Tag Archives: writing

Capclave 2019, Day 1

Yesterday, I attended the first day of Capclave, the Washington, D.C. area local science fiction convention. This has been my local convention ever since I started to sell stories. I haven’t been writing much the last few years and so I haven’t been attending conventions, but I decided to attend this convention for two reasons: First, Robert J. Sawyer and Martha Wells are the guests of honor, and second, I’ve started to write again, and it would be great to catch up with old friends.

Rob Sawyer was the GoH at the first science fiction convention I ever attended, RavenCon in 2007. I had just sold my first story, and Rob was incredibly nice to me. I think the last time I saw him was at the Chicago Worldcon, and it was great to get to see him again yesterday.

Chatting with Bill Lawhorn, one of the Capclave con-runners, we tried to figure out when I first attended Capclave. I thought it was in 2010, the year that Connie Willis was guest of honor. Bill read through the list of earlier Capclave’s and I was fairly certain I hadn’t attended those.

I was wrong.

Searching the blog this morning, I found that I attended Capclave 2007 when Jeffrey Ford and Ellen Datlow were guests of honor. I was not a panelist then–indeed, the first time I was ever on a panel was at Readercon in 2008, I think. But I sat in awe on many of the panels as people whose names I’d been seeing on books and in the magazines talked.

At that 2007 Capclave I attended a workshop led by Edmund Schubert, Jagi Lamplighter, Jeri Smith-Ready, and Allen Wold. In the years since, I’ve sold more stories to Ed Schubert than any other editor; I attended the Lauchpad Astronomy workshop for writers in Laramie, Wyoming with Jeri Smith-Ready (her husband, Christian Ready helped run it), and yesterday, I moderated a panel that included Allen Wold among the panelist.

I had a late lunch with my pal, Bud Sparhawk, who has to be one of the most prolific “retired” people I know. It had been a few years since I’d seen Bud and it was great to catch up with him.

I had my first panel at 8 pm, “Before the Beginning,” a panel on what happens before a writer starts to write a story. It turned out I was moderating this panel, which included Sunny Moraine, Ian Randal Strock, Ted Weber, and Allen Wold. It was a light audience of maybe a dozen people, but I think we had a pretty good discussion. It was the first panel I’ve moderated in several years and I was a little nervous about it, so I made sure to prepare ahead of time. For those curious, here are my notes (the stuff handwritten, are things I scribbled down during the panel):

I’ve got two panels lined up today, neither of which I have to moderate, fortunately. Looking forward to another fun day.

Lab Book for a Novel, Day 8: The Voice and POV Dance

It has been a few days since my last post. I’d been traveling for work, and spent much of the weekend working as well so writing the last few days has been minimal. Yesterday was Day 8, and through Day 8, I am 811 words ahead of pace. That sounds good, but things are a bit deceiving, and this is where setting a daily writing goal can be problematic.

Although I’ve written 4,800 words, only the most recent 1,700 are part of the novel now. The other 3,100 words have been tossed because they weren’t right. (They weren’t deleted, as I don’t delete, but they have been crossed out in the manuscript. So despite having averaged 600 words per day over the first 8 days of writing, I have only 1,700 words of acceptably story to show for it.

You see the flaw in a plan like this, right?

Fortunately, for me, this is fairly common at the beginning of a story. I stumble around a lot trying to find the right point of view from which to tell the story, and trying to find the right voices for that point of view. I started in first person, thinking that was how I wanted to tell it, but quickly realized that wouldn’t work, at least, not for the entire story. There are things the reader needs to know that the viewpoint character doesn’t know, and that is hard to do in first person without some kind of special talent, like telepathy, which this particular character does not have.

So I switched to third person, and rewrote. But I struggle more with voice in third person than I do in first. Moreover, I decided that I was going to move between characters, although never within a scene. So I needed to come up with distinct voices for each of the character viewpoints thus far.

Finally, I couldn’t figure out where best to start the story. I think I mentioned that it takes place in two distinct time periods separated by about 60 years. I tried starting at the beginning (in the earlier time period), but couldn’t seem to get to the heart of the matter quickly enough. The sense of overall urgency in the story was lacking. So I tried again, this time from the latter time period. That seemed to work better. Yesterday (my best day so far) I wrote 1,700 words covering the first two scenes, and I think I have things finally going the way I want them.

As one who does not outline (pantser instead of plotter), I also finally have a sense of the general direction the story is going. Right now it looks like there will be three overarching “parts” to the novel. The first and last will take place in the latter time period, with the middle part (a fairly big part, I think) taking place in the past.

I haven’t written yet today, but I know what comes next, and I am eager to write it, and that is always a good sign.

This difference between how much writing I do toward the first draft, and how much stays in the first draft is tricky, however. If I am aiming for a 90,000 word first draft, it is completely conceivable that I’d write 100,000 words or more, only 90,000 of which end up in the draft. To that end, I’ve added another element to my logbook for my novel. This is a green bar. Each day, that bar will indicate a cumulative count of how much of what I written is in the first draft. Stuff that I’ve cut won’t show up in this measurement. As of today, therefore, things look like this:

Introducing the green "draft total" bar.
Introducing the green “draft total” bar.

I expect to get in some decent writing this week, and over the weekend. Next week I am traveling again, so we’ll see how things go.

Lab Book for a Novel, Day 3: Reading While Writing

More than 24 hours passed between my second and third writing session, but still three days in a row. I wrote yesterday early in the morning, before 5 am. Today, I just finished my day’s writing at almost 7 pm. I managed 620 words, so that’s three days above my 500 words/day quota. Today’s writing felt a little choppy–I felt like I was throwing a little too much out there at once. But I resisted the temptation to go back and change anything,. Right now I just need to keep moving forward.

On the plane out to L.A. I finished re-reading On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. I think I’ve read this book 7 times now. It is the only book on writing I have ever read and found value in. I re-read it now and then for inspiration, especially when starting something new.

Having finished it on the plane, I needed something else to read, so I started reading Mary Robinette Kowal‘s The Calculating Stars. I stopped reading science fiction several years back, not for any particular reason. I just wanted to read other things, mostly nonfiction, but other types of fiction as well. But I will be attending Capclave next month, and it seemed like I should have read something recent in the genre, especially since I will be on panels there.

The book, so far, is amazing. I’m always impressed when writers do a good job at something technical. One of the main characters in Mary’s book is a pilot, and as a former pilot myself, I was impressed with Mary’s descriptions of flying. But the story is very good, too, and therein lies a problem for me.

When I am writing a story, I really can’t read fiction. I usually avoid it. But Mary’s book is so good that I just have to keep reading. And I suspect, by the time I finish it (maybe tomorrow on the plane home) that I’ll want to jump right into The Fated Sky, sequel to The Calculating Stars.

All of this is to say that Mary’s book is very, very good. So good, that I am breaking my own rule of avoiding reading fiction while I am writing fiction. The rule exists not so much because I am afraid what I am writing will be influenced by what I am reading. Instead, I worry that, given my limited time, I will choose to read her novel instead of work on my own. It’s fine to skip a day here or there, but if I start to skip too much, I start to lose the continuing of what I am writing.

In any case, three days into my own novel, I’ve got about 2,500 words written, and I think I might be closing in on the end of the first chapter. I don’t know how other writers think in terms of chapters. I generally write and number scenes, but as I go, I get sense that several scenes fit together in a collection that is properly called a chapter, and that is how I label them. I think chapter one will be done tomorrow or maybe Friday.

Lab Book for a Novel, Day 2: Early Concerns

I was so tired yesterday, after not sleeping much the night before and being up early for my flight to L.A., that as soon as I finished writing, I crawled into my hotel bed at about 6:45 pm and collapsed. That meant that I was up early, despite getting 9 hours of sleep. So before heading into the office, I took advantage of the time to get in some writing.

I added the second scene to the novel, just shy of 1,000 words. I jumped viewpoints in this scene, and am set to do so again in the next scene, before jumping back to the original view point in scene 4. As many of my stories are first person, third person is harder for me. As I write, I worry that the different view points are not distinct enough from one another. In other words, instead of having to find the right voice for the story–which is always the hard part for me at the beginning–I have to find the right voices. And those voices need to be distinct enough from one another so that they come across as different people.

My other worry is that the story is interesting enough to keep a reader’s attention. This is a slippery slope for me. In the past, I worry about this too much and end up going back and starting things over to find what I think is a more interesting approach. I do this again and again and write a lot but make little real progress. I am trying to learn from that here, and I keep reminding myself that this is the first draft, and until it is finished, no one but me is going to see it. Let me just get the story down and I can decide if it is interesting enough to hold a reader (and make it more interesting, if needed) in the second draft.

It did feel good to get in my quota (and then some) before my day even gets started. I’m eager to write the next couple of scenes, and that is always a good sign. There’s a chance I’ll get some more writing in this evening, but for now, after two days, the score is about 1,800 words written compared to 1,000 words of baseline. So I’m nearly 2 days ahead of schedule at this point. That’s a good way to start.

Lab Book for a Novel: Process, Targets and Goals

The Little Man is learning about the scientific method in school: making observations, asking a question, forming a hypothesis, making predictions, testing prediction, wash, rinse, repeat. Writing this novel, while not a perfect fit for the scientific method, certainly borrows from it. Observations I have made in the past when attempting to write at length have led to several questions. These include: Can I write well at length? Can I create a story that holds a reader through 100,000 words, and make them want more when it is all over?

I am generally a pantser—one who writes by the seat of his pants, without planning much beyong where I am in the story. Stephen King has likened this method of writing to digging up a fossil, revealing a bit at a time, until eventually, the whole thing is there for you to look at. I have also heard this described as a “headlight” method of writing: writing in the dark, with a headlight which allows you only to see a few steps ahead at any time.

This method has worked well for me with short fiction. In fact, I have sold every piece of short fiction I wrote using this method and sold exactly none of the pieces I plotted out in advance. That is well and good for short fiction, but I am becoming more skeptical that it works for me with longer fiction. My hypothesis, therefore, would be: If I blended my methods, mixing plotting and pantsing, I could write and finish a novel length story that keeps both me and readers interested throughout.

It is important to me to keep the story fresh for me. If it dulls on me while I write it, it certainly will dull on readers and that makes me losing interest in telling the story. Returning to the headlight analogy, perhaps if I set out waypoints, close enough that I know what direction they are in, but far enough away that I still need my headlight to find my way there, I’ll write a better story. This prediction is certainly testable, both in terms of the process and the output. Subsequent drafts allow me to iterate through this prediction and testing phase.

But what is the story? If you follow along with this lab book, it would be difficult to have the right context without knowing something about the story I am trying to write. And yet, I can’t talk about (or write about) the story specifics without losing the desire to write the story. In this regard, I am reminded of Ken Lui’s excellent novella, “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” In that story, it was possible to witness past events, but doing so consumed the ability to witness it again. Once I tell a story, whether describing it to a friend, or typing it into the keyboard, I seem to lose my desire and ability to tell that same story again.

What I can tell you is this:

  • Like the last several stories I sold, this novel features baseball as an important thread.
  • The story takes place across two distinct time periods separated by about 60 years.
  • Like “Gemma Barrows Comes to Cooperstown” (IGMS, May 2015), the story, while centered around professional baseball, is really not about baseball as much as the effect the game had over the course of one person’s life… and its potential effect on civilization as a whole.
  • There is an element of the fantastic to the story, but I won’t say any more than that right now.

This is how I think of the story, now, at least. I’ll try to come back to this when the first draft is finished and see how that matches up to what I said here. Often, the story finds its own path as I write.

I learned through a lot of trial an error that I need a good beginning and a good ending to get started. These provide anchoring points, and while they may change over the course of a story, I need them to get started to know where I am going. In this case, I have 9 “waypoints” that I’ve marked out along the way to help me across what I imagine will be at least 90,000 words of storytelling. I am hopeful that these waypoints will keep me on track. Unlike short stories, where I have a pretty good sense of ending when I start out, for this one, I have only a vague sense of the ending. This could be good or bad. I’m going to take it as good. 90,000 words is long way from beginning to end and a lot can happen. Better to keep some slack in the line.

It would be good to have a schedule. That’s tough. I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to write every day, given work and family obligations. I have no problem writing for 10 minutes here or there, but 10 minutes one day, no writing the next, and 2 hours the day after that makes it tough to come up with a schedule. So, I’m taking a page from my project management experience, and looking at past history. In 2013, when I wrote my first novel draft, I started at the end of the February and finished mid-September of that year. Call it six months, or 180 days. 95,000 words divided by 180 days comes to an average of 527 words/day. Let’s round it down to 500 words/day on average.

If I start in the next couple of days, I should finish in 180 days. Monday, September 23 is the first day of fall. Seems like as good a date as any to target as a start date. At 500 words/day that would give me an end date of March 21, 2020.

In project management, there is usually some contingency built in. Let’s call it 10%, or 9,000 words. 9,000/500 = 18 days of contingency. There may be some days I am not able to write at all. There are also vacations, busy work scheduled, etc. Of course, on other days I may write more than 500 words, but let’s factor in the contingency to plan for the unexpected. Adding 18 days to March 21, 2020 we get April 8, 2020.

I will aim to have the first draft of this novel finished on Wednesday, April 8, 2020.

Again, this is a baseline that we can come back to in April and see how things are going. If I am off, we can investigate why.

We now have the baselines for this experiment of mine:

  • Target length: 90,000 words
  • Target start date: Monday, September 23, 2019
  • Daily goal: 500 words
  • Contingency: 10% (9,000 words, or 18 days)
  • Target completion date: Wednesday, April 8, 2020

And yes, all of these stats are tracked and captured in a Google Spreadsheet (called my “Logbook for a Novel”) which I will talk about tomorrow when I talk about my tools for this project.

Of course, the first draft of a novel is only one part. What about after? Well, I’m not ready to plan that far ahead. One step at time, as the saying goes. I’ll worry about the second draft after I have a completed first draft.

Lab Book for a Novel

I recently mentioned on Twitter that I have started writing again. I stopped writing for several reasons, but the most important one was that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write anymore. Moreover, with all of the good writing out there today, I wasn’t sure if what I wrote would make much of an impact. But my desire to write was stronger than my concern over impact, so here I am, writing again.

But what to write? For years now, I’ve had the idea for what I think is a novel-length story. The story has challenged me. I’ve started it many times, and it has always stymied me. I can’t quite figure out the right way to tell it. I can’t quite figure out the right voice for the narrator. But I think it is a good story, an entertaining one, one worth trying to tell.

I have only ever written one novel. In 2013, I wrote the first draft of a science fiction novel. It was the one and only novel have ever written. It never made it out of first draft. It was a kind of spring training. I needed to know if I could carry a story through 90,000 words, and I managed to that, although I’m not sure how interesting or entertaining the story really is. If nothing else, however, the experience taught me that I could write at length.

Earlier in my day job career as a programmer, I occasionally encountered tough coding problems. I’d pick around the edges of these problems for days or weeks, until finally, one day, I’d come into the office and say to myself, “I’m not budging from this chair until I’ve got this problem under control.” Something about the mental state that put me in almost always worked. With a high degree of focus, I was able to accomplish more than I thought I could.

That is what this lab book for a novel is all about.

I have decided to write this novel. I have decided to give it the kind of focus that has helped me solve problems in the past. And I have decided to write about the experience of writing a novel not just to add focus, but with the idea that it might be useful to other people who are trying to do the same thing. I call these posts my “Lab Book” for a novel because I think of them the way I think of my old lab books from science classes and labs. I had a science teacher who taught me that a good lab book records everything, successes as well as failures. By going through a lab book, another scientist should be able to reproduce the results. That may not work perfectly for writers, because writing is not an exact science, but maybe it will prove helpful.

This is not a “how-to” guide for writing a novel. I’d be wary of any such thing. Instead, this lab book is a description of how one writer—me—went about writing one particular novel, with all of the frustrations and successes therein. I think it is just as important to record mistakes and frustrations as it is progress.

Last night, at my writers’ group, I was talking with some other writers about how hard it is for me to explain the problems I run into when writing a story. First, it is very hard to complain to non-writers. I suspect to many non-writers, writing looks easy and it is anything but, at least for me. Second, it is almost as hard for me to talk with writers about the problems I have writing because I don’t like discussing what I am writing while I am writing it. For one thing, we all know writers who are eager to tell anyone within earshot all about the plot of the novel they are working on. I can’t do that because I don’t know the plot—only know a little more than what I have written. For another, rehashing my story dulls it in my mind, and makes me less excited to write about it.

It occurred to me last night, however, that one solution may be a lab book like this. I can write about problems I’m having with a story without writing about the story. Or I can just plain vent, and other writers will know that these things happen to all of us. I can write about good days and bad, and provide context to why they were good and bad. I can write about what happens after I finish, assuming, of course, I do finish.

Don’t expect a lab book post every day. That would be asking too much of myself. However, I will write them as frequently as I am able and try to identify situations in which I think the posts will be most illustrative of my process. I will include a “Day #” in each post title, so that those following along know how long I’ve been working on the novel. I’m sure it will evolve as I go along.

Expect a handful of baseline posts over the next few days. Any real lab book should set a baseline so that people referring to it know the conditions at the start of the experiment. To that end, I plan to post on the following baseline topics over the next few days:

  • My writing credentials and experience up to this point.
  • A very general description of the story I want to write, including some targets like length. This is won’t be a description of the plot, but a sentence or two that gives some context for the story.
  • The tools I plan to use to write the story.
  • A few words on my writing process so far. I may experiment from what I am used to as part of this process in order to make it a success, but I think it is important to know how I have worked in the past in order to see if any of the deviations I make this time around prove helpful or harmful.

With those prefatory posts out of the way, I’ll start writing, and the day I start I’ll mark as Day 1. We’ll go from there.

Comments and questions are encouraged along the way. I learn best through practical exercises. I learned how to tell short stories by writing a lot of them. I imagine the same is true for telling longer stories. Readers’ questions and comments not only help me, but may help others who stumble along this lab book.

All of these posts will be categorized under Lab Book for a Novel, so if you want to follow along with just these posts, and not have them cluttered by other things I write here, the category is available for that.

Writing in the Digital Age: An Introduction

Writers of old had it easy. Take sportswriters, for instance. When it came to actually sitting down and writing, their biggest decision was which brand of typewriter to use. Some of those manual typewriters could be tiring, but the stories were rarely that long. They filed their stories by wire, and then went out for steaks with the players, or each other.

Writers today have a lot more overhead. At least, this writer does. Few of us write on typewriters anymore. The Royal QuietComfort that sits here in my office has a broken A key, which would make writing difficult. Instead, I have to make a series of interrelated decisions that impact my ability to produce copy:

  • What platform should I write on (Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS)?
  • What tool should I use for my writing (Word, Scrivener, Notepad, Vim, Google Docs, etc., etc.)?
  • Where do I store my files (locally on the hard disk, in the cloud, and if so, which ecosystem to I align myself with: iCloud, Dropbox, OneDrive)?
  • How do I manage revisions to my writing?

For those turn-of-the-Twentieth-century sportswriters, these decisions were relatively easy: A Royal typewriter, paper and ribbon, a filing cabinet, and some carbon paper could handle all of this. Why have things become so much more complex?

This question has fascinated me for a while now, perhaps because I can never seem to settle on the right combination of options. I suspect this is because there is no “right” combination, and that makes things more difficult. I thought that technology made things easier, but the longer I’ve been writing, and dealing with technology, the less certain I am of this. 

In some areas technology does make things easier. It is amazing what I can do with the Alexa that sits here near my desk. But there are other areas where the choice of technology can lock you into ecosystems that may not fully align with your workstyle.

In this series of posts, I plan to explore the question of technological complexity from my own perspective as a writer. I’ll start by talking about tools specific to writing, but over time, I plan on running the gamut of tools I use on a regular basis. I want to explore not only the complexity of these tools, but look for ways to simplify. As a writer, I naturally want to spend my time writing. More and more I see tools getting in the way of writing. If that wasn’t the case, why do so many tools now add a “focus” or “distraction-free” mode? What choices can I make to simplify my writing ecosystem?

Writing is not the only area which tools add complexity. I see it in how I manage communications (email), and media (photos, books, videos, etc.). Even something as simple as contact management has grown inordinately complex.

I’ve been reading Jerome Holtzman’s classic book No Cheering in the Pressbox, and when I think about these sportswriters and the tools they used to get their jobs done, and compare them with my own, the complexity of my systems seem out of all proportion.

I’m attempting a top-down approach here starting with the choice of ecosystem, then the tools. And since I come to this through the perspective of a writer, that is the lens through which I will examine this question.

Busy lately?

So here’s the deal:  We moved.

This move culminates a series of (wonderful) events that have taken up the better part of the last two years.  Now that the move is over the unpacking has begun and this takes time and meanwhile, the house is in a fair amount of disarray.  I don’t work too well in disarrary and so we are working hard to get things unpacked in proper array.  This includes the office.

The office/library is a pretty large room and once it is completely unpacked and organized, it will be a wonderful room.  Bookshelves line the wall, filled with something on the order of 1,200 books and old magazines, including rare signed books, rare editions, and a complete collection of SCIENCE FICTION AGE magazines.  Unpacking and then organizing those books in the proper order on the shelves is a slow and complicated process.  In an ideal world, I would arrange the books alphabetically by author, and then chronologically within each author.  However, given limited shelf space, this isn’t currently practical and the best that I can do is alphabetically by author.  To do this, all of the books must be unpacked and then arranged around the room in roughly alphabetical order.  Once that is done, I can start loading up the shelves, using my LibraryThing collection to help guide me along the way.  In an ideal world, I would get the books on the shelves and the office completed this weekend.  For three reasons:

  1. It would be nice to have it done.
  2. I’d like to use the office in the early mornings next week to complete a short story by Halloween.
  3. NaNoWriMo!

Meanwhile, there are still other things to do.  I’ve anchored to the wall 4 of the 7 bookshelves in the office.  This is to ensure that when Zach is old enough to roam around and pull on things, he doesn’t pull a bookshelf down on top of himself.  (Incidentally, I did this the right way:  I got some corner mounts, pieces of metal bent at a right angle with a screw going into each end.  I used a stud-finder (jokes welcome) to align the mounts to a stud and then drilled a small hole in the wall (and the top of each bookcase–though it pained me to do so) and screwed the mounts tight.) 

Since we have an eat-in kitchen, we’ve converted our dining room to a kind of TV sitting room.  We removed the chandelier and put in a light that makes the room look less like a dining room.  We put a new 27" Vizio HD TV in there (the big TV is down in the family room).  Still, the room can use a little work.  As can the kitchen.  And don’t get me started on the guest room, which is a complete mess at this point.  And I still have to put the grill together, although I agree with strausmouse about grilling between November and April on the east coast.  We have to mount all of the art work on the wall–which in turn will clear out space in one of our storage closets to put our bicycles.

And in between all of this there is a baby to take care of, a wife’s birthday coming up (tomorrow!!), Game 6 of the ALCS (and ultimately a Yankees/Phillies World Series), finally finishing the Stephen King novel that I’ve been reading for the last month, and of course my day job.

So yeah, things have been busy lately, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel that I can just barely see.  But it is getting closer and closer…

Where do you get those ideas?

At some point, every science fiction writer gets asked, “Where do you get your ideas?”  I got asked the question this past weekend and I thought I’d answer it here.  This is a question that has been answered and blogged about by writers, perhaps more often than any other.  But it is also different for each writer.  What works for me, may not work for others, but it may give some insight for other new writers, like myself, and therefore prove helpful.  So, where do I get my ideas?

The very general answer is: anywhere.  I think this is true for most writers.  As a writer, and in particular, a science fiction or fantasy writer, we look for ideas in everything we see and do.  I find that my mind is always on the lookout for ideas, even when this might prove inconvenient, as when your wife is asking you to do some chore, or you are in a meeting with your coworkers.  Someone will say something, and that will trigger a chain of thought that usually begins, “I wonder what would happen if…?”  Many of these ideas are fleeting and a large number of them are cast away.  But some of them stick in my mind, sometimes for a very long time, and it is those ideas, the ones that feel most compelling, that tend to make their way into my stories.  So, just as Isaac Asimov once said, I think and think and think and think and that’s how I get many of my ideas.

Thinking is good, but for me, at least, there has to be some raw material that feeds the thinking process.  I get this raw material from a number of places, but perhaps most frequently from these four:  (1) the news; (2) science fiction stories; (3) science magazines, (4) flashes or images

Often time I will watch the news (or back when I lived in L.A., listen to the news on the radio) and hear a story that piques my curiosity in some way that starts the thinking process and gets me wondering, “what would happen if…?”  The germ for the idea of my first published story, “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer,” came about in this way.  I was driving into work listening to the news on the radio and the Osgood File came on.  In this particular episode, Charles Osgood recited Walt Whitman’s poem, “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer”.  I’d never heard the poem before, but I loved it.  While the poem is about a romance with the stars, my mind jumped to a romance with an astronomer, and a small alteration to the title of the poem gave me a title for the story.

New writers trying to break into the science fiction field often feel that their ideas have to be completely original, but ask any seasoned science fiction professional and they will tell you that original ideas are almost unheard of.  New spins on old ideas, however, can be very useful.  And so in my reading of science fiction stories, I occasionally get an idea that is based on something I read.  Sometimes, it challenges the notions in the story; other times, it extends them.  Perhaps just about every professional writer has attempted to write a story in defense or opposition of Tom Godwin’s famous story, “The Cold Equations”.  I wrote a story of my own in reaction to Godwin’s, one called, “Wake Me When We Get There” which I used to illustrate the phases of loss in a person doomed aboard a malfunctioning spacecraft.

More often than not, these day, I get my raw material from the science magazines that I read.  I have subscribed to SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN for close to 15 years now.  And I’ve been a subscriber to NEW SCIENTIST for almost a year.  SCIAM is monthly, while NEW SCIENTIST is weekly, making it hard to keep up sometimes (the photo above shows my current backlog of science magazines, that I am diligently working my way through).  I read these magazines cover-to-cover, letters and all.  Not only am I educating myself on all areas of science and technology, but I find a wealth of story ideas within the pages.  Still, you have to be able to identify the real nuggets.  I try to find one good story idea in each issue of a magazine.  Often times there are two or three useful ideas–ideas that can help to better explain a technology that I use in a story–but that don’t form the basis of the story itself.  But one good idea per magazine means roughly 64 good idea each year.

With 64 good ideas each year, am I producing 64 stories each year?  Of course not.  For one thing, I work fairly slowly at this stage of the game.  While I wish I were as prolific as Isaac Asimov, I’m not.  In the past I’ve been lucky to produce two or three stories each year.  This year I’m aiming for 10-12.  Having a lot of ideas to choose from is helpful to me, however, in several ways.

First, I can’t write a story based on one good idea.  I have found that my best stories require the merging of at least two good ideas.  In “Learned Astronomer” I had the idea for the title, and the romance with an astronomer, but I needed something more.  A few years earlier, I’d read an article in ANALOG about how one would go about finding a starship.  Many s.f. ideas focus on “first contact” with aliens.  Using the science of the article as a basis, I wondered, “what would happen if we discovered a starship going from star A to star B?”  Clearly the ship would be so far away, it wouldn’t be aware of us.  Furthermore, we don’t yet have the technology to talk to it.  Finally, at a distance of hundreds of light years, what we are seeing now took place hundreds of years ago.  There would be nothing we could do, but we would know someone else was out there.  I merged this idea with the romance with the astronomer and the two ideas formed the basis of “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer”.

Second, some ideas take a long time to develop.  I might have a list of 50 or 60 ideas, and I might be eager to work on one or two of them.  But I sometimes struggle, and usually that tells me that I’m either not yet ready to write the story, or I don’t yet have the ability I need to properly tell the story.  It is, therefore, good to have other ideas to turn to.  This year, at least, it has helped me keep writing, and avoid getting stuck on any one story or idea.

Last, but not least, I occasionally get ideas from an image I see either in the real world or in my mind.  The idea for my second published story, “The Last Science Fiction Writer“, came from something I saw in a Baker’s Square restaurant in North Hollywood.  There was a sad old man in a wrinkled, periwinkle suit, sitting all alone, scribbling all over his napkins in microscopic print.  That was the germ for the narrator of my story.

So, where do you get your crazy ideas?

Originally published at From the Desk of Jamie Todd Rubin. You can comment here or there.

Final draft complete!

I wrapped up the final draft of the February story this evening.  The last pass through stood at 6,300 words and in doing line-edits tonight, I managed to cut it back to 5,500–more than 10% of the whole.  It’s going through a final review by some critical eyes before I send it off, but overall, I’m pretty satisfied with the story.

Now I can get back to work on the March story.  I have the whole story mapped out in my head and I only need to write it.  I’m guessing 13 scenes.  If I can do a scene a night, I have have the first draft done by the end of the month.

Originally published at From the Desk of Jamie Todd Rubin. You can comment here or there.

Deleted scenes

I did a little bit of work on the March story last night.  As I see it, there are 13 scenes in the story.  I rewrote the opening scene, cutting it from 1,300 down to around 1,000 words, but I think it is still too long.  If I learned one thing in the Gunn workshop it was that you have to get into the story quickly.  So I think I’m going to do away with the first scene completely and start later in the story.

I have always had a hard time doing this because I often find myself really liking the writing of a particular scene, even if it doesn’t fit well and I do my best to keep it in the story.  I’m learning to back away from that, but I hate throwing anything away, so I came up with this idea for keeping my “deleted scenes”.  Since I use Scrivener for my writing, it’s easy.  I create a folder in my story project and call it “Deleted Scenes”.  Then, rather than blowing the scene away (which is what I used to do), I move it to the Deleted Scenes folder.  Think of it as a kind of retirement home for scenes that won’t get used in the final product.  (And I configure Scrivener not to include that folder in the compiled manuscript).  It makes me feel better about not losing the scene entirely, even if it doesn’t get into the story.

The story also has a new title, one that is much better than the previous working title of “Funeral Day”.

Originally published at From the Desk of Jamie Todd Rubin. You can comment here or there.

Writing today

 I did nearly 1,400 words of a new story, "Funeral Days" this evening.  It represents the first scene of the story, but it is way to long as a first scene and needs some severe cutting and tightening.  But at least it’s on paper and I’m happy to say that I know where the restof the story is going and I think this is going to be a good one.