Notes on “a little”

sship practice
I seem to be always submitting stories, and then re-submitting them elsewhere. Sometimes when a story gets rejected, the editor includes some feedback. I do find it a fascinating education when the feedback from one editor is contradictory to that from another (such as “This story is too long given the premise”, versus, “I found myself wanting more development and exposition – it feels too compressed”). Things like that help me realise how much taste comes into an editors selection and not to give up on stories I’m sending off.

Recently, though, I got a nice piece of specific feedback: that the story contained numerous uses of “a little” in close proximity. Nice call. It sure does. “He moved back a little”, “the projection looked a little worn”, etc. I went through the story (with Word’s search function) and combed them out – changing some, removing some, and leaving a few, before sending it out again. I got another story back yesterday and took a look at that too. 28 instances of “a little” in 8700 words. Some of them within a line or two. It doesn’t make for good readability. How could I not pick that up in proofing? I think I’m going to refine my process and add in an extra proof-read specifically to look for this kind of thing – not just “a little”, but any words or phrases repeated in close proximity. With yesterday’s story I deleted a bunch of “a little”s, changed some (“a bit”, “partly”), and left some (sometimes it’s just what I meant). After all these years of writing, I’m still learning, sometimes even the simple stuff.

450,000 and counting

Back in July I hit my word-count goal for the year: 300,000 words written. Five months ahead of my timeline. The writing was made up of two novels, a couple of novellas and a bunch of short stories. Being so busy with tutoring, I hadn’t expected to hit the goal so early. It left me with the question of what to do for the rest of the year. So I re-drew the goal, adding on another 150,000 words, figuring that actually tutoring through the second part of the year is bigger than through the first part so didn’t want to push too hard.

Partway through November I hit that second goal, even with tutoring. Another novel written, another bunch of short stories. Another novella. 450,000 words for the year. So far.

I’ve written every day this year. October 6th was my best writing day – 6781 words. This might well be my highest daily word count ever. At least my highest ever with being sane and able the following day. Back in my younger years I might have tried for something higher, but turned into a gibbering mess the following day. June 18th was my lowest count at 152, though I did mark four assignments that day, as well a work my 8-5 job. I’d always planned for and accounted for tutoring to knock the daily word count down: what was important was to at least get some words written.

So I’m tacking on another 50,000 words to make it an even half million for the year. As I write this, it means another 1300ish words a day. Do-able, though I will have to push. No tutoring, but I am studying – taking Dean Wesley Smith’s Essentials Workshop which runs for six weeks from December 5th and that’s going to keep me busy. In a good way.

On writing “pulp” and tutoring “literature”

This year my writing is progressing a little faster than in previous years. I’m writing with a pulp kind of attitude. Proof-reading, correcting grammar, but very little in the way of revision (I did switch around two clauses in a sentence because they were simply clunky, but that’s about it). My stories seem stronger for it, and I’m learning much more about getting things right as I go, rather than thinking about fixing things later in editing. My stories, I’ll admit, are raw and unwashed, but I’m writing from a creative bent rather than letting my inner critic take over. Are they perfect? Unlikely. Are they fun? Well they’re fun to write, so I hope they’re as much fun to read.

It has taken an effort of will to let spontanaity and energy rise over searching out every little thorn. I guess this is overcoming years of workshops and courses where I’ve critiqued and been critiqued.

If you want a more articulate explanation of this approach, Kristine Kathryn Rusch has an excellent article on perfection on her website. The comments following give a lot of credence to what she has to say.

With this approach to writing, how can I then presume to tutor in a course that espouses “writing is revision”? It sounds a bit two-faced. Well, part of it is that the course is an introductory paper where students are learning elements of the craft such as voice, detail, character, structure and so on. Another part is that students have the option to revise their story or to write a complete new story if they feel they can use the feedback more effectively that way. Overall it’s more about story craft than it is about endless revision.

I remember my early days of writing when I would enthusiastically write a half a story, with nowhere to go. Or have characters who went through the motions, rather than seeming to live beyond the page. I would revise and revise, change and cut, add new sections, remove characters, move commas, change “OK” to “Okay” and what-have-you.

I’m not against revision. I’m a fan of John Irving, who writes his novels from finish to start, and then works through polishing them and working on the language. His books are a delight to read and I can see all the work that has gone into them.

These days I tend to write with the ending in sight. Sometimes in the course of the story it might veer off toward a new ending, but by the time I’m veering, a new ending is well-within sight. In many ways it all suits the kind of adventure fiction I’m interested in writing anyway.

In all likelihood I’ll never truly master all the techniques – lifelong learning and all – but my writing efforts are focused on working on the next story out of what I’ve learned from the last. There is a place for subtle, nuanced literature, and I hope that I come close on some occasions, but for now I’m not heading back to polish the energy out of pieces. I’m not likely to hit perfection, but I will continue to aim for writing good stories that will engage and entertain readers.

Finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest

I’m a finalist in the Writers of the Future contest. There’s a press release about the current finalists, and that’s my name right there amongst them. Me. Wow. I’m feeling stunned by the news. There is still that next big hurdle – to actually win one of the prizes (and I’m not holding my breath; so often I have been “the bridesmaid and never the bride”) – but it feels very encouraging. It’s as if I’m on the right track. Kind of like how excited I was to get a personal rejection from Asimov’s. It wasn’t an acceptance, but I got a sense of having jumped up a notch.

If I don’t win one of the top prizes, I’ll enter again, and keep entering until I’m no longer eligible* Writing fiction at this level has been a long time goal and it’s good to see that I’m going in the right direction.

In other news, my current total word count for the year is just about to hit the quarter million mark. 249,224. I’m coming to the end of this round of tutoring, which does slow the writing a little. My regular daily goal is 1000 words (you can see I average more), but during tutoring that’s slowed to an average of just under 300 (lowest day: 132, but I did get through a bunch of marking). You know what, though? Today, even with tutoring, I’m going to do at least 776 words and hit that quarter million word milestone.

Best of luck to the other finalists. (and thanks for your message, Martin).

*From the rules: the Contest is open only to those who have not professionally published a novel or short novel, or more than one novelette, or more than three short stories, in any medium. Professional publication is deemed to be payment, and at least 5,000 copies, or 5,000 hits. Despite my string of publications, I only have one at that professional level – a children’s radio story broadcast in New Zealand many years ago. Believe me, I’m working hard at getting more and, while I’d love to win Writers of the Future, I’d love to become ineligible too.

Writing fast

So it’s the end of March and I’m looking at where I am with my writing. My goal is to write 300,000 words during the course of the year. Publishable words, that is. Certainly the goal is changing as I go, and feedback on the rejections, the hold-requests and acceptances is helping with my focus (I did add into the goal that I also want to publish 300,000 words during the year – not counting reprints).

One thing I hadn’t figured on, however, was a big change in the structure of tutoring: much more online, more hours and more deadlines spread through the year. I had been looking at having big blocks of time between the portfolios to really focus on writing, and those blocks have turned out to be very small. This spread has, at the moment, meant that I’m writing alongside the tutoring and so, somehow, still maintaining my minimum of 1000 words a day (I do have a day job as well as the part-time tutoring in case you think I’m just goofing off).

I have written a complete novel, seven stories of various lengths (from 665 words up to 13,000) and I’m currently half-way through the next novel. The first novel has been (self) published, as have four of the stories (two under pen names) – one of those on MicroHorror, rather than self-published (that’s the 665 word flash fiction piece). The other stories are on submission with publishers, or still being tinkered with (I might be writing pulp, but I’m going to fine-tune the literary story for the national competition).

So, a quarter of the way through the year and I’m just a little ahead of a quarter of my publishing target (80,000 words published) and more than halfway towards my total goal: more than 150,000 words written so far. I’m surprised, stunned and stoked that it’s going this well this early. I don’t know if I’ll manage another 150,000 in the next quarter (tutoring does hot-up a little), but the momentum is there. And I still have more ideas than I have time to write.

Tutoring begins, writing slows

Well, I knew this day would come and I’ve planned for it, I just hadn’t been sure that I’d be quite as far ahead of my writing goals, nor that I would be able to time the beginning of tutoring to fit with exactly what I’m writing. (I tutor in, you guessed it, creative writing).

I’m deep into the next novel (well, 18,000 words), but took a break a couple of weeks ago to write some short/long stories. I should finish the third of those today or tomorrow, then I’ll go back to the novel. That novel will be in three parts, with a long passage of time between each (the first part set in 1996, the second – which I’m about to start – in 2002, and the third will be current), so a break at the end of the first part feels healthy: the characters will have developed and that break should give me a slightly different perspective.

For the next four or five weeks I won’t be able to keep up my 1000+ words a day as I’ve been doing all year (actually much more on average, my lowest daily count was 1010 words, highest over 5500 – the total is just on 130,000 for the 75 days of 2012). It’s going to be hard to slow down, I think, but will likely help with the novel – it might be a little more considered and evenly paced. 500 a day would be nice, but it might be more like 250. Still, that’s about a page. I definitely want to hit 150,000 words by the middle of the year, and do think that with the breaks in tutoring it will be quite possible. It would be good, I think, to get this novel finished by then, and be thinking about the next one.Oh, plus a couple of stories in there too.

On the reading side, I’ve just finished Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s City of Ruins – a sci fi adventure following on from Diving into the Wreck (and numerous stories). It was a fun romp. It seemed to start a little slow, but picked up quickly and became utterly compelling. I’m looking forward to the next one in the series – (Boneyards) – which is actually already out.

Now I’m finally picking up John Irving’s Until I Find You, which somehow I missed reading when it came out. I loved Last Night in Twisted River which I did read when that came out over a year ago – actually one of my favourites of his. I expect I’ll enjoy this one. I know I’ll be reading it slow (see notes on being busy above), but actually, that’s just fine.


Well, it was a busy week – I finally got my story ready and submitted for the Southern Horror Writer’s Horror Club on Flashes In The Dark. This was a story that took a lot of false starts. First it was about a Blight hitting Slope Point (Slope Point is the Southernmost place on New Zealand’s South Island), then a different version of the same premise (Blight rewrite), then a new story with the same characters (House at Bluff), then, finally, Doubtful Sound:

First started back in January, several runs at the story didn’t cut it. Not every file there is a totally new story – ultimately there are variations on each of the four. Finally, with Doubtful Sound I got something that I was happy with. You can see here, too, how I organise my files as I write – date each new version with the day I start it so that I can backtrack, give it a title that makes sense to me. I keep the old versions as I work through edits and redate the file as I make the changes on the screen.

What is this blog about?

I’ve been watching my posts over recent times and realise that I’m all over the place. So, I’m going to try a little structure for a while. In general the blog has always been about creativity, whether that be writing, music or art. When I started it was pretty much all music (hence the blog name), then as my publication list began growing, the blog shifted to more of a focus on writing and, over time, has become very broad (perhaps some would say scattered). Anyway, here’s my plan for the next little while, assuming I keep blogging on weekdays**

Monday – weekend musings: how my projects have gone over the previous seven days
Tuesday – music to write to: a short review of music I’ve been listening to as I write
Wednesday – random notes on what’s up
Thursday – reading for writing: a short review of the book I’m reading*
Friday – music to write to or random

I will also, as they occur, post notes about current publications, music releases, general news, etc.

*I try to read a book a week, sometimes more, sometimes less. During marking blocks, heavy writing times and so on, sometimes I slip so I might write about something I read a last year, or the year before, or 1989 or whenever.

**Being to the left of the international dateline, if I post at, say, 9am on a Wednesday, that’s around midday on Tuesday in LA, 3pm Tuesday EST, so if my posts seem early …

Writing retreat – a new approach


I’ve been back for about ten days now from my nine-day retreat to the Foxton Beach writing house and I’m still working through what I achieved. I went with a very different approach to other times I’ve been on retreat. Usually what I do is have a specific project to write and I’m starting on a first draft – whether that be an adult novel, a young adult novel, a long short story or what-have-you. I go in with just ideas, perhaps an outline, and start writing.

This time I took a bunch of first draft manuscripts with me. I had ten stories. About half were flash-fiction (under 1000 words), the others longer (though nothing over 3500 words). These were rough manuscripts that varied in quality from fairly complete and structurally sound, to wobbly attempts where I’d just been keeping up the momentum of writing. Often I just have one or two manuscripts underway at once – often I’m too impatient to put things aside for a longer period (which any 101 writing book/course/etc. will tell you is what is important: put it aside for a week or a month and come back with fresh eyes).

Here’s the upshot.

  1. One of the stories has been abandoned entirely – I will use the idea and scenario for a full rewrite, but the pacing, tone and resolution were all too far out of whack to be able to mould or revise the existing story into any semblance of sense.
  2. Three of the stories need to sit for a while longer.  In part because I need to do some more research on boxing, on free-diving, on deep sea pressures, but also because there are some other issues that I will need to take some time with.  Overall, though, they are structurally fairly good, the characters and situations work and I’m pretty happy.
  3. Three more of the stories are pretty close to ready.  The structure is good, the pace about what I’m looking for.  What they need now is polishing to make the writing flow.
  4. The last three are done.  They were close to what I wanted from the beginning.  I spent the time at the retreat working on their endings and some polishing.  In the time since I’ve come back, I have done that final polishing and have submitted these three to various publishers.  One has already been accepted, yay (for Lame Goat Press’s Flash! anthology of flash fiction).

That’s it. I’m stoked about how productive the retreat was – using the space to do editing and reflecting was, I think, a more productive use of my time than had I gone in with a blank page (not to say that blank page is bad, just that this approach worked for me this time).

So now my task is to keep tinkering with those last six plus one stories.  I have drafted one new story in the meantime, and begun work on a from-scratch rewrite of the dud story from point 1 above.  Of course there is still the question of the novel.  My Galley proof arrived yesterday, so I will be working through that to make sure it’s working for me before I do the final submission to the publisher.