcons. I’m making my way up the networking ladder.

Other news: “She’s All Light”, the story I poured my heart and soul into for the past year, got Honorable Mention at the 1st Quarter Writers of the Future Contest. I was a little bummed about it, but overall a lot happier over it than I was making finalist at the Oddcon writing contest. It also means that I’m free to send it out, so I’m putting it out on the field. Wish me luck! I’ve already started on a new story for WOTF. I won’t make the 2nd Quarter deadline, seeing that April 1 is already reserved for Willow, but I do plan to take my time so that I can send it in time for the 3rd Quarter, which will be around June.

In other news, one of my favorite podcasts is being put on hiatus. Adventures in SciFi Publishing is not ending—there may be a couple more episodes put out, but it’s not known when it will go back to its regularly scheduled broadcast, if ever. Kudos to Shaun Farrell for putting it all together. I’ll miss his and Sam’s insight on the industry. Mr. Farrell, by the way, also placed as a semi-finalist in this quarter’s WOTF. I bet his was the one that got me knocked down to Honorable Mention. ;-). Mucho, mucho congratulations to him.

In light of that, I’m looking for a new podcast that deals with the fantasy/scifi genre in the writing community. I would love to hear suggestions from any writers out there (and I know you come to the Cafe. I keep needing to refill the coffee machine…)

Back to writing!

Flash Fiction Fun

I’m almost a week away from officially working on my Weeping of the Willows edits.

I look at the past couple of weeks, and I’m glad that I’ve given myself a month to rest. If you’ve been following me on Facebook the past couple of weeks, you’ve noticed I mentioned entering a Flash Fiction contest 8 minutes before the deadline. It wasn’t a planned thing; the deadline for this contest was January 1, but instead, it got extended to the 15. I had been toying with a story I wrote back in December, so I thought, I bet if I trim this down to 500 words, I can send it in.

Mind you, I learned about the extension on the 11th.

My friends, that was the most brutal writing experience I ever did. I thought working on She’s All Light was hard. This was flash fiction–something I’ve done a couple of times, but not that seriously–and it had to be done within four days. I worked on that sucker day and night. My hubby donned his editing cap to help me make sure it flowed well and made sense. He also donned his cheerleading cape (which is invisible, because if he really did have a cape, I would be a little nervous) to give me encouragement when I was all ready to forget the whole thing because writing flash-fiction is harrrrrrrrd and I just couldn’t do it anymore and forget the stupid prize–we don’t need $500 bucks. Well we do, but I’d rather file for 8 hours straight than put all my energy into writing

It’s really nice to have a supporting husband who tells you to: “aww quit your whining and get back to the computer. You said you were going to do this; you put all your energy into it; so you’re gonna finish it, dammit, or else I’ll never hear the end of it!”

Paraphrased, of course.

I got the flash story off, and I have to say, I don’t think I ever pushed myself to work that hard before. What came out really impressed me. Time will tell if it will actually win anything, but it feels nice knowing that I didn’t just write a story haphazardly and threw it into the contest bin just to have something there. This was all sweat and blood and tears, baby. Then again, I could open it back up next week and think it’s the worst crap I’ve ever written. Ah, the joys of being a writer.

So after all that work, my creative side pretty much crashed and I couldn’t do any writing at all for a few days. No surprise there: what I did was equivalent to having the flu during midterms and pulling an all-nighter on Mountain Dew and Nyquil (which I don’t recommend–it’s a brutal combination, especially when you wake up in the dorm’s lounge in your pajamas with absolutely no idea how you got there). So instead of pushing myself to write, I decided to be good to myself and take it easy. I finished reading a bunch of books. I got back into my podcasts. And I spent some quality time with Daniel (which will be talked about in a separate post).

But most of all, I’ve been psyching myself up to work on Willow again. This week, I’ll gather some resources together so I’ll have them at hand when I open up Willow next week. I’ve also been backing up files–I do that anyway–because my hubby plans to rebuild my computer this week. Normally, that throws me out in a loop, but this time around I’m glad he’s doing it. I want my computer to be in the best shape possible when I start working on Willow, and it gives me more time to refill my creativity well.

One more week, folks, and then the fun begins again.

LaShawn’s Project Status Update (or working on my 5th final draft…)

So right around yesterday as I recoved from a full day of hanging out at the Circle M farm by cooking roast chicken and cheesy rutabega, a thought occurred to me as I looked out and to my shock saw tiny flakes of snow flying by the window:

Oh crap. November’s coming up isn’t it? That means I gotta spend the whole month focusing on Willow!

Ever since I learned about NaNoWriMo a couple of years ago, I’ve been using the month of November not so much as a month to put my butt in a chair and crank out a 50,000 word novel, but to focus on the novel I already had, Weeping of the Willows. The first year I did it, I cranked out 50,000 words worth of new material for my book. Ironically, a good deal of that material got stripped out in the first reading, but I still think it did me some good.

Last year, I don’t think I participated. Things were crazy for me that month, what with the possibility of selling our house and moving to Madison and all. It’s a miracle I got any writing done at all during that time.

So here it is, a year later. At the moment, I’m still reading through the first draft of Willow. It’s been slow going, partially because I do it at night, when I’m more likely to be tired and ready to blow it off. Partially because I’ve been focusing on my short story She’s All Light. Yes, yes, I know. A few weeks ago, I said that I was working on my final draft and once it was done, I would send it to Writers of the Future. No ifs, ands, or buts. I was done with it.

But then something happened.  As I worked on the final draft, one of the supporting characters, which in previous drafts had been pretty sublime and quiet, did something so unexpected and bizarre, I actually stopped working and backed away from the laptop. It still gives me chills thinking about it; I don’t want to say that it was violent thing she did, but in the framework of the scene, what she did was something that made me–and the other characters–jump. And just like that, it came out of the blue. As I was working on the final draft.

Well, of course, when a character does something that gives you chills, that changes the whole nature of their persona in the story. There’s repucussions. You want to know why the character did it. You want to know how that one single act impacts the story from that point on. And I knew that I couldn’t call it a final draft anymore, because the story had changed. Which means that I need to do some more work on it.

Luckily, we had a writer’s group meeting, so I brought my “final” draft in. Turns out that I don’t have to rewrite the whole story from scratch, which is a great relief. However, the group confirmed what I felt after finishing the ‘final’ draft–the sections I had to change were so strong on their own, it made some other scenes unnecessary. So basically, I need to do some cutting.

Which is fine. My word count for this story had been pretty high, roughly around 12,000 words. Cutting out some scenes will trim it nicely. The hard part will be structuring the story after those cuts. I’ll have to take a couple of weeks to think on how the best way to do that…

And now you see my dilemma? For me to do this, I’ll have to either put aside working on Willow, which is something I don’t want to do, or I’ll just have to continue doing what I’m doing now, which is spend the afternoon working on the story, and the evening working on Willow.

Then again, it’s not like my writing schedule is set in stone. I can be flexible. The WOTF deadline is not until January 1. I don’t necessarily have to wait until November to focus on Willow. I can start doing that…well…today…

So how does this look: this week, I’ll focus exclusively on Willow in both my afternoon and evening writing sessions. Then, next week, start working on the She’s All Light cuts during the evening session. It means I’ll be putting more of my energies on working on Willow still, but in switching the two, it will help me focus on something new at night. At least, that’s the theory. Then, when the story is done and finally out the door, go back to doing Willow twice a day until I’m done with the readthrough. My goal is to start working on actual revisons at the beginning of 2009. (Oh, and what fun that will be…)

I’ve realized that this means that I will have spent the whole of 2008 working on two things: She’s All Light and Willow. Doesn’t make for a productive year, does it? Well, I don’t feel terribly bad. Actually, I have written other stories for fun, and there are several that I want to focus on when I get the chance (I may actually focus on one after I get SAL out the door–it’s a flash, so it should take up much time). But in light of all that’s happened this year, I’m just grateful that I have the chance to write at all.

So thank you for being with me as I sort all this out. All of this will pay off, I promise you when both of these stories get published. Don’t know when, mind you, but I can tell you it will happen.

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.