• Fiction,  Writing

    The Shape of My Writing to Come

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    I’ve found myself thinking lately, trying to decide whether or not to revise my writing intentions, not just for the remainder of the year, but overhauling the three-year plan altogether.

    At this moment, I’m not exactly sure how far I am into the second book of the God must. Something in excess of 30,000 words, certainly. But I have a lot of audio still to process and turn into text. It’s entirely possible the actual total might be as much as 40,000, though that seems a little bit much. 35,000 is more likely, I think. I’m must still be enjoying the story. Because at 35-40,000 words added to the 120,000 of book 1 and is the longest single narrative I’ve ever attended so far. If the final total is something over 400,000, that’s okay.

    My question is, am I moving in the right direction with such a strong focus on Uber long form fiction? I do want to be a novelist, and I have a lot of stories I want to tell. But am I neglecting my short fiction to do it?

    For a long time, it was my preferred form. And while some of the shorter fiction as stretched longer, and I have written novels, I find myself, if not exactly plagued with second thoughts, spending too much time considering what I should be writing.

    I don’t want to leave the Godhead incomplete, and I have a good, solid idea of where the story is going, even managing to mostly stick to my outline. (Although, one of the main characters decided without consciously consulting me, that he didn’t want to be Prince Arrogant Jerk, instead becoming a thoughtful Prince of a vast empire always wondering if he was making the right decision. So I replaced a major public weakness with a major private, and not sure that was the right move, but that’s something for another time.)

    I think the problem is that I may have subconsciously bought into the whole idea that to be truly successful, commercially, as a writer, you have to write series, or at least trilogies if you are working in fantasy. Series books tend to keep people more interested, coming back to buy more of your stuff.

    The problem is that I frequently don’t read that way. I miss the stand-alone novel. Oh, it’s fine if that stand-alone novel someday has a sequel, because the author finds another story they want to tell in that world with those characters, but not everything needs to start at that way. And yet, according to the mainstream publishing world, it does. If it’s not capable of being a series out of the box, apparently they aren’t interested.

    And I understand the desire to be commercially successful, not just at the writer level, but at the publisher level as well.

    And yet, the biggest names, the most successful writers defy that conventional wisdom.

    Stephen King, arguably the most successful writer of the 20th century, and still very successful thus far int the 21st, has written, and I might be wrong, exactly one series of novels. The Dark Tower series, which I believe stands eight books and has been written over 30 years, are the exception to his rule. Everything else was either a standalone book, or I think in one case a pair of books. He has occasionally written a long after the fact sequel.

    I can find other examples as well, in other genres, with Danielle steel, MaeveBinchy, and a variety of other names springing to mind, but I should probably stick to the genres that I know best, the ones I read in, and the ones I write: science fiction, fantasy, and to a lesser extent Horror (though I’d class pretty much all of my horror as Dark Fantasy).

    It’s easy to pick out the successful series, the people who can go to the same well again and again and people continue to buy the books. David Weber for Honor Harrington, Jim Butcher for Harry Dresden, LE Modesitt for the Recluce novels.

    Okay, yes, I should acknowledge the two elephants in the room as well. George RR Martin with the Song of Ice and Fire, originally slotted to be a trilogy, now planned to be seven books (and we’ll see what ultimately happens, but it’s been 18 years since the first book was published and we’re waiting on book 6); and Robert Jordan, who stretched the wheel of Time out so far, exploring so much of the world he created, that he actually died before finishing writing it. In fairness, he died far too young, but that’s almost beside the point.

    So it’s easy to find the successful series, and the stand-alone novel, or the bare trilogy, is getting harder and harder to find, even if it’s not quite extinct.

    I should probably mention my favorite series, although series is a bit of a misnomer. The Discworld books by Terry Pratchett will always have a place on my shelves. And yet, this isn’t so much one big series, as groups of smaller series and stand-alone novels that happen to share the same universe, the same set of rules, the same magic and physics. But Terry, Sir Terry, is sometimes the exception that proves the rule as well. A couple of my favorite books in the series, while they may have some crossover minor characters, are stand-alone stories. I’m thinking specifically of the Pyramids and Small Gods.

    But individual novels are hard to find in the mainstream market place. Unless you’re looking in the right spots.

    Stephen King, in spite of primarily being known as a horror author, I would tend to think of as more in terms of a dark fantasy author. Not a series writer, in general.

    Neil Gaiman’s one sequel isn’t really. It just happens to take place in the same universe as another of his works.

    But if I look back over my reading history, and I been reading science fiction fantasy for as long as I can remember, it’s very easy to find that most of the biggest, most influential, most exciting books and ideas been in stand-alone novels.

    One of the biggest and best examples, though unfortunately deceased, is Robert a Heinlein. In fact, you can pick nearly any of the grand Masters of science fiction, and find that most of their work did not consist of series. {Here’s an official list: http://www.sfwa.org/grandmaster/.)

    Oh, sure, Lance, but those guys rockedthe genre writing world in the 50s 60s and 70s. Things change, and they have changed, and the series is where it’s at.

    I call bull$hit. Or shenanigans if you’d rather.

    Guy Gavriel Kay, Robert J. Sawyer, Connie Willis, William Gibson, Joe Holdeman, Vernor Vinge, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Stephen Baxter, Cory Doctorow, Greg Bear. I could keep going, but why be satisfied with just author’s names?

     

    Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson (2000)

    Calculating God – Robert J. Sawyer (2000)

    American Gods – Neil Gaiman (2001)

    The Speed of Dark – Elizabeth Moon (2002)

    Spin – Robert Charles Wilson (2005)

    Blindsight – Peter Watts (2006)

    The Windup Girl – Paolo Bacigalupi (2009)

    Under Heaven – Guy Gavriel Kay (2010)

    The Lifecycle of Software Objects – Ted Chiang (2010)

    Ready Player One – Ernest Cline (2011)

     

    Examples only. I can find lots more.

     

    So while there is nothing wrong with series, and I do enjoy them sometimes, there are a lot of worlds to explore.

     

    And I have a lot of worlds to explore, a lot of different stories tell. If I have to make one of them big enough, or allow it to grow to be big enough to fill that many books, to fill four or five 100,000 word novels, I don’t think I can in a come close to telling the stories I want to tell right now, much less the ideas I’m going to have in the future. So 400,000 words across three books sounds like a lot, and not very much at the same time. But I’ve got a lot of thoughts and ideas that fit into the 30 to 60,000 range probably, and a bunch that fit into the 70 to 100,000 word range. How many smaller yet equally awesome stories am I not telling to write the Godhead. It’s hard to put a number on, but I would guess at least 10. Novellas are fun, and in the age of digital publishing, they have a big, solid role to play. Short novels, 40, 50, 60,000 words. I love these, and when I’m doing a lot of reading, I can devour one pretty quickly.

    Lately, I’m thinking that’s where I want to be as a writer. I love my short fiction, and consumeit all the time. Maybe I’m a short fiction writer, short fiction and short novels. The thing is, the only way to find out what you love to write, is to try a bunch of different things, explore new territory. And I don’t know if the series is where I want to do it.

    And yes, I do remember that the thing I planned to write after the Godhead is also a trilogy, a science fiction one. But you know what, in between the Godhead and PeaceBringers and Troll Wars will and getting back to War Forge, I had plans of half a dozen stand-alones to break things up. I also want to explore more themes and sub-genres in fantasy in the novelette to novella range. Maybe that’s where I should be.

    I don’t want to abandon the Godhead midstream, but I don’t want it to be everything I’m writing, either.

    I need variety, I need space, and above all, I need to be me.

    So we’ll see what the future brings.

    Be well, everyone.

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  • Writing

    Rise of the Undead

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    So I’m big on writing updates and word counts lately, and I’m not sure why. I’ve gone through phases on the whole “monthly writing repot” idea over the past few years, I do like it as publicly posting my progress tends to have a slight focusing effect on my work and we can all use all the focus we can get. I’ve actually toyed with the idea of doing a weekly one, but I think the only person who cares at that level is me.

    Besides, I just did the report for February a couple of days ago.

    Instead of something else very numbers intensive, I’m going to write about the themed short fiction project that will follow the Novelette Project. I’m calling it… The Undead Project. Yes, so very original. There will be a real title at some point, but this is how I think of it at the moment. I’ve mentioned it several times, but never in very much detail and only really in terms of working on a story for it.

    Zombies and Vampires have both had their day in the sun lately, so to speak, but there are plenty of other undead creatures in standard mythologies and some of them don’t get a lot of time in print, in spite of being pretty interesting. I’m considering it a writing challenge.

    I should also say up front that I don’t consider myself a horror writer at all. I’ve published several stories in horror anthologies, but I think if you look at those, you’ll find my story is the least horrific in the collection. I’m not out to scare or disturb my readers. I’d like to entertain, and it’s nice if I make you think once in a while, but it’s always more about the characters for me than the gross or creep or ewww.

    So that’s the biggest part of the challenge: undead monsters and not so much about the horror. The rest of the challenge comes into finding stories at different lengths. I think I want to include a novelette or two, but most of the stories will probably fall into two ranges: 3-5k or under 1500 words. So shorts and flash.

    For planning purposes, I’ve broken things out into corporeal and non-corporeal creatures. For the corporeal list, my tentative selections:

    Draugr, Ghoul, Jiang Shi, Mummy, Revenant, Skeleton, Vampire, Zombie

    Yes, I’m including zombies and vampires. They’ll have some significant representation in things I’ve already written or ideas I really want to try. There are other creatures that might find themselves included. After all, variety is the spice of, er, life, right?

    Non-corporeal:

    Ghost, Phantom, Spectre, Wraith

    Yes, these are all different creatures, though it’s hard to tell that sometimes.

    The basic plan is around 100,000 words for the whole project. If it goes over that a little, I’m not going to stress too hard about it. As long as it’s not too far over. I’ve built a framework of 20-ish stories and nearly as many flash pieces. Probably. And I say probably because even though the plan is laid out in fair detail, everything can change on a moment’s notice if I get an awesome idea for something.

    For some reason, I also have this odd Gilligan’s Island theme playing parallel to it. Need to see how this works itself out, but it could be both bizarre and funny. Sing it!

    With Zombie fun,

    And Mummies too.

    Add in Vampires

    And some Ghosts.

    Skeletons,

    Howling Wraiths, and at least one Ghoul.

    As the foul undead rise.

    Or maybe just stupid. We’ll see.

    Be well, everyone.

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  • Writing

    Rejection Letters

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    So I’ve recently begun to submit my short stories again after a long period where, for a variety of reasons, I wasn’t. Some quick stats:

    • Since October 1st, I’ve put 36 stories in the e-mail to a variety of magazines and anthologies.
    • Eight of them have come back as a rejections already. I’m not alarmed; writers need a thick skin.
    • Three of those rejections were personalized and had the phrase “well written” somewhere in the text.
    • The other five were form letters.

    Form letters don’t offend me. A lot of markets have an acceptance rate of far less than 1%. There’s only so much time in everyone’s day.

    But I was curious about something, and went back through all of my rejections from the past couple of years. I have received 38 rejections with some variation of the phrase “well written” contained somewhere in them. Hmm.

    Wait, half of them also either came right out and said “too long” or hinted at it obliquely.

    These two facts together got me thinking.  I slipped into Google-fu mode and tried to figure out some numbers.  Spread across several dozen references, here’s what I found:

    • The recommended range for stories for print markets is 3000-3200 words, with 3500 quoted several times as an absolute maximum. Several sites recommended no more than 2500.
    • The average reader spends 7 minutes reading online, 20 minutes off line.
    • Average reading speed is 200 wpm.

    So… 7 minutes = 1400 words and 20 minutes = 4000 words. Freely translated, for a story to be an easy to digest all at once chunk, if published online should probably be 1500 words or less, and if published in print should be no longer than 4000 words.

    Now, based on guidelines, online genre fiction readers are a little more focused than average. After reading more than 100 sets of submission guidelines over the last month or so, it seems like most of them cap out at 5000 words. Even the places who will look at stories longer than that usually have a caveat built in somewhere that if it’s over 5k, it needs to be really, really good (i.e. you probably shouldn’t send it).

    Again, hmm.

    Some more stats:

    • If I include the Graceland stories, I have exactly 59 stories that ought to be out looking for homes. Yup, 59.
    • They range in length from 364 words to 17269, with the average being 4351.
    • 19 of them are over 5000.
    • 33 are over that 3500 “absolute maximum”.

    So I have a whole lot of stories that are probably going to be tough to find homes for.

    I firmly believe in letting the story be whatever length it needs to be, but it looks like a lot of the time they find their way over the length that publishers seem to want. What’s a short fiction writer to do?

    Answer: figure out what the readers want and find a way to give it to them. Short fiction is on the rise. There are more places to send it than ever before and more ways to get it than ever before. People want to read short fiction. But there are also more people writing it than there have been for a long, long time.

    Which means it’s time to put the finishing touches on the first draft of the Three Year Plan. Tune in tomorrow and I’ll talk about that in way too much detail.

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