The Little Story that Couldn’t

I suspect every writer has a story that they really believe in, and try as they might, they can’t seem to sell it to anyone. Mine is a flash story that I wrote about eight years ago, and has had an eventful life making the rounds. It’s actually sold once, but never got published because the magazine “lost it,” and I reclaimed the rights because I had lost faith in that publisher (they “lost” another of my stories, too). It’s been shortlisted or made it through the first cuts at at least a dozen publications, including pro, semi-pro and token markets. It’s gotten kind personal rejections, but in the end has always been passed over as “not quite the right fit.”

It came back again this week, after making it to the final cut again, only to stumble before the finish line.

Sigh.

I know selling fiction is as much finding the right market and editor as it is having a strong story. I once had a story that was among the finalists for the Writer’s of the Future Contest (it didn’t win) that went on to rack up nearly two dozen rejections before finding a nice home in a semi-pro magazine. I’m convinced that success in the publishing game is more about persistence than talent, although talent is certainly important. There are many good stories making the rounds, so don’t get discouraged when your good story comes back with a sorry-but-this-wasn’t-the-right-fit-for-us rejection.

I still believe in this one. I like my little ugly duckling’s spunk and its never-say-die attitude. It’s already headed back out the door to find a home that will allow others to enjoy it as much as I do. I’ll keep sending it out until I run out of markets in which I would be proud to see it appear or I lose faith in it, which I hope never happens. It’s a good story, and I’m confident it will eventually find the right editor who sees it the same as I do.

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The Writing Doldrums

I write at several lengths, from flash fiction to short stories to novellas and novels. Each length presents its own challenges, but one thing that I find common to all lengths is something I call the “writing doldrums.” In almost every story, I inevitably reach a point where that initial rush of excitement at starting a new work wears off, the end of the story is still so far down the tunnel as to be hard to see, and the flow of words slows. While certainly a more common challenge in lengthier pieces, I’ve had it happen in flash stories, too, so the writing doldrums are not restricted to novella and novel lengths.

I know to be a successful writer, I need to finish my stories, which means finding the motivation to work through the doldrums and cross the finish line. I’m not always successful at this, but over the years I’ve become more successful at fighting through the doldrums because I have figured out some of the main reasons they happen to me, and that is most of the battle.

If I understand my enemy, I improve my chances of defeating it.

The most common reason for me hitting the writing doldrums is that I don’t know my story as well as I should . While every writer is different, I’ve learned that I should not start writing a story until I know at least my main character and the ending of their story. The better I know this, the easier it is for me to get to the finish.

So where does the challenge come in?

Sometimes I don’t know my main character as well as I thought. Perhaps I don’t really understand their intended character arc, or motivation, or their conflict. That makes it particularly difficult for me to get from point A (the inciting action) to Point B (the resolution). In extreme cases, this could even turn the original ending I have into the wrong ending, so I no longer have a target towards which to write.

I find this my underlying problem when my story starts to wander around without much purpose, or I’m stuck going around and around in the same scene, or I am writing a series of scenes that are uninteresting because they lack or fail to build tension. When this happens, I know I need to stop writing and flesh out my main character, especially their character arc. Once I clearly understand what they want and their climax, I can usually think of a series of scenes and challenges that can act as intermediate milestones. Then I can write to these closer points, and even if the words are coming hard, I can usually brute force my way through to the end. Once there, I can solve a lot of the remaining issues during revisions.

Alternatively, I sometimes get fascinated by a side character, and this secondary character will take over a scene or sometimes even the story. This tells me my main character is not interesting enough to me because I don’t understand who they are and what they want. To solve this, I again need to step away and delve into my main character’s conflict and motivation. Understanding who a character is, and most importantly why I should care about them, usually allows me to figure out a path forward, and like above, I can come up with a series of scenes and challenges to milepost my story to the end. Sometimes during this “fleshing out” process I realize my original ending was the wrong one, and if that happens, the new ending usually becomes apparent, which I find can also solve a lot of my problems.

The second most common reason for my writing doldrums is simply that writing can be tedious and hard work. After that initial shiny new story glow rubs off, the act of putting words on paper becomes like running a marathon—I just need to keep putting one foot in front the other until I get to the finish line. For me, this one is easy to identify because I tend to know exactly where I am going, and what the scenes should be accomplishing. It becomes more a matter of just making it happen. The best way I found to combat this form of the doldrums is to simply write every day and make small progress. I use a daily word count approach, where I ensure that I write at least 500 words every single day. Most days I write more, and on occasion I write less, but my goal is to average at least 500 words every day, which works out to over 182,000 words a year, or about 1-2 novels worth of words.

My reasons for hitting the writing doldrums are likely specific to me, but I think for any writer to be successful, they need to figure out how to finish stories. When you hit that wall in your story, you need to find a way through it (or over it or around it), and I think the best way to do that is to figure out the root cause of the problem. Once you do that, the chances of finding a workable solution should increase. That doesn’t mean it will be easy—if writing were easy, everyone would be a bestselling author—but figuring out how to overcome writing challenges is critical to your success, regardless of where you are a writing novice or a pro.

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The Challenge of Putting Music into Words

One of my current works in progress is a young adult book about a group of teenagers in a band who need to use their musical prowess to stave off Armageddon. It’s sort of a Percy-Jackson-meets-King-Crimson story, where the plucky heroes must overcome all sorts of weirdness while learning about progressive rock music (yeah, progressive rock plays a key role), figuring out what it means to be in a band, and struggling with their burgeoning adulthood.

I’m learning that one of the biggest challenges I’m facing is capturing the sound and majesty of music with words. Many years ago, I read an interview with George R. R. Martin about his book The Armageddon Rag, in which he made the comment that writing stories in which music plays a central role was incredibly difficult because of the challenge of translating a powerful aural experience into written words. At the time, I remember appreciating his observation, but I didn’t think much of it. I had intended to dive into The Armageddon Rag, but life got in the way, and some fifteen years later, the book is still on my shelf, waiting for me to read it.

I really should read it, if for no other reason than it might help me with my YA book, but also because Martin’s pre-Game of Thrones books are exceptional (I recommend his debut novel, Dying of the Light.)

Having now written several scenes where my intrepid band of heroes plays music, I now appreciate the challenge that Martin described. Capturing music with words alone is tough, especially when trying to capture the beauty or the power or the emotional depth of a particular song while still given the reader of sense of what it actually sounds like. For my story, it’s not enough to just talk about the “effect” of the music on the characters. That would be relatively easy. In this story, the actual songs are important, and one of the goals my co-author and I have for this book is to introduce readers to music we love. That means it’s important for us to give enough description of the music to potentially entice our readers to seek out and listen to the songs. (All this is further complicated by the fact that music publishers are notoriously aggressive when it comes to policing their rights, so mentioning lyrics is also a sticky proposition and one I’ve decided to avoid entirely.)

Are my drafts of scenes where the music plays a key role in the events successful? I’m not sure just yet, but it is first draft material for me, so I know it’s not overly compelling stuff. My writing usually improves significantly after a round of editing, so at this stage, what I’m looking to achieve is a solid framework onto which I can build.

I’d like to find more examples of fiction where the authors have successfully described music. If you have any suggestions for novels or short stories where music plays a central role and you think the author did a great job is describing the music, please drop your recommendations in the comments. I’d love to check them out, and maybe learn a few things in the process.

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Rounded Characters and Compelling Arcs

The success of a story often hangs on the presence of a compelling character.

When I first started writing fiction and submitting it to magazines, I was fortunate to receive feedback from editors (perhaps they recognized my newbie status) via rejection letters. In particular, Charles Ryan at Aboriginal Science Fiction used to send a checklist of reasons for his rejections, often with a little hand scrawled note of encouragement. My most often rejection reason from Mr. Ryan was a lack of character depth, or what is sometimes call “flat” characters. Basically, my characters weren’t compelling.

Over the years, I’ve worked hard to write stronger characters, and while I don’t think they are necessarily my greatest strength, I also don’t think my characters tend to hold back my stories anymore. Over time I believe I have developed a feel for what makes a compelling character. I’m not saying I have the all the answers, but I thought I’d share my process for character development. When developing a main character (as opposed to a supporting character), I consider four important facets:

their arc

their agency

their motivation

their stakes

If I can develop each of these well enough to engage a reader, then I likely have a compelling character on hands, and one that can support a short story.

I think the most important feature of a main character is that they undergo a “character arc” over the course of the story. This simply means that the events of the story should cause the main character to experience a change, either in their external or internal condition (or both). I believe the most compelling arcs include an internal transformation, usually a fundamental change in who the character is. It is this transformation that makes the events of the story meaningful. Basically, a character arc should tell what that character has learned and how they have chosen to use that information.

A main character must have agency, that is they must be the source of their own change. This usually happens through the character making a critical decision, usually at the climax of the story. The events of the story must drive the main character to this critical juncture, and once there, the main character must be the one who decides what they are going to do. This decision should not be made for them by another character. Sometimes this is referred to as having an “active” versus a “passive” main character. Main characters who are victims to the bitter end, or a tossed by events beyond their control, or are simple doormats for other characters are seldom compelling to read about. A main character must have the means to make choices and must make them.

In real life, people do things because they are motivated. The more motivated the individual, the more they apply themselves. Main characters should do the same. Characters should have reasons for doing what they do. In general, the more personal the motivation, the more compelling the character. For example, a character could have many reasons for robbing a bank, but it is generally more compelling to the reader if they are robbing the bank to get money to pay for their child’s life-saving cancer treatments, than if they simply want the money to buy a fancy car. Motivations matter, otherwise, characters appear to being doing thing for no reason, who in the real world does that?

Finally, a main character must face ramifications for their actions (or inactions). They must have something at stake, and like their motivation, I believe the more personal the stakes, the more compelling the character. The stakes should be meaningful, clearly at risk, and be as large as possible. Competing stakes should exist to make the character’s decision as difficult as possible. In my bank robbing example above, my main character risks losing their child if they are unable to raise the money. If they do not attempt to rob the bank, their child will most likely imminently die. However, if they decide to rob the bank, it introduces a different set of competing stakes. By deciding to rob the bank, my character risks incarceration if caught or perhaps even being killed during the robbery. These seems like high stakes to me, and this main character is in a real bind.

While I certainly don’t have the answers to character development, I have found that compelling main characters need to be well-developed, such they have arcs, agency, motivation, and stakes at risk. As every write is different, this approach may work for you or not. If you’ve found another way to create compelling characters, please drop me a comment. I am always looking for ways to improve my characters and may writing.

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“The Memory Plague” Available for Free Reading

My story, “The Memory Plague,” published in the January 2021 issue of Lightspeed Magazine, is now available for free reading online. Please check it out if you haven’t already.

Or if you prefer, the story has also been recorded for the Lightspeed Magazine podcast, and you can listen to Stefan Rudnick’s reading of my story via their podcast page.

Finally, if you’ve ever wondered about the story behind a story, I’ve added some thoughts about “The Memory Plague” in series I call “Story Inspirations.” Pop over to here if you would like to what inspired this unusual alien first contact story.

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Inspiration: “The Memory Plague”

Sometimes writing a story can be easy. An idea comes to you, and the words flow out like a river. Editing goes quickly, and if you’re fortunate, you sell it on your first try.

I’ve had that happen a few times, but for me, short story writing is usually a bit more of a process. My stories tend to take time to gel, the first drafts are often meandering and weak, and the editing process is agonizingly slow (but still my favorite part). Selling a story can take months or sometimes, years.

“The Memory Plague,” which is available in the January 2021 issue of Lightspeed Magazine, is likely my most extreme example of this. “The Memory Plague” had its origins back around 2016, when the title just jumped into my head one day. I had no story to go with the title, but something about the juxtaposition of those two words made it stick in my head, and I knew I wanted to write a story that would fit it.

Around this same time, I learned that my mom had Alzheimer’s. This disease affected her memory, and over the next few years, I watched my mom slip away from me, piece by piece, as her memories were consumed. She became an entirely different person—she even took on a different appearance—and I realized that we are our memories, and it is that collective set of memories that makes us who we are. If those memories are lost or changed, we become fundamentally different people. This became the core of what would eventually become “The Memory Plague.”

Several months later, the first pieces of “The Memory Plague” started to coalesce. I decide I wanted this to be a different take on an alien first-contact story, but I just didn’t know what. I also decided that I wanted to tell the story from the perspective of the aliens, and I wanted that perspective to be as strange as possible, while still allowing me to tell a very human story. I am often disappointed by the portrayal of aliens in science fiction because they simply aren’t that alien, so I wanted to challenge myself and this convention. The alien Vortive were born from this desire.

I don’t want to give away too much if you have yet to read “The Memory Plague,” so I won’t say more about story itself. Suffice to say, my first draft, completed near the end 2016, was not very good. The story was long and unfocused, and simply put, had no heart.

So, I put it away, and a short time later I stopped writing short stories to focus on my book series, The Calypto Cycle. That doesn’t mean I forgot about “The Memory Plague.” It stuck in my mind, like a musical earworm, and over the coming years I dusted it off several times and tried to re-work it. I must have failed a half dozen times, and after each failure, I would put it back on the shelf, only to be drawn back to it a few months later. In 2019, I again pulled the story out determined to finish it, and after many days of hard work, I knew I had something special. I knew I finally had it right.

“The Memory Plague” is very personal to me. It’s the hardest story I have ever written, and thus one of which I am very proud. I am saddened that my mom never got to see this one. She passed away several years ago to Alzheimer’s, but she still lives on in my collective memories. I guess I could say, “We are Audu.”

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A Few Thoughts on Collaboration

Writing tends to be a solitary endeavor. Most stories and books are written by a single person during which they conceive, develop, plot, write, and edit in a near vacuum. While many writers may open their work to others for comment and discussion at various stages, they maintain full control over the process and decide what to do with any feedback they might receive.

I’ve written this way for my entire career, and it has produced result of which I am quite proud.

But last summer I had a conversation with a longtime friend of mine in which he revealed a wacky story idea he’d been developing during his daily jogs. Not being a writer, he wondered what I thought of it.

After musing over it for a time, I loved it, and thought he had premise that could be developed into a fun and engaging story, likely appropriate for a young adult audience. I sent him back my thoughts and an offer to write it as a collaborative project.

To my immense pleasure, he accepted, and off we forged into unexplored territory.

Since that day, I’ve thought often about the collaborative process and how it differs so much from the solo one. These differences have necessitated a change in how I think and conduct my writing because the process and the product are no longer mine, but ours. This means several things:

First, I need to have the confidence to respect other ideas, even when they may run counter to my own. This interchange of ideas can be exciting, and by being open to my co-author ideas, I have found that our story has gone in some unexpected, yet good, directions. The interplay of our creativity has benefited the story.

Second, I need to trust my co-author. This is critical because the writing process can become very personal and can reveal things that I ordinarily might not share with most other people. My writing process is messy, and I’ve always felt it is like making sausage: the end product is great, but getting there is something that is best left unwitnessed. I need to trust that my co-author won’t hold anything against me, so to speak.

Third, I need to be open to criticism. Sure every writer needs to have a thick skin, but this is more than just someone saying they thought your finished story was trash. Criticism is hard to take, but if I trust my co-author then I should know that any criticisms they raise are intended to improve our story and process, and not to tear me down. I must remember that we are both working toward a common goal

Finally, I think it is critical to be open and clear up front about the nature and goals of the partnership. One of the first things my co-author and I did was agree to the boundaries our collaboration. We agreed on what fell under this partnership, what did not, and how we intended to split everything from workload to potential profits. We also agreed on our end goal, including how we hoped to pursue publication. This might sound like a prenuptial agreement or a business contract, and in some ways, it is, but I think it necessary to establish clear expectations to avoid any misunderstanding or hard feelings later. Most importantly, we agreed to walk away from the project if it ever threatened our friendship.

I hope that following being mindful of these consideration will make for a positive collaborative experience and result it a book that is publishable, profitable, and most importantly, enjoyable to readers.

I’ve likely missed some other consideration, so please drop them in a comment if you have anything to add.

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Winter Storms and Future Considerations

Winter Houses

I’m a marine biologist who lives in the mountains. I’m not sure how that happened, but I certainly have no regrets. This also means I’m used to water in all forms. While I’ve spent my career in liquid water, the frozen variety also hold a lot of sway over my life. Yesterday, a winter storm put out my power for about 14 hours. Power being out doesn’t particularly bother me; I’ve lived without power and running water for months following typhoons, so no lights and no internet aren’t foreign to me.

My internet is still down, and but the modern miracles of mobile hotspots and unlimited phone data have allowed me to get my laptop on line for at least a few minutes. When I checked my email, I found one from Apex magazines informing me that my story submission had made it past their first readers. For those not aware, lots of magazines with high submission rates use first readers to cull their slush piles and advance a smaller subset of stories to the editor(s) for final decision. Getting past the first reader does not guarantee a sale—the rejection rate at Apex is >99%—but it does mean I haven’t been rejected yet, and that much of the competition has been stripped away, leaving . . . well . . . the tough competition to content with. So, it’s sort of mixed bag, kind of like leveling up only to find that the bosses you have fight are just that much tougher. I still expect to receive a rejection in the end.

This story has been a bridesmaid several times already, which tells me one of two things: 1) it’s good enough to get through the first cuts, but might not be quite there for a sale in the end, or 2) it just hasn’t found the right editor or publication yet. I like to think it’s the latter.

Keep writing. Keep submitting. And good luck.

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Writing Update: Collaboration on the Clock

I thought I’d provide a quick writing update to set the stage for some future posts I want to make.

A few months ago, I finished revising the manuscript for Tiger Unbound, Book Five of the Calytpo Cycle. At this stage, the manuscript is essentially done. I say essentially because this when I send it to a handful of trusted first readers who give me feedback. This usually results in a few revisions and some line edits, but generally nothing substantial.

Last November, as my contribution to National Novel Writing Month, I wrote the entire first draft of Book Six of the Calypto Cycle. It doesn’t have a title yet, and as with all of my first drafts, it needs a significant amount of editing and revision, but overall, I’m pleased with how the story came out. This book concludes the middle third of the story, so unlike Books 4 and 5, Book 6 ends with a few loose ends that are intended to propel the reader in the final act of the entire cycle. It also has some of the biggest story reveals of any of the books so far, so I wonder how my readers will like it.

Since November I’ve turned my attention to a collaborative effort with a longtime friend. We’re working on a YA book series that combines progressive rock music and a story of the end-times, a sort of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief meets King Crimson meets Buddy Holly is Alive and Well and Living on Ganymede (if you are not familiar with all these references, make sure you find them and read or listen to them). After spending several months working out plot and scene details together, I’ve turned my attention the actual writing phase, and I’m about a quarter of the way into a first draft. I’ve never done a collaborative story before, so it’s been an interesting—and good—experience to this point, and I’ll plan to write about it in the future.

Finally, I’ve got several short stories making the rounds. After a stretch where all of my submissions seemed to be languishing in slush piles, at least a few of those piles seem to be moving again. One of my stories shook free a couple of days ago (a nice personal rejection from Andy Cox over at Interzone), and it is already off to another magazine for consideration. I hate rejections, but I hate not hearing anything at all even more, so here’s to more news, good or bad, arriving soon.

And with that, I wish good writing to everyone.

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Tough Decision, Easy to Make

I decided yesterday not to renew my membership in the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA). For those not familiar with the SFWA, it’s the preeminent professional organization for science fiction and fantasy writers, and it’s not easy to qualify for membership. The SFWA does good things for writers, many of which should not be downplayed and are critical to artist who are often not businesspeople or lawyers.

But the SWFA is also more than a business organization. As a young writer, I viewed SFWA membership as a badge of accomplishment. I still do, which is one of the reasons this was a tough decision to make.

In reality, however, I knew I didn’t have many choices, and this decision really wasn’t a difficult one. My family simply could not afford the membership fee, and as a writer who does not make a living off his fiction, I could no longer justify the vanity rush of being able say I was a member of the SFWA.

Head over heart, I guess.

And, you know, I don’t need the badge to know I’m a good writer.

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