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Baby steps in the update department.

Hey! I just updated my lists of favorite books and favorite movies. Just in case you're craving the newest news about all that.

I'm out of shape from only writing status updates and tweets for months. I think I need to go and lie down. *wheeze*

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It's time to start writing 1,000 words a day again. My productivity faltered over the winter, so I want to get moving. The last time I set this goal was for a challenge involving other people, and it was for 70 days, including weekends. For my own self, I want to write on weekdays and take weekends off. I think that'll be a sanity-supporting move. Also, a useful novel-completion strategy. Work regularly, but don't burn out; that's my motto.

I'm up to 600 words for today. The sooner I write another 400, the sooner I can eat lunch. See ya!
In the comments after my last post, On Writing Long When Attempting to Write Short, rachel_swirsky wrote:

Posting generic grumble/grump about how "too much description" and "too much wordiness" are often dependent on style and aesthetic, and while it's good that some people are (edited) Carver and Hemingway, one is glad that some people are Flannery O'Conner, too.

She has a point.

I didn't mean that everyone should try to write like Hemingway; reading wouldn't be fun if people all wrote the same way. I'm in favor of individual voices, and styles ranging from the very simple to the very ornate (with a personal preference for a range somewhere within those two extremes). However, a person who believes she "can't write short" might try studying some Hemingway if she wants to learn how to tell a story in fewer words. That's one method of learning efficiency in writing, but there are other methods, too.

Often the writing I see in the slush is just fine stylistically, from sentence to sentence, but in some cases an author will meander into territory that's outside the boundaries of the story being told. On one hand, it's the author's story, to be told as the author wants to tell it, but on the other hand, it's hard to be objective about what to leave in and what to leave out. I'm all in favor of many ideas being incorporated into a story elegantly, so that they make sense and enhance the tale, but there are times when taking out an ill-fitting idea will make the rest of the story stronger.

Seriously, I admire it when someone can do a great job of writing a one-hundred-word sentence. No matter the length of the sentence, I want it to fit together well with the other sentences around it, and I want them all to build up into a meaningful story.
One of the hardest things, in writing fiction, is deciding what to leave in a story and what to take out. I'm here to say that this is a skill that a writer can learn, and I have some suggestions about how to learn it.

I read a lot of fiction submissions for Clarkesworld Magazine. Several submissions a day, so on a normal week I read about twenty to forty stories of varying quality, and I've been averaging about that many per week for most of the last year and a half. Before reopening to submissions on January 15th of this year, CW had a word count limit of 1,000 to 4,000 words. Since reopening, we've been accepting up to 8,000 words per submission.

When we had the smaller word count limit, many writers I met at conventions told me that they would love to submit stories to CW, but they couldn't write stories that short. Now that the limit is higher, we get more submissions, but in my opinion the longer ones could nearly always use some serious editing for length. It's absolutely fine for people to submit stories up to 8,000 words long, but in most cases the stories I've seen that are that long could be written much more memorably without so many words.

Here are the main problems I see in stories that seem too long:

1. Too much exposition. Backstory explained at great length.

2. Too much description of surroundings. Unnecessary passages about the appearance of things that aren't significant in the story.

3. Simple wordiness.

The Exposition Problem

First of all, it's important to look at your reasons for including information in a story. What's the core of the story? What changes for the protagonist, and why? Exposition is often an attempt to show what is normal for a character, but it can go too far. It goes too far when the telling of a short story starts with things that happen days before the inciting incident that gets your character to act. It goes too far when it explains too much of an alien society, or the political structure of your fantasy world. If your story relies upon a lot of this kind of description to make sense, then you may have a novel on your hands; it may not work in a short format. But maybe you can find a way to tell the story you want to tell without including so many details about the whole world where it takes place.

Choosing the most important things to show will strengthen your story. You need to reveal what your character wants by showing her in action. Stay close to her efforts to get what she wants, or to avoid what she's trying to avoid. You might (and probably should) know everything in her background that leads up to what she wants, but you don't need to tell the reader all of it.

For good examples of stories that convey a lot in only a few pages, you can read "A Letter from the Clearys" (Connie Willis), "The Way Down the Hill" (Tim Powers), or Clarkesworld's Nebula-nominated stories like "Non-Zero Probabilities" (N.K. Jemisin) and "Spar" (Kij Johnson). I'd also recommend reading the shorter stories in any "Year's Best" anthology in the genre of your choice (up to, say, 15 pages long). Study how they convey information. It will help you to learn how to express ideas efficiently.

Description Could Kill Your Story

The reader needs to know where and when a story is taking place, or at least to be given enough clues to form an opinion, but going on and on about the setting slows a story down. The beautiful castle may sparkle with gems, the scent of roses wafting upon the air, with strains of fairy music uplifting the spirit in every room; the walls may taste of candy when one licks them! But if the story isn't moving forward, even the thought of characters licking the walls won't save it.

I'm not saying not to describe the setting at all. I'm just saying you should judge long passages of description with your objective pants on. Does the reader need to sit through all of that? Are you describing something of particular importance to the story? Or are you being a little self-indulgent if you leave that part in?

There's a Shorter Way to Say It

Once you have your draft finished, and you have a clear idea about what the story means to you and what you want to convey (you've thought about that, haven't you?), then it's time to really scrape away the excess. I have two masters to offer you on this subject. You've heard of Ernest Hemingway? You can get plenty of advice from that guy without leaving the internet:

Ernest Hemingway’s Top 5 Tips For Writing Well (Brian Clark)

27 Secrets To Writing Like Hemingway (Joanna Young)

More importantly, I'd like to get all writers to read The 10% Solution (Ken Rand). In this little book, there are practical, concrete steps listed that show you exactly how to reduce the length of your manuscript by 10% (at least; I've taken out up to 12% of my word count in some of my stories by following his advice). You can retain and even strengthen the meaning of what you wrote by looking through your work mindfully, examining the types of words and phrases you've chosen and thinking of tighter ways to put things. You use your own opinions and end up with your own voice in the work.

But Don't Skimp on the Ending

Nearly always, if a story is too long, the problem is in the beginning, the middle, or both. If a story is too short, the problem is in the ending. One of my top reasons for rejecting stories, back in the 4,000-word-limit days, was abrupt endings. It was as if the authors had looked at their word count, panicked, and chopped off the last page or two. A story needs some resolution, a bit of closure about what's changed and a sense of what might happen next. Even an open-ended story shouldn't let the reader fall off a cliff and go splat.

I suggest another approach. Instead of cutting from the ending, start the story later in the timeline. Copy the draft into a new file, and remove the first few pages (start with three). Look at how you could start the story there, and sprinkle backstory lightly into the middle, or leave it out altogether. Why not try this, just once?

The whole point of the short story is to create a strong impression with few words. It takes confidence to leave unnecessary explanations out, and to believe in the reader's ability to co-create a story with you. Confidence always helps.

Here's what I'm going to do.

A while ago, I asked your preferences in a poll because I've been thinking and thinking about the problems people have with writing long when they mean to write short. Most of the people who responded said they'd prefer a snappy rant on the subject, but many said they'd rather read an earnest attempt to help writers with the issue. I think the post I'm writing is turning out to be a mostly-earnest thing with some snappiness here and there, so I hope that'll do the trick. Anyway, I haven't forgotten about it. I'm leaving for a trip to a warmer climate this week, so it's possible that the post won't be posted until next Tuesday or later. But you will have it.

Your preferences, please?

Poll #1522347 Your preferences, please?

I would rather:

read a snappy rant about what's wrong with writers claiming that they can only "write long" when creating short fiction.
11(52.4%)
read an earnest attempt to help writers who believe that they can only "write long" when creating short fiction.
6(28.6%)
indulge in the self-flagellation method of my choice.
4(19.0%)
do something else that I will explain in thorough detail in the comments.
0(0.0%)


Note that you may not get your wish, but I look forward to reading your answer.

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Planning my cons for the year

At this point I'm planning to show up at NorwesCon, OddCon, Mo*Con, Context, and World Fantasy in 2010. Which conventions will you attend? Let me know if we'll be in the same place and you want to make plans.

Posted via LiveJournal.app.

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There is no spoon.

This is not a 2009 wrap-up post.

This is not a list of things I achieved last year, such as my first short story publication in Full-Throttle Space Tales #3: Space Grunts, receiving an honorable mention from the Writers of the Future Contest, and becoming the most humble I've ever been in my life.

No.

This is furthermore also not a list of resolutions for 2010, such as writing a complete novel before I go to this year's World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, Ohio, as well as submitting a story for every quarter to Writers of the Future, and losing those 20 pounds that perturb and vex me the most of all pounds ever weighed.

It is not. Because I'm above posting that sort of thing, and I know that you, my friends, do not wish to sully your precious eyes with it. Instead, this is a bubble of unrealized potential, an event that never occurred but might have been, a thought that drifted through the sky and out of sight. This post is whatever you wanted it to have been. This post does not exist.
It seems that I read twenty-seven books this year. October was so busy that I hardly read any, and didn't keep good notes about what I did read, and then that continued for the rest of the year. Luckily for everyone in the English-reading, SFF-loving world, I have enough information to list the top three in a few categories, so here they are for YOU.

Novels:

The Knights of the Cornerstone - James P. Blaylock
Boneshaker - Cherie Priest
A College of Magics - Caroline Stevermer

Collections:

The Fantasy Writer's Assistant and Other Stories - Jeffrey Ford
Pretty Monsters - Kelly Link
In the Palace of Repose - Holly Phillips

Anthologies:

The Living Dead - ed. John Joseph Adams
Wastelands - ed. John Joseph Adams
Fantasy: The Best of the Year 2008 - ed. Rich Horton

It was a big year for fantasy in my world, it seems. I can live with that. I also mixed a little bit of reality into my reading, but not enough to mess up my escapism.

Non-fiction:

The Tipping Point - Malcolm Gladwell
The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life - Noah Lukeman
Writing the Breakout Novel - Donald Maass


If you've read these books, what did you think of them? And which books stood out for you in 2009?

Happy New Year!

Live from Appland

Oh, iPhone. How well you suit me. Just as I begin to think I need some space, you deliver a sparkly gift to keep me interested. An app for posting to LJ? Oh, my phone, we belong together forever.

Posted via LiveJournal.app.

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