Friday, September 7, 2007

The Writing Game

This week I have been rather selfish: I tried to ignore most other things and concentrated on writing.

Ever since I joined Interzone my writing productivity dropped from about two stories a month to about two stories a year. So keep that in mind when someone asks you to join a magazine as an editor.

Don't get me wrong: I adore Interzone and greatly enjoy co-editing its fiction. I actually give it priority over my own writing, hence my drop in short story production.

Anyway, this week I rrealised that I've become a much slower writer. This is mainly because I find it near-impossible to shut down the editorial part of me. A couple of years ago I just wrote the story first, relatively fast, and worried about rewriting and polishing later. And while this produced more prose, I'm not sure if it was decent, or even good prose.

Also, I was less self-critical, or didn't have enough experience to be critical enough, most likely both. (Apart from the point that a writer is too close to his/her own story to really look at it objectively. It's extremely hard, almost impossible to avoid: you know what you mean, even if it's expressed poorly, because you know what you intended to say when you wrote it, and even on repeated rereadings this intented -- not apparent -- meaning almost always comes to the fore, masking the poor expression. If I could look with more objectivity to my own writing, the way I do with stories of others, then I'd write much better stories myself.) So I basically wrote first, and thought later (a rough generalisation, mostly true though).

Now I find myself thinking throughout the writing: adding extra details, plot twists, character motivations, and other layers while removing stuff that doesn't work (wrong ideas, poor phrasing, extraneous words, and more) at the same time. A bit like writing, editing and rewriting at the same time, if that makes sense. It slashes my word count down. On the other hand, I think -- Quod Erat Demonstrandum when I send it out -- that the actual prose that stays on the page is better.

At least, I certainly hope so: if I don't improve over time then writing becomes, if not pointless, quite frustrating: I want to be better in the next story, not stay at the same level, or become worse. Of course, the next story may be at the same level, the following one maybe even worse, and only the one after that better: progress often isn't a straight upward curve. As long as the general trend is up I'm fine.

To illustrate with two rough examples: the original version of "Transcendence Express" (written back in 2002) had about 7800 words. The version that got published in HUB #2 (the last print version, unfortunately) has about 4200 words. Between those two versions, it got bounced twelve times, and rewritten several times -- I estimate 5 or 6 times -- in the process, often after editorial comments.

Conversely, "Qubit Conflicts" (written in 2005) originally had about 2800 words, while the published version has about 2100. It received six rejections before Clarkesworld Magazine bought it, and two rewrites (the last one on Nick's instructions).

Of course, I leave it up to the reader to decide which of the two is the better story (I can't give an objective opinion), but it shows the general direction my writing is taking: I'm trying to get it right the first time around. OK, still not quite succeeding, obviously -- as six bounces and two rewrites of which one by editorial decree show -- but heading that way.

(Rejections will always be inevitable, but I try not to be rejected on quality anymore.)

(And I only sold one story at the first try, which was also the very first story I sold. It's been downhill ever since...;-)

Thing is, early in my writing career I tended to be highly enthusiastic about the first draft of a story, not quite critical enough, and subsequently rewrite or polish minimally (if at all). Then send it off to the top markets, getting the inevitable form rejections.

Only after slowly improving, receiving critiques from my fellow online Orbiters, getting a few personal rejects, and getting more serious about rewriting (murder your darlings, indeed) did it slowly dawn on me that I was doing some basic things wrong, to wit:

  1. Don't send your (slightly polished) first draft to the most suitable top market: it will get bounced, and then you've effectively killed that story's chance at that market; so:
  2. Repress the urge to immediately send it out, but put it on hold for at least a month, or more; then:
  3. Look at it with a fresh perspective, and savagely rewrite it; after which you:
  4. Send it to your critique group (if you don't have one, join one: there are plenty), and take *every* comment seriously. Some might be wrong, but these are always less than you think at first. And the ones that hurt the most are most probably the ones that are on the money: overcome the writer's ego and address them;
  5. Then let it rest for another month or so, and re-evaluate it again, and rewrite.
  6. Polish, polish, fine-polish, fine-polish, and make it gleam (you'd be surprised to find how many editors are won over by good prose);
  7. And only then carefully target your market from the top down.
"But this takes so much time!" I hear some of you say. Indeed, this way it can be six months or a year (or longer) from the first draft to the point of actual submission. Let's say a year(*). Still, be patient.

Because getting it bounced repeatedly takes even longer. Compare my two examples:

  • "Transcendence Express" (now available as a podcast on Escape Pod: it wasn't when I wrote this yesterday, so chalk one up for synchronicity) bounced twelve times: time between finished first draft (August 2002) and acceptance (January 2007) was four years and five months;
  • "Qubit Conflicts" bounced six times: time between finished first draft (March 2005) and acceptance (September 2006) was one year and six months;
So those six to twelve 'extra' months for rewriting etc. will most probably be a good investment timewise as it might considerably reduce the time between first submission and acceptance. More importantly, it might make the story land at a much better market.

YMMV, and other disclaimers, but this is my personal experience.

(*) Obvious exceptions are stories written for a specific anthology or theme issue. But even then use as much time as possible before the submission window closes: your story will only improve.

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