P.18: The Crazy Sh*t We Research for Stories

I’m continually amused by just what I have to look up to get a particular story right.  Writing fiction, you’re inevitably going to come up with interesting ideas that you want to explore — ideas that would feel flat if you didn’t do your homework.

Sometimes it manifests in weird ways.

For example, I’ve been working on a short story that takes place on an alien world, about someone who finds the remnants of an extinct civilization. I had to laugh when I realized I needed to research what makes ancient Roman concrete so damn good (here was the best link I found, btw) — all so I could write a scene about ancient ruins.

The same story required that I really brush up on Norse mythology, too, and not just the basics like the pantheon. I was thinking about how it was interesting that Norse mythology has so many different worlds and planes of existence, and it made me wonder if that influenced how far and wide they explored (and pillaged, depending on the century). Reading up on the mythology, I came across the concepts of the utangard and the innangard, concepts that really fit my character and the story, helping flesh everything out.

Research takes a lot of time to even take the most cursory of glances. Sometimes hours of research may amount to a few lines in a short story. Other times, the hours of research may not even make it into the story, amounting to little more than helping flesh out character’s background.

It’s all worth it, though, because it’s the little things that can separate a mediocre story from a story that will catch a reader — and there’s no better way to do that than doing your homework as a writer.

P.10: My Current Submissions and Why I Sent Them, 9/6/2015

For my tenth post, I thought I’d do something different and list all my current submissions, along with why I sent them to the particular magazine in the first place. Hopefully this should give a little insight into the thought process behind where people should send their stories (and why) – and where readers can find stories they’re not reading, but should.

  • I have a 1200 word dark, speculative fantasy piece at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. They only publish second world fantasy settings, which is a particular favorite of mine as a writer. I sent a previous story here that was rejected, but I got praise for the world building I did and was asked to send more. I sent another piece where I thought I did a really good job with the world building, with a story that I think is stronger and tighter than the first.
  • I have a 2700 word piece with my take on a new kind of supernatural creature at Urban Fantasy Magazine. Their guidelines say they liked stories with creatures like vampires or werewolves, but that since they get a lot of them, the competition for those stories were fierce. That’s advice for writers to consider different creatures or themes. The story I sent I think does a great job at creating my own urban supernatural creature, that I think does a really good job at being unique, with its own mythos, and yet feels ‘real.’ It also has a real-world setting that the magazine requires, and I spent a lot of time trying to make my characters feel like they come from Small Town, USA.
  • I have another (different) 2700 word uber-dark fantasy piece at Fantasy and Science Fiction. Their guidelines don’t offer much suggestion for stories they’re looking for, just that they liked character-based stories and I know from the magazine that rich, other-worlds are a good place for it. Those are the two things I think this story does best.
  • I have a difficult-to-classify dark fantasy poem at Interfictions, that’s bordering on a prose poem. Interfictions is a magazine that’s looking for difficult-to-classify or genre-bending poems and stories, so I thought this was a good fit. I don’t write much poetry (just the occasional dabbler), but I really liked this piece, so I figured “what the hell.” One piece of advice I’ve taken from a number of other writers, including here, was to not be afraid of sending things out. I put a lot of work in it, especially for its ~200 words, so I wanted to give it a shot.
  • I have another difficult-to-classify 5000 word piece at Interfictions. Is it an urban fantasy? Dark fiction? Horror? Coming of age tale, with deep autobiographical inspirations? I couldn’t exactly pin it, and Interfictions is all about blurring the lines, so I thought it would be a good fit. I also did something almost no short stories do and gave it two different character perspectives, a serious no-no from one of the writing blogs I linked to yesterday. I’m hoping that Interfictions is one of the few places where the editors may look past that, and given that I’ve spent a lot of time on it trying to get it right (because it’s so personal to me), I was glad I got it in their window.
  • I have a 3400 word sci fi piece at Crossed Genres, for their pronouns and gender themed issue (they have a different theme every month). I love the concept of themed issues, and the opportunity that gives authors to compete against just that one theme, instead of all the themes in the cosmos and fantasy realms. I really liked this theme in particular, and had an idea I had been kicking around for a while that this theme gave me an opportunity to explore — so it was worth the effort of crafting something particularly for this issue.
  • I have a 600 word dark fantasy at Daily Science Fiction. I sent DSF one of my strongest stories that I’ve written before, but unfortunately while it fit within their maximum word count range, it was longer than what they typically publish by a hefty amount. I didn’t want to make that mistake again, and so I sent something much shorter. This was the story I wrote while listening to Hozier, when the idea popped in my head.

Hopefully, this will give a sense to other aspiring writers the level of commitment it takes to just have a shot at getting published in short story markets. You need to write a huge swath of the absolute best stories you can, and then you need to find places where they could fit, and keep sending them because no matter how good you are, your stories are going to get rejected a lot before you find success. More good stories gives you more good shots.

The submission process is a huge time sink, but unfortunately you can’t get published without it — at least not professionally. So hopefully a peak into where I’ve sent things, and why I sent them there, will be helpful to some.

P.8: Guardians of Galactic Diversity

As someone who’s fully on board Team Diversity, it baffles my mind that there’s anyone out there who wants less of that. Yet, about when I decided I wanted to take my writing seriously and bring it to the next level, we had a number of people in the sci fi and fantasy community who started organizing around making fantasy and sci fi a place where diversity wasn’t welcomed or celebrated at all.

Being the half-glass full kind of guy, I think that has a lot to do with the fact that most people don’t have a ton of exposure to all the differences that exist in the world, including the different experiences many people face in life because of something like their gender or the color of their skin. Exposure can change that, and give people an a-ha.

Weirdly, many of those a-ha movements have come from the ultimate popcorn movie: Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie that’s as whiz-bang and as fun as it gets. Then again, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. More than any movie like it, Guardians gave us a galaxy filled with diverse characters, who not only look different, but behave or think differently, as well.

I felt really inspired when I read about a kid on the autism spectrum, who found his fictional hero in Drax because Drax was just like him — he didn’t get metaphors. It was something so simple, but so powerful to a kid who grew up in a world where there were no super hero characters he could relate to. It allowed the kid to feel cool and powerful, just like Drax.

Another kid, with dyspraxia, a disorder which can effect speech and fine motor skills, was inspired by Groot. Like Groot, he was limited in what he could say. Groot changed his whole behavior and the way he interacted with the world — even the way he spoke, letting him open up.

“He would start mimicking Groot by changing the way he would say ‘bah.’ Groot became his voice — he was able to change ‘bah’ to ‘Groot.’ His behavior changed, and his communication with others did as well.”

Increasing diversity in fiction (or elsewhere) isn’t about repressing those who have enjoyed the comforts of being in the majority, of being “normal.” It’s about making sure those who didn’t grow up that way, or aren’t growing up that way, can have characters they can relate to and feel inspired by. It’s about letting them feel empowered, seeing opportunities they maybe couldn’t before.

Making sure fantasy and science fiction is at least as diverse as our own world can only have positive impacts. I hope some of the skeptics, the people who’ve grown up with fantasy and science fiction that mostly looked like them, read about the hope and inspiration these kids with neurological disorders have derived from characters like Groot and Drax. I hope they try to imagine all the other kids out there, looking for their characters, trying to find their own hope and power through fiction. I think they’d be glad Groot and Drax existed — and that they’d want more of them.

P.7: A Story in a Day

I’ve been reading some tweets and blog posts from short story writers, talking about how they challenged themselves to write a story a day for runs of a week or even a month at a time.

I’m not so sure I’d ever want to do that, but thought it would be fun to take on the challenge today.

I have a long list of files, digital and otherwise, filled with story ideas… but, like more often than not, couldn’t pick one I wanted from the bin.

However, I was listening to a Hozier album when I felt a little inspired to start fooling around, jotting down a few sentences of nothingness. It was one of his dark songs, where hell and sin mixed with beauty and temptation, and as I wrote, the story came to me. The story isn’t anything like the plot of the song, but the places my story went, touched with a dash of hope, ended up being helped a lot by the song’s dark tone.

It’s just 600 words, but I finished the whole draft in a day, and it’s a solid draft, too. I made it very plot centric, and yet I managed to actually create a character who grew along with the story, and it already feels pretty polished. It’s always easier to get something clean and polished when you’re working with flash fiction, but I’m still really, really happy with it.

I’m going to sit on it for a few days and then see what I think, but I actually like it enough at this point that my guess is it’s just about ready to go. We’ll see.

Post Number 1: “He who controls the spice controls the universe.”

Hey world!

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My name is Ryan and this here is my blog.

My blog about writing.

And reading.

And the things that inspire me, usually to do one of the two things above.

When Frank Herbert’s megalomaniacal (and yet perversely entertaining) Baron Vladimir Harkonnen says the words that gave this, my first post, its title, he wasn’t saying anything that House Atreides, the heroes of “Dune,” didn’t know.

It was the thing that made the universe work, and it was also the thing that was almost impossible to grasp — and hang onto. Trying to control it was to invite danger, and it almost caused the downfall of the venerable House with all the protagonists, Atreides.

In this universe I belong to, “sci fi/fantasy,” one I’ve always been in since I was old enough to pick up a pen and a book, I’ve come to understand what that spice is — and it’s you, dear readers.

So here I am, holding out my hands in this desert of Arrakis we call the internet, hoping to grasp onto some of it — as I attempt to cross that most difficult and dangerous of thresholds that we writers call “trying to get published.”

I’ve always loved to write, be it for the causes I care about or for the stories in my head, but when it comes to stories, I’ve always been afraid of that part of myself — until the past year or so, when I’ve been able to work up the courage to go from occasional dabbler to serious practitioner.

I still haven’t crossed the threshold yet, of being published in a professional market, but have had some near misses with my short fiction. And I know… if I keep at it, keep plugging away, keep scratching like Paul Atreides in becoming Muad’Dib… that it will happen, and the internet spice will all be mine!

But, in the meantime, I’lI invite you to pull up a chair, grab a cup of java, and enjoy yourself with my occasional posts on writing, what I’ve learned or am learning about the publishing process, the stories I’m reading or that have inspired me, and no doubt some cat videos and the occasional expression of anguish at yet another rejection.

I’ll try to mix short and funny posts with more serious, thoughtful ones, and hopefully build something worthy of some people’s time — perhaps yours, if I’m lucky.

Thanks for reading — and careful for the sandworms.

Sincerely,

Ryan