Sometimes You Just Stop

I have learned that when I run into a problem with a story that makes me stop, the best thing I can do is — to just stop. If I can’t see any immediate way to fix the problem, but just keep pushing on, I find later — days, months, years later — that everything I wrote past that point is garbage.

If, on the other hand, I stand up from the story, and go off and do “useful things,” a solution may come to me, when I am occupied with dishes or laundry or groceries or putting things away, which I can then stop doing and get back to the story.

Or, nothing may come. If I push, I get nowhere. So I let it go. And frequently I wake up the next morning, before the alarm goes off, and I have the solution. Then I can move on.

But I had to stop first. Sometimes I have to put the story aside, and work on something else. It took me seven years, of productively writing other things, before I understood that the reason for grinding to a halt with Soul Stone, was that in chapter four, I had my hero do something he would not have done — that I would not have done — and just pushed on, as we are so often advised to do. While pushing, I wasn’t even aware that there was a problem.

This morning I woke up early, having had a good night’s sleep for a change, with the feeling that, despite all the good work I had done on Soul Stone, I was going nowhere. I know what happens next. I know the adversary my hero will meet and what happens to him. I know I’ll have more ideas for part four — but I’m going nowhere. Even with exciting images of an exciting ending.

I could just push on, and produce thousands words of a story which just doesn’t work. It will be finished, it could be published, but it will feel wrong.

Or I could stop now, get on with the other half of my life (household management and engineering) and put the story away in the back of my head to just brew for a while.

Hmmm. Even now, having decided to stop, I think I can see a solution. If I had just pushed on, I would never have found it. Hmmm. It won’t be easy, but — 

Yes. There is an answer. And it hasn’t taken me seven years to figure it out.

While Waiting to Publish

I’m getting ready to publish A Thing Forgotten at last, now that I have the cover. (Darcy has been working very hard for a long time, earning a raise.) I started the process, but it’s more complicated than it has been before in some ways. I have to work with Amazon, Bowker for ISBNs, Library of Congress for copyrights, all at once, and there is a question of actual publication date. I could not be sure that the book would go live in 2018, so I decided to postpone until after New Year’s, so there wouldn’t be a conflict between my copyright page and LoC’s records.

In the mean time, I decided to make a start on what is now called Soul Stone. At first, years ago, after some fan reviews and comments on The Eye in the Stone, I thought I would write something in the same universe, but not as a sequel. I did three good chapters, followed by sixty thousand words of garbage. I had forced my hero to do something he would not have done.

I’m keeping the first chapters — they could start a story in almost any setting or universe — and I’ve thrown out the rest. The character is not the same this time. The universe is not what I thought I’d use. It’s all new stuff, and instead of intellectualizing what I think the story ought to be, I’m letting it grow, following my gut, that dim voice in the back of my head where all creativity comes from, discovering where it will take me, rather than forcing it beforehand. I have sketched out four new chapters, just letting it happen, but keeping a hint of an idea of a possible ending in mind. And it feels good.

This is going to be fun.

If I Can See It

I have the most difficulty when I need to introduce a new setting or situation. This is usually, but not always, at the beginning of a chapter or scene. I have an idea of what is there, but it’s all intellectual, not visual. And if I can’t see it, I can’t describe it. If I just say, “A man came up to me,” what do you see? Not much. If I say, “A tall man, well dressed, rather pale, and with an anxious expression came up to me,” now you can see him. (I’d have to revise that a few times to make it work in the context.)

The difficulty comes when I’m too concerned with moving the story forward to spend much time on settings, situations, characters, sometimes even actions in early drafts. If on a second draft I correct for text, for grammar, for logic, I eventually realize that no matter how well written it is, I still can’t see it. It’s still just a man — a silhouette as it were. 

Especially if the setting, the place, the situation, is complicated, involving character action and reaction. It can take me a long time to figure out what things look like, sound like, feel like, smell like — to describe what really is there, not what I just think is there. So I take the twenty minutes, or two hours, or however long I need to make the setting, a paragraph perhaps no larger than the first one above, sensorial rather than intellectual. If I can’t see it, then you can’t see it, and it’s so easy then for a reader to just drop out of the story.

 There is a real difference between what I know in my mind, and what I experience with my senses. I don’t want to be outside the story, looking in. I want to be inside the story, experiencing it. For me, it’s worth the effort.

A Definition of Success

The Black Ring is six volumes and nearly 700,000 words. It is not a series. Each volume leads into the next, and follows directly from the one before. It would read better if it were published all in one volume — turn the page, next chapter.

But publishing a book of something like 2,700 pages is a problem. I don’t have the reputation to convince editors that they should take a chance on it. I don’t really write “commercial” fiction, after all. If I wanted to get The Black Ring published, there were three options: 

I could butcher the six manuscripts to fit the guidelines. Each volume is too long, so it would have to be tightened and shortened, leaving out essential descriptions and character growth and plot development. I didn’t want to do that. And each volume would have to be more or less stand-alone, which now they are not. I really didn’t want to do that.

I could put these stories away and write something more acceptable. But this is the story I wanted to tell, it has taken me most of a lifetime to do it, and if I wrote something like it but just to fit the publisher’s guidelines, it would have no heart. I didn’t want to do that.

Or I could publish the six volumes myself. And it would have to be six volumes, because I don’t think CreateSpace/KDP can handle 2,700 pages all in a lump. I would have to learn how to design the book, how to make it look professional, how to deal with typography, how to prepare covers, how to become an editor and publisher (of sorts), not just a writer. But if that was the only way to get The Black Ring, all six volumes, published the way I wanted them to be, then that’s what I would do.

It has taken me a long time to acquire the skills I needed. Everything from Cat Tales to Slaves of War was preparation for The Black Ring. And then I had an opportunity to go with Double Dragon, instead of doing it myself. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I chose to do that. It’s out of my hands now. We’ll see what happens.

All the books which were published traditionally, except the three V books, were re-issued by ReAnimus Press. The Black Ring is available now from Double Dragon and Amazon. The books I published myself, more recently under the Ogden House imprint, are also on Amazon. Sometimes I sell a copy or two. 

If success is measured by how much money I make, I am a failure. But my stories are out there. People can find them and read them. If they tell me honestly that they really enjoyed them, then that is a form of success.

I choose my own definition of success, not someone else’s. I will not give up my growth, my development, my learning, just to do what someone says I ought to do. Even if they seem to be right.

Write for Yourself First

I create my stories for myself, not for what I imagine a publisher might want, or what an editor wants. I’ve done that, but I’m not writing that kind of story any more. Even if I hope for traditional publication, I must satisfy my own inner vision first. Readers can tell if a writer’s heart is in it or not. One time I read two stories by a well-known writer, published in the same issue of a magazine. One of them he wrote because he believed in it, the other because it was what someone else wanted. I could tell the difference. 

But a story must also be what I want to read, not just what I want to write. A story without a reader (or a listener) is just mumbling in the dark. People who have read my stories enjoy them, so I write for readers, too, but I don’t cater to what I think might be their taste. I just work to make my stories the best stories they can be.

 When I was reading publishers’ guidelines to decide where to submit Sturgis, I found that it was too short to even submit to the publishers that looked at that kind of book. It was long enough for certain kinds of romances, but it certainly qualified on no other grounds. I could have added 10,000 words I suppose, but it would have been puff, or it would have been out of the style of the story, or it would have required adding things that didn’t belong. 

And Sturgis couldn’t be easily classified as a horror story, or a supernatural story, or a mystery story, because it was all three, and other things. At that time, there was nowhere I could even submit it without instant rejection for not following the publisher’s guidelines. But I do have readers, who don’t object to it being short, or multi-genre. They like the story for what it is.

Stroad’s Cross was far too long, and was something of a character story, a ghost story, a horror story, a romance, a mystery. I couldn’t decide which category predominated, maybe supernatural mystery, if that had been one of the genres I could pick from.

Dead Hand was too long. It had no chapters, just 97 scenes. It had fifty two viewpoint characters. (I was told once that I shouldn’t, that I couldn’t have that many.) I had once tried to drop a lot of scenes and characters to bring it down to a “reasonable” length. The story didn’t work at all, so I put them back. People who have read it really like it.

I don’t want to write the kind of stories that editors, and publishers, and marketing departments want, just to generate income. I write for myself first, and for those who have read my stories, my novels really, and who have enjoyed them.

Adapting to Change

I have been working on story four — “The Final Test” [?] — of Star Kings, and it’s going well. It started with a jumbled sketch and is now a clean draft. There’s more to do, I have to read it again for text, then read it aloud three times, and then it will be done. It takes a while.

Story four has six chapters, and when they were ready for a read through for text, I looked ahead at the sketch of story five, in case there might be problems in continuity, and to remind myself of what happened next.

The sketch for story five no longer works after story four’s natural development. I read the sketch for story six. It doesn’t work at all. Story seven seems to be okay. So far. Things could change.

So what will I do? I could just toss out stories five and six and move on. But both stories make certain points which I feel I need for the whole cycle. 

I thought about it for a while, and one possibility is to switch stories five and six, and draft out new sketches for them, keeping only what I feel I need. I could do that. I’ll have to think about it again when I get back to them later.

(Interruption to attend Mace gaming convention in Charlotte NC, and a few days of recovery afterward. Which is going to help me work on the story, as a whole, with a fresh perspective.)

It’s been a long time since I got the first idea for Star Kings. And it’s been quite a while since I wrote out the sketches for the twelve stories in the cycle. And each time I finish a story, it changes what must follow, and I have to adapt. I will not force the story I want to tell into an invalidated sketch. The cycle as a whole is growing, and becoming real. It takes a lot of work for a rough idea for a cycle of stories to come clear, and to organically achieve it’s potential.

The point is one that I’ve made before. Don’t be a slave to your outline. What grows naturally is better than any outdated sketch.

At least that’s how it works for me. 

Avoid the Ought-To’s

I met a free-lance editor at a science convention fiction, at one of the hall tables, several years ago, and we started talking. She was very persuasive, and everything she said was true. I took her card. A few days later I thought about it some more. From what I can remember, even at the rates she was charging, I could not afford her services. So far, what I have earned from the sale of the books I publish myself has not been enough to cover the cost of editing.

I’ve said many times: Writers cannot achieve their full potential without the objectivity of an editor. This is true. But I have been working for years to acquire the necessary skills to be objective about my own work. Objectivity can be learned, and learning how to edit is part of my growth as a writer. I will not let myself be sidetracked from that growth by being told that I “ought to” let someone else do it for me.

The “ought-to’s” are dangerous. You”ought to” write this way. You “ought to” work that way. You “ought to” structure your story like this. You “ought to” avoid certain themes, character types, long sentences, unfamiliar sub-genres, large words, open ambiguous endings, and so on. You do have to be careful about these things, but what is better is to master them instead of avoiding them. Every time that I succumb to an “ought to,” whatever it is or its source, I go astray and lose my story. If, in spite of this, I force a story to completion, it lacks life. It always fails to be what I wanted it to be. And it’s usually pretty awful, too.

Not Tied to an Outline

I’m waiting for a cover for A Thing Forgotten and working on my H. P. Lovecraft/Shirley Jackson fusion which I’m calling The Empty House, and needed a break, and started Star Kings story four. I have a good opening scene, and a good idea of what the ending is about, it is just (just?) the middle that I have to work on. Story Four (no title yet) has to evolve from the previous three stories while being independent of them, and has to be such that story five can follow it. (It will not be according to the sketch I wrote, everything is evolving in its own way, but I can still use the core idea.)

I remember, many years ago, when I was on a convention panel about outlines, did we use them or not and why. Several authors, including a couple in the audience, said they didn’t like to use them, because they felt trapped by them, that they had to write according to their carefully constructed outline, and could not take of on new developing ideas. But I find that forcing a story to fit a pre-determined outline is wrong — the writing stops, and beating my head against that wall only produces bruises and brick dust. 

So I have sketches for stories five through twelve. Story four is growing of itself despite the original sketch, and is turning into a better story than I had planned. I will keep my sketches for the rest of the stories, not really as an outline, but for plot points — what each story must achieve — and anything I have written in those sketches that doesn’t serve the story when I write it, I’ll just have to throw that away.

What I Do on My Breaks

When I take breaks from longer projects, I work on something shorter, like Star Kings. It is coming along. It will take me a while to finish it, as I have other long projects to work on, and the real world to contend with. Each Star Kings story is stand-alone, though all twelve stories together are an evolving series, and completes a cycle from first to last. 

Each story has to be created individually, and takes a lot of effort. Beginnings are always difficult for me. Descriptions of places are difficult. Each story has a new setting in the larger context. My main characters have evolved, and confront new situations. I have to get to a strong ending, and create a middle that leads to it.

I am doing one story at a time, each one taking some three to five weeks — not counting interruptions for trips, health, home maintenance, etc. Working on Star Kings while taking a break from a longer project helps me put it out of my mind for a while, and gives a fresh view of what has to be done when I get back to it. Star Kings is coming along, and I like each of the three stories I’ve done so far.

What Made My Stories Work

A long time ago I wrote stories for the Elf Quest collections, a series titled Blood of Ten Chiefs. Six books were planned, only five were published, even though the stories for the sixth volume had been accepted and paid for. It was the publisher’s decision, not the editors.

Those stories all worked. It was some of the best writing and story-telling that I had done. I wanted to write more stories as good as those were, but put them in a far future venue. I had character names and attributes, futuristic settings, super-advanced technologies, and lots of plot ideas, but nothing ever came of it.

It took me years, I don’t know how many, to figure that out. It wasn’t action, and adventure, and high story arcs, and long complex plots that had worked. None of my Freefoot stories had any of that. My stories were about ordinary people (in their terms), living ordinary lives, dealing with occasional unusual problems. I applied that understanding to what I now call Star Kings (I can’t change the title, Darcy did the cover long ago), and I came up with workable ideas for a cycle of twelve stories. I’ve written three so far, and am working on a fourth.