Monday, December 31, 2012

10 Free Alternatives to Duotrope for SFF Writers

Edited in November 2014 to add:
So it's now been almost two years since I wrote this entry, and it's still getting a fair amount of google traffic. I feel at this point that I should declare a clear winner in my own personal "best free Duotrope alternative" contest: The Submission Grinder.
When I first published this article, the Grinder was still rough around the edges and not quite as useful as Duotrope, just because it hadn't gathered enough data yet. Now, a couple years later, and I can confidently say that The Submission Grinder is just as useful to me as a published writer of SFF as Duotrope ever was. I haven't had a Duotrope subscription in over a year, and I don't miss it. Better yet, the Grinder is improving all the time as the folks from Diabolical Plots add features and updates. The other sites on this list may still prove useful for you, but if you're looking for a free, one-stop Duotrope replacement, the Submission Grinder is it.

If you have any short fiction writers in your webosphere, chances are you've heard a lot of chatter this month about a website called Duotrope. For the uninitiated, Duotrope is a searchable database of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry markets. They also have a detailed submissions tracker and user-provided market response statistics, which helps writers gauge how long they might be waiting for an answer when they submit work to a particular market. It's a helpful website for writers trying to sell their work, and until now its been completely free to use. But earlier this month, the Duotrope team announced that they would be moving to a paid subscription model on January 1st—to the vocal chagrin of a large number of its users. The services they've previously offered free of charge (with regular pleas for donations) will now cost fifty dollars a year, or five dollars a month.

The corners of the interweb where we short fiction authors gather to encourage and console each other have been abuzz ever since. The response has been divided, but most of the writers in my circles (many of whom have been regular donaters in the past) have made it clear they won't be supporting Duotrope in this move, either because they think the subscription fee is too high, or because they think it will reduce the usefulness of the site. I'm in the latter camp myself. I wouldn't have a problem paying Duotrope for the awesome service they provide, but if they scare a huge chunk of their userbase away, the accuracy of their market statistics will undoubtedly be affected. Since that's the most valuable part of the site for me, this makes it hard to justify dropping the cash on a subscription.

So for those like me, who probably won't be returning to Duotrope tomorrow, I've compiled a list of websites that offer similar services for free. Many of these (particularly the market listings) are aimed toward speculative fiction, but quite a few of them can be used by authors of any persuasion.

Market Listings

Ralan's SpecFic & Humor Webstravaganza 

Despite its antagonistic relationship with my eyeballs, is one of the oldest and most comprehensive lists of speculative fiction markets on the web. Ralan has been a regular part of my routine since I started submitting, even before The Great Duotrope Controversy of 2012. From pro to semi-pro or below, if they take SFF, you'll probably find them listed here.

SFWA's Pro Market List

Whether you have aspirations for membership or not, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America website is a great resource for writers. Part of their membership requirements include sales to professional fiction markets that meet their approval, all of which are listed on their site. You can consider these markets vetted by the pros.

Speculative Literature Foundation List 

I'm not quite as familiar with this site as I am the others, but they've gathered a ton of market lists on this one page. I haven't investigated all of the links, so it's possible some of them might be out of date. Worth a look, at any rate.

Submission Trackers

Sonar 3

Spacejock Software (owned by author Simon Haynes) has been releasing free software for years, many of it aimed at writers. Sonar is probably the best submission tracking software I've ever used, and has long been my primary method of wrangling manuscripts. The biggest advantage is that it's all on your own computer, so you don't have to worry about anyone's server going down.

Writer's Planner

Writer's Planner works very much like a web-based version of Sonar, tracking your submissions using the data you've entered. The key difference is this site's tracker comes coupled with a huge list of markets, which saves you the time of having to create one yourself.

The Writer's Database

Like Writer's Planner, the Writer's Database is a web-based submission tracker. They also allow users to share market information so you don't have to enter all of the data yourself, though their list doesn't seem to be quite as large.


When all else fails, you can always use a good old-fashioned spreadsheet to track your submissions. Most people (myself included) use Excel, but this is a list of free resources, so I'm going to recommend LibreOffice, a free and opensource office suit that comes with a great spreadsheet program.

Market Response Statistics

Black Holes

Hosted by, Black Holes works similar to Duotrope's own response tracker. Users report the response times from their submissions, in hopes of giving each other a better idea of the wait times they might be facing for each market. While this site has nowhere near the number of data points that Duotrope has, I'm hoping that will change as former users look for a substitute.

The Write 1/Sub 1 Forum at Absolute Write

Write 1/Sub 1 is a self-imposed challenge to write and submit a new story on a weekly or monthly basis, and has been a great motivator. Many members of the W1S1 community meet up on the Absolute Write forums, where we share condolences in the "Rejectomancy" thread and rejoice in the "Braggage" thread. It's not only great for moral support, but serves as a good way to keep up with some of the goings on at the markets we're submitting to.

The Rejections and Acceptances Log

The R&A Log is a shared blog that allows anyone to report their response times, organized by post tags. They have a decent amount of members who are fairly active, however it's worth noting that you'll need to create a livejournal account to participate.

Edited to Add:


Since writing this entry it's come to my attention that there's currently a project seeking funding on IndieGoGo called Submitomancy, which seeks to provide all of the features that Duotrope does (and a lot more, by the looks of it) for less money. It's a very ambitious project which might not see the light of day without some crowd sourcing, so you might think about contributing. I'm not going to include it in the list above, since it hasn't launched yet and it won't be totally free (they will apparently have a free option, plus a premium option with more features) but I think it's worth keeping tabs on at the very least.

The Submission Grinder

If you've paid attention to the comments section for this entry at all, you might have been waiting for this one. The Submissions Grinder is a project helmed by Diabolical Plots, and has been designed as a complete (and most importantly, free) alternative to Duotrope. It still looks to be a little rough around the edges at this point, but it sounds like they have great plans for this service as it takes shape. Right now, they're focused on gathering data points and building their market list, which you can help out with by registering an account and importing your Duotrope data.

Did I miss any? If you're a short fiction writer or poet and you know of any other Duotrope alternatives, feel free to let me know in the comments. Good luck and happy writing in 2013!

Original photo by boxchain via cc. Modified by J.W. Alden.

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Commentary on the Social Media Conundrum for Writers

For those of you who read this blog regularly, this post will probably seem a little off-topic. I don't usually get into the networking/marketing side of things very much. That's primarily because it's not my favorite side of the writer's coin, but also because I know I haven't figured it out anywhere near enough to be giving sagely advice on the subject. I have accounts on most of the popular social networking sites, but I probably don't give most of them the love they require. I use twitter pretty frequently, but Goodreads and Google+ get only the occasional visit to catch up. I've only just started using Pinterest, and to be honest, I'm not even sure I'm doing it right. Facebook gets the least amount of attention, as I generally don't enjoy using it. But the purpose of this entry isn't to clue you into my social networking report card. Instead, I'd like to talk about some of the glaring mistakes that I see writers making on social networks (including myself), and the effects those mistakes have on potential readers.

In fact, that's the voice I'm using today. Not my writer voice, but my reader voice, because that's what I am at the end of the day. I read an insane amount of books and stories. I'm such an avid reader that if I enjoy one book by an author, I'll go out and find every other book they've released. My "to read" list is a perpetual mile long, and that's just the way I like it. I've made it one of my personal missions to do everything I can to support the written word. And that's why it bothers me so much when I see an author misusing social networks. These online platforms put so much potential at our fingertips, but you don't have to look far to see a litany of writers treating them like the ads section in a newspaper. I've been guilty of it myself, especially on those sites that I don't enjoy using as much, but I've done a lot of thinking about that lately, and I'm ready to change my ways.

Tweet, Tweet

Since Twitter is the social networking platform I use the most, I'm going to talk mostly about my experience there. When I first started using the service, my instincts were to follow as many fellow writers as I could, to support the community and connect with people like myself. I also followed back any writer who followed me. As this went on, my own follower count rose, which I thought (as most do) was a good thing. After all, the more people that followed me, the more would be paying attention to my thoughts and links, right? Wrong.

The problem was that a large portion of those people were only on Twitter to promote themselves. You know the type of tweeter I'm talking about. If you look at their stream, all you see are links to their books, their blog, or their website. No conversation, no contributions to the community, just plug after plug after plug. Some of them might try to be more clever about it, retweeting like a madman in hopes the favor will be returned, or sending a DM to thank you for following (usually through an automated service). Thanks to ignorance, ill advice, or both, these writers treat twitter like a promo machine, gathering as many followers as they can—almost entirely through follow backs. What they don't seem to understand is that only a meager few of the thousands of followers they're accruing are actually going to translate into substantial clicks or sales (if any). Bestselling authors have thousands of followers because they're bestselling authors, not the other way around. Most of the people following them already knew who they were, and were already going to buy their books before they ever hit the follow button.

Knowing that a large degree of  the people I was connecting with were these selfish plug machines, I realized there was simply no advantage to networking with them, altruistic or otherwise. Not only were these people going to ignore my own tweets, but the worst part is that they were clogging my twitter stream with endless promotion, to the point that it was difficult to see the real people I was following—the people I actually wanted to support and interact with. For a while, I tried to alleviate this problem using the "lists" feature. It helped, but I soon realized I'd picked up the habit skipping my main Twitter feed altogether and going straight to the comparatively tiny list that I'd corralled the real tweeters in. Eventually, I just had to be up front with myself about the fruitlessness of it all. I mean, what was the point?

The Great Twitter Purge of 2012

So, last week I did something dramatic. Following some introspection and a blog post from John Scalzi that came at just the right time, I cut a hefty swath through my follow list, unfollowing anyone that tweeted nothing but plugs and links, or anyone that I'd never had any kind of genuine interaction with. As I did so, I watched my own follower count drop, and I was fine with that. It's not a high score or a race to a billion. That big number of mine meant absolutely nothing if most of the people behind it were ignoring me as I ignored them. The downside of this, however, is that there's a big chance that I accidentally unfollowed some people that deserved to be kept, including some of you. If I know you from the blogosphere or elsewhere, and you were a collateral casualty of my unfollow spree, please feel free to let me know so I can correct it. I do want to support the people that I actually have some kind of relationship with.

And if you're one of those other people, who tweets nothing but plugs, please consider changing your tactics. Think long and hard about whose books you would buy—a stranger who tweeted an amazon link at you, or someone you've actually come to know, like, and support. For me, it's unquestionably the latter. If you want people to pay attention to your plugs, make them few and far between. Talk to people that you think would be interested in you and your writing; not to give them your sales pitch, but to forge a relationship with them. Make friends, not fans. If you do that, you will find genuine support. People will share and retweet the occasional link because they're actually interested in you, not because they want you to return a blind favor, like robots spinning in circles to change each other's oil.

In the meantime, I'm going to put more of an effort into the social networking accounts that I've been neglecting myself. As I look at my Google+ and Facebook pages, I realize that my own streams on those sites look very much like those tweeters I unfollowed. It's not that I post a particularly obscene amount of plugs, it's just that I scarcely post anything else. So I'm going to try to spend more time there when I can, with the hope that I'll spark some conversation and make some friends. I'm going to be honest with you though. Facebook will be tough. I kind of hate that place.

Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and to all a good tweet.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Robots

Well, my timing is obviously a little off this month, but it's finally time for another entry in the speculative fiction tropes series. Next month, everything should be back to normal with my schedule. Today, we're cracking open the chassis and examining the wires and gears of robots.

Robots are, without a doubt, one of the oldest tropes in the history of science fiction. From the earliest days of man's technological aspirations, we've been attempting to cast our eyes forward at what may be possible one day, and invariably these visions of the future always seem to contain advanced robotics of some kind.

And as with many far out extrapolations of our scientific exploits, science fiction has paved the way of exploration, particularly during the golden age of sci-fi that spawned so many of the classic books and movies that went on to influence the genre for decades to come.

Of course, like many of the tropes I've explored in this series, the actual root of the robot lies much further back in history, in the ancient myths and legends of varied cultures around the world. In the ancient Chinese text of the Liezi, there is an account of King Mu of Zhou's strange encounter with an automaton built by a mechanical artificer named Yan Shi. According to the text, it was constructed of wood and leather, and "walked with rapid strides, moving its head up and down, so that anyone would have taken it for a live human being."

In Greek mythology we have Hephaestus, the god of fire and smithery. In addition to forging the iconic weapons of the Olympic gods and heroes, he also was said to have built several metal automata as servants, from intelligent golden handmaidens to table-like tripods that moved about of their own volition. These mythological accounts would inspire Aristotle, who speculated in Politics that it would take an automaton revolution to end slavery and bring about true human equality. "There is only one condition in which we can imagine managers not needing subordinates, and masters not needing slaves," he said. "This condition would be that each instrument could do its own work, at the word of command or by intelligent anticipation."

The word "robot" itself was popularized by Czech author and playwright Karel Čapek in R.U.R. (which stood for Rossum's Universal Robots), his 1921 play about a factory that creates artificial people for labor. While Čapek's robot's were closer to what we'd call androids today, the word became widely used in popular culture and fiction following the play's success.

1927 saw the release of Fritz Lang's German expressionist film, Metropolis. This groundbreaking dystopian marked the first portrayal of a robot on film, the Maschinenmensch, which captured the sense of awe and strangeness that would typify golden age robots.

These days, robots are likely one of the first concepts that spring to most minds when the words "science" and "fiction" are coupled. The classic works of influential authors like Isaac Asimov—who formulated the Three Laws of Robotics in his popular Robot series—have made our mechanical friends synonymous with scifi. The traditional vision of robots has become somewhat cliche in the last twenty years or so, massaged and refined into sub-tropes like androids, cyborgs, and artificial intelligences, but for the most part fictional robots are still going strong.

Meanwhile, their real world counterparts are growing more advanced every day. Robots have served fundamental roles in our society for decades, mostly in the industrial sector. But as the technology behind their construction and capabilities grows, so does the list of their applications. Besides their typical roles in manufacturing, robots are also being employed as everything from military combat drones to household vacuum cleaners. I don't know if the robopocalypse is coming anytime soon, but it would probably serve us well to get used to the idea of living with robots, as their presence is only going to become more ubiquitous as time goes on.

Recommended Reading:
I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

Recommended Viewing:
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Star Wars
Iron Man

Recommended Gaming:
Half-Life 2
Fallout 3
Portal 2

Monday, December 10, 2012

Speculative Spotlight: Unidentified Funny Objects

Okay, stop right there. I know what you're thinking. Didn't I say last month that the Speculative Spotlight feature was going to be posted on the last Monday of the month? And don't I still owe you a Tropes entry this month, as well? Well yes, I did. And yes, I do. But I have a fickle heart and this is my party. I can do what I want.

Actually, the reason I'm posting it early is because I've decided to move the feature to the second Monday of the month, which actually works perfectly for the subject of this month's entry. I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advance reader copy of Unidentified Funny Objects, a speculative humor anthology due for release on December 17th (next Monday). 

What's the Story?

"A good humor story is hard to find."

So says editor Alex Shvartsman in the foreword to Unidentified Funny Objects. And where science fiction and fantasy is concerned, I can't help but agree. While some of the most popular genre works of all time have been filled to the brim with humor, from Douglas Adams to Terry Pratchett, opportunity for authors of such work in the short fiction space is lamentably slim compared to the usual speculative fare. There are a handful of quality publications that are open to lighter stories, but most professional markets prefer the serious stuff, and that makes it tough to find a home for these kinds of stories (as I'm learning from my own experience). With this anthology, UFO Publishing is stepping in to help fill a bit of that void, showcasing twenty-nine stories of a funny, speculative bent.

Why It's Awesome

I've been yearning for quite some time to see a wider reception to humor by those who hold the reigns in speculative fiction, as both a reader and a writer. That being said, I completely understand why so many markets and anthologies out there seem reticent to open their arms very wide. Humor is always going to be a gamble of sorts due to its extremely subjective nature, especially when it comes to the written form. That can make it pretty tough to nail down in such a way that everyone who picks up the book will find something they enjoy. But Unidentified Funny Objects manages to pull it off using the collaborative strength of variety.

A quick glance at the table of contents makes that variety apparent, as you'll find work from award-winning veterans like Mike Resnick, rising stars like Ken Liu, and fresh names like James Beamon. The array of stories within ranges from the wacky to the witty in an effort to hit your funny bone from all angles, and the kitchen sink approach works. While I can't say I laughed aloud at every turn of the page, pretty much every story got at least a few grins out of me, and many of them go beyond giggles and well into compelling territory. My favorite story (though it's a tough call) might be The Alchemist's Children by Nathaniel Lee, in which a young girl treks through an enchanted forest to find her alchemist father, her scientific disposition clashing with the fantastic particulars of the journey.

But that's just one example of what you'll get in this anthology. You're also going to find time traveling belly dancers, lunar Nazis, naked werewolves, and Santa Clause with a shotgun. "Quality over quantity" is a maxim oft repeated by those who toil at something worthwhile, but UFO delivers on both fronts. If you like science fiction and fantasy, and you like to smile, I say give it a shot. If enough of us do, it might become a yearly anthology, and that's something I would love to see.

Unidentified Funny Objects comes out next Monday, but you can preorder an ebook or paperback copy now. You can also read a few stories for free on UFO Publishing's website.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

IWSG: Window Staring

It's the first Wednesday of the month, which hails the regular arrival of the Insecure Writer's Support Group, hosted by Ninja Captain Alex J. Cavanaugh. The group offers a place for writers of all kinds to support each other in those ever-present moments of insecurity.

While many use this as an opportunity to vent their frustrations, I realized early on that if I keep posting about my own insecurities, these posts will start sounding very similar. So I decided to move away from "woe is me" and focus on motivation and encouragement, centering my IWSG posts on inspirational quotes from people I admire.

This month's quote comes from Burton Rascoe. Most well known as a literary editor for the New York Herald Tribune, Rascoe was renowned in the twenties and thirties, publishing several non-fiction books on authors and literary commentary throughout his life. Though I'm not sure where it originated, the following quote is attributed to him:

"What no wife of a writer can ever understand is that a writer is working when he's staring out of the window."

As most of you have come to know by now, I can be a veritable quote machine at times, but this one definitely ranks high on my all time favorites list. If we forgive the gender bias of the language Rascoe employed, I think this is one of those universal chunks of aphorism that make writers of nearly every size, shape, and genre say, Yes! Someone understands!

I've done a bit of preaching here and there on this blog about organization and work ethic. For the most part, I think I've made it clear that I believe writers should approach the craft as professionals if we want to be successful at this—that is, we should treat writing like a genuine profession, not some fleeting weekend hobby. And I absolutely believe that's true. The written word is serious business, and it demands equal parts ardor and diligence. But sometimes it's important to stop and remind ourselves that we're not punching the clock and filing into a cubicle when we write. We are engaging art, and damn it, sometimes that means staring out of a window. Sometimes it means closing your eyes and listening to music, or going for a walk at night and looking up at the moon. These aren't usually the kinds of things you can pencil into a work schedule, but they can do wonders when you let them.

It seems obvious, I know. Hell, it's practically a stereotype: the aspiring writer sitting on the edge of a pier with notepad in hand, staring off into the sun as it sets over the ocean. But usually this image is colored derisively, as though writers, poets, painters, and any other artsy-fartsy types are just slackers in disguise. That's what Rascoe was referring to with his generalizing jab at the spouses and partners of the writerly ilk. If you're not someone that spends the better part of your day chasing the muse, it might be difficult to understand how relaxing in a hammock, watching a good movie, or playing a mindless video game can contribute to anyone's 'work.' Most people do these things to escape demands and responsibilities, not to nurture creativity. But there's no reason you should feel bad for engaging in a little recreation and reflection from time to time. These moments really can grease the wheels of inspiration if you let them (and as long as you don't overdo it).

So the next time your better half catches you staring into the distance while you're supposed to be working, just direct them to Mr. Rascoe's words of wisdom. And better yet, don't be afraid to remind yourself to stop and listen to the churning of the universe every now and again between writing sessions. Hard work will always pay off in the end, but so will the occasional ruminative interlude.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The NaNoWriMo Report Card

Well, it's officially December, and all of the telltale signs have arrived. The holiday decorations are up, the smell of nutmeg is in the air, and retail executives everywhere are steepling their fingers like Mr. Burns as we race to empty our bank accounts.

For many writers, however, the beginning of December means something else entirely. It means looking back at the month of November with either a triumphant fist in the air or a gentle sigh of resignation as we assess our performance during National Novel Writing Month. This year was my second attempt, and I'm glad to say that I managed to slay the beast this time around; I surpassed my fifty thousand word goal and became a NaNoWriMo "winner" for the first time.

For those who may have missed the entry in which I outlined my participation, I'll start out by letting you know that I didn't actually work on a novel this past month. While I do have grand plans to become a novelist one day, for all intents and purposes I am currently a short fiction writer. As such, I went in waving the rebel flag and worked entirely on short stories, pumping out as many raw drafts as I could in one month to meet my word count goals. Using NaNo this way yielded some surprising results for me, changing my usual output significantly.

What Were My Goals and How Did I Meet Them?

Going into the month, I had some very specific goals. Obviously, I wanted to write  at least fifty thousand words, but I also wanted to avoid burnout and experiment with my approach. To do so, I strayed from the typical formula, which says to shoot for around 1667 words per day. While this approach will get you to 50k with a reasonable daily work load, it also means that you have to commit to hitting that number every single day of the month, which is where that burnout comes in. Instead, I went in with a plan that would allow me to take weekends off (my weekends being Fridays and Saturdays) and still meet my goal. What this meant was that I would need to write at least 2500 words a day for the majority of November, though I tried to plan the month out with a blitzkrieg at the outset and a tapering off toward the end. For the most part, that's what I was able to do, though my targets for that first week turned out to be a little too ambitious. Here's the November calendar I used to plan and track my progress, which shows exactly how I ended up performing against those goals:

It's worth pointing a couple of things out after looking at those numbers. First, that glaring zero on the twelfth was the product of an impromptu day off for Veteran's Day weekend. Second, I came down with a bad cold the weekend after Thanksgiving (that I'm still trying to beat), which is why the numbers in that final week are so uneven. Luckily, I'd planned on slowing my output that week anyway, so it didn't hurt me too much. And yes, I did intentionally plan to write one word on the last day. If you're curious, the word was "before," though I suppose in a perfect world it would have been "END."

What Did I Learn?

I learned a few things during my NaNo experience that may inform the way I approach the writing process going forward. Chiefly, I learned that I do not like to turn off my inner editor for such long periods of time. I know that there are many writers out there who need to do this as a part of their every day process, but it produced very odd results for me. For one, the drafts that I produced were all enormous. I've written stories of all shapes and sizes, but the sweet spot that I usually aim for with a short is around five thousand words. As such, I was anticipating somewhere in the neighborhood of seven to ten stories in November. What I got was four, each weighing in at well over ten thousand words a piece. While I'm not opposed to writing longer pieces if that's how the story wants to be told, it's clear to me that this was a side effect of the way I wrote in November. These stories are going to need a much more intensive revision pass than I'm used to before I'm able to submit them anywhere.

I also learned that I'm capable of realizing goals like these if I shut up and stick to my guns, which is something that every writer needs to find out at some point if you're planning on making this a viable career. Not only was I able to hit that fifty thousand words, but I could have done a whole lot more if I'd really wanted to. If I had sacrificed all of those weekends that I took off, stayed home for Thanksgiving, and managed to stay healthy for the entire month instead of battling sickness toward the end, chances are I would have been able to add at least another twenty thousand words or so on top of my total. While I'm glad I took the approach that I did, it will be nice to have that knowledge tucked in my belt if I ever find myself facing any intimidating publishing deadlines one day.

Will I Do This Again?

That's the question, isn't it? Honestly, I don't know. For the most part, I enjoyed the experience, and I'm glad to have met my goals. However, I do think that I answered the questions I had going in, and since I'm not entirely crazy about the extra work I'll have to do to whip these stories into shape, I'm not sure that it's something I'll want to do again. That being said, depending on how things go for me between now and then, there's a decent chance that I'll have an actual novel to work on by next November. If that's the case, I might just have to dip my toes again. Either way, I don't regret having done it this year. It was loads of fun.

Did you participate in NaNoWriMo this year? How did it go for you? Did you meet your goals? Leave a comment and let me know.

NOTE: The next entry in the speculative fiction tropes series will be posted later this month. I decided to push it back for the NaNo debriefing and another upcoming entry. My blog schedule is going to be a little wacky this month.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Speculative Spotlight: The Walking Dead

Gather round ladies and gents, as today marks the premier of a new monthly series  here on that I've been mulling over for quite some time. From now on, the last Monday of each month will bring the Speculative Spotlight, where I'll be talking about a book, movie, television show, or video game that I deem to be a worthy representation of awesomeness in the world of speculative fiction. Today, I'll be examining a franchise that is quickly becoming my favorite depiction of the coming zombie apocalypse, The Walking Dead.

What's the Story?

Chances are most of you know The Walking Dead from the hit AMC incarnation that is currently smashing cable TV ratings records in the Unites States, and with damn good reason. But it all began with an Eisner Award-winning comic book series created by Robert Kirkman for Image Comics. Kirkman originally pitched his idea for a zombie apocalypse series as a Night of the Living Dead reboot. George Romero's classic film is considered a public domain work, which means anyone can distribute the movie or create derivative works without breaking any copyright laws. However, when Image saw Kirkman's ambitious plans for the story, they decided to greenlight the project as an original series instead. Thus, The Walking Dead was born.

The story of both the comic book and the television series revolves around former Kentucky police officer Rick Grimes, who wakes in a deserted hospital after being wounded in the line of duty. He soon finds out the hard way that the world has become a much different place while he lay comatose in that hospital bed—a mysterious plague has made ruins of his home, bringing the infected back to life as mindless zombies walkers, feeding on the flesh of the living. He eventually leaves town in search of his wife and son, who he hopes were evacuated with the larger population when the calamity struck. The long journey that follows is an emotional roller coaster, both for Rick and the audience at home.

Why It's Awesome

It's no secret that I'm a fan of zombie stories, so it shouldn't come as any surprise that I love both incarnations of this series (I've yet to play the video game, though I hear it's fantastic as well). But what really sets The Walking Dead apart from others in the genre is its commitment to character drama. The focus of the story is less about the zombie apocalypse itself than what it does to Rick and the other survivors he encounters, how it changes them and their relationships as they struggle to survive and cope with leaving their old lives behind. It's a gritty and realistic portrayal of what might happen to ordinary people and their sense of morality when faced with such extraordinary circumstances.

It's a fitting approach, considering the story's original association with Night of the Living Dead. Compelling character drama is something that many of the Romero imitators (and occasionally Romero himself) have missed over the years, despite the fact that the source of their inspiration was definitely more about the diverse cast of characters who found themselves boarded up in that old country house than the nightmarish ghouls banging on the windows outside. After all, you can only see so many brains get eaten before it gets a little boring. But Kirkman seems to have known from the get-go that his story would be about people, not zombies. It's even outright stated in the comics that the title of the series refers not to the shambling zombie hordes, but to the survivors clinging to life as the world around them falls to pieces.

It's this character-driven nature that is likely so attractive to the mainstream audience that has come to embrace the television show. In fact, I think I can personally attest to this, as my girlfriend loves the show as much as I do, and she is most assuredly not a zombie fan. So if you're in the same camp that she once was, shying away from this excellent series because you didn't think it would be your cup of tea, you may want to reconsider. The television show is currently in the middle of its third season, but you can catch up on what you've missed on Amazon or Netflix.

At the very least, it might prepare you for the approaching zombie apocalypse. December is right around the corner. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Monday, November 19, 2012

5 Books on Writing That Don't Suck

It goes without saying that most writers are avid readers (and if they aren't, they ought to be), so it's only natural that we might turn to the written word for advice on how to approach the craft, especially in the beginning when we're still feeling our way around in the darkness. And as it turns out, there are quite a few books on the market aimed toward budding writers in need of a little guidance. Unfortunately though, books on writing are like books on any other subject or genre—some of them are fantastic, and some of them just plain suck. At times, it can be tough to tell which is which. So, I thought I'd share my thoughts on some of the good books on writing that I've stumbled upon in my groping quest for knowledge, along with a small quote from each work.

I'd like to nail up a few disclaimers before we proceed, though. For one, this list is intentionally short, and that's largely because I'm still devouring the occasional writing tome and have yet to nail down a true "must read" list. I will most likely return to this topic another time or two with more recommendations in future entries. Also, it's worth noting that the craft of writing itself has many subjective elements, and as such your mileage may vary with some of these books. I got something positive from every book on this list, but your experience may differ depending on your approach.

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury 

"I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.
~ Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

In my opinion, this invaluable collection of essays by the legendary Ray Bradbury is essential reading not just for writers, but for any fan of this late literary juggernaut's work. Over the course of each essay, Bradbury conveys his love for the craft as only he can, weaving colorful anecdotes from life and learned practice with some of the most powerful words of wisdom I've ever encountered.

Pick this up and not only will you learn a thing or ten, but you'll get a very good idea of what made one of the most influential literary minds of the last century tick. I find myself turning to this book in moments of doubt, and it almost always does the trick, whether I need an energizing shot in the arm or a nice meditative moment of zen.

On Writing by Stephen King

"Some of this book—perhaps too much—has been about how I learned to do it. Much of it has been about how you can do it better. The rest of it—and perhaps the best of it—is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you're brave enough to start, you will."

~ Stephen King, On Writing

Stephen King is a polarizing figure in the literary world. His enormous success obviously speaks for itself, but there are plenty of people who just don't "get" his stuff, and that's understandable considering how damn weird some of it is. But whether you're a fan of his work or not, you would most likely be doing yourself a favor if you picked up On Writing, his memoir of the craft.

Part autobiography, part guide book, this is one of the first books on writing I ever read, and to this day it's been one of the most helpful and inspirational, despite the fact that King and I don't see eye to eye on everything. For instance, he advocates the "discovery" or "seat of your pants" approach to writing, which isn't always for me. Even so, much of his advice has stuck with me to this day, and at the very least it's an intriguing glimpse at the way one of the most popular novelists of all time does what he does.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

"If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), "Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?" chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.
~ Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

The War of Art will always have a special place in my heart as the book that brought me out of the longest writing drought I've ever experienced. For two long years, I lived a lie, ignoring the blank page and stubbornly trying to believe that it was too late for me, my ship had sailed. Then, on the advice of a stand-up comedian, I picked this book up and gave it a read. It was like having my own personal muse slap me across the face and shake me by the shoulders.

Within, Pressfield outlines the concept of Resistance, that relentless, malevolent temptation to move in the wrong direction. Whether you're a writer, a painter, or just an average joe looking to improve yourself in some way, at some time in your life you've probably heard that little voice that wants you to fail. It wants you to spend as much of your time doing anything but what you should be doing. That's Resistance, and this book helps you to recognize the various forms it will take to seduce you away from your calling, and teaches you how to shut it up for good.

The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman

"The ultimate message of this book, though, is not that you should strive for publication, but that you should become devoted to the craft of writing, for its own sake.
~ Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages

Noah Lukeman has been a successful literary agent for years, and in The First Five Pages he gives writers a glimpse at the long list of telltale signs that agents look for while weeding the amateurs out of the slush pile. The title refers to the fact that most agents can tell a manuscript is worthy of a rejection letter within the first five pages of reading it. Lukeman not only lets you in on the mindset of an agent and the good and bad things they look for, but he offers tips on how to keep that agent (and your readers) glued until the end.

I haven't done any work on a novel in almost a year, but the things I learned in this book have crossed over into my work on short fiction as well, since most of the editors I'm sending my work to are looking for the same glaring flaws that The First Five Pages helps you stay on top of.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

"We have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us—the labyrinth is fully known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path."

~ Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Okay, I'm kind of cheating on this one. The Hero With a Thousand Faces is not, strictly speaking, a book on writing (though it has inspired one or two). Instead, Joseph Campbell explores mythic structure, specifically the "journey" of the hero archetype as seen in popular world mythology throughout history. He breaks down the patterns and trends that have appeared in some of the oldest stories that human beings have ever told each other.

Since the publication of Campbell's work, some of the most popular and successful works of fiction have been built around the monomyth he describes, from Star Wars to Harry Potter. If you're unsure what kind of structure to incorporate into your story, you could do a lot worse than taking your protagonist down the path of the Hero's Journey. This book will help.

So there you have it. Have you read any of the books on this list? Feel free to let me know what you thought of them, positive or negative. Also, if you have any suggestions for great books that might be worthy of my next list of books on writing that don't suck, please let me know. I love reading about the craft.

photo credit: savvysmilinginlove via cc

Monday, November 12, 2012

Ruthless Writing: Murder Your Darlings

Last month, I did a little musing on the art of making your characters hate you, calling it "ruthless writing." It has since occurred to me, however, that abusing your characters is far from the only way to write ruthlessly. In fact, I'm not sure I can think of a better word to describe what I believe is the perfect writer's mindset. You should be ruthless every time you sit down at that desk and summon the creative forces. After all, every editor, agent, and reader who ends up aiming their eyes at your precious story has absolutely no reason to treat it with kid gloves of any kind. They expect to be entertained, and if you cannot meet that one provision, they will ruthlessly close your book.

So, I've decided to turn the broad topic of ruthless habits into a blog series of sorts. I say "of sorts" because this is largely loose and unplanned, so I'm not sure how many entries it will entail or how regularly I'll post them. But from time to time, when fancy strikes, I'll write a bit about taking those gloves off and getting your hands bloody dirty. Today, I'm going to talk about those precious darlings of yours, and the liberal relationship they ought to have with the chopping block.

Die, Die, Die My Darling

Now, when I say you should "murder your darlings," I am not telling you to shoot your girlfriend, drown your puppy, or poison your goldfish (and I am prepared to testify to that effect in a court of law). This phrase is actually quite an old one in the world of writing, and there's a good chance you heard it long before stumbling onto my little section of the multiverse. I first read it in Stephen King's On Writing (which I'd recommend to any budding scribe, whether you're a fan of his work or not), but it's usually attributed to a lecture series by renowned writer and literary critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who said, "Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings."

Most of us have been there at one time or another. The muse lights on our shoulder and the words come pouring out, seemingly of their own volition, and before we know it we've written something beautiful. We read that glorious sentence (or paragraph or scene) again and again, proud to have produced a string of words that we know rivals anything in one of the latest bestsellers. Then, we continue on with our work, fingers crossed that the rest of the manuscript will measure up. Perhaps, if we are well practiced, we are lucky enough to produce several of these darling moments of literary enlightenment. They help to keep us moving through the tough parts, feeling like greatness is always just outside of our fingertips, and if we keep lunging forward we might even grab another handful or two.

And so comes revision. We steel ourselves and break out the axe, ready to chop our manuscript to pieces in service of style, structure, and a good yarn. We cut a swath through our work, weeding out the bad, the boring, and the watered down, and then—gasp—it happens. We find ourselves staring at one of those little pieces of greatness that we so loved, one of those darlings, and are forced upon a horrifying realization. It doesn't serve the story.

Must My Darling Die?

This can be a tough moment to wrestle with, particularly for a new writer. When you're still struggling with the nuances of the craft, still questioning whether or not this is even the path you were meant for, chances are the last thing you want to do is cut away one of those shimmering beacons of hope and potentiality that says you might be a damn good writer one day if you keep at this. Those are the parts of your work that you want to cling to. They validate all those days spent laboring over a keyboard. They eclipse all of the odd looks you've ever received from doubters and naysayers. The last thing you want to do is put your finger on that backspace key and pretend like they never existed.

But you must. Every single word that you put in front of your reader must serve a greater purpose. Anything that does not impart character, support theme, or move the story forward is just useless window dressing, no matter how well written and no matter how proud of it you are. If you want to save those words to remind yourself what you're capable of, that's perfectly fine. Paste it into another document, save it, print it out—hell, post it on your blog. But do not leave it in your story. Do not succumb to the temptation of fruitless self-indulgence. If all goes according to plan, your reader will never have the chance to thank you for it, but chances are you will thank yourself later.

And don't worry; it gets easier. You'll probably always have those conflicted moments from time to time, hesitant to let go of a particularly attractive piece of text. But the longer you engage in ruthless revision, the more comfortable you will be hacking away at the unnecessary, and those moments of indecision will grow shorter and shorter. Then, one day, you may open up that folder of slain darlings and find they weren't even as pretty as you thought they were. As you continue to grow in the craft, what you once considered your best work may one day be an average Tuesday afternoon's auto-pilot, and on that day you will be thankful to have written ruthlessly. Trust me.

photo credit: Bryan Bruchman via cc

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

IWSG: Bridging the Chasm

It's the first Wednesday of the month, which hails the regular arrival of the Insecure Writer's Support Group, hosted by Ninja Captain Alex J. Cavanaugh. The group offers a place for writers of all kinds to support each other in those ever-present moments of insecurity.

While many use this as an opportunity to vent their frustrations, I realized early on that if I keep posting about my own insecurities, these posts will start sounding very similar. So I decided to move away from "woe is me" and focus on motivation and encouragement, centering my IWSG posts on inspirational quotes from people I admire.

Today's quote is about that long, often troubled journey your work takes from the back of your mind to the bottom of the page. Have you ever measured the fruit of your toil against the grand promise of the original idea and found yourself a little disappointed? You're not alone. In fact, you stand in the company of Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Twice a winner of the U.S. National Book Award for his short fiction and children's literature, Singer was known for writing his books twice, first in Yiddish and then in English, often with significant differences in style. He considered the English versions more than mere translation, calling them his "second original," which has lead to some debate amongst readers over the "true" versions of his work. He had this to say about the aperture that exists between that spark of inspiration and its eventual yield:

"Every creator painfully experiences the chasm between his inner vision and its ultimate expression. The chasm is never completely bridged. We all have the conviction, perhaps illusory, that we have much more to say than appears on the paper."

Isn't it funny how unbridled truth in a potent enough dose can serve both as a reality-inducing punch to the gut and an inspirational propellant all in one blow? I can't tell you how relieved I felt when I first read this quote some years ago. It's not just me. Sometimes when you stare at the words you've produced, you can't help but shake your head and wonder what happened to that masterpiece you thought you were writing. It makes you feel like a fraud, as though you've shortchanged yourself by wasting all that time, shortchanged the muse by mistranslating the unfiltered excellence she brought you. The next time you start to feel that way, read this quote and smack yourself.

Even the best of us cannot perfectly reproduce that feeling of awe and excitement we get when inspiration strikes. How could you ever hope to capture something so perfect that it makes you drop your silverware in the middle of a meal, leap out of bed in the middle of the night, tumble out of the shower with shampoo still in your hair? You can't. All you can do is dash after it and hope you gain enough momentum to carry you across the finish line.

But the more you give in to that chase, the harder you work at it, the nearer you will come to closing the gap. So keep at it. Keep putting the hard work in, and you will notice improvement. Keep indulging those ideas, no matter how short of the mark you think you're coming. Eventually you'll begin to learn the language of the muse, one word at a time, and your translations will become clearer and clearer. You might never feel you've managed to bottle the whole thunderstorm, but that's no reason not to allow yourself a little satisfaction at having held a bit of lightning in your hands.

And at the end of the day, it's a good thing to feel you haven't done your idea justice. The first step in bridging the chasm is realizing it's there, acknowledging how far you must go. Don't ask me what the hell the next step is, because I haven't made it that far yet. I'm still peering across mine, wondering how big a ramp I need to build. If I ever make it across, I'll see you on the other side.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Shapeshifters

It's the first Monday of the month, which means it's time for another entry in the speculative fiction tropes series. This month, the blog is morphing and changing forms as we talk about shapeshifters.

We've all encountered that familiar scene, be it horror, fantasy, or science fiction. You know the one. One of the protagonists finds himself in a ghastly predicament when he bursts into a room in hot pursuit of the bad guy and instead finds two identical versions of his best friend, fighting each other. "Don't shoot, it's me!" they both shout in unison. "He's lying, shoot him." "Not me, him!"

Thus are the perils of dealing with a shapeshifter. Should you find yourself at odds with a creature that can change its form at will, you'd better make sure you know every member of your party very well.

Like many tropes, shapeshifting is a very old concept with roots in the folklore and mythology of varied cultures around the world. Countless stories speak of creatures, beings, and deities that assume multiple forms at various times, either as an unwilling act of punishment or happenstance, or of their own volition. Examples include the manipulation of one's outward age or gender, becoming an animal of some kind, or even the envious ability to change into any form at will.

Many Native American tribes told tales of "skin-walkers," magicians who had the power to perfectly disguise themselves as any animal in the forest. Some Navajo even believed that these skin-walkers could take the form of another person if they were able to establish eye contact. Meanwhile, in Greek mythology, Proteus, one of the many gods of the sea, could take any form he desired. His legend says that he could foretell the future, but refused to portend anyone's fate unless they had the skill to capture him. He would then elude his adventurous pursuers by changing shape.

In modern fiction, shapeshifters often play an antagonistic role, especially in the horror genre. What could be more frightening than a predatory villain with the power to become a carnivorous beast? Or worse, a monster that takes the shape of your allies and infiltrates your group, picking you off one by one?

The latter is found in the John W. Campbell story Who Goes There?, thrice adapted to film. My favorite is the 1982 version, The Thing. John Carpenter's adaptation captures the escalating tension of Campbell's tale, as scientists in a research facility on Antarctica encounter an alien entity that takes the shape of its victims.

I've yet to write any shapeshifters into my own fiction (er, not explicitly anyway), but the idea is certainly a fascinating one. As history shows, it's also a versatile one, lending itself to just about every genre in speculative fiction depending on how you want to approach it. If you're writing sci-fi, make your shapeshifter an alien, or the wielder of advanced technology. Writing fantasy? A shapeshifting spell or magic potion will do the trick quite nicely.

And perhaps the most interesting part of the shapeshifter trope is that, like many concepts in mythology, it does have a basis in reality. Our own animal kingdom is possessed of some of the most incredible examples of life imaginable, including shapeshifters. There's nothing "magical" about a cephalopod's eerie ability to change its color and skin texture to avoid predators, but seeing it in action can be awe inspiring. So if we do indeed come into contact with alien life one day, don't be shocked if we end up running into some shapeshifters. After all, we already have them right here on Earth.

Recommended Reading:
Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson
A Song of Ice & Fire series by George R.R. Martin
It by Stephen King

Recommended Viewing:
The Thing (1982)
Terminator 2

Recommended Gaming:
Dragon Age: Origins
Mortal Kombat

Monday, October 29, 2012

I'm a Loner, Dottie, a NaNoWriMo Rebel

Well, folks, it's almost that time of year again, when half your twitter stream and facebook wall are beset by writing sprints, word wars, and productivity pep talks. It's time for NaNoWriMo.

For those of you wondering what in blazes I'm talking about, that strange looking acronym up there stands for National Novel Writing Month. Every November, the gears at the NaNoWriMo website begin turning anew, and an eager community of writers wake from their virtual slumber and spring to life around it. The aim is to write a manuscript of at least fifty thousand words in the space of thirty days, and the community is chock full of encouragement and empowerment, pushing each other toward that goal. And for the first time in two years, Yours Truly will be taking part.

"Now, hold on right there," I can hear you saying already. "Aren't you writing short stories these days?" Alas, I must raise my hands in acquiescence. The jig is up. You've caught me. This year, I'm strolling right up to the gates of NaNoWriMo, kicking them in, and laying my cards on the table. Alden's not playing by the rules this time! Okay, I'll stop with the cheese. You see, I'm still going to be aiming for that fifty thousand word goal, but I'm not going to be writing a novel. I'm sticking with my shorts, hoping to knock out as many first drafts in one month as humanly possible.

This isn't without precedent for the NaNoWriMo community. In fact, a whole section of their forums has been conceded to the NaNo Rebels, who march to the beat of their own drum, guidelines be damned. Of course, we rebels aren't without our detractors. There are those who would condemn the likes of me, looking down on us as rule breakers. I've even heard a story or two of people new and unfamiliar with the community being told by some that they can't participate if they aren't working on a novel. This is, of course, ridiculous.

The whole point of NaNoWriMo (besides making literary agents dread the month of December with every fiber of their being) is that you get out of it what you put in. It's about setting a lofty goal and striving for it with all you've got, with the help and encouragement of a like-minded community. The idea that anyone should be excluded from that experience because they aren't doing exactly what you are is an affront to the spirit of the event, and the organizers have stated this repeatedly (and it's why they gave the NaNo Rebels their own stomping ground on the site in the first place).

So, if you've been peeking at participants out of the corner of your eye every time November rolls around, hesitant to leap in and give it a shot yourself because you don't think what you're writing qualifies, consider becoming a rebel. At its heart, NaNoWriMo is about personal achievement, and you should never give yourself an excuse not to achieve something.

Me, I'll be giving it my best go. I'll be honest with you—the last time I participated, I failed. I fell short of my goal and denied myself a victory lap. This time, things will be different. There's a variety of reasons for my new found confidence, not the least of which is the fact that I have a monumentally more flexible writing schedule now, but chiefly it's because my attitude is different. I consider myself a professional, and I intend to work like one. Fifty thousand words in a month? Piece of cake. Let's do this.

The rebellion begins in three days. Who's coming with me? My NaNo username is AuthorAlden.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Ruthless Writing: Make Your Characters Hate You

One of the most popular exercises some writers like to utilize when crafting new characters for a project is to write out a mock interview. The writer will ask the character about everything from their hopes and dreams to their favorite food, all in an effort to get inside their head and gain a better understanding of the personality and motivations within. But have you ever tried asking your characters about you? If you did, what do you think they'd say? What would happen if your protagonist was a real person? How would they react if they found out that you were behind every beat of their heart, every turn of their world? Would they thank you? Would they bow down and worship you as their lord and creator?

I can only speak for myself, but I'm fairly certain every last one of mine would try their damnedest to wrap their figmental hands around my throat and snuff the life right out of me. You see, I haven't exactly been kind to the denizens of my little multiverse, especially my protagonists. My stories inevitably become sheer hell for most of them, as they stumble along through one calamity after another, dancing to every sadistic whim that emerges from my imagination. I once participated in an exercise for a writing workshop that had me write a small piece in which one of my main characters introduced me to the rest of the group. It didn't turn out the way I expected. Tasked with describing myself from that poor fellow's point of view, I ended up putting myself on trial. The character cast himself as prosecuting attorney, characterizing me as the devil incarnate, wielding not a pitchfork but a pen. You know, I honestly can't say I blame the guy after all I've put him through.

Ladders, Viper Pits, and Character Adversity

But what else can I do? I have a story to tell. And I can't bore my readers by spoiling my characters. One of Kurt Vonnegut's famous rules for short fiction is that every character should want something, even if it's only a glass of water. But you can't just let them reach out and grab it. You've got to let them parch for a while. Put that glass on a rooftop and give them a broken ladder. Put it at the bottom of a viper pit. In fact, in one of the rules that follows, Vonnegut encourages writers to be sadists. "No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of," he says.

In other words, character adversity is one of the most fundamental pieces of groundwork in a compelling story. It provides the lion's share of drama and tension that keeps the audience on the edge of their seat and won't let them look away. We don't root for John McClane in Die Hard because he shoots all the bad guys and rescues the girl. We root for him because he has to fall down a flight of stairs and walk barefoot on broken glass to do it. Would we still love The Lord of the Rings if Mount Doom had been in Frodo's backyard the whole time? Of course not. The real story isn't just about a magic ring—it's about that harrowing journey to Mordor. By the end, the reader feels just as battle weary as the broken fellowship.

So the next time you're about to bring the hammer down on those poor, unfortunate characters of yours, do not hesitate. Turn away with a callous heart when they look up at you with Bambi eyes and question your cruelty. They may not deserve the beating you've given them, and they certainly didn't ask for it, but if you are their god, then the reader must be yours, and the satisfaction of the reader is wrought by their tears. They must suffer for the sake of your story, perhaps even give their lives for it. And if they curse you for that, you know you've done your job well.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite quotes of all time, from Nobel laureate André Gide:

“What would there be in a story of happiness? Only what prepares it, only what destroys it can be told.” 

photo credit: Kell Bailey via cc

Monday, October 15, 2012

5 Myths About Writing Outlines

Whether you're a fiction noob or a salty veteran, if you've read some books on the craft or done any poking around on the internet, chances are you've noticed two main schools of thought when it comes to approaching a project. There are those who believe it's best to plot the course of their work ahead of time, laying out the skeletal framework of the story before cutting into the first draft, and those who believe this approach is too restrictive, opting instead to dive right in and let the muse pull them along by the seat of their pants.

One of the primary reasons I decided to delve into short fiction some time ago was for the freedom to experiment without an intimidating commitment to a longer work. This has allowed me to try a variety of approaches to writing in a relatively short time, and both methods have birthed stories I'm fond of. That being said, when the day comes that I decide to sit down and write a novel again, I will most likely be using an outline. I could fill an entire entry talking about my reasons, but at the end of the day, every writer is going to have to decide which method works best for them. Neither will bring universal success for everyone. We're all different.

And that's why it gets my hackles raised whenever I hear someone saying their way is the right way, and everyone else should follow suit. There are pontificators on both sides, but most of the nay-saying I've seen has been aimed in the direction of outlines. Maybe it's just my own experience, but there seems to be a lot of "pantsers" who feel the need to justify their approach, usually by pointing out perceived negatives of the outlining process. Of course, there's nothing wrong with explaining why something doesn't work for you. But I've noticed a lot of myths and untruths being thrown out there. So, as someone who's put both methods to the test, I thought I'd put on my mythbuster hat and address some of them.

#1. Outlines Restrict Creativity

This is probably the most common myth cited, and it's absolutely untrue. The outline itself is an expression of your creativity. It's the kick-off to the creative process. And once you're knee-deep into your first draft, the presence of that outline isn't going to make the muse abandon you to the wolves. The same creative mind that produced the outline is on board with you for the entire ride, and you should be putting it to work every step of the way, outline or no.

More importantly, your outline is likely to leave plenty of room for exploration. Your story is not a sterile office building constructed from a two-dimensional blueprint. It's a vast, unexplored cave. That outline is just the dim, stuttering flare that you toss in before commencing your spelunking. It lights just enough of the path to keep your feet moving, but you still won't know for sure what’s around the next bend—or what’s going to leap out of the shadows.

#2. You are Handcuffed to Your Outline

A big source of the doomsaying that revolves around outlines seems to be this strange idea that once you've written one, the work ahead of you is set in stone whether you like it or not. This is so far from the truth that I'm not even sure which angle to attack from. As long as the pen is in your hand, your story remains malleable, and if it wants to go somewhere contrary to your plans, the author is always free to let it roam. Sometimes the finished product won't even resemble the initial outline.

This isn't a bad thing, and for outliners it often prevents the need for a comprehensive rewrite the second time through. You can hold that original outline up to the work in progress and gauge how far off course you are, examining the reasons why. The outline can be edited and adjusted just as readily as the first draft itself, avoiding plot holes and inconsistencies.

#3. Outlines Breed Flat Characters

I suspect this myth is related to the previous two. Some pantsers just seem accustomed to the idea that their method is the only way a story can truly take on a life of its own. Many writers will often speak of that feeling you get when your characters are fleshed out to the point that they feel alive. They start to feel like real people with their own thoughts and motivations, and might even resist your plans for them. There are differing opinions as to how far the writer should let them play about, but the feeling itself is pretty common, and it's not exclusive to those who write without an outline.

In fact, I'd even argue that it can sometimes happen sooner with outliners, or at least it has in my experience. The reason for this is that when you engage in heavy planning before your story begins, you've already gotten to know your characters to a certain degree. Many of them come to life in the planning stage, and by the time you start writing your story, they're already alive and kicking. This idea that outlined characters are just lifeless puppets couldn't be further from the truth.

#4. Outlining Means Writing Your Book Twice

Someone once argued to me that the reason I shouldn't outline my stories is because once I put my idea down on paper, it will have lost something to the void of the empty page. By the time I get to my first draft, they said, that initial spark of inspiration will be long gone, wasted on the outline instead of the story itself. My first draft would really be my second, prevented from living up to its potential. I asked this person if they'd ever finished anything longer than a flash piece, and they outright refused to answer.

Putting aside the fact that this claim obviously reeks of superstition (I have a few of my own, after all), it still kind of baffles me that someone would think this way. Not only do I disagree, but I feel pretty much the opposite. The very moment I get a good idea, it goes down on paper, lest it be lost forever to the all-consuming emptiness that is my short-term memory. If you can only capture inspiration properly in the first draft, how on earth do you tackle the second? Heaven forbid you attempt a rewrite. I'm a pretty big believer in the muse (or the "muse-brain" at least), but I am not a slave to my own inspiration. The muse works for me, not the other way around.

#5. There Is a "Right Way" to Plot Your Outline

Finally, we end with a myth propagated not by the detractors, but by outliners themselves. If you're interested in giving outlines a try, there are quite a few tried and tested methods out there, from index cards to mind maps to snowflakes. Chances are you'll have to do a bit of experimentation before you find out what kind of outline works for you. Personally, I prefer a rough sketch of scenes in a simple word processor document. The longer the work is, the closer I tend to drift towards the index cards.

But the way you outline your story is not what matters. Again, everyone is different. What's important is that your outline serves its purpose. That is, it should get you writing. More importantly, it should keep you writing. Be wary of anyone who claims their method is infallible and universal. If you take anything away from this entry, it should be that. No one has all the answers. Find what works for you.