James Van Pelt

Writing Words Fantastical and Otherwise

Author: vvanp@aol.com

Sunday Writing: Top Ten Rookie Writing Mistakes

rejectedFrom the “Top Ten Rookie Mistakes” panel at MileHiCon a few years ago.  Here’s my quickie list of top ten mistakes.  I’ve tinkered with this since I first put it together, but I think these are the basics.  This is the stuff that marks rejectable manuscripts in the slush pile and allows an editor to quit reading before reaching the end.  I’m open to suggestions for ones I’m missing or questions about the ones that I’ve included.  Each is easily worthy of a separate, long discussion.

Top Ten Rookie Mistakes

  1. Failure to use action verbs.
  2. Failure to be specific.
  3. Point of view character is passive or pluckless
  4. Failure to invest “caring” into the point of view character.
  5. Relying on exposition instead of narration (particularly at key points that would be much more interesting dramatized).
  6. Failure to be unique (or at least to be familiar in an interesting way).
  7. Failure to surprise the reader globally (how the story unfolds) and/or locally (at the sentence level or word choice level).
  8. Failure to unify the story (the beginning doesn’t set up the end, or there are incidents and details that are not tightly integrated into the story).
  9. Having nothing to say or saying nothing (the story has a “so what?” feel).
  10. Language that is not concise.  The story needs pruning.

 

April/May Asimov’s

APRILMAY2016 AsimovsThe latest Asimov’s is out with my short story, “Three Paintings.”  The main character is an artist who has come up with an unusual experiment in creativity.

I have artist friends, so I wanted to make sure I didn’t create an artist who wouldn’t pass their verisimilitude test.  So far, the two who’ve read the story said that I didn’t screw up too badly.

This is my 12th appearance in Asimov’s, starting with “Safety of the Herd” in 2002 (13th if I count a reprint of an Analog story that appeared in the Greek edition of Asimov’s).  It is truly awesome to make a sale there.  If you would have told me twenty years ago, the year I made my first professional sale, that I would be where I am today, I wouldn’t have believed you.

The Old Stuff vs. the New Stuff

1953-10 The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction by Ed EmshwillerYou know how sports fans will sit around the table and argue about today’s teams vs. the teams of the past? How would the 1985 Chicago Bears who went 15-1 do against the Superbowl champion 2015 New England Patriots, for example? This is an evergreen topic, and I think it’s an interesting one for the modern science fiction/fantasy writer.

How do the old market conditions (pre computer era) and the new market conditions compare? My premise is that computers and a proliferation of markets who accept e-submissions, among other factors, has increased the number of writers. Here are my complete thoughts on why I think there are more writers than ever competing for the publishing slots.  Are the conditions more difficult now for a writer to break into the big three print magazines?

To get to my question, do you think that the bulk of what Analog, Asimov’s and F&SF is better than what they used to print, say, twenty to thirty years ago? I know better is an arguable term, but if you assume there is a kind of “middle of the road” story for the three markets, which would be stories that are fine on their own terms but not award winners, has the bar for the middle of the road gone up? Does a writer have to be “better” now to get into those magazines than they used to have to be?

By the way, when you consider this question, be sure to factor in the rosy-goggles-of-time factor that eliminates all the forgettable stuff you read, leaving only the glittering jewels of your favorite stories.

Or here’s another way to ask this question, if you could take your current writing skills, climb into a time machine, say to 1975 (or 1955) and try to make your way in the world as a SF writer, do you think you would have more luck then than now?

Just wonderin’.

Sunday Writing: Art and Competitiveness

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Trust my 10th graders to ask a really provocative question.  We had a local creative writing conference and contest at Colorado Mesa University, and I gave extra credit to enter the writing contest.

One of my kids asked, “How can we make our poems competitive.”

Wow!

So this is what I put up on the board for what the judges would be looking for.  It is, of course, also a description of what I think makes writing artistic.  The overlap of art into competitiveness is inevitable but not complete.  This is an interesting way of looking a story writing too, where “competitive” becomes “publishable.”

  • Unique
  • Specific
  • –   details and appeals to the senses
  • –   individual incident instead of summary
  • Sound (for poetry, all the sound features like rhythm, rhyme, consonance, onomatopoeia, etc., but also the language working hand in hand with the content by emphasizing the impact)
  • Language
  • Connections
  • Synthesis

So, in terms of writing short stories where judges are replaced with editors, this is what I meant by each term.

Unique:  Editors respond to fresh treatment of ideas.  They will not like a familiar idea phrased in a familiar way. The key is not necessarily a brand new idea but a fresh handling of it.  A brand new idea, of course, is cool too!

Specific:  Buyable stories focus on details and make appeals to the senses so the reader has a chance to participate in the performance of the narrative.  They relate to tightly focused incidents.  Powerful short stories transport readers to fully realized experiences.  They don’t read to find out what the characters feel or think; they read for a moment to feel or think those things themselves.

Sound:  A story is on one level all about speech.  Even if it is never read aloud, clumsy phrasings, ill-considered clashing of sounds, and distracting rhythms will detract from the performance of the tale.  This is why so many instructors suggest writers read their work out loud as part of the editing process.

Language:  Words are what we use to build sentences and paragraphs.  A significant part of the power is in word choice and word arrangement (diction and syntax).  The language should have an interest all on its own.  Part of this takes us back to what I said about “unique” above, but it’s also about recognizing the medium.  A song is not just the tune; it’s about how it’s played.  A story is not just the plot, it’s about how it’s told.

Connections:  The interesting stories are hardly ever about just one thing.  The poet and critic, John Cirardi said that poems are essentially “duplicitous,” appearing to be about one thing but being about something else, like Frost’s “Two Roads in a Yellow Wood Diverged” appears to be about a choice while hiking, but it’s also about choices in life.  A good story will also make connections, where the events in the story reveal or explore a larger issue or question.

Synthesis:  Everything has to work together.

I know this probably sounds theoretical and far removed from the story you are writing at this moment, but I think the deeper thinking about theory and language plays out in improved writing.

Submitting Short Stories

writer silhouette

The standard advice to short fiction writers on submitting their work is to follow these steps:

  1. Write the very best story you can.
  2. Seek meaningful and educated feedback on the story.
  3. Do your final revisions.
  4. Familiarize yourself with the markets.
  5. Identify a hierarchy of markets that are appropriate for the story from most desirable to second most etc. (this might be based on pay rate or circulation, but it could also be based on how often stories in the venue are up for awards or who else appears in it–money isn’t everything).
  6. Correctly format the story according to the market’s directions, and then send it.
  7. Work on your next story while waiting to hear about the first one

That’s good advice and generally I’d recommend it.

However, what if you are prolific?  I often think of a story that I’d heard about Robert Silverberg: When he grew serious about writing as a young man, he wrote a million words a year for a few years.  That’s over 3,000 words a day without missing any days!  He had more markets to look at (although not that many more than what we have now), and he was writing fast enough to fill each of the top magazine’s entire table of contents every month.  Clearly the magazines wouldn’t make an all-Robert-Silverberg issue, so Bob wrote under pseudonyms.  Even doing that, though, he was writing faster than the top markets could absorb his work.  In 1958, he published 80 short stories!  That’s not just a good year; for many authors it would be an entire career.

If you want to have your mind blown, check out Robert Silverberg’s summary bibliography.

How did Bob do that?  He submitted work to a lot of places.  I don’t know this for sure, because I haven’t asked him, but I’ll bet that in 1958 he submitted more stories than were accepted for publication.  Yes, even Robert Silverberg saw rejection notes.  Also, I’ll bet that because he was writing so fast, when he looked at his hierarchy of markets, he could not submit every story to his top market because he already had a story under consideration there.  He had stories under consideration at his top twenty markets or more.  Because he was prolific, he could not wait for the top markets to open; he submitted stories everywhere.

Submitting stories everywhere is a different submission philosophy, but if you are prolific, I think it is a good one.

My other example of submitting everywhere is the late Jay Lake who was also hugely prolific.  The year before he won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, he was reporting a couple short story sales a week.

I bring these examples up to explain my current submitting philosophy, which I’ve come to think of as the shrapnel grenade school of submitting short fiction.  Right now, I have twenty-one manuscripts in the mail.  A month ago, I had thirty-two.  I also have thirteen stories at home waiting for more revision or for the right market to open.  (The opposite philosophy I think of as the cruise missile school of submitting, which has been perfected by Ted Chiang.)

The shrapnel grenade philosophy has a few advantages:

  1. Being prolific means that I’m practicing a lot.  Finishing several short stories a month makes my learning and growth curve steeper than if I was writing slower.
  2. Submitting often makes me familiar with the market.  Right now I have a good overview of who is editing where and what they are looking for.  I’m particularly interested when new markets appear or anthologies open.
  3. Submitting a short story is the moment when an author briefly interacts with the larger world of editors and publishers.  Submitting often means that there are more of those interactions.  The editors are more likely to remember me when my newest story crosses their desk.
  4. I feel more professional when I produce stories and submit them at a regular interval.  I feel less like a hobbyist.  This is not a dig on writers who are not prolific.  It is only a comment on how I feel.  Everyone’s path up the mountain is their own.

So, for right now, I’m trying out many markets.  This means that I’m following a piece of advice Dean Wesley Smith gave me a bunch of years ago, which was to “Pump the editors.”  I know, I thought that was an oddly phrased sentence too, but what he meant was to write a bunch and keep your work circulating.  The editors will eventually figure out that you are for real and serious about what you are doing.

And that’s a good thing.

P.S.  I forgot to add where I’m finding all these markets.  I lean heavily on ralan.com (every writer who uses his site ought to send him a donation), and the Submission Grinder.  I also learn about market via networking with writers and editors I’ve come to know over time.

Sunday Writing: Fun, Work and You’re So Talented

writing illustrationThe frequently wise Richard Parks did a nice post on relating learning to play the guitar to becoming a writer.

I think just about anyone who is good at something, who is also not an elementary school kid being patted on the back, flinches a little when told, “You’re so talented.”  Almost everyone who has become way better than average at any activity, whether it’s painting, playing the violin, running long distances, or writing, got there through a lot of applied effort.

“Talented,” in this context sounds like “You have a gift that was given to you.”  It’s possible that the person you’re saying it to will feel you’ve demeaned their achievement rather than praising it.

The secret for most is that a great deal of the effort that allowed them to create the work others admire now was fun then, and a great deal of that effort may have happened before the person even recognize that it was “effort.”  For example, one of my best friends is a fine artist.  He’s sixty-three and sells some of his art to large organizations who want public art installations.  That means that when he sells a piece, he gets a good-looking paycheck, but he also has to work a long time to produce the piece.  I’ve heard people tell him that he’s “talented,” but he tells me that even when he was a little kid, he was sketching all the time.  He didn’t do it because he thought it would pay off by making him an artist later, or that he’d be selling his work later in life.  He drew because he enjoyed the act of drawing.  He still sketches every day.  He likes the activity.

For many writers, the “effort” that happened before they even knew it was effort was reading.  For me, I started reading early, and I was one of those kids who burned through several novels a week.  I read during classes at school; I read at family gatherings; I read when riding in the car.  I read just about in any location and at every occasion.  I didn’t know that all that reading would be the background work that would help me as a writer.  I did it because it was fun.

I don’t think I am saying that to be good at something later in life that you had to start doing it as a child, but I do think that whenever you start, you’d better find that you like doing the activity.

You’d better be doing it because some part of what you’re doing fulfills you.

And for crying out loud, if you admire someone’s art, don’t attribute it to talent: recognize their effort instead.

My New Website

James Van Pelt, Jim Van PeltSo, here’s the deal.  My digital presence on the web so far has been a LiveJournal page, my Facebook account, an author page on Amazon, and a Goodread’s author page.  I used to have a website on SFF.NET, when they gave free space to SFWA members, but that option isn’t there anymore, and my page was an incredibly clunky, self-taught, HTML design mess that made real web designers squint with pre-migraine agony.  Even my sons, who are computer engineers, would look at the page and say, “Make it stop!”

Clearly I needed to up my game, so I finally bought a domain name (which was more of an ordeal than I expected–there is another James Van Pelt who had bought this domain a few years ago, but decided he wasn’t ever going to use it.  He offered to transfer the domain to me, but we both were clueless enough that the process took days).  I’m now the proud owner of jamesvanpelt.com.

In theory, given enough time and the patience of searchbots, this page will be the first one that comes up on search engines if someone is looking for me.  Also, the address is pretty easy to remember, so that may help.

The idea is that my career as a writer will expand, and this website will be useful for readers who are looking for me.  Of course, if the career goes downhill from my current status as a regularly publishing short story writer, then this page will be another of the dusty, never-visited spaces in the world wide web.

We can only hope.

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