Sterner Stuff

Submitting stories to publishers is like sending your kids to an interview. You want the best for them, but ultimately their fate is in the hands of a stranger. A stranger with immense power. The power to make them flourish, or the power to CRUSH THEM INTO OBLIVION…

The waiting game

I’ve submitted stories and it’s taken less than an hour for the publisher to send it back. They weren’t feeling it or whatever. I’ve also sent in stories and waited for months just to receive a form letter saying they didn’t like my story. I’ve self published things and waited patiently for sales to pick up steam, and they do for like a week, then they dwindle. I write and write and write and then wait and wait and wait. And yet…

I Won’t Stop

I hate the rejection, and even the waiting, but I love the process. I love getting these random ideas that turn into cool settings or plots. I love watching my wife have no idea what I’m saying as I rant about how cool some story I’m writing is. I love hearing feedback from beta readers and thinking up new ways to write my existing stories. It just gets in your veins and begins to flow freely.

Keep at it

I’ll keep writing for a long time. Maybe some day I’ll give it up. Maybe not. What are you going to do? Can you handle the rejection? The suspense? The thrill? The adventure?

Or will you sit at home, wondering what will happen?

Capturing An Idea

Initial Capture

What do you do when you get that idea that is OMG THE BEST IDEA EVAR?!?!

I hope you capture it in some medium.

I like my phone’s note pad. It let’s me jot down some quick notes so I can come back and flesh it out later. Because, like most people, I’m busy. There’s always something to do.

Sometimes I get ideas for stories while I’m writing other stories.

Oh, and this is the WORST:

So how do you keep track?

The main thing to remember is that you will have ideas as a writer. It’s inevitable. I decided last week that I was going to take this week off from writing. Guess how many story ideas I’ve had? At least two, because I finished one story and sent it out to my beta readers and I got over 1500 words done on another one today. Oh the life of a writer.

If you don’t have some way to log your story ideas, get one. You don’t have to have a notepad on your phone. I also have a leather bound note/sketch pad that I carry around sometimes as well. Just having something to put ideas down on is a must.

Taming the Monster

So once the idea is captured, how does one go about taming it?

Well we do the aforementioned fleshing out.

A lot of writing guides don’t really tell you how to flesh out an idea. And it’s simply because they can’t. There are too many variables to create an accurate equation for writing. Voice, tone, word count, point of view, characterization, plot; and many many more go into your writing. If you haven’t figured out how you do all of that yet, then you need to write more. And write in more than one voice, using many different voices and tones etc. Your cool idea will never become a cool story if you have not honed the skills needed for your craft.

I run into the same problems with young musicians I work with. They all want to play rippin’ guitar solos and try to go at it as fast as they can. The only problem is that they suck at playing guitar. They haven’t practiced enough to play that well.

If your beta readers and editor aren’t impressed with your skills, go to the woodshed.

Releasing the Beast

When your idea is fully down on paper, or hard drive…whatever, then you need to do the last part. Which is editing. Let me make this clear: no matter how hard you work on your first draft while you’re writing, it NEEDS to be edited. Whether you get a professional editor or edit it yourself is another story, but i assure you it needs to be edited. I edited a story the other day to be submitted to a publisher and it was FULL of mistakes. Not just spelling, any decent word processor will catch most of that stuff, but grammar and sentence structure were terrible in some places. They made very little sense within the context of the story.

Here’s some advice on editing if you’re going to do it yourself. Put the story away for a while. At least a couple of weeks, if not longer. You need to forget the story so you can go in fresh and catch your mistakes. If you haven’t yet, you should read ‘Let’s get Digital’ by David Gaughran. Great book on self publishing and the digital revolution. Pick it up and read it.

The art of capturing an idea and completing it is one that many people haven’t mastered. Take this for example:

Battleship Destroyer

Go ahead and read the ‘Look inside’ portion. I dare you. You won’t make it without laughing. This is an example of what can happen if you don’t follow step 3. Don’t be that guy. And don’t forget that repetition leads to mastery. (Not that I’m a master. By ANY means.)

Keep writing! I know I will.

Why “What If” Matters

This a guest post from Grant Barnes of Enjoy!

Why “What If” Matters

I am, like my esteemed colleague here at Silly Robots, a fan of science fiction. So much so, I created a blog trying to connect the dots between theology and culture, nerd culture specifically (the results of which may vary from post to post.) Part of my own quest on my blog is to ask the big questions, and see where they fit in our world. The reason I love theology in many ways is that it asks a simple question—a question that Science Fiction is based upon: What if?

“What if” is perhaps one of the most entertaining and enlightening questions that can be asked, and it’s a question that I have no doubt every science fiction –nay, any writer—asks of themselves to establish a premise for their story. Almost any good story can be boiled down to a premise starting with “What if”:

  • What if humanity got its act together, and with a number of other cooperative alien species, decided to go and explore the rest of the universe? (Star Trek)
  • What if a bunch of humans stumble upon a distress beacon on a distant planet and pick up some unexpected, horrifying cargo? (Alien)
  • What if the police started using psychics to predict crimes? (Minority Report)
  • What if someone actually invented a machine that can travel through time, and it wound up in the hands of an idiot teenager? (Back to the Future)
  • What if Dracula came to New England instead of London? (‘Salem’s Lot)
  • What if Moses came from Outer Space? (Superman)

The list could go on and on, but you are beginning to see the gist of the argument. Figuring out a good premise is often the seed of an idea that could grow into something beautiful, something profound, something exciting or something that questions the very nature of reality. It’s the first step to writing a good story, and that’s what this whole endeavor of Silly Robots is all about.

So how do you go about asking this daunting question?

1. Go big or go home? Not necessarily.

A good “What if” doesn’t have to start with anything outlandish, lest you become intimidated by the task of writing a story. Garrison Keillor, writer and radio personality, once said “A good story will never start with something like “The cat sat on the mat. However, a good story might start with something like “The cat sat on the dog’s mat.” All it really takes to get someone interested is to put something out there that is just a little different from the ordinary. One thing out of place, one thing just different enough to make large scale changes to the world.

One of the best examples I’ve ever seen of a small idea that made a large scale change was in Greg Bear’s Blood Music. It’s about a scientist who works on and creates a kind of intelligent microorganism, something like nanotechnology, but organic. In essence, the organism gets loose, and the scientist himself becomes a host to it. The microorganism then multiplies, mutates, and learns as much as it can—and in effect, shapes the world in its strange, incomprehensible image. Simple idea, huge ramifications.

2. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel.

I’m sure Will has probably gone over this before, but it bears repeating. Writing is an art—and like any art, it is built on the shoulders of those giants that came before us. Everything we write as authors is done now in a world where books and information are far more available than ever before, and because of that, lots of ideas have already been thrown out there. This, believe it or not, is not a bad thing.

Let’s branch out for a minute and talk about the Fantasy genre (gasp!) This sister genre has much to teach us. For example: Lord of the Rings has already been written. Does this stop the countless fantasy writers who have written innumerable tales using the foundation that Tolkien laid down as a basis for their work? Absolutely not. And it’s shouldn’t stop you from putting your own mark on the genre of Science Fiction.

Again, I’ll turn my eye to pop culture, to the biggest Science Fiction property out there—Star Wars. Star Wars is far from an original work.

There. I said it.

Star Wars, as fantastic and as powerful as it is in our cultural imagination, is an amalgamation of several different kinds of properties. George Lucas makes no secret of the fact that he was inspired by the old space opera serials of his youth, namely Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and the like. He adds into that existing pool of creativity ideas he got from Japanese film and philosophy, as well as European archetypes and Roman history. Mix it all together, and you have Star Wars.

George Lucas, in making Star Wars, did not re-invent the wheel, but took existing parts from culture, philosophy, and history, and put them together to make something not unlike the Millenium Falcon—hobbled together from bits and pieces of other starships, but somehow faster and more effective than anything else. Granted, his “What-if” of space wizards meets WWII-style dogfights is a bit more complex than most, but it all comes together quite nicely.

And finally,

3. Don’t be afraid to mess up.

Not all ideas are created equal, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have value. I’ve had to learn the hard way of not scrapping everything completely when I feel like I haven’t gone the way I wanted to go in my writing. When you ask “What-if”, you are daring to look into the face of creativity itself. Sometimes, you might produce something amazing. Other times, in fact most often, you might wind up with a dud. This should not be a discouragement but an empowerment. The only way to write something better than what you’ve already written is to keep writing anyway. It’s that simple, and that difficult.

Daring to ask “What if” is incredibly risky, but even more rewarding. If you keep on writing, and keep on dreaming, you may wind up being the shoulders that someone else stands on some day. I think that’s something we can all aspire to.

Grant is a Science Fiction writer, blogger, and pastor currently residing in Canton, TX. He has authored stories such as ‘The Samaritan Gambit’. He blogs weekly, daily during Lent, at