Writing Outside of Comfort Zone

It seems the writing bug is contagious. As I am writing this, my wife has informed me that she is starting a story of her own, and has already managed to get a decent head start. So, in a way her writing endeavors are my direct inspiration for today’s post.

Today’s topic is, of course, how to approach writing, and how to write outside of your comfort zone.

I have always found it easier to write with a set minimum daily word count. As much as demands of real life, family, and career create limits on what kind of word count I can realistically accomplish, I try to keep to at least 1,000 words per day when time is at a premium, and up to 4,000 words per day when there is time. In fact, the ability to reliably generate a word count is very helpful in meeting deadlines and getting that hardest task of all new writers accomplished, finishing what you have started.

But then, there is the question of inspiration. In other words, what do you write when you try to meet your word count even on the days when you would much rather relax, watch TV, play a video game, or, hell, insert your favorite activity here?

A few days ago I was faced with that issue when a unique opportunity came my way. I work for a major financial services organization, and the company had decided to run a short essay contest. Naturally, the topics for such essays were limited to those relevant to current company initiatives – a far cry from science fiction I prefer to write, or from the types of papers I used to write in college, but it was an interesting challenge to write something completely different from my usual fare. As a result, I decided to follow on John Scalzi’s suggestion not to limit my writing endeavors to a specific niche, and decided to go for it. Plus, knowing that the top prize happens to be something I actually want could not possibly hurt, and I have quite a few good things to say about my experience with the company.

So, I had something to say, I had the ability to do the word count (let’s just say it was easily doable), but had to write a very different piece from what I would normally do, and had a hard time finding the right way to put the essay together. As tempting as the prospect of winning looked, the challenge felt a bit daunting, if only because it was a bit far from my comfort zone. And then, the epiphany came out of the blue.

It is really not that different from submitting a story to a prospective publisher.

In fact, it was even easier, because there is very little ambiguity as to who the target audience is, and at the very least I could expect that my entry will be read fairly quickly instead of warming the slush pile. And while the end result is not a paid publication, a success is certain to be an ego-boosting experience. Best of all, the process is fairly similar to what I would expect from a professional publisher – the finalist entries are selected on their merits, and a winner is chosen from them. It is really not that different from the process by which a magazine might pick a short story for inclusion, and if anything, it is a great dry run for my future attempts to push my stories out there.

The point of the story is that I could get this project done quickly by approaching it the same way I would approach a potentially publishable story, something that is much closer to my comfort zone. By equating a challenging project with something I am already more comfortable with, it was possible to write it using the same approach I normally take, producing a finished essay quickly.

So there it is, my little experiment with the very different kind of writing. There might even be a point to the story!

Progress Update, Quantity and Quality

The vacation is over, and life is back to (somewhat) normal, which means it is time for another progress update. There is not much to report just yet – one of my novels is currently being evaluated by a prospective publisher after my query submission resulted in a request for the manuscript sample; there are no news on two more novels; a couple of rejection notices came about; few more prospective publishers lined up for submissions for the works currently not under consideration elsewhere.

In this manner, having a number of works completed prior to actively seeking publishing is a two-edged sword. As a father of two, I can say with certainty – it is not like children. Yes, you spend a good amount of time and energy on every novel you write, and you feel very strongly about their quality and merit, but you do not feel the same way about all of them. Some novels have topics that resonate better with certain moods, or have parts you have stronger attachment to than others. And while I stand behind everything I wrote and saw fit to promote, I have my favorites, and hope that those works will be the ones that get noticed first.

Herein lays the bane of many aspiring writers. It is good to have multiple works fit for publication – in fact, the old saying about putting all of one’s eggs into the same basket is very apt. At the same time, it also creates much extra work, because not every novel will be a good fit for the same type of publisher, and an author will have to research publishers in the genres he or she might not have considered if the author was pushing only a single work. And this is the dilemma of many writers (and, I suspect, many publishers): quality versus quantity.

A writer who spends all his or her time on a single project may eventually get that project as close to perfection as possible. The problem with that is simple: it takes time and limits opportunities. Opportunities like having multiple works under consideration by different publishers, who tend to dislike simultaneous submissions. Opportunities like attempting to access several different markets that a single novel may not appeal to.

And then, there are writers who are capable of churning out novels very quickly, and who work on the premise of quantity first, hoping that if they have a dozen or so novels under consideration, something will finally get noticed. Such writers may not be able to spend as much time on each single project, but they will have more opportunities available to them on the basis on sheer number of works they are producing. This is not to say that fast writers will invariably write bad fiction – far from it, as the ultimate quality of a novel will depend more on writer’s talent than writing speed. That said, while quantity has quality all its own, an unagented writer may end up spreading him- or herself very thin by pushing too many projects.

Enter yours truly, with five novels written, revised, edited, and improved over the period of several years. As I do not depend on my literary endeavors to make a living, I can afford to create a first draft over a fairly short period – anywhere from three weeks to two or three months, depending on draft length, time available, and other pertinent factors. Then, I tend to hold off on starting a different project until I have had a chance to evaluate my current one, incorporate the input of my beta readers, and perhaps do significant rewrites. “Flight of the Locust” was originally one of my shorter novels; when I did a rewrite, I had eliminated pretty much the entirety of the first draft, taking concepts from it and writing the second draft almost from scratch, getting almost twice the length of the first draft. The second draft of “All is Dust” added another subplot, expanded on a previously minor character, and added significant depth to the universe and the actors within it, increasing the novel length by a sizable amount and developing themes that can lead straight into a sequel. All of my other works had similar edits, revisions, modifications and so on.

Thus, my answer to the dilemma was to spend time crafting several unconnected books that may appeal to different segments of the marketplace, to spend significant time on perfecting each book, and to work on promoting them at the same time. With publisher and agent response times being anywhere from several days to many months, it gives me a chance to solicit several prospective publishers or agents at the time by having several novels under consideration instead of waiting to hear back from one publisher/agent before being able to submit the sole project elsewhere. It avoids both simultaneous submissions and long times of inaction while waiting for a singular reply.

That said, my answer is far from the only one, and just because it works for me (or, rather, because it will hopefully accomplish its goal) does not mean it will be the best way for someone else. For all other aspiring or published writers reading this, what are your thoughts on the matter?

Producing Word Counts

First, a fair warning. I don’t expect there to be any new posts next week due to a long overdue and very much needed vacation. The blog will return with vengeance (or, just as likely, with more soapbox rants from yours truly, and hopefully with some good news) during the week of March 26th.

Good. Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, we can get back to the usual fare in this corner of the web. Today’s topic is writing technique, or, to be more specific, how the writers write.

An average novel is anywhere between 80,000 and 100,000 words. While there are some extremely prolific writers who can knock out a novel in a week, the majority of us must contend with demands of real life – jobs, families, other endeavors amongst them. This ensures that most writers in the same boat as yours truly have fairly limited time to write. And herein lies the conundrum.

The one thing many of today’s most popular authors have in common is that they are relatively prolific. While there are exceptions, most well-known authors write at least one, and in many cases several books per year. And the authors who are still trying to get into the big leagues are under additional pressure, since realistically, they cannot expect a large payday over a single novel, and have to produce a constant stream of works to keep the royalties flowing. So an aspiring writer hoping for publication should consider spending very significant amounts of time writing, or otherwise learning how to write consistently and reliably. After all, no one likes writers who miss deadlines, especially if they have to do significant editing or are writing commissioned works.

Personally, I have found that a degree of writing discipline is mandatory to get anything finished. Anyone can start a story with solid, descriptive language, or with great premise. Finishing the story, that is the hard part, and for me, the only way I am able to consistently finish my novels is by setting daily word quotas and ensuring that I write at least that much.

My actual word quotas depend on the specific circumstances. If I am writing more or less at leisure, with no pressure (i.e. the story is something written with no intention of ever publishing it), and with very little free time, there is a good chance I will set my quota to something as little as 1,000 words a day. If I am writing with a deadline (which, at this point, is self-imposed), I adjust my quotas accordingly. Usually those quotas ranged anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 words per day, allowing me to produce finished novels relatively quickly.

One thing I should note is that the quotas are the “bare minimum” numbers. They are not an excuse to stop writing, but merely the benchmark I expect to exceed every day I write. Even 1,000 words a day quota often results in 5,000-plus words written, while higher quotas are also exceeded accordingly.

There are definitely arguments against this approach. Everyone has their share of good and bad days; sometimes, writing just does not come naturally, and anything written on such a day has a chance of being subpar. But this is why it makes sense to edit one’s works after they are completed, or at a time when inspiration is flowing more freely. It is easier to edit something that was already written and plotted out than it is to write something from scratch, potentially creating a bottleneck stopping the progress of the entire project.

These, of course, are my opinions only. I have found this method to work well for me, and to get me ready to produce good word counts quickly – at this stage I am confident of my ability to produce 5,000 and more words per day on consistent basis, which is going to be necessary if I am ever commissioned to write for a specific publisher or project. It may not be the best method for someone else.

With this in mind, for those of my readers who have writing aspirations (or just write for fun), how do you manage to consistently produce high word counts?

Politics and New Writers

Politics. Need I say more?

Almost everyone has some sort of interest in them, or some ideas on how things are supposed to be, and if you are a writer, chances are you are tempted to insert your politics into the manuscript. After all, even Three-Headed Space Slugs from Betelgeuse can be used to make a point about the latest government scandal, and certain real-world politicians or leaders almost beg to be made into villains for protagonists to defeat. And there are many authors who made a career out of taking their political, social, or religious beliefs and intentionally exaggerating some aspects of such beliefs to write a story – such alarmist fiction tends to resonate well with their reader base even at the cost of alienating some other potential readers.

As you could probably tell by now, today’s post is on the subject of inserting author’s politics into his or her books.

It is only human nature to seek out reading materials that reaffirm our existing worldview. While some literary works can be truly transformative, encouraging the reader to reconsider his or her worldview, such works are rare. Truth is, more often than not people buying books will do so based on their existing preferences; I doubt Tom Cratman gets many sales in politically liberal (in the US sense) areas, and you will probably not see Noam Chomsky sell many copies in conservative parts of the United States. Yes, those two cases are relatively extreme, but they serve to illustrate a point – books with strong ideological component tend to cater to specific readership.

The problem with that, of course, is that said books may have far less appeal to everyone outside of their target audience, and that an author seeking to appeal to that audience may end up pigeonholed into those markets.

It is particularly important for new authors, who strive to get published and build a resume, and who cannot necessarily afford to limit their choices. As much as we already limit our choices through writing specific genres (let’s just say I will not be writing a full-on romance novel or hard-boiled detective drama any time soon), limiting potential audience by having a strong political component can be akin to putting all of your proverbial eggs into one basket.

Of course, there is a flip side to it, too. One of the key advantages of strongly political books is the preexisting audience for them. Just like stories set in certain popular universes (Star Wars, Star Trek, Warhammer 40,000, et cetera) are guaranteed to sell reasonably well, a book with a strong political undertone is bound to appeal to existing readership. A writer who manages to get published on the strength of an ideologically forceful book will have an existing market to tap into.

Personally, I do not like books with heavy-handed ideological treatment. As much as science fiction is supposed to challenge the ideas of what the world is supposed to be like and to make us think about alternatives, it is also supposed to be entertaining and (hopefully) thought-provoking. As a reader, I would probably not be the target audience for more ideologically-minded writers, as I tend to be put off by prominent, we-are-right-you-are-wrong politics in my reading materials. Yes, some of the most powerful literary works of the modern era were thinly disguised political statements (“1984” anyone?), but such works tend to be few and far between. More often than not, many attempts at profound political statements end up as caricatures, with villains inevitably following the ideology opposed to the author’s, and very few writers can pull it off convincingly without turning the story into an author tract.

As a writer, I will not pretend to be apolitical, but at the same time I will also not make politics a centerpiece of the conflict in my current stories. Someday, this may change, especially if there is a great story in it, and I believe that I can make a convincing point without making the story too overbearing for my readers, but for now, modern-day politics are out for me. This is mostly a conscious decision, although part of it stems from my tastes as a reader – if I don’t want to read it, why would I write it?

With this in mind, what do you think? Do politics have a prominent place in fiction (and especially science fiction and fantasy)? More importantly, should a relatively new writer avoid heavily politicized topics until he or she is more established?

Progress Report, Perseverance, and Humility

It’s Monday, and things are proceeding quite nicely. All five novels and a short story are currently under consideration by either an agent or a publisher, and the list of potential places to submit my works to is growing. While “under consideration” means little other than “they did not say no as of this writing”, it is still more than what I did with my writing since, well, ever.

Which brings me to today’s topic, perseverance and humility.

Every aspiring writer in the world probably has a rather inflated opinion of his or her skills. In some cases it is warranted; in others, not so. This belief in one’s writing acumen is both a blessing and a curse – a blessing, because it does not let rejections deter one from trying; a curse, because it can lead one to overlook real issues with his or her writing. It can be at least partially mitigated through the use of friends, family, and writers’ groups as proverbial sounding-off boards, but there are some issues with that. Friends and family will rarely bluntly tell you that your writing leaves much to be desired. Writers’ groups may be hesitant to provide harsh feedback in order to secure more lenient feedback for themselves. A professional editor will not be free, and may have ulterior motives (especially if such editor is associated with a vanity publisher or an agent, and is involved in trying to get you to sign up with that publisher or agent).

Ultimately, the hardest part for any aspiring writer is to decide if the feedback you receive is honest, unbiased, and has no ulterior motivation. And with this in mind, submitting your works to publishers and agents provides a good gauge for where you really stand.

We have all read stories about J.K. Rowling and Dr. Seuss, both of whom were rejected time after time before finally finding success (I bet some of those publishers had an “egg upon their face” moment). Stephen King was not an overnight success, and did not hit it big until “Carrie”. Almost any writer, unless he or she is extremely lucky, will accumulate a pile of rejection letters (or a collection of e-mails) until that one affirmative answer. That said, the stories also send a wrong message to many aspiring authors – try submitting your stories for long enough, and you will eventually find success.

The truth is, getting published is easy. With the advent of the Internet and e-readers, anyone can publish his or her manuscript for relatively little cost. Getting published without having to pay for it, where you compete against hundreds or even thousands of other would-be authors, each convinced he or she is the next (insert name of your favorite popular writer here), that is much harder. And while much of the acceptance process is bound to be guided by the publishers’ or agents’ subjective opinions, after a certain point one cannot help but wonder, what is wrong?

Now, in my case I am at the very beginning of the submissions process, and while I hope that it will bear fruit soon, I do not expect overnight success. With five novels that are quite diverse in terms of genres and writing styles, I believe I have increased my chances of eventual acceptance, but I am also prepared to play by the rules and to wait as long as necessary, allowing prospective publishers to evaluate my works and decide if my novels are right for them. As such, a degree of persistence and thick skin are mandatory. But if sufficient time passes and my works gather no real interest, I have little issue with going back to the drawing board, doing additional editing and writing, and trying to craft new stories incorporating what works.

This is almost certainly one of the most important things for an aspiring writer. Self-confidence is a great thing, and positive comments from select test readers are encouraging, but in the end, one must always accept the reality that writing is an evolutionary process, and that the only opinions that matter are those of a publisher and those of a final reader. If a publisher is willing to put their resources into producing a marketable copy of the book, and someone is willing to pay money for it, it is the author’s obligation to put forth his or her best product. And in order to do that, a certain degree of humility is absolutely necessary.

Very few things are great from scratch. Every story should be re-read several times, all inconsistencies removed and all grammatical, spelling, punctuation and other errors corrected. The final product should be the best the story can be, and should be promoted as if it is the most important literary work in the history of mankind. An author who does not believe in his or her story’s potential enough to fully support and promote it has very little chance of convincing anyone else of that story’s potential. But if the story fails to solicit interest after sufficient effort was put into promoting it, if it cannot find its market and its reader base, then an author should not be afraid to return to the drawing board.

Who? What? Why?

Hello, my name is Alex, and welcome to my little corner of the web!

That sounds about right, if a little on the corny side. This blog is my attempt at permanent Internet presence outside of Counter-Factual.Net forums, and will be dedicated to my writing, with occasional forays into all sorts of topics I find relevant, curious, quirky or amusing.

So, about that writing thing…

Getting on the wrong side of 30 made me evaluate just what I wanted to do with my life. Don’t get me wrong – I have a successful career, a great family, and no real reason to complain. That said, I’ve always fancied myself a creative individual, and while my teenage dreams of “making it” as a musician had slowly transformed into something decidedly more part-time, my writing aspirations gained a new and unexpected boost.

You see, I have always enjoyed writing, and have amassed a number of novel-length works written over the last few years. While at first I had treated it as an amusing hobby, one thing became very clear with time – I would really like to give it a shot as a professional author.

What it ultimately boils down to is this: I have stories to tell, and would love to share them with the world. And if I can turn doing what I love into a writing career, then my goal will be accomplished!

With those lofty aspirations in mind, I had found myself with five finished original universe novels and a hodge-podge of short stories written over the years. Two of the novels are science fiction of space opera variety; one is supernatural horror; one is an existential dark time travel novel; and one is a post-apocalyptic tale of mad science, immortal assassins, messiahs, debauched former Emperors and Gnosticism. Two of the novels are written as first (and largely self-contained) entries in their respective series, while the other three are completely stand-alone (although one of those can be turned into series if desired); the novels range from as little as 63,000 words to around 120,000 words in length, and introduce a wide variety of characters, worlds and concepts.

So there. The initial set of offerings, submitted to publishers and literary agents for the first time, with care to avoid simultaneous submissions. First steps on a journey that will hopefully lead to professional publication and writing career. And while I don’t expect to consider quitting my day job any time soon, it does not hurt to aim high. After all, every successful novelist was once a no-name shmuck like yours truly, sitting tight and dreaming big.

Still with me? Good. Stick around, and you will see the entire journey unfold, from here to… well, wherever it will go!