Process: The Short Story

girl writingI can only speak about how it works for me. I am impelled to start a story in several ways. The first way is that a story just springs to mind, something I have to write, or perhaps a character that fascinates me, that I must build a story around. Another way is a contest or event, like Bouchercon, that solicits stories. A third way is a journal, online or print, that I respect and want to get into, so I come up with a story I think they might like. The fourth way is “the call.”

Here’s how it goes: An editor puts out a “call” for an anthology centered on a theme, let’s say, crab traps or antique tennis balls. He or she helpfully includes a link to a website devoted to such items. The theme is one I feel an affinity for, so I click on the link. Sure enough it’s a wealth of information. For instance, the evolution of the modern tennis ball, famous collectors of antique tennis balls, how to spot a fake antique tennis balls, antique tennis ball events, conventions, etc. in your geographic area, the astronomical price a rare antique tennis ball fetched at a recent auction, and on and on.

Reading through the site I jot down a few facts or whatever that intrigue me. I let that simmer for a few days, as ideas for plots and characters flit through my mind. Nothing gels. I go back to the site and find more ideas. I have them all on a list on a yellow pad.

Finally my thoughts seem to circle around one particular image or fact. I mull that over, adding possible motives for murder, weapons, locales. Eventually, I come up with the scaffolding of a story. I begin to add timelines, bits of dialogue and motivation. Character descriptions get fleshed out.

At this point, I can talk it over with someone, either a critique partner or someone else who’s gets what I’m doing. As I tell the story, it’s structure gets clarified in my mind. My listener may suggest tweaks or point out weaknesses. The story gets better. At this point, I’m ready to start the first written draft.

I write about one-third of the story. This is where I stop. I’m convinced the story is lame, the dialogue unnatural, the characters mere puppets, the motivation for the crime not believable, and it doesn’t include enough connection to the prompt.

Okay, maybe all those things are true, I say to myself. But so what? You’re halfway there, you’ve done all this work, why not finish it. Then decide whether to junk it or polish it and submit. And, after a few days, I do, in spite of having little faith. Because part of me really likes this story. The fun part kicks in again. I want to see it through. I finish the first draft, let it rest, revise, improve, revise, improve, falling more in love with it all the time. At last I take a breath and send it off. Does it get accepted? Sometimes. Sometimes not. Either way, there are always more “calls”, more jogs to the creative mental forces to generate new stories. With those that don’t get accepted at the initial market, I build up an inventory. With revision, I’ve placed older stories in new markets. I also get better all the time. It’s a process. It repeats itself. It works for me.

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guitarI’ve played the guitar for decades. Well, sort of. I know lots of chords and chord progressions in several keys. But basically I’ve just plunked along, self taught, or with tips from people who were better than I. A few years ago, I finally started formal lessons. One of the things often said about the guitar is that it’s an easy instrument to play, but a hard instrument to play well. So true.

After a couple of years of lessons, I wasn’t much further along that when I started. I practiced not nearly enough. That goes without saying. But a couple of months ago, I realized I had other tendencies that were working against me. These were tiny things that I thought didn’t matter. I would be too rushed to file my nails. I’d wait till I got into the classroom to tune the guitar. When I did practice, I’d sit on any old chair or couch, just to get it done.

What I realized was that these tiny lapses were essentially expressing disrespect–for my stated goal of wanting to play better, for the difficulty of what I was attempting, and for all the time and money I was spending to get there. Now I make sure that, even if I haven’t practiced as much as I would like, I’m prepared in all the other ways. I practice on a straight chair that promotes good posture and guitar position. I have my music on a music stand, not just spread out on a table or footstool in front of me. I tune the guitar every time I pick it up. For some reason, and without my consciously doing it, these small changes have resulted in more, and more regular, practice. And I’m better. I can tell. So can my teacher. He doesn’t know that I’ve made these slight changes in attitude and behavior. But he sees and applauds the results.

Now I get the pleasure of progress, incremental perhaps, but noticeable. It makes me wonder, are there ways in which I’ve been treating my writing with lack of respect? If so, and if I correct them, will I also become a better writer? Or am I already doing everything I can in that area? I don’t know yet. It deserves a fresh look. Who knows what I will find?

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The Words That Kill My Writing

paperworkLots of words and phrases put my writing and my writing career in grave danger. Some come from inside myself. Well, actually most of them these days come from within myself, even if they originally came from outside sources. These are words like “I’m not good enough.” “There’s too much competition.” “Other things are more important.” Yes, I’ve internalized these messages, but at least I’m aware of them and can argue back. No, the words that most hurt my chances of success are: “may as well. . .

As in, “while I’m at the computer, I may as well. . . ” Pay that bill. Address that birthday card. Make that appointment. And on and on. These small, seemingly minor, not very time consuming, yet often urgent chores will, without my even realizing it, eat up an entire morning. One leads to another. There’s no end to them. Every day there’s a new batch. Am I using them as an avoidance technique? Or do I really believe that a little desk-clearing will pave the way for working on a project? Is it the immediate kick of satisfaction I get from checking things off my to-do list? (A feeling, let’s face it, that is much delayed when it comes to writing.) Or is it fundamentally a lack of awareness of just how damaging to my goals such an apparently innocuous habit actually is?

Whichever it is, awareness of a problem is the first step to finding and implementing a solution. I’ve done it before and I can do it again. Now that I know.

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Gosh, Thanks!

Last evening, I went to Vroman’s, my favorite independent bookstore, for the monthly Trivia contest. While there, I picked up the latest copy of Mystery Scene Magazine. I am a faithful reader. I love the articles on historic figures or events in the mystery genre, the profiles of mystery writers and of course, the reviews.

In this issue, though, one review was an unexpected delight. On page 47, Betty Webb reviews the latest Guppy anthology, Fishy Business. She gave a shoutout to my story, “The Wannabe”, as one of her favorites in the collection. Wow! So, thanks to The Guppies (a chapter of Sisters in Crime), Wildside Press, the coordinator, the judges, the anthology editor, and to Betty Webb for including the book in her roundup of small press reviews.

There is one problem with Mystery Scene Magazine. I end up with another 17 books on my To Read list. Actually, that’s not a problem. Having lots of enticing new titles to look forward to, whether mystery fiction or otherwise, is a perpetual joy for people like us. So, read on!

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We Are Not Alone!

bulls eyeNo I’m not referring to extraterrestrials. I’m referring to the hurdles we face in getting published, getting accepted, getting read. I recently saw an article in my local paper titled “The Odds of Getting Hired,” by Angela Copeland. It stated that only 2 % of job applicants make it to the interview phase, and that the odds of getting hired are 1.2 % overall. It sounds pretty familiar already when I think of all the statistics I read about how many people are out there trying to write for every market available. The article mentions that according to one source, there are 250 applicants for corporate job opening. While it’s true that job seekers often apply simultaneously to multiple openings, we writers are likely doing something similar. We may not submit simultaneously (usually frowned upon) but we at least keep the same manuscripts circulating to different outlets. The next part of the article touts the advantage of (guess what?) networking!  “Your chances of getting hired go up exponentially when you know someone internally.” Of course this is true for us. It’s why conferences and other ways to make connections to editors, agents and readers is so important. There’s more. “So often we assume that we weren’t hired because we aren’t qualified [in our case,, our work wasn’t good enough]. But it may really come down to a numbers game at times.”

All I’m saying is, it’s tough out there for everyone. The author’s conclusion sounds even more familiar: “Keep moving. Keep applying.” Yes. Keep writing. Keep submitting. And take comfort in knowing we’re not alone.

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resourcesWe writers depend on resources. Market listings, critique groups, craft classes. But I, at least, end up being a resource for all my non-writing (or less experienced) friends. One acquaintance recently asked me how to register/protect a book title. I explained that titles are not subject to copyright. I was a little surprised he wasn’t aware of this. If you search Amazon for, say, Sucker Punch, you’ll get multiple entries, distinguished in this case by sub-titles. My own book, Fault Lines, can be hard to find due to all the other books with the same title. Ditto the anthology Fishy Business, which includes my story, “The Wannabe”. Another friend said she felt guilty downloading ebooks because she thought the authors didn’t get paid. I assured her they do. Unless the works are out of copyright, or pirated. I also get questions from less experienced writers on getting books into electronic form or setting up readings. I’m flattered that people think of me when they have a question. I’m proud that I’m far enough down this writing/publishing road that I have the knowledge they need. It works both ways, for sure. I have a wonderful actress friend who helped with the “cattle call” scene in “The Wannabe.”

Of course, it can go too far. I’ve encountered several folks who don’t understand the line between “resource” and “crutch.” Or “help me” and “do it all for me.” But I’ve gotten better at setting boundaries. And I always, always remember the wilderness of ignorance I wandered in when I began. Naturally, there’s always new stuff to learn, and I add to my knowledge and skills every day. Resources, too, get better and better, with so much (everything?) available online. However, the personal touch can’t be beat. So, I include my fellow writers in my list of resources. Stephanie, Jo, Michael, and the rest. Couldn’t do it without you.

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Better. Just better.

betterHave you ever found one of your old, old stories or essays or poems, one of your earliest attempts to be a serious writer? Do you laugh gently to yourself about how bad it was? Me, too. In fact, I’m embarrassed now to realize I actually sent some of those pieces out. Those poor, kind over-worked editors! But so what? Everybody starts somewhere. None of us is born knowing how to be a good writer. We all start off at varying stages of ineptness, then improve. How? I’ve taken classes, attended workshops, shared critiques with fellow writers, both better than I am and on the same level. I’ve compared my attempts to those already in print in markets I aspire to. Though it’s taken years, I’m astounded at how much better I actually am, at least, IMHO. No, that’s not quite true. I know I’m better because I get published now, when in the early days I didn’t. I know I’m better because I can writer faster, often easier. I know I’m better because I occasionally get solicited for content, something that would never have happened in the beginning. I don’t ask for perfection. I can only become a better writer at my own speed, although I have experienced bursts of insight about my own writerly mistakes. I may never achieve amazement inspiring work. All I demand of myself is to keep improving, learning, honing, caring. To be better today, with this manuscript, than I was before.

If I wanted more, I’d get discouraged. If I wanted less, I’d be stuck forever where I started. It’s may not seem like much to ask. But it’s also everything. Better.

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Just What I Need. . .

books question mark. . . more rabbit holes. Sheesh. Okay, we all know what happens when we sit down to write. We see some irresistible click bait. We think it will only be a few seconds of surfing. A half hour later, suddenly it’s time to make lunch. Or whatever. And now, at the risk of having you think I’m the devil on one shoulder, I have to mention my latest temptations. I belong to LibraryThing, an online book club similar to Goodreads, but different. LibraryThing has many discussion groups in both fiction and non-fiction, but my favorite group is “Name That Book.” People post a few lines or the plot from a book they read in the past, but now can’t recall the title of. You have to be a member to post, but not just to browse what people are looking for. BUT, the site also refers users to even more links to explore, such as the Lost Titles, Forgotten Rhymes from the Library of Congress and Reddit’s What’s That Book.

So, what’s the fascination? It’s kind of like a quiz show, where you compete in your mind with the folks on the TV. It’s fun to test my own memory, as well as the huge backlog of books I’ve read. It’s fun to try to help other readers who are going nuts trying to remember something they’ve read that still haunts them. But, all that aside, it’s for sure one more timewaster. Will I give it up? No. But I know from experience it will lose it’s appeal after a while and I’ll be spending less and less time on these sites. Then I’ll do what I always do: get back to work.

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The Arts

dream palace 3One of the primary delights of living where I do in Southern California is that I am surrounded by a wealth of resources for joy. For me this means the pure joy of learning, of stretching my mind and especially for absorbing art in all its forms. Today I’ll be joining a friend for a visit to The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. Last night I attended a revival of the film Gold Diggers of 1933, with excellent commentary by a professor of film from a nearby college. Our local little theater, The Playhouse, is staging a run of the Broadway musical Dames At Sea.

But, much as I love movies and the rest, it’s always books that come first. Lucky for me, Inside the Dream Palace by Sherill Tippins combines it all. Sure, it’s a history of the iconic New York residence. But it’s also a capsule version of social movements, history, architecture, literature, painting, politics, music, economics, philanthropy and New York City itself from the time of the Chelsea Hotel’s founding to the present day. What I always hope, of course, is that infusing my mind with art in all its forms will stimulate and foster my own work. This may or may not be true. But if not, so what? The delight and the joy, the pure fascination, the enrichment I gain is benefit enough.

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Send Is Not the End

brain wavesWe’ve all heard, and likely experienced, that getting started is the hard part. It’s certainly true for me. But now I find that ending is also hard. Last Saturday I hit “send” on a new story for a new (to me) market. But I couldn’t let it go. Of course, there were the usual pangs of regret. As soon as we hit send, we immediately think of or remember details we meant to include but left out or other improvements now too late to make. But it goes deeper than that. When I’ve accomplished my goal for the day, I can’t simply switch off my writer’s mind. I jump right into trying to come up with another story for the same or a different market. I’m eager to tackle peripheral writing chores, like research or reading posts on my several writing forums. I’m on a roll and I don’t want to stop it. My regular, non-writing life might not even exist and certainly has no place in my brain. I resent being hungry for lunch. When I take a shower, I forget which part I’ve washed and which part I haven’t. When my boyfriend proposes marriage, I mentally edit his phrasing for better effect. I look at every object, from a paper clip to a pair of sandals, wondering how they could be used in a story, especially in a mystery story, which is what I often write. Mostly, I don’t want to leave this realm. I want to stay in writer mode a while longer. Once started, I don’t want to stop. No real harm is done, I guess. And of course, it doesn’t last, if only because I rather like the other parts of my life as well, the friends, family, books, meals, music, my cat and all the rest. Yet, I know, once I’m back to being a person, rather than a writer, I’ll face the same writer mind problem next time–getting started. Starting. Ending. Both are part of what writers, and perhaps other artists learn to handle. Both in their own ways painful, yet satisfying. Which, come to think of it, applies to so much of the writer’s life. Or maybe not. In the end, I can only speak for myself.

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