NaNoWriMo Experiences

You learn new things when you leave your comfort zone, and that’s just what I did while participating in this year’s National Novel Writing Month. I thought I’d share my experiences in case anyone wanted inspiration for increasing their productivity.

But what is National Novel Writing Month (orNaNoWriMo for short), and how does it put you under pressure? Well, it’s a challenge that takes place every November, and the goal is simple yet not easily attained: Write 50,000 words of fiction in 30 days.

Officially, those words are supposed to become a novel, but nobody is looking over your shoulder. You do it for the challenge, and if you end up writing an epic poem instead of a novel, you still win. Even if you only write 10,000 or 25,000 words, it’s progress on your writing project. You won’t get a winner’s certificate, but that’s not the point. The point is to write more and push your limits.

50,000 words amounts to 1,667 words every day, or if you’re like me and don’t write on weekends, it’s 2,272 words per weekday. For some, that may be a piece of cake, but for me it means I have to push myself beyond my usual writing pace.

So what did I learn?

1 – Forcing Productivity Increases Creativity

You have to know where your story is going to write it, right?

Except, during NaNoWriMo you may running short of material and good ideas during the process. Perhaps you wrote down all the good ideas, or perhaps the plot took an unexpected turn, leaving you with an outline that no longer makes sense.

On those days, I nevertheless sat down and reread what I had written yesterday, and started typing new words. And sometimes, the most outrageous ideas would arise after I had typed for a while. I would suddenly know how to solve a problem that I’d struggled with by deviating from the plan, and this would take the story in directions I hadn’t even wondered about before.

These sparks were usually connected to new insights about the characters and the worldbuilding rather than plot, but that didn’t matter. When I found new depths in the characters, they’d also face their situation in a new way, and that led to unexpected plot twists.

Sometimes nothing new came from all that typing. However, the great thing about NaNoWriMo is that every word counts, and if you end up writing something that’s not a good fit for the story, you can always start that scene over, or make up a new one. Getting the ‘wrong’ scene out of the system paves the way for the ‘right’ scenes.

So you can’t write bad words during NaNoWriMo. You can only write words. That takes away the frustration that usually hits me if I’ve worked an entire day on a scene that I suspect I’ll have to throw out later.

2 – Listen to Your Mind

A few days into NaNoWriMo I found that I could stop typing, but I couldn’t put my mind on hold. The creative energies were boiling even when I wasn’t writing. Brilliant!

I’m used to having ideas pop up and demand to be written. Grasping those idea when they surface is actually a skill I’ve tried to hone over the years, because the better ideas often rise up from the subconscious — all have to do is listen to them. During NaNoWriMo, I learned to listen just a little harder, and I think I became a little better at catching those subconscious curveballs. This is extremely useful for a writer, and I can still feel the benefit from this even though NaNoWriMo is over.

There’s a trade-off to being this deeply immersed in a project though. I’m much less sociable when I’m in my own headspace. During November I could feel my mind wandering when I was with other people, and for me that’s not a healthy habit, so I’m also glad it’s only NaNoWriMo once a year.

3 – Work Smarter Not Harder

I’m usually somewhat impatient with my work. When I write something, I want to finish it, get it out of the way and work on the next project. Finish a scene, finish a short story, finish a novel, just finish it. But I already knew that I wouldn’t finish the novel in November (it’ll be about 110-120K words in all), so I might as well adjust my expectations and try out a new way of working.

For me, working differently this November meant switching between projects several times per day.

Early in November I decided to alternate between two novels. The result was that I wrote about 10,000 words on a co-written project and 40,000 words on a solo project.

I also switched between scenes. My solo project has three point of view characters, so I could always switch to a different way of seeing the world if I got stuck.

In effect I threw away my impatience–never mind finishing a scene today, I could always do that tomorrow. Both types of switcheroo worked like a charm. Getting into a different mindset proved refreshing, and often resulted in a new burst of words. I’d do this perhaps four times per day, ending up with chunks of 400-700 words every time, and sometimes more.

It’s a practice I’ve chosen to continue in December, and it works like a charm. Maybe it’s because I had a ton of minor projects waiting for me after November, but it still feels more efficient.

4 – Timing is everything  

Around mid-November I had fallen a little behind, and so my daily word count had to go up if I were to make it. And if 2,272 words per day look intimidating, try looking at 2,600.

For this I turned to the Pomodoro technique of writing 25 minutes at a time, followed by a break. This had the nice effect of breaking the work into manageable chunks, because anyone can write for 25 minutes, right? It turned out I could, at least, and those sessions typically yielded 4-500 words. Suddenly all I had to do was write 5-6 times a day. While this was still high-intensity work, it nevertheless became much easier.

Incidentally, once I started timing those sessions, I discovered that my attention would start to wander after 22-23 minutes of writing, so taking a break turned out to be a good idea.

In conclusion, I can say that I’ll be using what I’ve learned in the year to come – and that I hope to be under considerably less pressure.

And also, if you have any productivity tricks up your sleeve, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

The Beginner’s Anxiety-Free Guide to Submitting Short Stories

Me, subbing on a good day

If you’ve just started writing short stories, you may be considering sending them to magazines or anthologies. But how do you do that (easy)? How do you avoid anxiety when you submit the stories (hard)? And how do you deal with the crush of rejection that’s an inevitable part of selling short stories (sadly necessary)?

How to do it

First, finish the story. Believe it or not, this is much harder than sending it–but that’s a topic for another time.

Next, find a magazine or anthology that fits your story. You can take a look at Ralan.com or The Submission Grinder to find a long list of magazines that takes submissions from writers.

On the magazine’s website, you’ll want to find the page that says ‘Submissions’ or ‘Submission guidelines’. Submission guidelines are where the editors tell you: A) What kind of stories they’re looking for. B) How they want you to ‘package’ that story, that is, how the manuscript you send them should look. C) How you should send it in (typically by mail or through a web form).

Formatting a manuscript may take some time, especially if the magazine asks for something other than a ‘standard manuscript format’. My advice is that you always follow the guidelines, even when they’re a hassle, because a well-formatted manuscript shows the editor you’re serious about your submission. Besides, formatting a story is much easier than writing it, so just get it over with.

Don’t worry – Just send it

A frequent reason why manuscripts stay in the author’s drawer is anxiety. You may fret over the question whether the story is original enough to send, or gobsmacking goooood enough, or brilliant enough–or if it’s even remotely publishable.

Motivational picture, *HINT HINT*

Worrying about originality is perfectly natural, especially if you’re constantly trying to improve your writing. Striving to write better stories is what serious writers do, so by all means continue to think about how to blow your readers’ minds. But forget those worries while you’re in the process of submitting the story, all right? Doubts have a nasty way of turning into blocks, and you need to get your story out there.

So take a deep breath and tell yourself you’ve done all you can for your story. It’s time to send it out and introduce it to the world. You can’t control how it’ll be received, but if the story just sits on your hard drive, it won’t be received at all.

Hit the ‘send’ button, and you’re done.

A while later, just as you suspected, the editor mails you back and tells you they’re buying the story. Congratulations! Read the contract, sign and return it if you agree with the terms, and bask in the accolades from your fellow writers when your story is published.

If your story gets rejected

Rejection, actual footage

Of course, sometimes stories get rejected. Well, actually, this happens more often than not, and for a new writer it may be cause for concern and even anxiety. When you’ve spent hours writing a story, and years honing your craft, it can be tough to learn that an editor doesn’t want to use it. If you’re just starting out as a writer and haven’t sold a story yet, you may even wonder if you have any talent at all, if your story sucks or if you should just call it quits.

 

This still happens to me, and I’ve sold 30 stories and received 900 rejections. But don’t listen to those doubts.

My cure for the submission blues is to send the stories out again. But what if you’ve been hit by those anxieties mentioned above and don’t dare send anything out again, ever?

Here are a few good things to remember:

1) The competition is fierce. Magazines receive tons of stories every month. At one point, Apex Magazine reported receiving over 1200 stories in a month, although they also stated that they usually only get between 800 and 1200 stories. Since they have space for less than ten stories per issue, it means they reject a lot of perfectly good stories, and sadly, yours may be among them. This doesn’t mean anything’s wrong with your story, so go ahead and send it to the next magazine.

2) Editors know what they want. They have a vision for the kind of stories they publish in their magazine, and they may also collect stories to match a particular theme for an issue. Your story could be the best story in the universe, and it might still not be right for that particular magazine or issue. But it might be right for another magazine, so if the story is rejected, just send it out again.

3) Rejection doesn’t mean you’re banned from submitting again. In fact, editors only blacklist writers who send them an email telling them how much they hate the magazine. But a story that doesn’t fit the magazine will not get you banned, even if it’s a bit amateurish (trust me, I’d be banned for life for my first stories). Editors love to find new writers, and even if they reject your first 22 stories, they may still accept number 23 if they want it. I’m talking from experience here.

4) Trust in yourself as a writer. Your stories may not be right for a particular magazine, but if they are right for you, you should definitely write them. At a glance, this may not sound terribly productive. After all, why write stories that no one wants to read? But this may only be true for one of your stories. You next one is going to be different, and if you keep telling stories that only you can tell, you’ll have something rare that editors are going to print.

Hopefully this will help you to find the courage to submit your story again. And to write new ones.

And if you have other anxieties, feel free to mention them in the comments. If I have any advice, I’ll be sure to share it.

Choosing what to Write (Instead of Writing)

Since January I’ve been working almost exclusively on a YA project in Danish, which is a bit removed from the US writing world. My daughter wanted a story, and I had one in the back of my head that seemed just right for the occasion.

That novel is now finished, and my daughter got to be first reader (of course). She liked it, thought the ending was really exciting, and was well entertained throughout, so I’m counting that as a huge success. And even better, she wasn’t too shy to point out my typos. I’ll make a grammar nerd of her yet 🙂

So what’s next? Finishing the YA novel and getting it off to a publisher has first priority, but while it makes the rounds to three or four other readers, I have to choose between a lot of other writing projects. So I’m weaving back and forth between committing to one of the following projects:

• Finish this round of revisions on a Space Opera Monster — which means rewriting a number of scenes from scratch because the existing scenes don’t make sense after the first half of the story was revised. They’re also out of synch because the revision so far has developed some actual personality in the characters, so their current actions and choices no longer make sense… I’ve been working on this story for a long, long time. I ought to just get it over and done with, but it’s also quite painful to go through it again and again. But the thing is, there’s a collective of characters that I really like, and a story about genocide and space colonialism gone wrong that’s exciting to tell.

• It would also be a lot of fun to devote myself full time to that new collaborative project with my writing buddy Mette. At WorldCon she and Arly Sorg talked about undead who lose their memories, and we have developed the perfect setting for a supernatural mystery that will bring this idea to life. And there’s shiny worldbuilding to develop and characters to flesh out, and a mystery to concoct, and it’s all new and glorious, so woohoo? Right. Except we’ve started the actual writing, and it’s not exactly looking like the notes in our heads, so at the moment I’m accusing my imagination of overselling the project. But I’m writing for an audience (of one, so far) and that feels… surprisingly glorious! And shared burdens are half burdens, so I wonder if this isn’t what I’ll be doing for the foreseeable future.

• Well, of course I also have a new short story and a novelette I should be finishing. They’re both more than halfway done, so they shouldn’t take too long to write. Right? Right! Because it’s not like I write short stories at half the speed I write novels, is it? And it doesn’t help that one of them is a story where chronology has ceased to matter… which makes it somewhat difficult to keep track of… but also fun to write… but difficult… but at least easier to finish than a novel, right?

• Did I mention that I spent two consecutive nanowrimos cooking up 80.000 words of another space opera novel? I looked it over recently, and it’s actually pretty good. In shambles, of course, and about 30.000 words from completion, but hey, I really should finish this. November’s coming up, so maybe this is where I’m going.

And meanwhile, back in the batcave, my mind is producing new ideas every week, every one of them more glorious and alluring than the next, and I really have no other way to deal with them than put them on a list of ideas.

I’ll figure it out, but I can’t help wonder if I’m the only writer with this problem.

Heading to WorldCon

In two days I’ll get on a plane and head to Helsinki for the 75th science fiction and fantasy WorldCon, and I am so looking forward to this. WorldCon takes place Europe this time, which makes it much easier to attend. I miss my family if I’m gone too long, so this six-day trip is a perfect opportunity to go and get an infusion of fandom greatness.

For those of you who don’t know what to find at these conventions, they are a great place to hear new things about genre fiction in almost every form there is: Novels and short stories, comic books, movies long and short, cosplays, workshops, science talks and scholarly lessons, live action role playing, board games, computer games, and readings by new and established authors.

I’ve been to a few such cons, and I always head home with a brain overflowing with ideas, inspiration and fond memories. There are always other writers hanging around too, and you can find no more inspiring people to talk to than writers. (Of course, your carpenter may try to tell you otherwise, but don’t listen.)

For the first time ever, I’m also going to be on two panels, so I’m preparing (over-preparing) for them right now. The first preparatory item has been to print out a sign that has the words DON’T PANIC inscribed in large friendly letters…

The first panel (Wednesday 19:00, room 204) is about Fantastic Literature in the Nordic Countries and how it has recently become more popular in the Nordic countries that are otherwise known for their realistic literature. I’m mostly going to talk about fiction for children and young adults, and I’m really looking forward to hearing what the other panelists have to say on this.

The other panel (Saturday 14:00, room 101d) is called ‘Pullantuoksuinen – Writing While Multilingual’. Since I mostly write in English, I have a thing or two to say about this, especially about how to learn English when you don’t actually live in an English speaking country.

I quite suspect that I’ll update the blog with a con report when I get home, so watch this space.

Last but not least, if you see me there and want to say hi: Please, please, please do so! I love meeting new people at cons.

Florence SF/F

So, it turns out Florence is nice this time of year.
My wife and I both studied Florentine history way back in college, but I had never actually visited the city, so it was great to see the buildings, paintings and sculptures mentioned in all those dusty tomes I devoured on Machiavelli, the Medicis and the Rennaisance. Nothing like enjoying nerdhood in all its glory.

Among the nerdier sculptures, we found one of Lorenzo de Medici, a.k.a. The Imp, in the Uffizi museum.

‘Alien’ might or might not have been inspired by this Renaissance sculpture from the Medici chapel (below). It’s chomping out through someone’s neck instead of through the chest, of course, but the sculpture did depict a suit of armor. And you have to admit it would be impractical to break through a chestplate.

 

Read a few Issues – Beneath Ceaseless Skies

As a short story writer, I constantly send out stories to science fiction and fantasy magazines. I’ve collected over 850 rejections, and sold a story for approximately every twenty-five submissions. Needless to say, I’m working on improving my hit rate, and for that I’ll take any advice I can get.

One gem that can be found in the guidelines of many magazines is this: “Read a few issues of the magazine to get a feel for the kind of stories we print.”

Getting that feel is tougher than it sounds, though, because many editors will buy a great story even if it isn’t a typical match for the magazine. Still, magazines do have distinct styles, so in theory pinpointing what makes each magazine unique should make it easier to send a story the editor wants.

And even if it doesn’t result in increased sales, it’s still a great excuse to read a lot of short stories.

Enter stage left: ‘Read a few Issues’, a series in which I aim to reveal what makes each magazine unique.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies

I’ll start with Beneath Ceaseless Skies, a fantasy magazine that’s been a longtime favorite of mine.

BCS specializes in literary secondary world fantasy. Their ‘About’ page has this to say:

We want stories that combine the best of traditional adventure fantasy and realist literary writing—adventure fantasy plots in vivid secondary worlds, but written with a literary flair. Beneath Ceaseless Skies features exciting stories set in awe-inspiring places that are told with all the skill and impact of modern literary-influenced fantasy.

When you visit their submission guidelines–a must for any writer who wants their stories considered–you’ll find their definition of secondary world setting. The gist is that it’s a world that is different from our own primary world in some way, whether it’s in terms of zoology, climate, physics, or history. But seriously: Read the full guidelines. They say a lot about what BCS looks for in characters, narrative style and originality.

If you want to know more, BCS editor Scott H. Andrews has also given many interviews on the internet. This one, at the Odyssey workshop, has a lot to say about worldbuilding, characters and more.

However, it’s in the stories that the concepts set out in the guidelines truly come to life, so I’m going to look at how the stories deal with ‘Secondary World Settings’, ‘Characters’ and ‘Originality’.

What I’ve read

BCS posts two-story issues every fortnight. Sometimes they include a podcast and sometimes reprint a story from their archives. I decided to read some of the newest issues… and in the meantime work got in the way of actually writing this article, so BCS is now up to issue 220.

  • Jonathan Edelstein: Abere and the Poisoner (#208)
  • Greg Kurzawa: Masks of the Mud God (#213)
  • Daniel Baker: The Marvelous Inventions of Mr. Tock (#213)
  • Claire Humphreys: Wooden Boxes Lined with the Tongues of Doves (#216)
  • Eleanna Castroianni: Think of Winter (#216)
  • Cae Hawksmoor: Requiem for the Unchained (#217)
  • Tony Pi: Proteus Lost (#217)
  • Melissa Lingen: Out of the Woods (#218)
  • Margaret Killjoy: Men of the Ashen Morrow (#218)

Secondary Worlds

Scott H. Andrews, the editor of BCS, is serious about this. Every story I’ve read is different from this world in a crucial way, and the worldbuilding varies a lot.

At one end of the spectrum we have a few stories that take place in otherworldly places.

In Margaret Killjoy’s ‘Men of the Ashen Morrow‘, a sacrifice to a creature-god called Hulokk is necessary to end the summer and usher in the winter that keeps the creatures of the west at bay. Seasons as we know them don’t exist in this world, and the monstrous Hulokk has imposed his own rules and necessities on the inhabitants. Magic can keep the god at bay, sometimes.

Jonathan Edelstein’s ‘Abere and the Poisoner‘ takes place on a world where gods have fallen to the ground, or landed, forming islands in the sea. Each god/island has specific properties that infuse the plants and indeed the inhabitants of each island.

Cae Hawksmoor’s ‘Requiem for the Unchained‘ follows the captain of an airship capable of navigating geiststorms, which consist of millions of lost souls, who attack the living. This concept is very different from Earth, certainly, but the story also contains shipyards, entrepreneurs and work gangs recognizable from our world.

Daniel Baker tells a detective story in ‘The Marvelous Inventions of Mr. Tock‘, which features enough mechanics and metalworking to qualify it as ‘gearpunk’ (or perhaps some other kind of punk). Either way, the world and plot operate on different principles than our known Earth, but with very recognizable social issues.

With other stories it’s not clear whether we’re on Earth or in similar world, and in fact it’s not really that important. It’s the rules and circumstances that shape the characters’ lives that are central to the story.

Greg Kurzawa’s ‘Masks of the Mud God‘ shows us the life of Miriam, who is one of the Raah, a different race that lives beside humans in a world where legends and gods may come alive. The imagery of the world is familiar: We hear of houses, bridges, bathrooms, languages, civilizations. But there are also legends of gods who walk the earth, and the Raah themselves who seem to have the upper hand in controlling it.

Think of Winter‘ by Eleanna Castroianni features earthly elements like a knight, a cathedral, and an invading foe, but also a set of Tarots and visions of the future. Very little of the world is explored in this story, since it’s limited to a single location. The real story and worldbuilding is in the main character’s relationship with and reading of his cards.

Out of the Woods‘ by Melissa Lingen must have been inspired by Robin Hood. The main character is part of the resistance against the king’s brother while the real king is away. The main character can use magic, though, which turns the story away from the familiar Robin Hood story. Magic also ends up making a very big difference in the end.

Finally, BCS presents stories that clearly take place on Earth, although some rules have changed.

Tony Pi’s ‘Proteus Lost‘ unfolds in Italy at a time when the Spanish Armada is preparing to set sail for England. The ‘secondary’ element comes from the magic of the world, more specifically the magic of shapeshifting, which the characters explore with scientific precision. The magic in this story is a natural force to be understood and controlled.

In ‘Wooden Boxes Lined with the Tongues of Doves‘, Claire Humphreys presents a world that gave me a lot of associations to England during World War One. The magic is at once very specific, in the form of the collection of dove tongues, and vague in that the magician’s tricks aren’t truly revealed. (Though this isn’t a review, I also have to say that I found ‘Wooden Boxes Lined with the Tongues of Doves’ a touching, disturbing story with an unexpected ending.)

Characters

About characters, BCS’s guidelines say:

We strongly prefer characters who yearn for something, external or internal, and feel driven to attain it.

You get exactly that from all the stories. It’s also clear that the yearning and drive is always intertwined with the rules specific to the world.

Tony Pi’s main character faces a problem that he must solve by understanding shapeshifting magic. The nameless poet in Jonathan Edelstein’s comes to an island for a flower with magical abilities that’s critical to his goals. Sal, the main character of Men of the Ashen Morrow, has a very clear goal related to dealing with the sacrifices demanded by Hulokk. Melissa Lingen’s main character resists the false king to fight for the righteous one, but during the story her goals change, and as a result she ends up changing some of the rules in her world. And in ‘Masks of the Mud God’, Miriam the Raah faces a problem specific to her race: that the Raah eat their children.

Originality

In conclusion, the stories in BCS are very much the product of the worlds, and the characters and their goals are in large part defined by those worlds.

This is also what makes the stories original. The characters work and live and have their home in their own worlds. The world is part of them as much as they are part of it. Moreover, in their battles the characters are often pitted against their world. Robin Hood themes, tarots, gods and magic may be well-known tropes in fantasy stories, but the characters and the distinct rules and hardships of each world gives these stories an edge that qualifies as originality.

I plan to run ‘Read a few Issues’ on the blog about three times this year, so check back again in June to hear more about another magazine.

Sometimes Writing Is…

Whether you’re writing a short story or a six part series, there’s no substitute for words. You need them, and you need them on the page in at least a semblance of order. You use them to shape a story, to write the important scenes, and to flesh out your characters with actions, choices and dialogue. After many, many words you end up with a story.

I love this part of writing. It comes relatively easy to me, and when I can write several days in a row without interruption, I get things done quite quickly. My daily goal is 1000 words, but often I end up with more. That’s what I’ve been doing the past few weeks, and I estimate that I’m about halfway through a middle grade novel about kids fighting monster surveillance on their school.

It’s easy to get in the zone with this story, and I think it’s because I’ve had the main character in the back of my head for nearly three years. I know him pretty well, and I know what he would do in most situations.  Moreover, I know his friends and his problems and his enemies, and figuring out how he solves his problems is quite fun.

Getting words on paper depends on my ability to ignore the nagging voices in the back of my head saying that the first draft sucks, or that no one is ever going to read the story, or that I could be using my life to do something much better. You have to ignore those voices. I mean, imagine a bus driver having that kind of doubts when driving . “Someone’s going to run a red light and hit the bus, so I better pull over.” That’s not going to get anyone anywhere, so the driver ignores those doubts, and so do I.

For me, doubts are always easier to ignore when drafting new material. Revising stories is where it becomes really difficult, because I start looking for all the mistakes I’ve made and all the things that suck.

But that’s a problem for later. Right now I’m writing a first draft, and I’m really enjoying it. Writing is always work, but sometimes it feel like really fun work.

Far Fetched Fables to record The Demi-Arcanist’s Will

The fabulous folks at Far Fetched Fables will record “The Demi-Arcanist’s Will” for their excellent podcast. I don’t have a date yet, but this is the place to look for the news.

If you can’t wait to read the story, you can find it in anthology The Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror vol. 2, edited by Robert N Stephenson. The anthology is free to download and it contains stories by great writers like James van Pelt.

Until the podcast is up you can enjoy the other stories on Far Fetched Fables. The current issue has a story by the amazing Barbara A. Barnett, and you can also find recent stories by Alex Shvartsman, Addison Smith and Ken Scholes.