Walking the Maze

thCA0O41S9Great news first: My short story “Maze Walker” will appear in an upcoming anthology, due out in March 2015. I have done two interviews in the past few weeks, one in anticipation of the anthology, and one in conjunction with February’s celebration of Women in Horror. I hope to be able to share more in the coming weeks.

Other than for the above, writing projects were paused last Fall when I began battling a nasty sinus bug but I am happy to report treatments have recently kicked in and I am feeling much better. In January, I had a Popeye-style burst of energy, leading me to write an entire short story from scratch in five hours, averaging a thousand words per hour (my usual speed when I’m in “the zone”).

The energy burst didn’t last, but after a few months of little scribbling, it felt good to finally write something that seems solid. I have since spent some time editing it and submitted it for critique to my local writing group, The Scrawling Narwhals. I’ve already made a few notes of what I think need to be addressed in the re-write but we shall see what the feedback is like next week on “Boomerang”. Maybe I just imagined the story being good, which wouldn’t be much of a surprise after the past few months of brain freeze.

One of my standing writing objectives is to make at least two submissions each month. Despite the bug, I still managed to do that up to the end of December but I haven’t yet submitted anything in 2015. I have just heard back about the lone outstanding sub (rejection) so I am making a push to be able to meet my two sub minimum this month, and hopefully at least one more to make up for the January zilch count.

First up is “Arctic Marauder” (formerly “Frozen in Time”), the story of an Arctic Expedition finding a lost WWII soldier who has survived alone some seventy years at the bottom of an icy crevasse. A hint: the plane’s mysterious cargo may have something to do with his survival. Next, I will work on “The Beaten Path” (Alien chiropractors, who knew?), and “Threader”, a complicated Earth where nothing happens by chance, where lives are controlled by a chosen few forced to live in the Earth’s mantle to hide the reality of how the world really works. Those are the three stories that have been occupying my mind in my recent delirium so I just had to move them up to the top of the pile. I have feedback on all three stories and it’s a matter of using what can help make them great ones. I hope that doesn’t sound easy because it’s not.

Lots of work ahead – happy writing!

#1506

Critiques-Making sense of all the feedback

WWR1441-CritiquesThe first time I dared post a story online for critique, I received 38 responses. Since it was my first experience, I didn’t know if that level of response was average or not (turns out it’s not – a dozen is usually a lot). The sheer volume of comments and feedback was overwhelming, totaling more than 100 pages all together. I didn’t know what to do with all the feedback, how to process all the various comments, or even how to get started.

I’ve gone through the critiquing process many times since, and I have gotten much better at making sense of feedback and more importantly, using it to edit, revise, and ultimately, improve a story. Not all critiques are equal, and it’s important to keep in mind that all feedback needs to be considered before acting upon it simply because someone else suggested it.

What I have found to be key is to read the feedback repeatedly over several weeks. It begins as a jumble of thoughts but, with every reading, each comment and suggestion separates itself from the rest. What is unusable drops away and is forgotten, and what is left is what really matters, what can make a difference in your story and make it that much better.

Everyone has their own method for making sense of critiques, and the best one is whatever works for you. My process for dealing with online feedback is detailed below, please feel free to use any part of it that helps develop your own process. The time between each step varies for an unlimited number of reasons, depending on the number of critiques received, the length of the story, how bad the first draft is, etc. Because of a submission deadline, I have on occasion gone through all steps in one day but find that it is best to leave time (days, even weeks) between most of them as it helps absorb all of the feedback and make the most of it.

  1. Read critiques as they come in: Online critiques are usually submitted under a set period of time (one week, for example) so responses will come in over several days. Just read the feedback, take it all in, and let it cogitate until all the critiques for that project have been received. It’s also good form to send a thank you email to anyone who has taken the time to read your story and send feedback;
  2. Formatting: From my experience, all feedback is shaped by the critiquer. Everyone has their own style, and no two critiques look the same. Simple things like fonts give more importance to comments that may not be as spot on as the poorly scanned handwritten scrawls on another copy. To me, reformatting all the feedback into a single, uniform document creates a baseline where all of it can be studied without favouring one over another simply because it looks better. Reformatting also gives me the opportunity to read the feedback a second and third time, second when copy and pasting into a single document, third when sifting through it to ensure spacing and everything else is uniform. There are always one or two crits that cannot be reformatted (eg scanned copy of handwritten comments) but I don’t spend any more time than necessary on this step. It’s simply a means to an end. I reformat those that can be copied and pasted into a fresh document, and leave the others as is;
  3. Mark it up (feedback doc): This is where the real action begins. On a printed copy of the reformatted feedback, I mark the left margin (with a pen) with simple equation signs as I go through the feedback (4th read): specific sections in my story viewed as good (+) or bad (-). I cross off anything that I know for certain cannot be used, either because it isn’t relevant or is contradictory to what I’m trying to achieve. There are always some I don’t know what to make of so I leave those alone for now. On every following read through, I mark or cross off unaddressed comments as I make decisions on them;
  4. Edit-round one: blind mark-up of the master: I call it a blind edit because I don’t refer to any notes. I set the feedback document aside, and read through a printed clean copy of my story (“master”), noting from memory anything that jumps out in relation to the comments received. I have found that I can address or cover the majority of the feedback through this step. I don’t rewrite yet, I just note what needs to be changed and why (eg POV shift, unclear or repetitive section, contradictory, etc.);
  5. Edit-round two: all-in mark-up of the master: I retrieve the feedback doc and sift through all the critiques in turn, making anything I missed on the master copy of the story (reading #5) and refer to the original critiques when needed. By this step, many of the comments marked in Step 3 have already been integrated or crossed off. By now, I know where the story needs to go, and what I want it to be in the end. This step is about addressing what I missed during Step 4. For major issues (eg section needing to be entirely rewritten), I note it in the margin to address when I return to the electronic copy. The goal of this step is for all of the retained comments from the feedback doc to have been transferred to the master copy;
  6. Edit-round three: macro edit (electronic-blind): Back at the computer, I sift through the story again from the start, trying to refer to the marked master copy only when absolutely necessary, instead trying to edit by feel and memory. I know the feedback by now, and I have planned out fairly clearly what needs to be changed. Doing it blind makes it a more organic edit. Even though I call it a macro edit, this is the stage where the most significant rewriting of the story takes place;
  7. Edit-round four: micro edit (electronic-all in): I go through the story again from the start, still editing and rewriting but this time following along with the marked copy and comparing it to the sometimes vastly different latest draft, incorporating and making use of anything previously missed that is still relevant. Because the drafts of the story are by now so different, many of the comments are now irrelevant (eg structure of a sentence that no longer exists). There are always one or two details that have slipped by the previous step and this fine-tunes the document further;
  8. Re-read the feedback doc one final time: Set the latest draft aside and re-read the feedback doc. By the end of this final read, anything previously left unmarked should have been either used or discarded. Though it often happens that all has already been covered, it has happened on a few occasions that suggestions left unmarked (or even crossed off) made total sense at this stage. When that happens, I return to the latest draft and incorporate or make use of anything that will help fine-tune a story;
  9. Final revision: I always try to set aside a story for a few days before tackling the final revision. The feedback is still bouncing in my head and sometimes something I previously dismissed suddenly makes sense and needs to be incorporated even though I thought the story was done. By this stage, it’s unclear how many times exactly I have read the critiques as the feedback has been copied several times and integrated into the various versions. It’s all part of the project, and it’s not necessarily clear what was used exactly as comments from several people on the same issue blend together, and to make it my own I always try to add a twist to it when integrating it into the story. The point is, it’s been used to improve the story and hopefully make it the best version of itself it can be;
  10. Research markets & submit: What’s the point of doing all this if the story is not submitted? The right market is not always readily available but this Step is a vital part of the process. It’s also great fun to report back to the critiquers to let them know a story they provided feedback on has been published.

Based on genre, there are various online critiques sites available. I am a member of critters.org, which has a substantive forum for speculative fiction.

I look forward to getting your feedback on these steps and how they have helped you develop your own process for dealing with critiques received.

Happy writing.

WWR1441

September Writing Challenge

Word Count Program

It was only a few weeks ago that I blogged about the challenges of using word count as a measure of productivity, and my decision to abandon counting words on a daily basis.

Feedback on this issue has been interesting and unexpected: it turns out word count matters to a lot of writers, and they are passionate about it.

While not a perfect method, I agree it is worth using if it can help motivate and reach writing goals. For me, it had reached the point where it made me stop writing altogether and that’s why I had to stop.

After more readings and discussions on the issue, I still have mixed feelings about word counts. Therefore when I was challenged to participate in the #SeptWritingChallenge on Twitter, my knee-jerk reaction was to immediately decline.

I am always up for trying new methods if it can help my writing in any way so after some reflection, I decided to try it for a month. WritingChallenge.org’s challenge is to write 500 words a day, and they accept one hour of editing as the equivalent of writing 500 words, which addresses my main concern about word counts not taking into account revisions. Participants are asked to tweet everyday about their results, whether the writing day was productive on not.

It’s still not a perfect system but it is still better than pure word count. Revision time is often not easy to calculate as I don’t use a stopwatch to eliminate every interruption, but it can still be estimated. It also doesn’t address time spent on research or critiques, among other things, but I still take them into account in my Twitter reports.

We’ll see at the end of the month if it has helped with my writing production. I have so many projects on the go, I can use any help I can get to get me to the finish line. Just knowing I have to share my results on Twitter for everyone to see forces me to make sure I have something to report: the reporting of results is an even bigger motivator than the word count itself so perhaps that is the key to everything.

I believe no system is perfect and most everything can be improved upon, so it’s a worth a try. Like my mother says – “Il y a juste les fous qui ne changent pas d’idée.” (Only fools never change their minds.)

My progress can be followed on Twitter @JennerMichaud.

WWR1436

Fools Quote

The Freedom of Writing It Down

Write it Down and Carry On

For the past six weeks, I have been focusing on my Summer Writing Project, which is to complete and submit as many of my short stories already in progress (WiP). Because of this, I have not spent much time on new work and I have been itching to get new stories down.

I’m currently finalizing “Canal Ward”, a zombie story exploring how polite Canadians are in dealing with everything–and anything–live or dead. As there are still a few weeks until the submission deadline, I spent time this week thinking about some story ideas that have been cogitating for a while now, but that had not quite yet come together as a united idea. Just focusing on them seems to have made them more coherent. It has also uncapped a geyser of details about setting, character traits, dialogue, and everything else that I need to get down before I forget.

I cracked open one of my shiny new notebooks and began jotting down notes on what I have dubbed the “Maze Project”, completely unstructured and pell-mell. (One of the brainstorm sessions occurred while I was in the eye doctor’s waiting room after getting pupil-dilating drops, and I literally had my eyes closed as I was scrawling into the notebook.) I have already filled quite a few pages and there is no sign that it’s going to slow down anytime soon. Structure is already coming out of this disorderly brainstorm, chief among them are clear scenes, perhaps even chapters, as this work appears to want to be a novel rather than a short story.

It’s doubtful that I will type all the notes I have written longhand. I suspect this is more of a pre-draft process and, when I’m ready, I will just sit down at the computer and begin writing the story from Chapter One, referring to the notebook only after the first draft is done.

By writing it down, I think it has freed my brain to dig deeper rather than remain stuck on the general idea. It’s quite interesting as I feel the story’s development is tangible, the words spilled on the pages are expanding the idea further, like branches and leaves growing on a tree at an accelerated rate.

Write it down quote (Ornstein)

That’s how all stories come to be, I suppose, but writing it by hand rather than typing it has somehow made it a much more visual process.

One thing that isn’t yet clear is the story’s conclusion (the protagonist will survive, but at what price?), and I can’t wait to find out what comes out at the end of the Maze.

WWR#1433

Word Count vs. Productivity

Einstein Quote-Counting

Since Einstein said it, it may just be true.

I used to measure my writing productivity by word count. It seemed the most straightforward way of setting and achieving writing goals (e.g. write 300 words a day, which I almost always surpassed). I even designed an Excel spreadsheet with a multitude of formulas for totalling per month, averaging word count per day/month/quarter, etc.

It worked well for months, until I began revising stories instead of writing new ones. One day, I spent hours reworking a story, taking out entire sections, and writing new ones from scratch. I was in “the zone”, and completely rewrote a story in one intense ten-hour stretch that flew by and felt like no longer than a mere hour. I was also incredibly proud of the end product, where a story had all come together to my complete satisfaction.

Then I looked at the final word count. The net result was exactly minus forty words from where I had started that morning. Minus forty words in ten hours where I felt I had accomplished so much. I dejectedly entered zero in my spreadsheet, and felt like a failure as the pre-programmed formulas spewed the twisted results.

I created another column to note that it was revision/rewrite, and wrote several lines as if to justify that I did indeed write that day. I kept up the database but as I continued spending time on revisions, my averaged stats continued to take a dive, as if all my work counted for nothing.

It reached a point where I made excuses not to write so I didn’t have to open the database. So I put a stop to it and I archived the database, and stopped counting.

I sometimes miss the spreadsheet, especially on days when I write explosively, thousands upon thousands of words. Even if I want to somehow track that successful production, I don’t as the alternative is just not worth it.

Whether it’s new words, revisions, rewrites, or even research, it’s all part of the writing process, MY writing process.

I alone know the work I put in and can only report to myself. I won’t—and can’t—let hard statistics affect what I know I have accomplished, and impact me to a degree that makes me stop doing what I love to do.

So without reporting, recording, or word count tracking, I just keep writing.

WWR#1432

Clutter vs. Chaos: Stories Filing System

Clutter vs Chaos

When you’re hours away from a submission deadline and can’t find the file meant to be submitted (as happened to me this week), a filing system can become a crisis verging on disaster.

t find anything. I thought I had deleted the correct file by mistake, and spent the day banging my head against the wall in regret, only to later discover it had been there all along, just filed under a different name.

While it made sense at the time to delete a few files to clean up the drive, in retrospect, it just created a lot of unnecessary chaos and wasted time that would have been better spent writing. All of it was unnecessary; all of it was a waste of time; all of it could easily have been avoided with a better electronic filing system.

Here is how I resolve to sort my story files moving forward:

Top Folder

First rule: One folder per story

Name=StoryHandle

Story Handle vs. Story Title: Titles can be problematic, and can even change when submitted to different markets. What’s the one word that describes the story, the one word that comes to mind when thinking of the story? I will pick one and stick to it for filing purposes.

Subfolders

This is where it all goes haywire. No order, different file names, senseless version numbering (v1, v91, 140730A, etc.). And when I work from a memory stick or copy a file from a cloud-based folder, I can’t even rely on the dates to help sort it out.

My solution: filename=StoryHandle-v#. (e.g. Elysium-v7). Simple, to the point, and the files will display chronologically.

It’s not an all-new format to me as I have used version numbers in the past, and move up versions only during a significant rewrite. So whether it’s Thirty-One’s Elysium, or Helix of Elysium, Elysium’s Web, or Theo’s Way, it’s all going to be Elysium-v# until submission time.

And yes, second-level subfolders (research, backgrounders, etc.) do come into play, but I somehow have not encountered problems with those as they are standard subfolders for each writing project. The stories themselves, which are constantly worked on and edited, are the misfiling culprits and I hope this simple system will help resolve any further issues.

If you know of a better system, I am all ears (eyes?). Feel free to share better solutions by posting on this page. I would love to know what others are using.

The next serious issue I need to address, much sooner than later, is backup systems. I hate working from cloud-based files because they have to be downloaded first so it seems pointless to go through the trouble every time, so I tend to do periodic backups instead (I know, bad, bad, Jenner). It’s a hassle but I need to figure it out to prevent further head banging sessions before I end up giving myself a concussion.

Summer Project Update: A few stories were submitted this week, meaning they are now off the pile (at least until they get rejected). They include the aforementioned Elysium’s Web, and it is yet another post-apocalyptic plague story. This story is one I especially like, and for which I rose from bed at four a.m. to get down on paper before it escaped me. By five am, I had a dozen pages written longhand, something quite unusual for me. I had intended for those pages to be used as the basis of a novel (and it still may become one), but many tangential stories have sprouted from this story idea. While what came out of those pages serves as the general background and setting for Elysium’s Web, little more than the main character’s name directly made it into it. Theo may yet come back from the dead to make it through another story inspired by those handwritten pages.

Up next: As no anthologies with an August deadline have caught my eye, I may turn my focus to stories I could submit to “big” markets (Tor.com being one of them). Since this summer project started, it’s the first time I feel the pressure has eased up and I must admit it’s nice not to feel so under the gun to produce and finalize work, even if all of it is self-imposed.

I will nonetheless continue to forge ahead and keep writing, lest I fall off the wagon and dare enjoy a day of summer before it’s gone.

WWR#1431

Story Titles: Titling Titillating Tales

Insert Title HereFinding the perfect story title can be challenging. I struggle for days, weeks, or sometimes months, before settling on The One. I’m not sure if it’s because my stack of written stories is constantly growing higher, but I’m finding it increasingly difficult to find fully satisfying titles, ones that don’t keep me up at night as I strive to find something better.

I was asked this week how I came up with the title for “All of a Heap”, which was published a few days ago in Plague: Aftermath. It is a title I am proud of because as you read the story, it can be interpreted in more than one way, which is always a thrilling accomplishment.

The story had gone untitled, referenced as “the ebola story” from its origins and was still unnamed as the submission deadline loomed. I didn’t want to make the title obvious by using ebola or plague, or something relating to the missing daughter. I wanted something that represented the story well, but wrapped in subtlety.

Despite the almost deserted part of the town used as the setting (most everyone has fled to escape the deadly plague), I kept returning to the idea of a crowd because the crux of the story revolves around a collection of victims piled high on the street.

I read and re-read the story without coming up with anything satisfactory so a word association and brainstorming session followed beginning with the word “crowd”. Mob. Congregation. Herd. Confluence.

Nothing felt right so I entered the results in turn in Thesaurus.com. Rable. Posse. Great unwashed. Rank and file. Not necessarily off from what I was looking for but none of the results were le mot juste.

Then I thought of a gathering crowd. Not right, but definitely heading in the right direction. “Gathering” yielded many duplicate results from the previous searches but lower on the page there is a section on related adjectives. Most of the results posted seemed like made-up words (allemang, agminate, coacervate) but one idiom stood out from the group in all its glory as if surrounded by glowing neon arrows: all of a heap.

So thank you for your help, Thesaurus.com. “The ebola project” became “All of a Heap” and was accepted within two days of submission. I like to think the title helped propel it to the top of the…heap.

In future, when I am really at a loss for naming a story, perhaps I should consider turning to Metallica for inspiration. Their song titles are more than fitting when not in the lyrics. Enter Sandman. Welcome Home. Fade to Black. No Leaf Clover (okay, though one of my favourites, I still haven’t figured out this one yet but…“then it comes to be, yeah” so it all works out in the end).

Summer Project Update: I am hoping to submit at least two stories in the coming week, three if I can swing it by the Wednesday and Thursday deadlines, but I have a feeling the titles for those stories might not be settled yet.

WWR#1430