Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Writing against the Wind

Yesterday afternoon, I fought with 25 mph gusts on my way to the coffee shop for some writing and editing time. The morning was crisp and clear, but as soon as I left the house, the winds came a-roaring. I started pedaling anyway, and when I first hit the resistance in the air, I momentarily questioned my resolve to ride the next 3.5 miles in such conditions.

But the sun was shining, and dang it, I was ready to write. So I kept going and had a productive two hours before the breezy ride back—a tailwind this time.

So what’s the point here? Well, I think as beginning and intermediate writers, it can feel like we are writing against wind. There’s so much resistance in our lives that prevents us from just sitting down to write—distractions and that distracting voice in your head. Or if not that, then the shifting currents of the publishing industry, the prevailing attitudes our friends and families have about our efforts, the sheer odds we face of ever getting our work out there.

There are so many reasons to not pick up the pen and write. So when we do, there’s a lot of stuff we have to write through. But we have to keep going, no matter what. We have to keep going and not stop. Until one day, one day when the winds die down, when we reach the top of the hill, and it’s all downhill from there. Smooth sailing.

Sometimes that freedom comes from small victories (positive feedback from readers, story acceptances, or getting an agent). But I also think developing confidence in your craft can get you to that point without all those external factors—the assurance that you are getting better each day you commit to being a writer.

It can be a hard slog, no lie. And some days will be worse than others. But to feel the wind in your hair and know it’s not holding you back but urging you on?

I hope we all reach that place.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Critique Mindset

For the last two years, I’ve been in at least one critique group, focusing on short stories and longer pieces of fiction primarily, with some memoir and creative nonfiction thrown in for good measure.

I like to think I’ve gotten better at examining a work and responding to it critically. Doesn’t always mean I’m right (or that there is a right way to critique something), but at least I can usually explain why I feel a certain way about a piece of writing.


And the longer I’ve critiqued, I’ve noticed that my mindset has shifted into distinct stages, where my emotional state and my approach toward critiquing differs from how I operated before.


1) The Oh My God, Someone is Going to Read My Work Stage

This is that initial moment when it hits you that you are letting someone else – some stranger no less – peer into your heart and soul that you’ve scribbled onto the page. Or not. Maybe you’ve always wanted to share your work with someone else and now is your chance. Either way, it’s finally happening. As you dig into another person’s work, you are so excited that you scrutinize every single word within an inch of its life, so grateful to be given this opportunity.

2) The I’m Not Worthy Stage

This is after you have exchanged a few pieces with other people and you are blown away by the quality and wide-ranging ideas of others. You’ve spent so much time typing away in your respective cave that you forget that the world is a big place and that other writers have worked as hard or harder than you. You start feeling insecure and self-conscious about your own work, and you become extra diligent in your editing to prove you are worthy of the attention of others.

3) The A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing Stage

This is when you start reading craft books and blogs and start internalizing all the rules and should-nots and thou shalts of publishing. The next time you sit down to critique something, all these rules bubble up and you start saying things like “Never open with the weather” or “Are you sure you want to have a prologue in your story?” or “Haven’t you been following the serial comma debate?” in your comments. While the rules get to be rules for a reason, sometimes critique is more about determining whether the story itself is sound, not its container.

4) The Means To an End Stage

This is the point where you are critiquing just about anything people ask you to. Not because you are a pushover (or maybe you are). But because every time you sit down and examine a piece of writing, you know that you are strengthening your ability to revise your own writing. Every problem you unearth in someone else’s manuscript is a problem you’ll hopefully be able to see and correct in your own work. Maybe, maybe not, but you’ve bought into the idea, and the track changes and insert comment features in Word are now your best friend.

5) The I’m Busy, Don’t Waste My Time Stage

This is when you’ve reached a certain level of confidence in your writing and you think, hmm, maybe I should cut back on some critiquing to make more time for writing. Where you start being more selective of the folks you do exchange work with. You also start to figure out ways to remain supportive of but not beholden to those people who, for whatever reasons, are well-intended but unreliable in their critiquing, or aren’t making the same strides you are in their craft, or are writing more for fun than for publication. It takes a lot of time and mental energy to critique someone else’s writing, and you are now at the point where you want the time you do spend to be worthwhile and valued by others.

Did any of these critique mindsets ring true for you?

For more resources on critiquing and critique groups, check out the following links:

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Story behind the Story – Eclectic Flash Edition (part 1)

This post is the first in a new, irregular series where I talk about the path to publication for each story I’ve had accepted.

Thanks to the response I got from my post Pen Names and Other Problems, I’ve decided to go ahead and share my writing credits. I haven’t officially linked my name to this blog, but baby steps. We’ll see how it goes.


My story Summer in Exile was published in the September 2011 issue of Eclectic Flash, which is now available online.

I first drafted the piece at my prompt-focused writing group way back in late November 2009. The particular prompt had each of us select a phrase from a book that we would then later incorporate into our story. The phrases were as follows:
  • A. S. Byatt’s Little Black Book – “whistled oddly in her petrifying larynx”
  • Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me Ultima – “his big horse eyes looked up at me nervously”
  • Margaret Atwood’s Dancing Girls and Other Stories – “what the bloody hell was he doing on top of that sixty foot tree”
  • Mary Doria Russell’s Children of God – “Sometimes if he kept still people would go away.”
  • Wallace Stegner’s Collected Short Stories – “Shame made him turn over and lie face down”
I was pretty happy with how my story came out and decided to tinker with it a bit before sharing it with my now-defunct crit group. The other members were positive about the piece, and their only suggestion was to try to incorporate some backstory to make the character more real. But after a few attempts, I felt I was changing the heart of the story too much, reverted back to the original version, then went ahead and submitted it to a few markets starting in Fall 2010.


One market was kind enough to offer me some personalized feedback and again pointed out the issue of character. By now, some time had passed and I reworked the piece again, trying to flesh out the main protagonist. I shared the story at a local open mic night, tinkered some more, and finally found a good balance between character and story.

On May 3rd 2011, I sent the piece off to Eclectic Flash, and it was accepted.

The Numbers:

1st Draft: 441 words
Final Draft: 692 words
Days from Idea to Acceptance: 520
Rejections: 4 form, 1 personal
7-day Acceptance

The Lessons:

Get other people’s eyes on your stuff – My critique group at the time was able to pinpoint what I needed to do to take my story to the next level, even though I was unable to execute their suggestions to my satisfaction.

Stories take time to get right – I am convinced the iterative process of revising, submitting, revising, submitting is what led me to the version of the story that was published. This means waiting for each market to get back to you before submitting it somewhere else. I was/am too new a writer to think I’ll get my story right the first time, so trial and error was a great way for me to learn and grow my craft.

Don’t expect overnight success – 520 days. Enough said.

Intrepid readers will note that I have another story in the September 2011 issue of Eclectic Flash, but I’ll talk about that piece in another post.

In the meantime, happy writing!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Pen Names and Other Problems

So my name is not Bluestocking. Did I just blow your mind?

Blogging under an alias is something I started for a variety of reasons, including the fact that:
  • I was unpublished.
  • I was uncomfortable with labeling myself a writer.
  • I wasn’t sure if this whole blogging thing was for me.
All those things made sense back in February 2010 when I first started the blog. But now:
  • I am slowing getting publishing credits.
  • I’m growing more comfortable calling myself a writer.
  • I’m still blogging – less as an experiment and more for a platform.
So having a blogging alias is not so necessary any more. But I’m still using it. Why? Well, as I was telling my CP Lori M. Lee the other day, it’s complicated, and it mostly comes down to what I write: historical romance and speculative fiction. Two very different genres, with different expectations and readerships. It’s not so bad as say picture books and erotica, but the gulf between the two is still there.

Despite whatever level of success I attain in either area, these are the genres I see myself writing in for the long haul. Considering the prevailing wisdom out there about author branding and platform-building, I should have an author persona for each genre I write in. Some people like Kristen Lamb predict that pen names will eventually go away in the digital era, but for now, like a lot of other things in publishing, pen names are still around.

Since I have three stories either published or forthcoming under my own name (and two of those are specfic), it makes sense to put out my historical romance (if I ever do) under a pen name:

Historical Romances ---> Pen name
Speculative Fiction ---> Real name

So now the question is where does my blog fit in?

Now occasionally I will talk about my historical romance or my speculative projects on the blog, but to me, these distinctions don’t really matter since ultimately this is a blog about writing and writing-related things (putting aside the whole writing blogs are bad argument).

I used to think I’d figure it all out when I had to. But when it comes to blogging or any social media presence, it is important to have a strategy. I want to know how I will handle my online presence now even though it’s rather self-indulgent to assume I’ll succeed in any genre let alone both. At the same time, I don’t want to make a wrong choice at this early start of my career, and have it haunt me later on down the line.

I don’t know. But after blogging for over a year and a half, after putting together so many posts I’m proud of, losing this blog or starting over isn’t appealing.

I don’t have any easy answers here. I’m still Bluestocking for now. We’ll see how long that lasts.

What are your own thoughts/concerns about the pen name debate? Here are some other resources for you to peruse if you are considering a pen name:
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