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how i do it
march 1, 2012
This month I'm going to talk about the process I follow when writing and selling my fiction, because I think it could be interesting to fellow writers so that they can compare notes, and to readers who might like a behind-the-scenes look at how a writer works.
My focus is not going to be so much on the actual creation process itself, although I think that would make a great future column, but instead on the day-to-day procedures I follow to gather notes for an upcoming story, archive different drafts, keep track of submissions and licensing rights, etc.
And of course, the process I'm about to describe is simply the way I do it. It's certainly not the only way, and perhaps not the best way. But it works for me. If any of you have suggestions on how you think I might improve my process, please let me know. One of the things I've always loved about the Internet is the willingness of people to share, and help each other out. It's in that spirit that I've written this column.
I divide the writing process into seven steps:
Every story starts with an idea. That idea could be a setting, a line of dialogue, a character, a situation, an image, a plot twist.
Sample ideas: I decided I wanted to write a story that takes place aboard a boat ("Permission to Come on Board"/setting); decided I wanted to write about an over-confident male who's unaware of the fact he's gay ("Boyfriend"/character). In both cases, I was attracted to the potential of the idea. Boats and the ocean are elements I don't use that often in my stories, so I thought it'd be fun to explore that world, to see what I could do with it. For the boyfriend story, I thought I could use his character to play with the dynamics of reader-awareness versus character-awareness.
Whenever I get an idea, I write it down. Almost always on a long yellow legal pad I keep by my side of the bed. I turn the legal pad upside down before I write the idea, so I can tear off the strip of paper with the idea, and still have some of the paper's length left for future ideas (which is me being both frugal and optimistic.) I try to take the time to write down the idea legibly. It's frustrating to later on squint at a blue-inked paragraph, knowing there's the blur of a great idea in there, but I scrawled it so quickly I can't read what I wrote.
When I do get an idea, the first thing I consider: Is this an idea that will fit into an existing story I want to write, or is this idea the first thunder for a completely new story I don't even know yet?
When Mary and I leave our bedroom at 3:30 each day, to go upstairs and work on projects, I tear off all my new ideas, fold them, stuff them into the front pocket of my pajama top. Upstairs, I toss the folded yellow papers in the space between my keyboard and the computer monitor. I may sort them out and record them that night, but more often I'll just let them accumulate, this wide yellow pile of ideas, until I decide to go through them and officially record them.
Once I do get an idea for a story, whether it's just a line of dialog, an image, etc., I find that other new ideas start to drift towards that first idea (I suppose because I'm subconsciously thinking about the idea.) At some point, I decide to put all those related ideas into a Word file. I usually don't have a title at that point, so I just use something general that will remind me of the eventual story I want to write (Story That Takes Place on a Boat.)
Once I type up the two or three ideas I have for that story, I print that file, which I put in an inbox under my printer, and save the file on my computer under Fiction/Work Files/Story That Takes Place on a Boat.
As additional ideas float over, I either handwrite them on the initial print out, or paper clip my torn-off yellow pad notes to the initial print out. Once that gets a bit cumbersome, I add all the new ideas to the Word file, reprint it, discarding the old printout. I also discard the yellow legal pad notes once I've incorporated them into the Word file for that story. I used to keep them, but they just take up too much room.
About this same time, I start thinking about how all these individual ideas can be put into a narrative. Which brings us to the next step in my writing process.
Blocking to me means creating a Word file where I arrange a new story into scenes. A lot of writers prefer not to block out a story in advance, to just sit down at the keyboard with some ideas, and start writing.
I don't do that. I tried it a couple of times, and it just doesn't work for me (if it works for you, more power to you.)
Why do I block?
For one thing, it helps me avoid situations where I write a thousand words going down one particular trail of a story, then realizing I've come to a dead end. By deciding ahead of time where a story is going, plot-wise, during that process I discover which trails are dead ends, and which paths lead to a successful finish.
For another, I like using foreshadowing in a story. If I know all the major elements in a story before I start writing it, I can write a story that is already informed of its ending.
For a third, by blocking out the major scenes in a story ahead of time, I can more easily see where the weaknesses are in a narrative. What sections of the story need a stronger scene to move the story forward, and what scenes really aren't necessary (or can be combined with another scene.)
Blocking helps me understand how each element will fit (or not fit) in the overall context of the story.
During the process of initially blocking out a story, because I'm working on a scene to scene level, I also come up with the actual plot of the story.
Before I block, I may have some terrific individual scenes, but during blocking, I'm forced to find a common thread among those individual scenes that make them "greater than the sum of their parts."
I also find that in blocking a story in advance, I am more likely to come up with scenes that exist outside the narrative drive of the story itself (they don't advance the plot), but still fit in thematically. if I'm just writing a story blind, scene to scene, I would tend to stick more closely to plot. Each scene has to advance the plot. But if I already have the plot, via blocking, I have greater flexibility in introducing scenes that don't advance the plot per se, but can be fitted into the story on their narrow edge to add some insights into the characters.
For example, in my story "The Dead Leave Tiny Bones", about an Appalachian couple who are trying to make it big in the city, there's a scene in which the husband watches and pauses videotapes of his wife from long ago. Nothing in that scene advances the plot, but it does give the reader a great deal of insight into the couple's relationship. If I were writing the story blind, I know I would never have thought of that scene. But having already created the plot during blocking, I had the freedom to look at the story as a whole, and decide where I could add non-plot scenes. And as it turned out, that's my favorite scene in that story.
Another thing I like to do during blocking is take two completely different story ideas, and mash them together. In other words, I take the idea for Story A, with its own notes, and Story B, with a different set of notes, and find some way to force the two narratives into a single narrative, no matter how disparate the two stories may be. The forced mash-up can give me a juxtaposition of characters, plots, settings I would never have thought to combine otherwise, adding more depth to the story.
My blocking files usually start with the provisional title, the date I wrote the blocking file, the names of all the major characters, something about their personalities.
Sometimes I'll include a one-sentence summary of what the story is about.
I then divide the story into scenes (Scene 1, Scene 2, etc.), and under the heading for each scene include information about that scene. Where it takes place, what happens, any foreshadowing to future scenes, etc. The blocking for each scene may include an entire conversation, a few paragraphs of description meant to be incorporated into the story, notes on mood, etc.
It's during the blocking stage that I occasionally realize a story just isn't ready to be written. The idea isn't developed enough, or during the blocking process I realize I'm just not as excited about the story idea as I once was. Discovering this glum fact in the blocking stage, rather than the writing stage, saves me a lot of grief and paper.
(I have one story, provisionally titled, "Whatever Happened to My Face?", that I've probably fully blocked-out about a half dozen times over the years, but I still don't have it right. Which is frustrating to me, because it has the potential to be a truly great story, has a strong main character and some terrific scenes, but I still haven't been able to figure out how to bring everything together.)
When it comes time to write the first draft, I keep my blocking printout (which is usually four to five pages long) to my left on my desk, so I can refer to it.
I write in the late afternoon to early evening. Sun above the telephone poles, to sun diffuse behind the trees. Usually I click around on the Internet for an hour or so visiting favorite sites, then minimize my web browser's window and open up the Word window.
I write about two hours a day, and in that time produce approximately one thousand words (writing to me is equal parts exhilarating and tiring.)
If I'm working on an existing story, I scroll back to the beginning of the section I wrote the previous evening. Read it again, editing as I go along. The advantage here is that I'm tightening my story as I proceed, plus I'm reminding myself of what takes place, on a sentence level, before I start my new section.
At the end of each session, I print the entire story to that point. On the front page I write the date, and the total word count. Toss it in an inbox (I have a lot of inboxes.) I do that because I want a hardcopy of the latest draft of the story in case my computer crashes and my online back-up service fails, and also because I think it's interesting to have a record of the changes I made to a story as I worked my way forward through it. I don't save the different drafts to my computer. My computer always has only the most recent iteration. All past versions are deleted.
I keep a Word file journal, one for each calendar year, contents arranged chronologically, where I record the total word count met each day. I find it to be an encouragement. I can scroll back up the journal and see how previous stories for that year gradually advanced towards completion.
I get some ideas for a story during the gathering process, many additional ideas during the blocking process, but the most ideas during the writing process, on the fly. To me, the similarity is to a stand-up comic who improvises in the middle of his act.
When I first started writing, because back then I was handwriting each story, I'd rarely make major editorial changes. If there was a change I'd want, I'd scrawl it above the original phrase on the manuscript page, as if it were an evil spirit about to descend. Those original drafts, before word processors, would get pretty messy. When I'd type (on a typewriter) the finished draft, I'd incorporate the corrections. But once I had a typewritten copy, it'd be rare that I'd make changes.
Once word processing came along, all that changed. At first, and for actually quite a few years, I'd continue writing out the first draft in long hand, I guess because that was the method I was used to, plus I liked the old-fashioned aspect of it. But halfway through my novel Father Figure, which is a long novel, and which I would only write on Saturdays, I realized writing scenes out in long hand, then typing them into Word, was double work. So I started writing directly to the pc. It's just so much easier.
Some writers rush through the first rough draft of a story, even if they know they'll need to go back and improve the overall quality of the writing. I suppose it encourages them to be able to plant that flag onto the story's final period. Others writers try to polish each sentence as much as they can before moving on to the next sentence. I'm in that latter group. To me, it makes more sense to try to get everything right, to the degree you can at that point, the first time through. It also gives me confidence that what I'm writing is eighty percent there; I'm not going to have to go back and make major changes. Again, one method isn't better than another, it's just what works best for each writer.
By the time I've finished the first draft of a story, there are usually some lines of dialogue, descriptions, etc. that have occurred to me for scenes I've already written. I write these on the blocking printout approximately where they fit into the story. Once I've finished that first draft, the first thing I do is go back into the draft, incorporating those additions.
There may also be some minor information I have to research for the story. For example, the name of a particular object (the holes shoelaces are laced through.) Rather than stop the flow of writing, I just type xxx where the name for that item would go. After finishing my first draft, I can perform a Word search on xxx and do all my research at once. (By the way, so far as learning obscure objects' names go, I highly recommend what's sometimes referred to as "pictionaries." These are books that cover a wide array of physical objects, usually grouped by similarity. Each entry includes a drawing or photograph of a specific object (a door, an airplane), with text surrounding the object naming each component (the hind end of a horse is called the "croup"; the front of a trumpet is called the "flared bell.") The two pictionaries I use are Ultimate Visual Dictionary by Dorling Kindersley, and What's What, by David Fisher and Reginald Bragonier, Jr.)
Then I start my first edit.
I love editing, because I'm no longer looking at a blank screen. Editing to me is like cleaning, and has the same satisfaction. You take something sloppy, make it sleek. It gives me enormous satisfaction to scrub my way down a paragraph, then sit back to see how it gleams.
The first edit, I'm making minor tweaks to the language, as I do with each edit, but I'm mostly looking at the story in its entirety. Is every scene necessary? Can two scenes be combined into one? Is an additional scene necessary? Can a scene be cut back? I handle all major structural issues with the story at this point.
The next edit, I'm looking at the story on a paragraph and sentence level, to see if there are any minor structural issues I need to address. Are there any paragraphs I can eliminate? Do I say the same thing twice? Am I repeating a character's physical description too often? Is a line of dialogue too "writerly"?
Once the structure is the way I want it, I do an additional edit, and this is really on a word-by-word level. Is a sentence too long? Can any words be cut from it? Is there a better way to describe something? Does a particular simile or metaphor work, or should it be retooled or abandoned? Is there a sentence or phrase I stumble over? Can I eliminate it or rework it?
After that edit, I do another edit, again on a word-by-word level, just to use the finest grade of sandpaper.
Once a story is the way I want it, to where I would feel good about someone reading it, I'm ready to submit.
A number of years ago, I made a decision to only submit to magazines that accept email submissions. Although this policy prevents me from submitting to journals that only accept snail mail submissions, I feel good about it. I don't like waiting in line, especially at a post office. Plus, you have to wonder just how "of today" a journal really is if it still insists on paper submissions.
With very rare exceptions, I also limit my submissions to periodicals that will be publishing my story in a print edition. Because I like print.
I used to faithfully buy the latest edition of Writer's Magazine Guide to Fiction Markets (or whatever it's called) each year, but I haven't in over a decade, because now we have the Internet, which is much more comprehensive and current.
The major sites I go to in researching possible homes for my stories are:
Duotrope also features interviews with editors about what they want, what they don't want, etc.
If I see a listing where I think a story of mine might fit, I go to the site and try to get a sense of what the editor wants. Some journal sites include sample stories on their site, which is a great service for writers, because you get to see what they actually publish, in terms of tone, explicitness, etc.
If I think a journal looks like a good bet, I prepare the manuscript according to the site's specifications. If they want 12 point Times Roman, I submit in 12 point Times Roman. Etc.
I don't submit a story to a journal if that story does not fit in with the journal's stated guidelines. It's a waste of my time and the editor's time. If a journal publishes stories between 2,000 and 7,500 words, I don't submit a 500-word flash fiction, or a 10,000 word story. If it's clear they only publish G-rated stories, I don't submit an X-rated story. If they only publish swords and sorcery, I don't submit a contemporary mystery. If they don't accept reprints, I don't submit a story that's been previously published elsewhere.
With the submission (sent as an attachment) I submit a cover letter in the body of the email. The cover letter gives the title of my story, the number of words, and the fact it's never before been published. I don't give a synopsis of the story in the cover letter (to me, that's a bad idea unless the editor specifically requests a synopsis.) I include a paragraph or two of my writing credits. At this point, that's usually a brief compilation of what critics have said about my work, along with a brief list of some of the more notable journals that have published my stories.
If an editor rejects a story, I move on to the next journal. I don't write an angry reply to the editor, telling them how wrong they are, or post on my blog or Facebook how stupid they are. They aren't wrong. They aren't stupid. That story is just not a good fit for that journal.
If a particular editor consistently rejects my work, I stop submitting to them. We just don't click.
The best of all worlds, of course, is when you eventually find an editor who "gets" your work, and is willing to publish more and more of it. Those editors always get my best submissions, before anyone else.
When I was a teen just starting off as a writer, I used to store all my stories in a huge cardboard box at the bottom of the closet in my bedroom. It was chaotic. Whenever I'd want to revisit a piece, I'd have to pull the heavy box out of the closet and paw down through all the layers of stapled papers to find what I was looking for.
Since then, I've gotten a lot more organized.
Each story, and its related paperwork, is kept in a heavy duty accordion file. The file has five manila folders in it:
The Notes folder contains all previous printed-out drafts of the story; the Published folder includes a copy of the journal in which the story appeared, a copy of any journal in which it was reprinted, any correspondence between me and the editor/publisher, and the contract(s) (if any) I signed for the story's publication.
These accordion files are kept in alphabetical order by story title in upright metal filing cabinets, four deep drawers to each cabinet, one cabinet for stories I've written but haven't yet sold, and two cabinets for stories that have been published.
So that's where everything physical is kept.
In addition, I have a massive Word file, with the file name Out, where I keep a record of each story I've written. The stories are arranged alphabetically. For each story's entry, I list all the venues to which I've submitted that story, by date. If an editor made a comment buying or rejecting the story, I include it in that submission's entry. If a submission resulted in a sale, I bold the entry for that submission.
Near the end of the file is a list, again in alphabetical order, of all stories that aren't currently out.
At the very end of the file is a list of all outstanding submissions, listed chronologically, giving the date submitted, the name of the journal, the name of the story, any response email I've received (for example, your story has been short-listed), and, if available, the stated response time on submissions for that journal.
I also keep, separately, a printed cheat sheet, two pages long, which lists all my unpublished stories, in alphabetical order by title, along with each story's word length. I find this to be handy when I'm reviewing different markets to find a place for my stories. I just have to glance at the cheat sheet to see if the story's available (not out somewhere else), and if its word length matches the word length required by the journal. If one of the stories on the cheat sheet has been submitted somewhere, I ink in where it was submitted.
I keep a Word file bibliography (similar to the one on this site) where I record publication information.
I also keep a Year by Year Record, where I record each year, by month, stories completed, and stories published.
As mentioned above, I also keep a yearly journal where I record by date the number of words I've written that day on a new story.
I used to keep an Out by Magazine Word file, where instead of listing stories alphabetically I'd list magazines I had submitted to alphabetically, adding to each magazine's entry the response for each story I had submitted to that magazine. It was a useful file to have, because I could tell at a glance how each magazine's editor felt about my writings, but then one of the many computers I've owned over the years crashed, I lost the file, and didn't have the energy to recreate it from scratch. But it is something to consider.
On almost all occasions, stories I've submitted to a particular journal, if accepted by that journal, have been published by that journal. On a few rare occasions, after a story has been accepted I've withdrawn the story, because the editor wanted to make changes that would weaken the story, or because it turned out the journal's description of itself was not accurate (for example, a journal that advertised itself as having a print edition, when it turns out at the point of sale they actually only have an online edition.) (And it's not that they only have an online edition that breaks the deal-there are plenty of great online journals-it's that they were deceptive about how they presented themselves. If they're not honest about being online only, what else are they going to be dishonest about, and who wants to be involved in a project with someone like that?)
Most journal sales don't involve a contract. The editor and I agree to terms in an email, and that's pretty much it. In my experience, almost all anthology sales do involve a contract. Which makes sense, since an anthology requires a considerable effort on the part of the editor/publisher, and they understandably want to protect their interests. Most anthology sales require that they have exclusive rights to your story for a period of two to three years (you can't sell the story anywhere else during that period, or post it on your own site.) Again, this is entirely reasonable. The value of an anthology is in the stories appearing in it. If those stories are readily available after a month or two in magazines, or on your site, fewer people are going to spend money on the anthology.
Most contracts for stories (journal or anthology) are two to three pages. Basically, you're affirming you wrote the story, you have the authority to sell the story (you own the rights to your story), and you agree to the terms under which your story will be published.
One of the most important components of any publishing contract are the rights you're granting to the publisher.
If the story is a reprint (it's already been published somewhere else), the publisher won't be asking for "first" rights. Otherwise, the publisher, if American, will usually want "First North American Serial Rights" (FNASR), meaning they have the right to first publish your story in North America. That's the most typical rights grant. The contracts should specify the copyright will remain in your name (or will be transferred back to you upon publication.) They also specify the restrictions placed on the publisher in using your work. Usually, the publisher will only be allowed to publish your story in one specific issue of the journal or anthology. Sometimes, if the story is appearing in a journal, the publisher will also request the right, at its discretion, to possibly reprint the story in a compilation anthology ("The Best of Journal X"). But more often, any request to reprint in a compilation anthology is a separate negotiation and contract.
Once I sell a story, I do sometimes sell it again. Which is a good practice, because it gets that story out to a different audience. There are rules to follow, though. You must still own the rights to the story, you have to let the potential new editor know the story was previously published, and you have to wait, if applicable, until the story is no longer under an exclusivity period (in other words, if you sell a story to an anthology and agree the anthology has exclusive rights to the story for two years, you can't resell the story until those two years are up.)