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Posts Tagged ‘inspiration’

Without going into dreary details, I was suddenly presented (about 10 minutes ago) with an opportunity: did I have a space-based SF short story, size in the 2-3k range, that I was willing to submit?

I turned to my Writing Portfolio spreadsheet (uh, you catalog your stories, don’t you?) set the words column to look for under 3500, and shazaam!  Three good candidates.

I relate this because between now and the end of July, there is no possible way I could write at 2-3000 word story.  As it is, I will have trouble making my Riddled Space deadline of 31 July.  But because, back in July of 2015, I wrote “Command Decision” for a market called The “Gernsback Writing Contest”, got rejected, but never deleted it, I have something to get to the editor tomorrow.

In the writing business, you have to be able to strike when the iron is hot.  It helps if you have a backpack full of ammo, ready to rock and roll, instead of pouring your minie-balls there on the battlefield.

Write.  Write often.  Submit to markets.  Save ALL stories.

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In August of 2015, while wandering around in one of Facebook’s Open Call groups, I discovered The Future Chronicles, a collection of anthologies curated by Samuel Peralta. He had some pretty prestigious folks either writing for him, or praising him. Within FC, I noticed an Open Call for something called Chronicle Worlds: Paradisi. Simply put, a group of authors had collaborated in creating a future history with timelines, events, and characters. They had written seven novels, and Samuel wanted to anthologize a series of short stories set in that universe. Did I want in? Heck, yeah!

The process involved understanding a timeline, understanding the settings (it involves the migration of ten plutocrats and 100,000 of their closest friends through a wormhole to Andromeda and the Paradisi star system), and coming up with something compelling. It was, in a sense, a competition, but one unlike the usual markets that I haunted.

First off, it was indie run. Samuel publishes these anthologies via Amazon, and not through a press. CW:P is something like his seventeenth, so funding like author compensation is already baked in. He hires professional editors, cover artists, and such. This is the big time. His anthologies hit the Top Ten in the SFF category in Amazon within a few days of launch, so yeah, it’s a big viable market.

I wrote a story, “Nuking the Noomies”. There is a large back-story behind that, but you’ll have to get the anthology to read about it, as I put it in the Author Notes. I finished the story on October 16th and sent it off to the Canon Keepers. This step was required to ensure that my story didn’t violate any of the novels that have already been published, and any of the stories that were planned for the anthology.

Then my younger brother, John, died suddenly, two days later. I got comments back the next week, but I was in no state to work on the piece. However, I did manage to address the Canon Keeper’s concerns and in before the December 15th deadline. There was a LOT of editing at this phase, so by the time the story ended up on Samuel’s desk, it was pretty polished. Sam sent it off to the anthology editor, so I was happy that he accepted it.

By this time, I had befriended a few of the other authors in the anthology. They all got comments from the editor on their work. For me, nothing. I didn’t know what to think. Finally, I got the email. There was exactly one question, some stray punctuation adjustments, and the editor seemed to like contractions. I was happy that I didn’t have a lot to do, but it felt a lot like I was trying to climb a step that wasn’t there.

I got a call from my mother that evening, and raced down to her place (~200 miles south of me) to get her to the emergency room, then to rehab. I let the editor know about the family emergency, and she reassured me that a small delay was OK. Five days later, I was able to get back to Noomies, perform the changes, and send it back. Then the weird stuff started happening. OK, weirder stuff.

The editor told me how much she liked the story. Then Samuel sent me this: “Bill Patterson – I kid you not, I am already getting fan mail about YOUR upcoming story from readers.” What readers? Maybe Samuel has a bunch of beta readers he sends stuff to. Then, last night, I got this: https://www.facebook.com/groups/futurechronicles/permalink/1111605112267390/?comment_id=1115231275238107

Translated: based solely on the strength of Noomies, the anthologist has invited me to write a story in a new anthology!  The only requirement is that history has changed from what we know. I have already sent him two ideas. Samuel has 175 authors on his list, yet he reached out to me. I’m (obviously) fit to burst. Then I look around at all of the other authors who have been invited. Oh, dayam–now I’ve got to deliver!

Lesson: You never know when your big break is going to come. Just keep pounding the keys, going to events, exploring those Open Calls. Someday, something’s going to give you that big break you’re seeking.  It’s The Thin Edge in practice.  If I had blown off Facebook as mere fluff, I’d never be where I am now.

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Porch Time

I live in the Northeast US.  This means that Spring is usually around April.  Thanks to El Nino, we’ve been blessed with an early Spring (or at least a week of spring-like temps)  Thus, I’ve repaired to The Porch.

The Porch is a rather vast area, screened in decades ago by my late father and brother-in-law.  We never really took advantage of it…until I started two things: writing, and making wine.  The Wonderful Wife cannot be in the same room as a glass of wine, else asthma sets in.  No, I don’t understand it, but I adjust.

Enter The Porch.  The perfect place to enjoy wine without concern, as well as the perfect place to write.  All of my Three Day Novels were written on The Porch.  I love The Porch so much that The Retirement Home will be constructed with one.  Second floor, or first?  Hmmmm…

Tonight was the first time this year that I have been able to use The Porch.  I finished that story I referenced earlier–the one dating from 2007.

The bottle is empty now, the bladder full, the story finished.  Tomorrow is work, and the weekend is more John-estate stuff.  But for now, the night is quiet, dark, and deep, as Frost said.  The crickets chirp, the cheddar is warm and soft, the wine in the glass is the best pour of the night.  I will sip the wine and think of all that might have been, had John lived.

Entropy is the king of all.  Friends die, we age, wine warms, cheese decays.  This laptop will become non-functional at some point.  But Spring is soon, and rebirth and renewal is right around the corner.  We will all fall victim to The Big Rip at some unfathomable time in the future.  None of that matters.

What matters now is life, and memory, and story.  Have you written yours?

 

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So, I have been looking at a couple of story contests while the Alpha readers are spilling red ink on THT.  Cool one: SF with a strong element of medicine, health, illness.  You can submit TWO stories!  Woot–very nice!

I read the contest rules, and they are giving examples of stories that they would like.  All the classics.  Cyborgs, new drugs, bad vaccines.  The gamut.  Then it hit me.  What if I took one of those examples, inverted the story question, and wrote that?  (sorry to be coy, but they’re pretty strict on the judges not knowing the author, so I won’t say what I wrote).

Example:  Star Trek’s premise is to visit strange new worlds, boldly go, and such.  The inverse of that is ‘what is life like for the technologically hyper-advanced world of Earth?  Pretty sure there aren’t oil workers, mechanics, or paper-pushers.  So….what do people do all day?’

Wrote the work in about four days, three beta readers gave me feedback, I buffed it to about 300 grit, and sent it in.  Now it’s the 24th, and the contest ends on the 29th, and I have found a treasure.  From 2007–an unfinished short story left on my hard drive.  It’s so old that it isn’t even written in Standard Manuscript Format.  So I get to work on it, re-reading what I had written, way back in the dawn of my career.  And wouldn’t you know, it can be a great story when I finish it!

Spent last night and this morning thinking about it.  I had been dumping text, and re-reading cringe-inducing lines from the old days.  The MC is a columnist, and the BSF is a nurse.  I hover over these introductions, wondering if I should change them.  I decide not to, and move on.  I come to a line from the nurse, something like “I could use this my research paper topic.”  Wow, that’s got to go.  Except, I never really get around to deleting it.

Fast forward to this morning’s commute.  I realize that these two characters have exactly the right jobs to solve the medical issue in the story.  Even the research paper is the most plausible reason for the nurse to involve herself in the issue.  Good thing I hadn’t erased the lines!

Lesson: Don’t be too quick to slash and burn aspects to a partial story.  Your brain has been working on that story ever since you abandoned it.  Maybe it has a great reveal in the wings for you.

Keep writing!

 

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Third in the Brainstorming Series

TL;DR:  I am brainstorming with an acquaintance, at her request, about a novel that she is trying to write, inspired by several dream sequences.  This writer is having a tough time formulating a story line.

OK—time for some tough talk.  From my point of view, you are going to have an exceptionally difficult time crafting this work to completion, because you may not have formulated an essential story line.  I get that [redacted], and gets captured by the rebels, but that’s all I know.  What are the rebels trying to do?  Be left alone?  Take over the government?  I have already given you a whole lot of plot-related questions that should be considered.  [see The Beginning post]

 

Much of the [shiny objects] are not central to the essential plot—the human story of X and Y.  Sometimes, the best way to work forward is to minimize, initially, all the [shiny object] stuff.  You have a whole lot of moving parts.  Yes, they may be integral parts of the story, but they are secondary to X&Y

 

Consider this:

 

Act I:  [here, I write a generic plot line that I cannot reproduce for a public blog] 

 

First, outline your story in completely banal, general terms like what I did above.  It will vastly clarify the story.  Up to now, we have been discussing the gargoyles and finials on the cathedral façade….and I am trying to get you to concentrate on the foundations and columns that will hold the whole thing up.  It is only against this backdrop of essential story that you can judge such details as the [redacted].

 

OK, here’s a concrete example from one of my stories.  I needed a ball of neutronium, one meter in diameter, traveling half the speed of light, to hit the Moon.  I spent a lot of time and effort writing a prologue  of a long-ago war between two alien species, exactly how the aliens consumed asteroidal rubble, compressed it, and made their neutronium balls for ammunition.  There was a great scene about how the battle raged, and a bunch of salvos cut loose without the stasis cut-off timer being set, meaning the neutronium was going to travel forever until it hit something, like the Moon.  The alien war was never referred to again.

 

I’m tired just writing that synopsis.  Instead, I trashed the entire segment, employed Authorial Fiat, and just had the ball hit the Moon.  I realized that, from the point of view of the human race, they would never know or care just WTF happened to the Moon, just that there was some kind of massive explosion on it..

 

So, why tell you this?  I get the feeling that the several aspects of your world, like [redacted], are a lot like my ball of neutronium: essential to the story, but whose origin is besides the point.  You, as the author, must absolutely have the backstory worked out so the continuity works, but you must never burden your readers with it.  If Y is never going to open the [secret item], does it really matter HOW it works?

 

One of the hardest aspects of SF is the sheer desire to ‘make research pay’ through writing pages of exposition on the thermomagnetohydrodynamic origins of artificially compressed neutronium ammunition, the stasis field that keeps it stable, how the mass driver flings the ball free of the alien battleship, and the safety systems that allow for the ammo’s eventual self-destruct capability.  Does it really matter where it came from?  No.  The only thing that mattered in my story is that it blew a big chunk of Lunar crust into Earth-Lunar space.

 

The [backstory].  Does it really matter?  Sure, it [made something happen in the past].  But I get the idea that the humans have been there for a generation or two.  X and Y don’t seem to have any memories of Earth or the desperate flight to the new world.  They merely take the world as it is.  They’re born on this new planet, that’s all they know.  The reader should be afforded the same—and discover their world through the X&Y story, not through a history lesson.  Yes, I know the urge to do a little datadump will be inescapable, but if it must happen, make it as a side conversation during something else that’s going on.

 

If you were my student, I would give you the following homework assignment:

Three paragraphs, no more.  I’ve already written a chunk of the first one above (it starts with “Act I”).  Round it out, then write Acts II and III.  When you find yourself getting specific about something, step back like it’s kryptonite.  Resist mightily the urge to go down side streets.  Just lay out the bare, essential tale.  That is your building framework.  We’ll get to the finials and gargoyles soon enough.

 

This is a good assignment because in the end, those three paragraphs will form the core of your eventual pitch, query, and cover letter.  That is why I always ask for them whenever someone wants to brainstorm with me.  Know your story.  It always comes back to the story.

 

 

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Second in the Brainstorming Series.  Read Brainstorming: The Beginning where this all began.

Whenever we first conceive of a work, there’s something that grabs our attention.  The central conflict, or a great battle scene, or the microblackhole that passed in front of his eyes, distorting the world as it passed.  (hey……!)  Whatever it is, it’s shiny and wonderful, and we’ve got to have it in the story.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that.  Most of my works retain the SO that triggered the entire plot exercise.  Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle once rearranged the entire orbit of a planet in order to keep one line with which they both were smitten.

However, shiny objects can have a deadly allure.  they cause you to forget plotting, or do poor plotting, just because they are so shiny.  Worse, like that microblackhole, they begin to accrete other SOs towards them.  Suppose that you have a five-legged alien that runs off of an organic atomic battery.  Sounds way cool (and theoretically possible).  But you can’t leave the idea alone.  Where does the shielding come from?  Well, the alien has to ingest rock to get lead for shielding…but maybe they have the equivalent of cows that also run off of atomic batteries.  Hmmm…maybe the process is cumulative throughout life, with death occurring when the atomic battery finally generates so much energy that the organism is cooked from within.  Yeah–go with that!  Scenes of aliens walking (how do you walk with five legs?) down the street and very occasionally one bursts into flames.  Heh!  That’s a shiny scene–how can we incorporate that into the work?  Wait, they’re in space.  Maybe a flashback?

Then the guy in the striped shirt runs out, blows the whistle, and signals ‘delay of game’.  After all, there’s supposed to be a PLOT happening, and all we’re doing is wondering if we should glue this chromed bike sprocket or that blue flower onto our shiny object.

Here’s how I put it to my brainstorming partner over the course of a few emails:

Consider this:  Perhaps you don’t have to include everything from your dream sequence.  Dreams are, by their very nature, somewhat chaotic.  Maybe you could discard aspects that are difficult to fit into the remainder of the narrative (“Yes, doc, but in my dream, I had a colander strapped to my head.  It doesn’t make sense, what does that mean?”)

Resist the lure of the shiny object.  Sure, it’s fascinating, but the story is always more important than technology.

Cool technology is like cake icing: it’s the last thing considered when crafting the story, but the first thing often imagined.   What’s the story?  Worry later about the tech, craft the story.  Bake the cake first, THEN ice it.

She had been trapped by the lure of the Shiny Object, and was neglecting the creation of the central story.  It reminded me of the Epic Death Scene for one of my 3 Day Novel entries.  I have the evil alien thrown against the busbars of an electrical substation.  Fun!  Sparks, sizzling, epic deathedness.  But the compressed timetable of 3 Day does not allow a writer to wallow around in a vat of shiny–you have to be writing the rest of the story!  It was a point I have not forgotten.

The lesson here?  Love your shiny object, then put it away and concentrate on the story, the plot, and those essential questions I asked in the previous post.  Or you’re never going to get the essential stuff done.

 

 

 

 

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It occasionally happens–someone contacts me for brainstorming or plot assistance.  No false modesty here–a writer whom I respect highly refers others to me.  This time, though, someone contacted me because of the answers I was posting to others’ questions in the Reference Desk forum on the NaNoWrimo.org site.   She asked me if I could assist her with her Work In Progress (WIP).  We have been corresponding for a couple of weeks now, and I thought some of the things I wrote back would be applicable to others.

So, it’s the beginning.  I will not reveal the person’s name nor the specifics of the WIP.  However, some context is necessary.  The story was originally sparked by some dreams the writer remembered upon waking.  Not bad!  I don’t often remember my dreams, and I am amazed when others do.

The WIP is in the SF/dark fantasy genre, and thus will have some fantastical elements.  Again, nothing odd there.  The plot is nothing outré–a human set in a universe of vast forces, inimical or friendly towards man.  But the writer has some questions, and some of them are rather specific (and hence not going to appear here)  So, here’s my answer to her (pardon the redactions)

Before we start crafting the scenery in the story (figuring out why he has slits in his ankles, for example), you have to really lay the story itself out.  The shiny object of the Darter Operator is very compelling, but you have to get the central arc locked down first, before we start talking about the rest of the work.  It does us no good to build a great framework for your world if there’s an unstructured story taking place therein.

These questions should be answered in one or two sentences.  It’s OK not to know something these questions address.  For example, if you don’t know how [the main character] is going to get out of his dilemma, then say so.  Be brutally honest with yourself.

Act I:  The current status quo is that he is [redacted]

  • What is his dilemma?
  • What punctures that equilibrium [the ‘inciting incident’]?
  • How does it lead him to feeling X?  Is there a way out of his dilemma?
  • What makes him decide to accept the challenge (of solving his dilemma)?

 

Act II:  Here is where most of the action lies.  This part runs from the acceptance of the challenge all the way to the climax.  The climax is tricky and not always clear.  A climax is not necessarily the hero standing over the fallen foe.  Sometimes it is when the reluctant hero takes up the sword.

  • How does he plan to go about solving his dilemma?
  • Can he give up the occupation for another?  Or is it one of those occupations that leads to social shunning?  Perhaps he owes the government a certain number of years of service in return for [redacted].
  • Who is his antagonist?
  • What is the agenda of the antagonist?  Here, I am talking about [redacted]
  • What must he sacrifice in order to achieve his goal?
  • What is the climax?

 

Act III:  Here is where the various story threads are tied up.  It is NOT the final two pages of the book – it’s about 25%.

  • What happens at climax?
  • What does the antagonist lose?
  • What does the protagonist gain?  At what cost?
  • How do the actions taken at climax affect the remainder of the characters in the story?
  • The book should wind down to a new status quo.  What is that?

 

Here’s your mission:  Answer all the questions that you can–one or two sentences should be enough.  If you don’t know how to answer one, then we know where to concentrate our brainstorming.

 

 

And that is how we began.  I’ll continue posting how things go, as long as they are relevant to a larger audience, like you, Dear Reader.

NOTE:  Your Mileage May Vary!  There is no guarantee that my comments apply to your WIP, nor that you will benefit from them.  I present them here for thought and entertainment only.

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