I am sharing this special milestone with some trepidation: my double publication in the July-August issues of Asimov’s & Analog! *_*
I am still reeling from the shock of reading my name on the Asimov’s cover. I did not expect the simultaneous publications in both summer issues of Asimov’s et Analog. As I was born in July, I considers this double publication as a fine birthday gift. Especially as my name is featured on the Asimov’s cover for my third story there. My late father, who was an avid SF reader, would be proud.
In the SF short-story field, Asimov’s Science Fiction (founded by writer Isaac Asimov himself) and AnalogScience Fiction& Fact (formerly Astounding SF, counting John Campbell as a long-standing former editor) are the top mags that receive thousands of submissions per year. So this represent an important milestone (but not the end of the road!) in my writing career.
As some of you know by now, I write mostly hard and crunchy SF stories!
Far from an instant success, this milestone is the fruit of more than 15 years of submitting stories to SF&F mags. I got more rejection letters than I can count, so I am taking a few hours to bask, then, it’s back to publishing my indie collections and the graphic novel. And submitting new stories to anthologies and magazines…
I do love telling stories, and whatever the number of readers, I am putting out new work every month.
I do not neglect the Canadian genre mags, because I currently have stories out in OnSpec 119 in Alberta and NeoOpsis 33 in BC. I am also regularly featured in the French SF magazines Solaris in Québec and Galaxies in France.
So if you are a writer and love telling stories, do not let discouragement bear you down. Go, learn, persist!
Those who enjoy scuba diving (or who, like me as a kid, had watched Commander Cousteau’s documentaries) know that before going back to the surface, you have to make mandatory decompression stops to allow the molecules of nitrogen/ helium who had taken refuge in your tissus under high pressure to leave your body, via your exhaled air.
Otherwise, the nitrogen can decide to turn back into gas while it is still lodged in your veins and your cells, and it would not be a pretty sight. Decompression sickness is as dangerous as its opposite, the deep nitrogen narcosis which develops sneakily if you spend a too long time at 100 feet deep.
Diving in deep water
For me, writing feels like diving into deep water.
Except that my decompression breaks are in the opposite direction! It takes me a long time to reach the level of concentration deep enought to penetrate a story. Levels of ‘compression’ or concentration…
My first level takes about 45 minutes to an hour. I go over what I wrote the day before to get the story and its atmosphere back inside my head; I check notions, places, etc. If I write 100 words in that period, that’s normal.
At the second level, which takes me about an hour to reach, I am entering the story at 300-400 words per hour.
At the third level, everything becomes magical: my fingers hug the keyboard and the ideas are transmuted into words without my having to stop. I feel like the story is writing itself, and I’m approaching 600-800 words an hour.
If I keep this on without interruption, I reach my fourth level of concentration: the story tumbles like an avalanche in my head, fingers and words roll like marbles on a flat table. It is paradise. I smash through the 1000 words per hour wall. Often, this happens in the evening, when I have a deadline approaching.
BUT… I do not descend to this 4th level often.
On the other hand, to go up to the surface, there is no need for decompression stops. Any distraction can yank me up in a jiffy. The phone, someone calling me, or the family member.
As soon as my enthusiastic husband comes to tell me about a techno gadget he saw on the Internet or heard about on the radio, poof! immediate surfacing.
If the conversation is less than a minute or two, and if I don’t have to think to answer any complex questions, I can dive back in and get through my ‘focus’ levels pretty quickly.
Alas, this is rarely the case.
Another condition favors my rapid return to the depths: the certainty that I will NOT be disturbed again in the next few minutes!
So, after 5 or 10 minutes that ate my concentration. And, when the interruption ends, I have to dive back in and redo my stops. And, often, barely submerged, of course, it’s already supper time…
Confession of an unfocused writer
I created this article from a recent writing mishap.
Here I was, happily tapping on a wonderful science fiction story set in Antarctica, pom-pom-pom… when all of a sudden, a flawed scientific detail jumps out at me. Have I correctly calculated the position of the sun below the horizon during the southern polar night? Have I checked the right calendar for the current polar night?
Rising to the surface, opening the Internet, checking the info, then letting yourself drift on the Wikipedia sites, drift farther on the Scott-Amundsen station site, watching the web cam (it’s cold here, but not as cold as in the South Pole)… And, I came to my senses with the crucial realization of having wasted my time. It internally annoys me.
On the heels of that realization came another torment: should I change an explanatory paragraph to place it closer to the opening of the short-story? My words are so tightly knit together that moving one paragraph or one word requires rewriting several others, before and after. And so, I paddled on the surface to juggle these paragraphs.
Finally, after trying to dive back, I decided to go for a walk outside to clear my mind, and come back at another time. I told myself that it’s still warmer here (in Canada, Ontario) than at the South Pole…
TL;DR: Writing is like diving, but with the “concentration” stops going down instead of up.
Michèle Laframboise is a Canadian SF writer, with more than 60 stories published. Her most recent story, October’s Feast, is available in the Asimov’s SF Magazine. She is a fair low-level athlete runner, a lousy gardener, and avid birder. More on her official website here.
Any strong, researched plot I build looks as fragile as a house of cards in my mind. This is how I feel when writing a novel, a short-story, anything, in any genre including romance and science fiction.
And this happens to me even when I plan my stories in advance. The carefully-laid plan goes by the window after a certain point in the writing. And for my very first writing endeavour, I had bought into the “not writing a line before the plan is perfect” and followed by “show your work-in-progress to everyone (and get their advice)” to “rewrite ad nauseam until its polished and smooth.”
I found out that I am closer to a pulp writer than a once-every-ten-years literary author. So I write mostly by the seat of my skirt those days, going back if a nifty details grabs my attention.
My scientific self vs my story-telling self
And it doesn’t help that I am a SF writer who likes baking hard and crunchy SF stories. Sometimes I even overcooked them, making them so hard nobody could access its softer heart!
My scientific upbringing and formation in geography and engineering (even if I didn’t make a career in those fields) had left me with a reflex to check my premises and promise to my readers. I’m a nit-picker. I like flying off on the wings of pure fancy, but at a point my basic knowledge of sciences trips me.
Of course, I could stay in the fancy realm and ignore the science and call my story science-fantasy, where the ships engine screech like mad demons in the vaccuum of space.
Moreover, at any point in time, even the most concrete-hard SF story will be caught up by real science advances (e.g. lab-grown meat or gravity waves). The most I can do about a nagging detail is making a check in my paper books and on the web. If I have to research for more than one hour, without finding anything regarding this devilish detail, I leave it in the story.
Ta. Catch me if you can!
Melting chocolate fudge or rock-hard cocoa?
For me, some details are almost impossible to ignore. Like when you read a contemporary police procedural novel and your detective picks up various things around a body, with his bare hands! Unless it is set in a past era, everyone knows about prints, and now DNA! The same goes for your cat burglar who handles art items without gloves.
Some basics in science fiction are difficult to ignore, like the sound of ships in vacuum. I believe in making as much research as necessary for the story to hold together and not crumble, but if you are not a NASA rocket specialist, or a military strategist, it’s no biggie. Keep the very basic and improvise (ahem, build up) from there. I did read some hard-candied fiction by authors who have a professionnal background, but I do not expect to imitate them!
As one writer told me, you make your science as palatable as you like, whether soft, chocolate fudge that melts in the mouth, or hard 80% cocoa chocolate bar that defies the teeth! Telling stories should feel fun, not like dragging a chain and 100-kg ball behind oneself.
And you have all kind of readers from wide-eyed children to glazed adults, and the whole spectrum between. Some might prefer the melting in the mouth parts. The characters of the story will bear the weight of the plot, and the emotional/personal impact of the situation at hand (or at tentacle) will nab your reader.
Writing is not a straight line
Do I go back and change things? You bet!
And generally, many of those details are about the characters interacting with their environment. I tend to follow the rule of three mentions, adding at least two instances of the details, so it sticks in the reader’s mind. For instance, in my novel Paloma’s Secret, one of the teenagers had a favorite and fun catchphrase, that I only found out about in the last chapters. So I went back and change the dialogue to add the catchphrase in the first chapters.
Do I write in order from word one and not stopping to the end? Nope. I have novels that begun with one impressive scene, plus the prequel and consequences woven out of the strong scene. Or a novel is a tiny seed that grows and grows.
I am researching for a SF novel in preparation (the specifics I keep to myself for now) and, one interesting site after one fascinating site, found out that time compressed itself and most of the afternoon had fled down the rabbit hole!
I do not know if my scientific formation aggravates this time-sink habit. I hold a Master degree in geography, and so many aspect of macro-ecology do hold my interests!
Plus, even the very day-to-day concerns penetrates my Serious Writer mode. From the over-usage of single-used plastics that keep turning up in the remotest places or the oceans, to the waste of my own pens and stylus, to the upcoming Great Backyard Bird Count, and my own, heart-warming geek love Valentine day short-story…
So, all those tiny bits cluttered like a planet aggregation process, dissolving my focus. Already 16h00?
As I mentioned previously, most of what I ‘m noting right now won’t ever make it to the novel you’ll read somewhere in the next year. Some of those, if I can’t place it in the novel, will turn up, greatly compressed, in one or two exploratory short-stories, set in the same universe.
What I will NOT do is integrating all that painstaking-ly gathered tidbits into the novel itself, under the form of some extra-large infodump, (or a rather lengthy explanation by a secondary character that will get killed in the next chapter).
Research as an iceberg
See research as the hidden part of the iceberg. What floats if what the reader experiences. If you tried to pull more of the iceberg over the water level, like I did in my first books (fortunately Daniel Sernine, my editor of the time, detected it) you would end up with an indigestible lump of details that weights down the storytelling.
Yes, I was one of those very interested in sharing all those cute details!
Yes it is soooo tempting to have your characters stop on a ridge and describe the wondrous landscape in excruciating details, over two or four pages! It is more palatable if the description is shorter, and punchy, like this one from a WIP:
The dunes went on and on, a pale sandbox barely contained by a row of angry mountains, each chipped and corroded summit vying for predominance.
Most of the research iceberg must stay invisible!
Solution is not dilution!
To keep our focus, it’s good to set limits, to avoid diluting our attention.
One solution in time management is to do the research after you complete writing a certain set number of words for the day. This is Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s method to limit the time spent in research. She also manage to get her research done before writing the novel, while she’s finishing the previous book.
Not the way of Dean Wesley Smith, who does his research as he writes, because some cool factoids will influence the story telling. I know it happened to a short-story I was researching for.
One obvious solution is to restrain the time passed on the social platforms. Or retire completely from social media in a period of rush. Julie E. Czerneda mentions it.
My own is setting a timer. Sometimes the amount of time is not enough and I prolong the time. Still work to do.
Or I use this experience to write a blog entry.
TL;DR : I lost time surfing the web for my research. Some remedies may apply
You know this famous joke about the guy who paint all the floor … to get caught in a corner, surrounded by a freshly applied layer of paint?
I do not know if you are like me, but there isn’t one story where I did not commit this blunder in writing… Even when I had a plan!
Last time, I was so hesitant that I missed a contest. It was a historical fantasy thing that worked perfectly … as long as I did not notice a 5-year gap in the dates!
A head-banging puzzle!
It was terrible conundrum, a head-banging puzzle: either I changed the date and the age of the main character, and the plot fell flat. Or I kept the factual error by arbitrarily changing the year, and it was a great story. (The story being in submission, I do not speak more about it).
I should have done more research. The mistake would have jumped in the face and it would have given another story.
I am happily preparing a series of historical mysteries following Domus Justice. (published in Fiction River 27, edited by the talented Kris Kathryn Rusch) I realized that — I who adore the antique period – I took liberties with the plans of the Domus (house) in question. Moreover, it was not clear where were the toilets, hum!
So, in the subsequent stories, after serious re-study of the plans, I saw that I misplaced the altar of Lares, in a corner of the back garden. Heaven what to do? See this Wikipedia entry for a layout.
In this case, I decided not to change anything in my text about this site … and to pay more attention next time!
In establishing your historical setting, you have to “do your homework”! But be careful not to stretch this search time indefinitely …
Following the right tracks!
I’m also wading into writing a crime novel (technically, a mystery). I found out that I sent my shy heroine twice to the same place. It allowed me to insert a beautiful sequence in the center of the novel … And to advance the investigation because she discovers a special clue.
But, what my heroine already knows when coming back to this place breaks some of the reveal progression, the tension. In addition, I have a bad tendency to multiply the oppositions when only one could do the trick. In short, have I put too much, diluting the danger?
Ah, la, la … I’m not out of the woods!
In a detective novel / polar / suspense where all the details must converge towards a strong resolution, painting myself in a corner (whereas I made a plan, I recall it!) led to a catastrophe. I got embroiled in my tracks, adding motive over motive for my villain, to be certain that the assassin had a strong incentive to act!
I have not solved this problem yet, so I’m working on another creation while letting my creative subconscious search for a viable solution.
When was the last time you “wrote yourself in a corner”?
I just signed the contract for my 17th novel which gave me the idea. My first contact as a budding writer, years ago, was a not such a good one, and I was saved only because the publisher went bankrupt. This contract is my third with this publisher and their conditions are fair.
There’s a lot more than the traps told by the snakes. CAVEAT: I’m not a lawyer. In case of problems, the best is to consult an IP specialist.
My husband often wears a Marillion T shirt in the comics, a group that he likes.
The page is my hidden homage to Andre Franquin, the creator of the pesky “laughing” Gull featuring in the Gaston Lagaffe series. And in this comic. As for my own signature, it figures in the middle of the page for a change…
The Clarion foundation helps budding writers of genre (SF, fantasy, fantastique, horror) to develop and mature their style. I had the joy of being invited by Lynda Williams (the author of the Okal Rel saga) to write a few posts from my own perspective of a SF writer with comic artist.
As a SF writer, research is an essential part of my work. But I sometimes do too much of it!
If the finished product is burdened with heavy lumps of exposition, those annoying scattered blocks will slow down the story – and the reader’s interest.
Many people saying “You know, I don’t like science-fiction” are often more afraid of those lumps, than they would be of a gripping story with warm-hearted characters affected by loyalty conflicts.
Even for fantasy world-builders, the internal logic of the magic-or-supernatural workings requires a fair amount of thinking. And, as magical as the world is, the story must be well grounded in reality. How many fantasy novels, for instance, demonstrate a total lack of knowledge about equine biology and maintenance? One of my friends, who raises horses and loves fantasy, is appalled by what she reads.
And some SF or fantasy authors, too proud of their word-building, dump large exposition blocks on the unsuspecting reader! “I suffered for my art, and so must you!”
Research is like an iceberg.
There is the emerged part, the novel that you enjoy. But whatever the number of pages, there is a larger, hidden part underwater.
Not enough research under it and your story collapses under the contradictions, impossibilities, logical errors and paper-thin characters.
But when the universes and societies are lovingly built, the strong foundation even allows other writers to participate in it! Two examples: The Darkover series by Marion Zimmer Bradley and the Honor Harrington series by David Weber have spawned many paper children.
According to the readers’ ages or familiarity with the concepts, the submerged part of the iceberg is around 90%. For a simpler story, you may choose to tone down the emerged part. A story aimed at children will be a smaller icebeerg. A vast work, like the Martian trilogy of Kim S. Robinson will be a huge iceberg!
Hal Clement, in my view, left more of his research over the waterline… But that was the good ol-days of science-fiction writing! I found Needle, aimed at young adults, captivating, even when the concept of “teen” and “young adult” did not exist at the time!
In my latest SF novel, La spirale de Lar Jubal, aimed at YA, I set aside about 99% of my painstaking research and physics calculations for the space station, to concentrate on the visual and dynamic aspects, and on the character’s conflicts.
Nevertheless, I put some visual information at the beginning of the novel.
In my upcoming SF novel, aimed at the “Oh, I don’t like science fiction” crowd, there are very few numbers, but more active descriptions of stunning settings and actions. The planet and science aspects are explained only by their impact on the characters’ lives.
And I must manage, of course, the sense of wonder…as this Winds of Tammerlan novel cover suggests.
Another time, I will explain why science-fiction is like chocolate…
Fortunately, none of my old college friends are afflicted with such a materialistic mentality. This meeting did not happen in a book fair, but at a dinner for young professionals at the Ecole Polytechnique. I was so well dressed that newcomers automatically takes me for a successful businesswoman. I had this same air as this comic character…then, it is when they realize that I am a humble self-employed worker that potential contacts shy away.
For some media, the value of an artist or writer is primarily related to his or her financial success.
I do not scorn entrepreneurship itself, since I lead my own business. In a recent lecture given at a dinner of the AFAF, I mentioned that building a business, any kind of business, requires a good dose of creativity!
SF and fantasy author Dean Wesley Smith (a prolific author who gives advice to young writers, his site is worth a visit) takes writing as a serious business. According to him, if you do not make a living from your writing, it is because you do not write enough or want it, work hard enough. This appears like a disdainful view of people whose productivity do not match his own. But the reasoning works also to remind us that we often find excuses for… not writing.
Well, there is an area for nuance or discussion, and all our situations and writing goals are not the same. I like to dig a lot of infos for my SF novels… besides doing comics as well. DWS believes in writing a lot, and submitting a lot, and taking care of the business end. With a hundred novels published in twenty years or so, he is an Olympic writing athlete himself! (A page in 10 or 15 minutes… faster than me, even when I have the story clear in my head).
This year, he gave himself the challenge to write 100 short stories for 2011. Yes, a hundred! There is already eight published, between 2500 and 6000 words each. It is fortunate that he repeats that every writer is different! Nevertheless, his blog “Killing the sacred cows of publishing” offers great pointers and unorthodox advices.
DWS is very optimistic. In his opinion, publishers are always looking for new voices. And that too much rewriting “blunts” your creative voice, the personal, original part of the creation.
It happened to me for my first novel Ithuriel (16 agonizing rewrites!), so his message resonates strongly with me. Obviously, DWS revises to correct the “ortograf”, or flagrant errors or blunders. But after that he rewrites only if his editor asks him. And after the contract is signed…
It was a stimulating reading for me. Dean Wesley Smith’s advices have the effect of empowering a writer, reminding that he or she is not at the mercy of “the market” or agents. And to put the pleasure back in writing. Writers can achieve a good measure of “success” with effort and perseverance, without sacrificing their unique voice.