First Draft = Finished!

HMXAt 12,335 words, the first draft of my first novelette, “Cease Fire!”–based on an experience I had in Marine Corps boot camp–is FINISHED! Wow! I expected this story to be a LOT shorter…and I’m still hoping to cut about 5,000 words from it, but for now, what a ride!

The intense, ecstatic feeling that accompanies finishing the first draft of the story is addicting! This is why I write!

I’m going to need readers to give me feedback in a couple of weeks, so if you’re interested, please let me know by leaving a comment below. =D Have a great day, everyone… And semper fi!

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Memorial Day: Grandpa Sabo, US Army

ImageThis Memorial Day, as every year, I remember a particular soldier most of all, my grandfather, Arthur Sabo, who served in the Army during World War II as a Captain. In 2009, he was inurned in our nation’s most prestigious military burial grounds, Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. I was astounded at the lengths gone to in honoring him. Just take a look at the pictures below. Although there are specific qualifications that a serviceman must meet to be buried at Arlington, the ceremonies are proper for all who have served honorably. I’m proud of him and everyone who has served or serves honorably in our armed forces. Happy Memorial Day to you. We should be happy today, because memorializing honorable men and women is a privilege.

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In honor of Captain Arthur Sabo, USA.

 

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I carried the flag that was presented to my mother, Captain Sabo’s daughter, at his funeral.

 

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“Taps” is played as an Army platoon pays respects to Captain Sabo.

Short Story vs. Novelette: To What Lengths Will You Go?

ImageAs I progress in my self-described “writing career,” I find that a question of story length confronts me. How long should a particular story be? My latest short story, “Cease Fire!”—about a Marine recruit in boot camp—has passed the threshold for short story. Now I’m wondering if it’s too long…

I often begin a story with a title or an idea. I play with that idea by freewriting in my handy Moleskine notebook. After a few minutes of writing, even if I still don’t have a plot or central conflict, I usually get a feel for the length of the piece: flash fiction, short story, novelette, novella, or novel? Here’s the generally-accepted breakdown:

  • Flash Fiction: 1,000 words or less
  • Short Story: 1,000 to 7,500 words
  • Novelette: 7,500 to 17,500 words
  • Novella: 17,500 to 40,000 words
  • Novel: 40,000 words and above

As of this writing, the first draft of “Cease Fire!” is about 7,800 words, effectively making it a novelette. But I wanted it to be a short story…

One reason is because, as a new author, it’s easier to publish short stories. Publishers don’t often look for flash fiction—to short, readers want more—and they typically don’t publish anything longer than short stories from new authors—too long, new authors haven’t proven themselves yet. So even though I’ve written a novella, working on a second novella, and developing a scifi novel, my focus is on short stories at the moment. It gets my name out there, and each short story hones my developing skills for character and, especially, plot…

The second reason I wanted “Cease Fire!” to be a short story was because it’s based on a true, but short, event that I experienced when I was a recruit in boot camp. (I’m a Marine veteran.) The first time I wrote about it was for an English 101 essay several years ago. The topic was simple: Write about an event that had a major impact on your life. The essay was about 1700 words. After completing my last five short stories—including my favorite, “Coffee in the Afternoon,”—I thought I’d gotten the feel of a short story outline. With a small event to share, and with the original essay rather short, I figured I had plenty of room to embellish the event and even expand the plot, but stay within the 7,500 words. Clearly, I had mistaken.

Again, I’m at 7,800 words and probably need another 1,000 to finish the first draft. While second-draft editing may reduce the word count, I don’t think it will be so substantial as to bring the story back to 7,500. I think I have a novelette on my hands.

I’ve been scratching my head and wondering why this got out of hand, and what, if anything, I should do about it? I think there are two causes to the new length, and I think they justify it.

The first is plot. Typically, a short story revolves around one central conflict. All the action leads up to that moment, and the story either ends, or gives a quick denouement (resolution). While I began with one conflict, I realized it wasn’t quite dramatic enough. If I’m going to say that a recruit is “honest” and rewarded for it—essentially what happened to me—then I need to show him being honest. For that, I need backstory. However, the backstory, while needed, was too much writing for such a small event. So I figured, the backstory needs a conflict or two of its own. I brought in an experience from a later time in my life and weaved it in as part of the story. I also added a third conflict, completely invented. The two extra conflicts show “honesty,” and keep the story interesting until the third conflict. When “honesty” resolves the final conflict, it’s much more powerful because the character has been shown, in action, to be the type of recruit who is judged as “honest.” The climax—though simple—gains the power I wanted it to have. However, the extra conflicts caused extra length, not because of their mere presence, but because they also filled the second need: world description…

In addition to the plot, the length comes from the necessity to describe a world unfamiliar to most: Marine Corps boot camp at San Diego, CA, circa 2003. If I express to you, as the omniscient author, that boot camp is tough, you might accept it, but you want to see it. Military training has always been a mysterious world of American culture. Still, you can become familiar with it without being there, if it’s presented well. That’s what my story had to do. So while the conflicts are familiar—a cheating girlfriend, an envious teammate, and a life-threatening mistake—the world is not so familiar. If the conflicts were set in the familiar world of the typical workplace, it would take me far less time to set the scene for the reader. But since this takes place in boot camp—and during a specific time in boot camp—I need to describe that world for you. That’s my job. But I can’t just prattle on with setting description and esoteric exposition. I have to describe the world through the character’s actions.

I could save space by getting rid of a bunch of action and just adding some paragraphs—like a mini-essay—to tell you about boot camp. Then I get on with my story. Problem is, you’d probably put the story down. You didn’t pick it up for an essay; you picked it up for action. So any element that I describe—how recruits have to squeeze four to a urinal to pee in less than a minute or how drill instructors are intense yelling machines—has to be part of the plot.At least in my book. (Get it?) Everything serves the plot (a subject for another blog…).And that’s how the story became so long: to describe the world, I had to do so in action that advances the plot. And since the world is so unfamiliar, the plot had to grow to incorporate enough action to describe it. The short story evolved into a novelette…

As I went about diagnosing my story, I found that the world description tied in nicely with the plot. Both advanced the other, and both were more interesting because of it. I thought of the reader: I think they’d be willing to hang with a novelette, if the world was interesting, the conflicts were appropriate to the world yet relatable to the reader, and the plot moved forward quickly and faithfully. For now, I think the first draft reads like that.

So I’m not going to limit it. I’m going to let the first draft be what it is. Form follows function. Originally, I had intended the plot to function as a short story…but sometimes the architect realizes he needs more space, the building must be taller, because the function—the meaning and purpose of the story—was greater than he at first envisioned. So work with it. It’s still blueprints. Let it be what it’s going to be. Write today. Edit tomorrow. And let the publishers decide if they want to publish it.

That’s what I’m learning.

Write On! How to be a writer…

Thinker DoerWhen I started writing back in August of 2013–I mean, seriously writing!–I had no idea if it would take me anywhere. I knew that I wanted it to, but what I was really worried about was: Would I keep writing, or fizzle out and let it go like I had in the past? What’s the secret to staying motivated? How do the professional authors do it?

The truth is as simple as can be: you just do it. If you want to be a writer (or anything), you have to DO the things that writers do. For me, that list is the following…

Writers…

•…block out time in their schedules to write. For me, it’s two hours every night after work. I keep a somewhat-informal work log: a little notebook where I record the date; the time (to the minute) that I started writing, stopped for a break, started again, and ended; and the hours worked. Example: [Date: 5/14/2014 Start: 6:02 p.m. Out: 7:05 p.m. In: 7:10 p.m. End: 8:19 p.m. Total: 2 hrs. 12 min.] Like clocking in for work, it keeps me on track, and I feel proud to see the hours add up at the end of the week.

•…talk with people that their writing might affect. Let your spouse or children or friends know that you will be unavailable during those blocked-out times; you don’t love them less, and you will miss them, but you need some time to write; be sure you spend time with them before and after writing, whenever possible.

•…outline. Yes, outline. Sorry, people, but if you want to write, you need to outline; you need to begin with the end (the climax) in mind, and then work out a purposeful progression of events to reach that climax. Sometimes your outline will be five quick bullet points, and then you go! Other times it will be several pages of block paragraphs. Whatever it is, you need to explore your story before you write your story.

•…get sleep. Shoot for those 8 solid hours a night, even if it means–again–less time with family. Get at least 7 solid hours each night during the week, and get 8 hours on the weekend (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights). As Robert Ludlum’s character Jason Bourne knew, “Rest is a weapon.” Keep your mind sharp and hit the rack.

•…eat right. I’m not talking about a super-strict diet; but you need to make sure that you’re eating some fruit, vegetables, and protein. Skip the fries at fast-food restaurants and ask for apple slices instead. Most places have them and it makes a world of difference. Drink more water. And go easy on the snacks; don’t snack while writing, snack before or after writing.

•…go for walks. How can you write an exciting, heart-pounding story if you yourself live a sluggish life? Block time for a walk before you write, at least 20 minutes. Walks clear your mind and get your blood flowing–ideal circumstances for creative potential! For me, I get home from work and immediately take my dog for a 30-minute walk, then I shower, snack, make a small cup of coffee, and sit down to write. After two hours of writing, I still have time to watch a 40-min. TV episode and spend time with my fiancée before bed. So take that walk. Make the time.

•…read. One of my favorite authors, Orson Scott Card, said it best: “If you don’t have the time to read, then you don’t have the time–or the tools–to write.” To become a better writer, you must read often, and you must read well! So pick that book you’ve been meaning to read, and read it…it will make you a better writer!

•…study the craft. Pick up a book on fiction writing, too. As with any professional endeavor, you can never know too much about the field. Study and practice the techniques you learn. For Sci-Fi, I recommend Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. For a principled understanding of writing for any genre, I recommend Ayn Rand’s The Art of Fiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers. For a comprehensive study of writing techniques for all genres, I HIGHLY recommend the Writer’s Digest book series, “The Elements of Fiction Writing”–books are separated by topic, including Characters & Viewpoint, Plot, and Dialogue, each written by famous and respected authors.

•…finish what they start. You don’t have to finish every story. But you have to finish SOME of them! I used to give up on stories after the first few written pages because of one of two problems, or both: I didn’t know where the story was going; or I didn’t think it was any good. Outlining solved the first one. As for the second, I conducted an experiment: I finished a story that I had outlined, even though I thought it was boring. I figured, if it IS boring, at least I finished it…at least I practiced my craft and I have an outlined, written, and edited story, complete in itself. I did. It was a good feeling. And guess what? As I wrote it–even though I thought it might be boring–the actual process of writing it, of being determined to FINISH it, made it develop into something pretty amazing. I thought it would be boring; it turned out instead that people related to it so much that they wanted to share it with friends. That may not always be the case with every story, but that’s not the point. The point is: practice your craft, finish a story…and you WILL become a better writer if you do! We learn best by doing.

•…write an amazing story, and then write another and another… Get them out of your head. Write your story, love it, care for it, fawn over it, and finish it. Then forget about it. Except for the business of sending it in to publishers, once you’ve finished a story, let well enough alone. Forget about it, and move on to the next one. Make THAT one your NEW labor of love. Write it, edit it, and send it out. Then forget about it. Then write the NEW story… Rinse and repeat.

•…are patient and persistent. Writing stories one after the other doesn’t mean you’ll have 12 stories in a month (most likely). If you’re completing two (great) short stories a month, I think you’re doing well. Some stories need time to matriculate through your thoughts, your psychology, and your ideals. You might conceive a story one month, but not write that particular story until months later. Meanwhile, you’re working on the stories from months before. You should be working consistently, but that doesn’t mean you have to churn out a story a week. These are labors of love, after all. Just don’t labor all your life on one story.

•…stay focused. You might have one or a dozen projects on your mind and in progress at any given time, but try to keep your attention on one or two. Get those completed. Then move on to the others.

•…study the business. You want to get published, right? Well, get on Google and type in searches for getting published. I recommend author-friendly sites such as Writer’s Digest and Writer’s Relief. NOTE: You should never have to PAY to get yourself traditionally published! So please ignore anything to do with subsidy publishing. Check out this professional article by Joel Friedlander on the dangers of subsidy publishing.

•…attend writing groups. Hey, go find yourself a group. It might take a few before you find one you really like. I drive 120 miles round-trip once a week for a group I especially like. But that’s tough! So I’m thinking of starting my very own group soon in my city. I’ll still attend the other group every other week or so, though! A good group is a good group… Get some writing friends, ask for and offer feedback on your work, and stay motivated! Peer pressure can be positive! Check Meetup.com and other social meet-up sites to find groups.

•…know what he or she thinks to be true and good. Look, every writer is a philosopher, at least implicitly. You have a way that you think the world should be, that would make it good and right. Explore your thoughts on that, deeply. Read books on morality; or read the newspaper, and actively think about your opinions on the article subjects–war, poverty, social responsibility and personal responsibility, the role of government, etc., from the big stuff down to the little stuff. Read books and play detective: try to detect what the author’s worldview is. Weaving your ideals into your characters, settings, and events will make your writing pop and prosper in a way you never would have imagined! Try it. Start here: if there is some issue that you’re divided on–that you’re not sure where you land–develop two or three characters based on the opposing views. Have them interact. See what comes out! Again, I recommend Ayn Rand’s The Art of Fiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers as a jumping-off point for understanding why philosophy is important–in fact, INTEGRAL–to writing.

These are the big “jumping off” points that, together, have made me a “writer.”

I recently had an exchange with my brother on a Bruce Lee quote: “As you think, so shall you become.” To me, that quote might imply that action is needed, but it greatly underemphasizes the importance of action (surprising, coming from Bruce Lee!). I would say that as you think and as you ACT, so shall you become.

Be a thinker, but be a DOER more! To paraphrase William Faulkner: You want to be a writer? Then be writing!

What are your tips for BEING a writer? Let me know in the comments below. =)

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This week’s promotion (through 5/24/2014):
My short story, “Coffee in the Afternoon,” for just $0.99

“In a quiet café, Johnny tells his religiously-oppressive wife, Jessica, that he wants a divorce—and he’s taking their daughter, Lily, with him.”