I love it when things just "click".

This morning, on the drive into work (my day job) I had an idea for a story spring “full blown” in my head (like Athena from the head of Zeus).

On getting home and 1200 words later it’s time to call it quits for the day.  I’ve got a good setup.  Some of the stylistic points (doing some things I’ve never done before) are coming along nicely.  And I’ve got a good idea where the story is going from here.

I expect the final result to be in the 3-5 thousand word range.  Not a major money maker even if it sells (and that’s never guaranteed) but something to definitely keep my hand in and stretch my writerly muscles.

My first sales

On to my first sales.  In 1990 I moved to being a “full time writer” which, frankly, was another way of saying that I was unemployed. (Various reasons for that, none of them particularly germane to this blog.) At that point I started writing a lot.  Most of my stories were still fairly derivative but one was something a bit different, a near-future piece written in an epistolary format (that is, in the form of various letters back and forth).  It was this story, titled “The Future is Now” that garnered my first personal response from an editor:  Stanley Schmidt of Analog:

“This story has good microwriting, that is writing at the sentence and paragraph level but the essence of story is conflict.” And my story didn’t really have that.  So I went back, added a rival corporation and some challenges along the way.  That came back with the criticism that the conflict all happened “off stage” (letters about conflicts that were resolved). Stan suggested breaking out of the epistolary formatting and going to straight third person narrative for the key scenes.  I didn’t like that thinking it would jar with the rest of the story being written as it is.  So I came up with a compromise.  I wrote one of the key scenes as “minutes” of a board meeting and the other as transcript of a launch and rescue operation.  This gave the in-story immediacy that it needed and the next round Stan bought.

Shortly after that I got a contract back from a story I had submitted to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine.  The story was a very short humorous (at least so intended) piece “Jilka and the Evil Wizard.”  Although this story was sold after The Future is Now it was actually published first. (More on that in a bit.)

Finally, while this was going on I was sending out queries for non-fiction articles.  I got a response from one from a magazine “High Technology Careers” asking that I write a 1500-1800 word article on the topic of The Economics of Lunar Mining at 17.5 cents a word.  This article was accepted as written and appeared about the same time as the other two stories.

Back to Marian Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine.  The turnaround between Ms. Bradley accepting the story and it appearing in the magazine was awfully short.  In that issue, Ms. Bradley’s editorial expressed some ire at people who simultaneously submit and then withdraw accepted stories leaving the editor to scramble to fill a hole.  I’ve always assumed, given those two facts, that she bought my story because it was a “not impossible” of the right size to fill a hole she was scrambling to fill.  That may not actually be the case but I’ve always thought it likely.

A kind of sad point of looking back at these first sales is that two of the three magazines are no longer in business.  When Ms. Bradley passed away, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine went with her.  And High Technology Careers ceased publication some years after my article’s publication.

There were several lessons I learned through all this:

1) “The essence of story is conflict.” That really comes down to the heart of things.  You cannot be nice to your characters.  If there’s no conflict you may have a narrative but you do not have a story.
2) The reader/editor is never wrong about their experience of the story but they may be wrong about how to fix problems they see.
3) Luck matters.  Sometimes the timing of when a story arrives can make the difference between selling to that market or not.
4) Persistence pays.  I sent out a lot of queries before I got the assignment to write the article.

Getting started in writing

Getting started writing isn’t rocket science.  The late Marion Zimmer Bradley defined it quite succinctly: “Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the typewriter chair and stay there until you get results.”  There’s really not much more than that.

Well, there’s not much more to it than that unless you want to write stories that sell.  Even here, it’s hard to determine any hard and fast rules.  It seems that for any rule one might name there’s somebody out there breaking it successfully.  Still, there are some things that can help.

1) If you want to write, you have to be a reader.  Read voraciously.  If you want to write in a particular genre–science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, westerns, romance, whatever–then read that genre.  But don’t read only that genre.  Stretch your horizons.  Read classics.  Read non-fiction.  Want to write Science Fiction?  Read Romance.  Want to write Romance?  Read Westerns.   Now, in addition to the reading, think about what you’ve read.  What did you like about it?  What did you dislike?  If you liked some parts and disliked others, try to figure out why.  What was different?

What you’re doing here is learning what goes into a successful story, what works for you and what doesn’t.  You can read reviews to get an idea of what worked and didn’t work for others, and that can be valuable, but in the end it comes down to what works for you and no one else.

2) Get out and meet people.  Watch them.  Talk to them.  Take notes, if only mental ones.  In the end, stories are about people.  All these interactions with people in the real world–good, bad, or indifferent–are ingredients that will go into your characters in stories.  If your only source for characters comes from reading other people’s stories your characters will seem derivative and shallow.  They will seem that way because they are derivative and shallow.  So bring some real people into the mix.

I’m not a big fan of basing individual characters on individual real people but taking a bit from here and a bit from there and one can build interesting characters that will seem real to the readers.  And that’s the goal.  They don’t have to be real.  They have to seem real.

3) Above all, write.  Write character sketches, story ideas, complete stories.  Write write write.  Then take what you’ve learned from the reading and look at it again.  What does and doesn’t work in what you’re writing?  Something not working?  Can you fix it?  If so, try that.  If not, set it aside (after all, there may be something you can mine out of that later) and try something else.

A “truism” in writing is that one has to write about a million words worth of crap in simply learning the craft.  Now, there are some exceptions to that rule (you know who you are; yes you do) but that’s a pretty good rule of thumb.  While there is a “talent” aspect to writing and storytelling they are also crafts that can be learned.  But here’s the thing, you can’t just write any crap.  You have to be trying your absolute best, writing the best crap you know how to write.

I started writing sometime in grade school.  I was, at that time, a big reader mostly of science fiction.  I was a big “space buff” and was writing mainly to get more stuff to read.  During those years I wrote a lot of story beginnings but very few if any complete stories.

Then came 1977 and That Movie.  I loved the movie.  It inspired me to write a screenplay of my own.  It inspired me to finish a screenplay of my own.  Now, my screenplay was a cheap ripoff of Star Wars.  It was a bad cheap ripoff of Star Wars.  I mean this thing was seriously bad.  I live in fear that somebody, somewhere, might turn up the only copy of the manuscript (written by hand on notebook paper) and threaten to release it to the world if I don’t pay blackmail money.  Bad.  But, it was nevertheless an important turning point.  It was the first piece of any length that I had finished.  I could finish a story.

And so my next big story was a novel written in study hall at school.  It too, was very bad.  Hackneyed, cliched, and implausible.  Oh, and the main character was a complete Mary Sue (Marty Stu?).  But, again, I demonstrated that I could complete a work of significant length.

Shortly after that I joined the Air Force and played around with writing a bit more.  I had discovered SF magazines and realized that people paid money for short work, including short work from new authors.  And so I began writing short fiction in earnest.  Most of my work in this period was still quite derivative I wasn’t having any success.  Writing was still an occasional thing with me but I’d write stories on my computer (Apple IIe), take the printed copy (9 pin dot matrix) over to the library to retype for submission, and send them out to collect rejection letters.

This was a very frustrating period but, without realizing it, I was learning the basics of the craft and the stories were getting better.  It was in 1991 when I made my first sales. (More on that another time.)

Why write?

One of the first questions about writing is “why write?”  There are many reasons to write, of course.  You have to write that thesis if you want that degree.  That piece of equipment needs a manual so people will know how to use it so someone is given the task of creating one if they want to be paid.  And those texts, emails, and, yes, blog posts won’t write themselves.

Here, however, I’m going to focus on fiction writing.  Why take the time and effort to sit down (or pace up and down the hall, or however one does it) and craft a story?

So what are the reasons for writing?  Fame? (Twenty years writing fiction with a handful of professional sales so far and I’m still pretty much unknown.  There are easier ways to fame.) Fortune? (The most I, personally, have made in a year from writing is about $1000.) Attracting members of the appropriate sex? (Have I got some disappointing news for you….)  You get a few, a very few, who are successful by those metrics, sure, but mostly you get folk who labor away for a little it of extra pocket money (or a modest living if they’re lucky) or the occasional fan letter. (Science fiction and Fantasy have an advantage over many writing genres in that there are frequent conventions where fans of their style of writing get together and authors and fans can meet each other.)

So why do it?  It’s a lot of work for very little of the typical rewards.

One thing to remember is that the storyteller is as old as humanity itself.  Telling–and with the invention of writing, writing them–is just something people do.  Even traits that are ubiquitous across the human species are expressed more strongly in some than in others.  Some have a stronger drive to tell stories in much the same way that some people have a stronger competitive drive.

In the end, I think that you aren’t a writer because you write.  You write because you are a writer.  Making money, winning fame, making friends and influencing people are often rationalization more than reasons, a justification for the mental and emotional effort that goes into writing.

That said, writing, storytelling, isn’t the only drive and, as drives go, it’s fairly far down on the totem pole.  Yes, I have a drive to write, to put stories down for other people to read, but I also have a drive to eat, to live in reasonably comfortable surroundings, to procreate (and the things that go with that), and so forth and if writing gets in the way of that, so much the worse for writing.  Other people might have the drive more strongly and are willing to live a hermit’s life in a drafty attic somewhere while scribbling away the story they have to get out of their system only, once finished, to have it replaced with another story that they simply have to get out of their system.

And so, while I think to a great extent writing and storytelling is what you are more than what you do that it’s not also a craft and a skill to be learned.  There’s a big difference between a group of friends telling “no fooling, there I was…” stories at the local watering hole and someone writing a novel that sells hundreds of thousands of copies. Some of that difference is just plain luck.  Some of it is inborn talent.  And some of it is learned craft.  I’ll look at that a bit another time.

Welcome to my blog

There are many out there but this one is mine.

And so the question becomes, why “The Writer in Black.” First, I mostly plan to post about writing here and things that tie into writing and I tend to wear black a lot so. . . .

Some years back I picked up a black shirt and pants and liked they way they looked on me, however, friends told me that if I wanted to be attractive to young women I needed to dress in brighter colors.  Being irredeemably heterosexual and a young man with a fully functioning set of hormones this was an important consideration and, so, I put aside what I liked and went with what others told me I “ought” to wear in the hopes that I would have more success getting dates with the ladies.

It didn’t work.

Still, over the years I did manage to marry (an event that continues to amaze me to this day) and so the pressure of “winning” in the dating game was off but by that time the “wear bright colors” advice had stuck so thoroughly that I never even considered switching.

So the years passed until someone introduced me to music of styles of which I had not previously been aware, groups like the Cruxshadows, Nightwish, Within Tempation and the like.  I really liked that music and went looking for more.  One of the results was that I was introduced to Gothic subculture which included, among other things, a lot of people who wear predominantly black and dark colors.

On seeing that, I thought, “you know, that looks pretty good” and I started wearing darker clothes of my own.  And wonder of wonders people started saying things like “that’s a good look on you.”  Things progressed with growing my hair out and tying it back and later dying it, then adding the Cowboy Hat and Western style shirts.  Some people, of course, did not appreciate my new look but I decided that I really didn’t care.  I liked it and that’s really all that mattered.

Oh, my wife was a bit hesitant at first but it wasn’t long before she was spontaneously complementing my look.

Once my look “matured” into its more or less final form I noticed something.  When I was a child, there was a TV show that my family watched avidly:  Have Gun, Will Travel.  In a fit of nostalgia, I found the videos of the first season and watched them (and found that it was as good as I remembered–Yes, Hollywood, you can tell a good dramatic story in a half hour format).  The series featured Richard Boone as Paladin, “The Man in Black” (a reversal of the common stereotypes of the time where the “good guys” wear light colors and, often white hats).  My own look had moved very much in the same direction and so I started thinking of myself mentally as “the scientist in black” or “the writer in black.”

And that brings us to where we are now.