On Writing, National Novel Writing Month, and Omega 84

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Remember when I said I would try to write every day for three weeks? Well, in a stunning turn of events (not), I failed. But much like my workout challenge, it wasn’t a complete failure. Out of twenty-six days, I wrote for sixteen days and missed ten. This includes creative writing and blog writing. Of those sixteen writing days, I wrote over 750 words on eight of them.

This is by no means my best record. But compared to the amount of creative writing I was doing a month ago, it’s a huge increase, and one that I’m proud of.

Let me tell you a story. In one of my classes, we were put into groups and given an assignment to create a fake publishing house. We also had to write fake query letters to the fake publishing houses. I didn’t think much of my query letters; none of my existing projects fit with any of the publishing houses in the class, so I made up some new ones. One of these stories I named Omega 84.

The fake publishing house I queried, Astral Waters Press, “publishes” science fiction novels featuring LGBTQ+ characters. Coming up with a fake story idea to fit those requirements seemed easy enough, I thought. So I wrote a query letter for a fake story called Omega 84. I won’t divulge too many details—suffice to say it features a gay woman who travels across space a few centuries in the future—but after I wrote the query letter, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. In bed that night, I lobbed questions at my fiancé: What do you think of this? How could this be believable? What should I name the home planet for my character? He didn’t have many suggestions, but he provided support…and then a reminder that he wakes up at six in the morning for work. I stopped asking questions after that.

But I didn’t stop thinking about Omega 84. Pieces started coming together. A narrative arc formed. My character’s motivations became clear and before I fully realized what was happening, I had my first book idea in two years.

I decided (foolishly) to write it for NaNo. So far, I have about eight thousand words, an outline through chapter five of the book, and a rough idea of what happens after that. School caught up with me again and I didn’t write as much as I wanted to, but it’s a start—if a difficult one. Fantasy is my comfort zone: with few exceptions, it’s what I read and write. But science fiction isn’t a far cry from fantasy. (They’re shelved next to each other in bookstores and libraries for good reason!) And I’m not afraid to tackle this unfamiliar genre.

That said, I’ll need some help. I’ve chosen my books through the end of the year but I’ll need some new reads, including some science fiction books, for 2017. Have any suggestions? Drop a comment or tweet me @fictionlass (see the sidebar). And if you’re interested in following my progress with Omega 84, you can search this blog for the tag “Omega 84” or Twitter for the hashtag #Omega84. I fully intend to finish a complete draft of this book and then try to edit it. If I haven’t posted about it in a while, feel free to bug me. I look forward to hearing from you!

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Writing Discussion: On Rejection

Anyone can write a single story. But to be a truly established writer, one needs a combination of several things: dedication and desire to write; a constantly evolving list of books to read; a support system; and resilience. It can take years to cultivate these aspects of the Writer (in a general sense), and unestablished writers might balk at the thought of showing their work to others and submitting it for review. Unfortunately, rejection is a key piece to the Writer’s identity. I’m here to explain it to you and why it’s helpful—even necessary—in your endeavor to become a Writer.

Think of your favorite book for a moment. Remember everything you love about it: maybe you identify with the characters, or the dialogue reads smoothly, or perhaps there was a great plot twist you never saw coming. Think of a few different books, if you like. Heck, think of a bookshelf with every single book you’ve ever read. Got it? Here’s something you might not have known about those hundreds (or thousands!) of books. They were all rejected. The author of your favorite book has received rejection letters, plural. JK Rowling, Ursula Le Guin, Patrick Rothfuss, Meg Cabot, the author of the book on your nightstand ALL know what it feels like to read a rejection letter. I’d bet they all received scores of letters early in their careers, and probably receive them to this day.

Rejection may not feel useful. It certainly doesn’t feel good. But it’s essential for the Writer. Many of my classmates were hesitant to read their work in class and to share it with the group. They were embarrassed, maybe afraid to acknowledge their writing as their own, and probably more than a little scared at the feedback they would receive. Even when the feedback was harsh, though, it was all delivered with the intent on making the piece better. And after drafting the piece again, the authors were often happier with it than they were before—and the story was better.

That’s what rejection can do for you. Feedback is essentially a form of rejection: it’s someone saying, “Your writing isn’t good enough yet—but here’s what you can do to make it better.” When you submit your writing to literary reviews and contests, you might receive a stock rejection letter. But some very special organizations deliver personalized feedback with the rejection, especially if your piece came close to being accepted.

The easiest way to get used to rejection is to experience it. Over. And over. And over again. In doing so, you’ll gain resilience while also getting a feel for the industry, how you can alter your writing to make it better or “more publishable.” Of course, just writing won’t guarantee publication. You must also be able to receive the feedback and adjust your writing accordingly—or, after you’ve developed a style or know your method of writing better, you can choose to ignore the out-of-place feedback. The bottom line is this: the Writer produces content and edits content and submits content and is rejected, repeatedly. Rejection is simply a hurdle (more likely, several small hurdles) for you to overcome. And if you do, you’ll be in good company.

How to Write a Short Story

You probably came here thinking I’d have some sage advice for you, right? Or at least I’d be able to direct you toward some Better Way of Writing. “Here’s a college graduate who studied writing for four years and is going to grad school! Surely she knows something about writing that I don’t,” you think. Well, I have some bad news for you.

There’s no real way of writing a short story.

I hear you. “But length has something to do with it, right?” “My teachers taught me the conflict-crisis-resolution model. You’re saying that’s not true?” “What about a realization for the characters? That’s got to be necessary.” After all, I’m no professor or educator. What do I know, really?

Here’s something your writing professors might not tell you. There’s no single true way to write a story. It’s tempting to define a short story by length, number of characters, time elapsed in the narrative, presence of epiphany, adherence to a conflict-crisis-resolution model. Humans endlessly seek to categorize things they don’t understand, and more than a few scholars and writers have attempted to define a short story as such. But the truth is, defining the short story is counterproductive. Every story is different—every writer is different. To expect the same things of Anton Chekhov’s and Tobias Wolff’s and Samuel Beckett’s stories is to ignore the specific circumstances, styles, lives of each writer.

There are a few generalities we can apply as a loose definition of a short story. They are short enough to be read in one sitting, are interesting to readers, resist paraphrase and summation, and provide some sense of completeness for the reader. Additionally, a short story is complete when nothing can be added or removed. But the further hows and whys of a story resist definition. Where one successful story might have a singular point-of-view character, other equally successful stories may have a wide host of characters. Where one story might occur over the span of a single dinner, others may stretch over a whole lifetime. The one truth of short fiction, it seems, is that for every rule posited by a writer, there are scores of stories that laugh and thumb their noses in the face of such rules.

Some young readers might feel more comfortable with the confines of a conflict-crisis-resolution model where others would prefer a more fluid approach. Similarly, when first starting out as a writer, it can be easy to restrict the scope of one’s writing to focus on single characters and strict timelines. But that’s not to say stories that don’t do those things are bad or wrong. They are simply different. And they all start the same way: as an idea.

Exercise: Write about a time when you or a character had a realization, or epiphany, and found out later that the epiphany was wrong. Stay concrete and specific, and write about what led to you or the character realizing the error of the epiphany.

This post was influenced by Alice LaPlante’s book, Method and Madness, chapter 4. The exercise included here was paraphrased from the book.

Writing After a Long Break

Studying writing in college forced me to write on a weekly basis. I was so used to writing that I wrote over summer breaks and tried starting my own writing group. During my senior year I wrote so much, though, that I suppose I…burned out. The following summer was a recovery period. I wrote every so often but nothing progressed further than a rough partial draft. Then I grew restless and bored with my unstructured days and found a job. The recovery period grew into a year-plus dead period. I tried to write but I wasn’t inspired. Here I was, not writing, barely even reading, on the cusp of beginning graduate school, while classmates were working on novels and plays and short stories. It was embarrassing.

This presented me with one heck of a dilemma. Writing had been my go-to hobby since fourth grade, and being unwilling to write frustrated me. Earlier this month, I finally decided I needed to do something about it instead of wait passively for inspiration to strike. I had to make myself want it.

One of my classes had used a textbook: Method and Madness by Alice LaPlante. We didn’t read all of it, probably less than half. It was on my bookshelf between a box of paints and my hardcover Mistborn books. If it helped me in the past, then why not use it again?

I pulled it out one night and started on chapter 1. I took notes. I did the exercises. And while I haven’t started writing my own, unprompted material, it’s helped get the words flowing again.

In short, today’s writing tip: If you’re having a hard time writing, pull out an old writing textbook and start reading. Think the prompts are boring and too amateur-y? Try them anyway. Here’s a prompt for you in case you want to skip the textbook part.

Exercise: Observe your surroundings. Write about them in excruciating detail. Mention the single unmade corner of your bed. Describe the shape of the leaves on the tree outside. Capture the taste of your favorite drink on the page. Walk to a street corner and transcribe a conversation between a family waiting for the bus. Don’t expect many, or even any, of these details to become launching points for stories or poetry. Instead, use this as a way to work on your craft and revive (or start cultivating!) your writing instincts.

Is there a writing prompt you’ve had good experience with in the past? A favorite textbook you’d like to share? Leave it in the comments!