13 Ways You’re Writing Wrongly

Inspired by K. M. Weiland’s wonderful post, “How Not to Be a Writer: 15 Signs You’re Doing It Wrong,” I decided to make my own list.

My list differs from hers, since it’s borne of my own experiences. Moreover, I’m sure there are plenty of unlisted items I’m still getting wrong, that hinder me from greater success.

Arranged in rough order of the writing process, here are a baker’s dozen ways you’re writing wrongly:

  1. You’re not actually fitting one word up against another. In other words, you’re not writing any fiction. Maybe you’re easily distracted, doing too much research, talking about being a writer while not writing, or just intimidated by the prospect. Doesn’t matter. If you’re not writing, you’re never going to be a writer.
  1. You bought your limousine and mansion before the advance arrived. Let’s set some realistic expectations here. Most likely, you’re going to labor in obscurity for a while, probably years. First time best-sellers are very rare. Heck, best-selling authors themselves are rare. Only a tiny percentage of writers support themselves with their writing.
  1. You’re copying someone else’s style. After all, (you’re thinking), if it’s working for James Patterson, J.K. Rowling, Nora Roberts, John Grisham, etc., then it should work for you. Inconvenient fact—readers already have a Patterson, Rowling, Roberts, Grisham, etc. Create your own style.
  1. You’re sure the rules don’t apply to you. I’m talking about those pesky rules of English and the rules of literature, stuff like spelling, grammar, and story structure. All those rules are for mere plebeians, not you, right? Actually, you’re really supposed to know them. As for always following each rule to the letter, see item 5 on my list.
  1. You obsess about following the rules. You’re now a walking dictionary and could qualify to teach English at Harvard. You chiseled the rules onto granite tablets and now pray before the tablets twice daily. Why are your stories not selling? There’s an overarching rule you forgot—you’re supposed to write stories people want to read. If some rule of writing is keeping you from telling a great story, break the rule. Just don’t go too far (see item 4).
  1. You quit before “The End.” Around the world, desk drawers and computer file directories bulge with half-finished stories. If you would be a writer, you must finish your stories.
  1. Your epidermis is on the thin side. In other words, you don’t take criticism well. The most mundane comment from someone in your critique group or from an editor will either set you off in a bout of inconsolable sobbing or high-minded ranting at the imbeciles that surround you. Get a grip. They’re not attacking your personal character; they’re trying to help you improve your story.
  1. You inhabit a world that’s just too slow to recognize the wonder that is you. How frustrating that must be, to cast your gaze at the mortals about you and see them not bowing before the genius in their midst. Well, genius, here’s a word you might look up: patience. Recognition, if it’s to come at all, will come in time.
  1. You revise edit reword amend change adjust vary redraft alter rephrase modify wordsmith rewrite your story endlessly. Sure, that story will be perfect once you work on it a bit more, just add this and delete that, change the POV character, throw in some better verbs and adjectives. It seems like it’s never quite right. True, it never will be perfect, but it could be good enough.
  1. You defy Submission Guidelines. What’s with all these editors, anyway? Each one has a particular format for story submissions, and each format is different. That’s too much trouble for a great writer like you. Your story is so superb the editor will overlook how you flouted a few guidelines, right? Nope, wrong again. Obey those guidelines.
  1. You never click ‘Submit’ or ‘Send.’ That’s because if you do, some editor might actually see your precious story, might read it, and might not like it. Better to keep your story safe with you, in your home, where nobody can ever criticize it. Uh…no. Show your baby to the world. It will be okay.
  1. Rejections are reasons to revise edit reword…rewrite your story. An editor has rejected your story, perhaps even explained why. To you, that’s a sign you must rewrite it before it can be good enough to submit elsewhere. No. Go ahead and submit it elsewhere immediately. (However, if an editor rejects your story but says she’ll accept it if you revise it in a particular way—ah, that’s the sign that you should rewrite and submit it to her again.)
  1. You’re relaxing after submitting a story. There, you just sent your story on its way. Now you can kick back and wait for the acceptance, the contract with the six-figure advance, the launch party, the book tour, and the TV interviews. Sorry, no. You’re supposed to be a writer. Start writing your next story already.

Avoid those pitfalls and you’ll be on your way to becoming a published writer. Best wishes in all your writing efforts, from—

            Poseidon’s Scribe

What Should I Tell Them?

What if one of my children—or later, one of my grandchildren—was to ask if she should be a writer? What should I tell her?

ChildrenIt would be easy to recall all the downsides and advise her to grow up to be something—anything—else. Why subject my own flesh and blood to the long hours alone, the frenzied and awful first drafts, the agony of editing, the anxiety of submission, the torture of rejection, and the years of solitary obscurity?

Why not spare her all that, since I know about it and she can benefit from my wisdom?

But then…

There is that giddy enthusiasm as a good story idea takes hold in your mind, the godlike power of creating a world and peopling it, the fun of coming up with a clever line, the thrill of getting your first (and all subsequent) acceptances, and the ecstasy of seeing your name in print. There’s all that.

Looking back on what I wish I’d known, should I tell her that stuff too? Should I tell her:

  • she shouldn’t expect instant success? It may happen, of course, and I’d be very proud if it did, but chances are low.
  • to, therefore, get and keep a day job, (or marry into wealth)?
  • to consider certain genres and shun others? Romance and horror sell well, but others are so-so.
  • to be unafraid of submitting (like I was for a long time)? Even if I told her, would it make any difference?
  • that rejections are no cause for distress? A rejection is not the end; it’s the beginning of new opportunities for that story and that market.

When it comes down to it, I guess all she really needs to know is whether she has an inner drive to tell a story through written words. Does she have a fire inside that will burn despite any setback, any hardship? Is her little mind filled to bursting with an idea that must get out somehow?

That’s something I don’t know, and can’t impart.

If the passion isn’t there, nothing I can say will make her a writer.

Conversely, if the passion is there, nothing I say will stop her from writing.

If you’re a writer, leave me a comment about what I should tell a child or grandchild who’s curious about becoming a writer. What did you tell your child? Because if there’s one author who’s aching to know such things, it’s—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Emotional Roller-coaster

As you and the story you’re writing go through time together, do you find yourself on the same type of emotional roller-coaster as with a personal relationship? Do you feel elated by positive events and dejected by negative ones? I’ve been through the process enough to detect a repeatable pattern. Maybe it will be the same for you.

Let’s follow through as I experience the highs and lows of writing a story and getting it published. This is my relationship with a single story, so the line will overlap with other stories in various stages.

Emotional RollercoasterGetting a story idea is enjoyable, having it mature in my mind while I imagine the possibilities, the characters, the plotline, the settings, and some of the dramatic scenes. It’s a good feeling to go through that, because that imaginary, unwritten story is as good as it’s ever going to be. Once the reality starts and I put words down, the story never reaches the exalted heights of perfection that it achieved when just a dream.

Still, putting words down has a gratification all its own. I feel I’m making progress, producing product, assembling widgets on my keyboard / word / sentence / paragraph assembly line.

Until I get stuck with writer’s block. Here I mean the minor writer’s block I’ve described before, where I can’t get out of a plot hole, or I need a character to act contrary to his or her motivations, etc. Although temporary, this is a real downer. I don’t always experience this, (as shown by the reddish line) but there’s usually some drop-off in enthusiasm as the glow of the original idea fades a bit.

Reaching THE END of the first draft is a definite up-tic in satisfaction for me. The mad rush of getting words down is over. It’s good to know I can start the reviewing-editing-improving phase.

For simplicity, my graph only shows two drafts, but there may be more, with minor wave crests for completing each one. I get to the highest emotional state so far when I consider the story done and submit it for publication. “Here, Dear Editor, this is my newborn! Don’t you love it as much as I do?”

That emotional high fades, as they all do, while waiting for a response. Usually I’ve begun another story by then, so I get an overlap with a similar-looking graph displaced in time.

My graph depicts two paths here, one showing a rejection. Despite my earlier advice to look at rejections positively, I still find that hard to do. Rejections stink. Maybe not as much now as my first one, but still…

An acceptance of a story is a very high emotional state, especially the first time. It’s time to celebrate, indulge, and surrender to the grandeur and magnificence of me.

No one can maintain a very high or very low state forever, so I do descend from the grand summit as I get through the rewrites and signing of the contract, though these are not unpleasant.

The launch of a story is another sublime pinnacle of emotional ecstasy, and that’s no hyperbole. “For all human history, readers have awaited a story like this, and today, I, yes I, grant your wish and launch this masterpiece, this seminal work of ultimate prose, so you may purchase and read it. You’re quite welcome.”

After the story is launched, you’ll get occasional uplifting moments, such as favorable reviews, or book signings, etc. These are never quite as exciting as acceptance or launching, but they’re gratifying anyway.

I’ve not gotten through all these stages with a novel yet, but I suppose a novel’s graph is longer in time, and has many more ups and downs than that of a short story.

Also, your mileage may vary such that your graph looks quite different from mine. Leave me a comment and let me know about the emotional stages of your writing experience.

Remember, when on a roller-coaster (emotional or state fair-type), it sometimes helps to raise your hands in the air and scream. Whee! Here goes—

Poseidon’s Scribe

October 26, 2014Permalink

The Life Story of a Short Story

AlexandersOdyssey9Hello.  I’m a short story.  Since Poseidon’s Scribe never got around to blogging about the whole short story process, he invited me to guest blog today.  My title is “Alexander’s Odyssey,” and I was written by Steven R. Southard.  My life story is typical of other tales, and might be obvious to many of you, but the steps weren’t clear to Steve when he started.

Idea1.  Idea.  I started as an idea.  You did too, I suppose, but with stories you only need one human with an idea, if you know what I mean.  Getting a story idea isn’t as difficult as most believe.  Ideas are all around you.

Outline2.  Outline.  This can take many forms, not just the standard I-A-1-a-(1) type.  It can be a mind-map, for example.  An outline can keep you focused as you write, but don’t be afraid to deviate from it if the story takes off in a different direction.  Steve used an outline for me, but if you don’t want to, just skip this step.

Research3.  Research.  You might have to conduct research for your story like Steve did for me.  Use the most authoritative sources you can.  Steve didn’t include all the researched data when writing me, just a tiny fraction.  You might enjoy research, but don’t get stuck at this stage.  At some point, enough is enough.

First draft4.  First Draft.  Steve wrote my first draft fast, without caring about quality.  He didn’t even stop to correct typos.  He got it all down, the emotions, the drama, and the character interactions.

Edits5.  Edit.  Steve did several drafts of me where he corrected typos; deleted extraneous stuff; added in foreshadowing, metaphors, similes, and symbolism, etc.  Don’t get stuck at this stage either; some stories never even get submitted.

Submit6.  Submit.  Steve located a suitable market, and had to modify me a bit to conform to the submission guidelines.  After much hesitation, he submitted me.   These days, you writers have the option of self-publishing us stories, so you could skip this step.

Reject7.  Rejection.  Actually, I didn’t get rejected the first time, but I know the feeling.  I don’t understand why writers take rejection so personally; the editor is rejecting me, not you.  Just shake it off and submit your story to some other market.  Keep us moving!

Accept8.  Accept.  I was pretty happy when an anthology editor accepted me, but Steve was positively giddy.  I’d never seen him so thrilled and, frankly, the details are embarrassing, so I’ll just move on.

Rewrite9.  Rewrite.  The editor suggested Steve change me a bit.  He agreed the changes would do me good, and made them.  I’ve seen Steve agonize over suggested changes to other stories, though.  I’ve even seen him push back against the editor.  In the end, they always reach agreement and Steve signs the contracts.  I guess he could always refuse and walk away if he wanted.

Launch10.  Launch.  These days, publishers don’t just publish us, they launch us.  It does make me feel like a rocket going off, sort of.  Again, Steve seems really happy when a story launches, and again it’s awkward to watch.

Market11.  Market.  If I’d been picked up by one of the top publishing houses, they’d spread the word about me.  Steve didn’t send me there, so he had to do it.  Boy, does he hate that part, though I’ve heard some authors like marketing.  Use social media, newsletters, writing conferences—anything to advertise.

Read12.  Read.  My favorite step.  When a reader buys me and reads me cover to cover, that’s what I live for.

Reprint13.  Reprint.  When the rights to me reverted back to Steve, he submitted me for publication as a reprint.  After three rejects, another market accepted me, but asked for significant changes.  My reprint version states where and when I was published the first time.

Spin-off14.  Spin-off.  Oh, I hope, I hope I can get spun-off into a novel, a play, or even a movie.  Hey, a story can dream, can’t it?

That’s my story.  Forget about Steve, or Poseidon’s Scribe.  Address your comments to—

                                            Alexander’s Odyssey

December 8, 2013Permalink

10 Reasons You Really Are Good Enough to Write Fiction

Perhaps you have a story inside you, but you feel too scared or intimidated or inadequate to believe you could ever write fiction.  Here are some ways to banish those feelings.

First, there are at least three levels of fiction-writing.  (1) These days you can write and publish something yourself without an editor, at near zero cost.  (2) You can get your writing accepted by a publisher, but not make enough money to live on.  (3) You can write fiction as your sole means of support.  I’ll limit myself to discussing level (2) today.

Never be a writerTrue, some people aren’t cut out to be writers at all.  My purpose today is to keep you from cutting yourself out of the running at the start.  Let’s look at ways you might think you’re not fit to be a writer:

  1. I just know I could never be a writer.  Where is your resistance to writing coming from?  Do you immediately think “I could never do that” when presented with other opportunities in life?  Maybe this isn’t about writing at all, but your general negativity toward trying new activities.  How many amazing human initiatives haven’t happened because somebody said, “I could never do that,” hmm?
  2. I don’t know anything about writing.  Don’t let this stop you.  That’s the part you can get help with, through critique groups, writing courses, books about writing, writing conferences, etc.
  3. I’d never write as well as [insert your favorite famous author’s name here].  Stop comparing yourself to the great authors.  You can’t know today how you’ll stack up against them one day.  So what if you’re not quite as good?  You can still get published and win over some readers.
  4. I’m unknown, and people only read books by known authors.  Think about it; all published authors started off unknown.  What if your favorite author had talked herself or himself out of writing?
  5. No editor will read my stories because I’m unpublished.  Not true.  Consider that latching on to a new, undiscovered top talent is every publisher’s dream.  All they need is one (you?) to make their career.
  6. Novels seem so hard to write.  No need to begin with a novel.  Try a novella, a short story, flash fiction.  Do blog posts for a while.
  7. My teacher told me I’d never be a writer.  Is one long-ago English or Language Arts teacher still in your head criticizing you?  Keep that teacher in your mind, but dedicate yourself to showing how wrong he or she was; sweet revenge will be yours one day.
  8. My story idea seems trite, or already used, etc.  At this point your idea is just a story concept; it might match hundreds of already-published stories.  Once you flesh it out and write it down, it becomes uniquely yours, different from all others, and possibly publishable.
  9. It takes too long to write a story.  True, writing takes time.  But, of all the skills and abilities you’ve developed in life, how many did you master in a day?  Let the strength of your story idea sustain you.  If it’s truly grabbed you, you’ll persevere until you write it all down.
  10. I couldn’t stand being rejected or getting a bad review.  That does stink, no denying it.  Any creative endeavor requires a thick skin.  Look at editor’s rejections as permissions to send your story elsewhere.  As for bad reviews, remember it’s far easier to be the critic.  At the worst, the reviewer may actually have a valid point you can use to improve your writing for the next story.

See?  You are good enough to at least try being a writer.  Shake off those negative emotions.  Let your imagination soar.  Allow yourself to try it out.  Someday, when you’re a famous author, be sure and give partial credit to—

                                                Poseidon’s Scribe

November 17, 2013Permalink

Prioritizing the Markets

What’s that?  You say you’ve finished writing a story but you’re not sure which market to send it to first?  It can be confusing, selecting among all the markets listed on Duotrope and Ralan and other similar sites.

Every writer makes these choices differently, so I’ll just share my method and the reasons for it.  As always, you’re free to do as you wish.

First, prepare yourself mentally for the probability—the near certainty—of rejection.  I’ve already discussed how to deal with rejection.  My purpose now is to get you to make a prioritized list of markets you intend to send the story to, with the understanding that, most likely, the story won’t be snapped up by the first one.

Market Priority ListHow do you make this prioritized list?  If you wrote the story in response to an announced anthology, then the anthology would top your list.  After that, I recommend going in order of highest-paying market to lowest based on searches of sites like Duotrope or Ralan.  Each market on the list should be appropriate, in the sense that they’re asking for stories of the type that yours is.  Don’t waste your time or some editor’s by sending to a market for which your story isn’t suited.

Why am I suggesting the order be based on payment?  I suspect some of you are objecting that, as a beginning writer, your story couldn’t possibly be good enough for the highest-paying markets, so why start with them?

My response is—have some faith in your story.  I’ve said before that editor’s reasons for rejecting your stories have everything to do with how the story clicks with them, how it matches what they’re looking for, and the quality of the writing.  Their reasons have nothing to do with you personally.

The flip side of that should be obvious.  An editor’s reasons for accepting a story have to do with the same criteria, and the writing quality is the only one of those criteria within your control.  They don’t necessarily know you’re a raw beginner.  It’s every editor’s dream to latch onto a beginning writer who shows considerable talent; they all want to be in at the start of a best-selling author’s career.  All famous authors started out as beginners, tentatively sending out their work and wondering if it was good enough.

Wouldn’t it be a shame if you sent your story to a semi-pro, or token market, not knowing that a pro market would have accepted it?  That’s why I say to aim high, then with each rejection, work your way down.

Later, as you gain experience and have some publication credits, you may establish relationships with one or more markets.  At that point, those publishers may well move to the top of your market listings.  Considerations other than payment alone may drive your priorities.

I welcome your comments about the advice I’ve offered.  If you follow it and get your first story approved at a pro market, one person you should be sure to thank is—

                                                    Poseidon’s Scribe

15 Writing Virtues

Many people believe you aren’t just stuck with the way you are now, that you can better yourself by persistent act of will.  I’m one of them, but let me just focus on self-help as it applies to the writing of fiction.

Benjamin_Franklin_1767Benjamin Franklin was an early example of someone who developed a program of self-improvement.  His method was to list thirteen virtues along with a brief description, then he would set about to focus on one virtue per week.  Franklin actually kept a log of this, giving himself a black mark on days he fell short.  Presumably, by focusing on one virtue at a time, it did not mean he was abandoning the others during that week.

Examples of his virtues include:

1. Temperance.  Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

4. Resolution.  Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

In the spirit of Benjamin Franklin’s list of virtues, I’ll offer some virtues of writing fiction.  I’ve grouped them into ‘process’ virtues dealing with how you write, and ‘product’ virtues dealing with aspects of the manuscript itself.

The Poseidon’s Scribe 15 Virtues of Fiction Writing

Process Virtues

1.  ProductivityFill hours with writing, not researching or time-wasting activity.

2.  Focus.  Turn off your inner editor during the first draft.

3.  Humility.  Seek other trusted people to critique your work; be receptive.

4.  Excellence.  Only submit work you’re proud of.

5.  DoggednessBe persistent in submitting to markets; be unshaken by rejections.

Product Virtues.

6.  Relevance.  Ensure your work passes the ‘So What?’ test.

7.  AppealHook readers from the first paragraph.

8.  Engagement.  Put your characters in conflict with something or someone; make the story about conflict resolution.

9.  Empathy.  Create vivid, engaging characters.

10.  Action.  Weave logical, interesting plots with appropriate causes and effects.

11.  Placement.  Provide clear but unobtrusive descriptions of the story setting, without overshadowing character or plot.

12.  Meaning.  Ensure your story’s theme explores eternal human truths.

13.  Style. Seek your own voice, then follow it.

14.  Communication.  Ensure your characters’ dialogue is appropriate and advances the plot.  (Mentioned here, here, and here.)

15.  Skill.  Salt your tales with symbolism and appropriate metaphors.

Your list would likely be different.  One way to go about it is to examine critiques of your fiction you receive from members of your critique group, from editors, etc.  Are there repeated criticisms?  Turn them around and express them as a positive affirmation or goal, not as a negative to avoid.  Those goals represent things to work on, and would be on your own list of virtues.

George Carlin fans would likely point out to me that there’s no such thing as self-help.  People who get their list of virtues from their critique group, or from this blog post, aren’t exactly engaged in self-help, since they got help from others.  Moreover, if beginning writers truly helped themselves get better, then they didn’t need help.  Witty gags aside, it can be a comfort to a struggling writer that there exist methods for improvement, but all I offer is a framework for starting; the writer must shoulder the burden of actually doing the work to improve her writing.

I’d love to hear if you’ve found my list useful, or if you’ve developed your own list, or even if you’ve embarked on a completely different method of improving your writing.  Let me know in your comments to this blog entry.  For now, back to improving his writing goes—

                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe

Writin’ for Nuttin’

Should you always write to be paid, or should you (at least sometimes) write for free?  Here I’m talking about complete fictional stories, not blog articles or story excerpts.

The answer for you will depend on your situation.  I’ll offer some guidance, some basis on which you can make your decision.

There are those who say you should never write for free, and their reasons are compelling.

  • Writing is effort, and you deserve to get paid for it.  In one sense it does look like writers are producing something from nothing, but the product is something, after all.  Considerable effort went into the product, and work should have its compensations.  Of course, payment is more related to value as perceived by the purchaser than to the effort expended by the author.
  • You have to eat.  How much of your life’s precious time do you really have to expend on doing stuff that has no return?
  • Other authors get paid; why shouldn’t you?  Let’s face it—all else being equal, getting paid for your work beats not getting paid.  Since there are readers willing to pay for well-written stories, why shouldn’t you be one to meet that need, and reap the benefits?
  • Readers perceive free fiction must be inferior.  You get what you pay for, the old saying goes.  If you give away your stuff, they’ll think it can’t be any good.  No matter your personal reasons for writing for free, you can’t directly control this aspect, since it’s a reader perception issue.  Perhaps slowly over time you’ll build an audience as readers realize your stories are high quality despite being free, and tell their friends.

Still, there are valid reasons for giving away your stories, and some of these may apply in your case.

  • Name recognition.  Given that today’s readers rarely choose stories from authors they don’t know, you need to give an incentive for them to know you.  From there you can build an audience willing to pay for your work.
  • Writing as a hobby.  Some folks associate income with work, and work with drudgery.  They associate the word ‘hobby’ with fun, and don’t want to contaminate their fun hobby by turning it into a chore.
  • Less chance of rejection.  I think the so-called “for the love” markets are easier to break into.  However, this reason for giving away fiction is starting to become obsolete in an age when writers can skip the editor/publisher route entirely and publish eBooks directly, and charge for them.
  • Writing as a favor.  Perhaps you’ve become friends with an editor or publisher, and perhaps you owe them a favor for some kindness they’ve shown you.  Nothing wrong with sending them a story for which you ask no payment.
  • For charity.  Here the reader still pays to read your stuff but proceeds go to some deserving assistance organization rather than to you.  Nothing wrong with that.

You’ll have to weigh the pros and cons depending on your particular situation.  In my own case, I have written a couple of stories and submitted them to a “for the love” market.  I hope to include them in an anthology that I’ll charge for, so maybe I’ll make some money from them.  I wrote a story intended to go into a different anthology for which proceeds would go to charity.  That anthology fell through, though, so I will attempt to market that one and get paid for it.  Generally, now, I write for money.

Please let me know what you think about writing for free, and what your experiences have been.  Of course, you can always read—for free—the blog entries of—

                                               Poseidon’s Scribe

September 23, 2012Permalink

Who Polishes the Diamond?

You see it in the submissions guidelines for almost every market–“Submit your best material,” or words to that effect.  If not stated, it’s implied, since they’ll just reject manuscripts containing too many editorial errors.

I’m speaking here of the traditional method of getting short story fiction published, dealing with editors.  However, the answer is the same even for self-published works.

Some writers chafe at the requirement to submit your best material.  “Why are they called Editors,” these writers ask, “if I’m the one doing the editing?”

Such writers think their job is to cleave the diamond shape out of rough stone, cut each facet almost flat, and then hand the gem over to the Editor who works it against the polishing wheel.  Finally the Publisher displays the brilliant, gleaming diamond in his store.

Advocates of this view say they can’t really be expected to get every little detail right.  It’s hard enough to be a writer without being an Editor too.  How is a writer supposed to be prolific and also submit perfect manuscripts?  If the writer is spending all that time with editing third, fourth, fifth drafts, she’s getting less real writing done, isn’t she?

Let’s look at the matter from the editor’s point of view.  I’ve never worked as an editor, so I’m guessing here, but all the editors reading my blog will tell me if I’m wrong.

There is some process involved in the decision to accept or reject an incoming manuscript.  I suspect editors judge stories against the following criteria at least:

1. How well does the story fit with the publisher’s needs?  Is it compatible with the magazine or anthology?

2. How original is the story idea?

3. Can this story sell in today’s market?  Is it in line with, or just ahead of, an emerging trend?

4. What is the quality of writing?  I don’t mean the minor editing issues, but instead an assessment of the writer’s talent in storytelling, choosing words well, creating compelling characters, setting a scene, advancing a plot, use of tension and suspense, etc.

5. How much editing will be required to bring this story up to the quality level needed for publication?

Only one of these criteria deals with the amount of editing to be done.  But your story could clear just over the threshold of acceptance in four categories and still be rejected.  I hear your objection already.  Yes, it’s possible your story could exceed the threshold in the first four categories by far so the editor decides to accept it even though the diamond needs considerable polishing.  Do you want to count on that for every story?  Every market?

I’m sure Editors would rather do the sort of editing that improves the manuscript’s quality, mentioned in item 4 in the list above.  Suppose, instead, she is dealing with matters of basic English–leaving out punctuation, wrong word choices such as farther/further or continuous/continual, wrong verb tense, subject-verb disagreement, overuse of the author’s ‘pet words,’ sudden point of view shifts, weak verbs, etc.  She must conclude the writer is not serious about his craft.  The decision to reject is much easier in such cases.

I’m not saying I’m perfect in this regard, but my message is:  don’t make it easy for the editor to reject your stories.  As a writer, you are both the diamond cutter and the diamond polisher.  Those of you who self-publish have both roles by definition, so you must polish well.  So get polishing, writers.  Your prospective readers want to see your diamonds sparkle!  So does–

                                                                        Poseidon’s Scribe

Heinlein’s Rules

In his 1947 essay “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction,” science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein stated five rules for writing fiction.  Here they are:

1. You must write.

2. You must finish what you write.

3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.

4. You must put the work on the market.

5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

He went on to say that he didn’t much fear the new competition he’d face from putting these rules out in the open, since he figured half of those who claim they want to write won’t complete step 1, and half of the remainder wouldn’t finish step 2, and so on.  Those of you working out the math should forget it–all those halves are just approximate.

Heinlein’s rules are repeated all over the web and there has been much criticism of them.  Some have said they sound too harsh, like Drill Sergeant Heinlein is shouting all those “MUSTs.”  To those folks I’d ask–If your aim is to get your work published, which of those steps do you think you could skip, or kinda half-do?  Really.  Look back over them and tell me which rule could be softened in its wording.

The main criticisms target rule 3, “You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.”  Some assume Heinlein is telling writers to send their first draft out on the market.  I doubt Mr. Heinlein meant that.  I think rewriting the first draft until it’s acceptable is implicit in rule 2: “You must finish what you write.”  It’s not likely to be really finished after a very rough, rapidly-scribbled first draft, even though you’ve reached “The End.”  Heinlein means that you must declare the work finished and then refrain from the temptation to waste time endlessly trying to perfect the work, unless an editor has asked for revisions and you agree to them.  As Heinlein also said elsewhere, “They didn’t want it good, they wanted it Wednesday.”

My own quibble with the rules concerns their order.  As written, they are single steps to be executed in sequential order.  The only loop in the process is within the final two steps, which basically say to send the manuscript out, and when you get a rejection, send the work–unchanged–to another market that same day.  So if all the other steps are in sequential order, Rule 3 makes no sense as written. You haven’t sent the work out yet, so how could you have received a request from an editor for a rewrite?  I say Rules 3 and 4 should be swapped.

The great writer Robert J. Sawyer has suggested adding a 6th rule, “Start Working on Something Else.”  This is likely aimed at those who think their first story will make them famous and so wait breathlessly for word from the editor about acceptance or rejection.  If you’re truly a writer, you can hardly wait to tackle the next project, so that’s when you start it.  Unfortunately, Rule 6 would then be the only one focused on some other, next work while the rest of the rules concern a single story.  Still, I concur with the intent, though I might have phrased it as, “Think of another story to write and go to step 1.”

I like Heinlein’s Rules.  I think their commanding tone is a stentorian call summoning you to action and perhaps to greatness.  Don’t think of them as overly harsh commandments that doom you to misery for the slightest deviation.  They’re an invitation; get out there; don’t talk about it–do it!  And they’re also a promise; follow these rules and you will get published.  It’s hard to think of more inspiring words for a beginning writer.

Please let me know what you think.  Also, remember that Heinlein wrote his rules about 65 years ago.  Perhaps 65 years from now people will still be debating words written by–

                                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe

 

January 29, 2012Permalink