I recently began writing my one-hundredth work of fiction. Considering the few decades since I started, this does not make me particularly prolific but I was working full-time up until a few years ago. Still, it’s a milestone of sorts and gives me pause to reflect on these 100 attempts to tell a story.
Not all of the pieces were finished, my files hold a few aborted novels which ran out of steam around 30000 words and a few short stories which never progressed beyond an outline or idea list. But it’s interesting to me to compare the first fifty with the last fifty under some criteria of professional measure.
I published 8 of the first 50 (I count only paid publication, whether nominal or not) and 18 of the second 50 (this number I expect to grow as the more recent efforts are just starting their marketing crusade). Four of the accepted works are novels and comprise two-thirds of my novel submissions (I have a heroic fantasy under query to an agent and a sequel to Javenny in limbo). I have two novels currently nearing completion and hope my success ratio on the longer works continues.
A better measure to me is what have I learned over the course of creating 100 pieces? What skills have improved? It’s almost embarrassing to review some of the earlier works to realize ‘I submitted this?’ and the editor remained completely professional in their polite rejection. Bless those souls who toil the slushpiles, I can think of no worse non-manual labour task.
If these early stories are unpublishable, then I must have gained some improvement. I have not reached Ray Bradbury’s benchmark of one million bad words before you figure it out. Access to more resources than Ray had may shorten it to seven or eight hundred thousand words of drek. Numerous how-to books and online resources have helped. Critique groups have helped more.
The first really useful how-to books I devoured were L. Sprague de Camp’s Science Fiction Handbook, Revised and Barry Longyear’s Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop-I. De Camp’s book originally came out in 1953 and the revision in 1975. Not a lot of nuts and bolts but inspiring and a look inside the life of being a writer. Longyear’s is The Nuts and Bolts guide (he even calls it ‘fiction mechanics’). Barry distills the essence of commercial fiction requirements in order to qualify as a complete short story and sets out a number of skill-building exercises to develop the template until it’s in your bones. It might seem formulaic but knowing the rules before you break them is better than defying convention through ignorance. There is one more classic reference book I’ll get to shortly.
Other books supplemented over the years, each more or less appropriate to my own stage of development. The most currently relevant for me is Stephen King’s On Writing (the second half after the short autobiography). He inspires, distills, describes and reflects on what makes good writing. The other major text resource which I’ve found myself referring to across my entire experience is Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction. It is full of exercises designed to stretch and re-orient your perceptions and get that unique perception or voice onto paper in a compelling form.
I mentioned the value of a critique group. A respectful critique group is irreplaceable. I review others’ works in my group to see what works and what doesn’t and then examine my own work to see where I’ve made similar errors and where I can improve.
The best way for me to hone my skill is to write and write some more. Ideas make room for the next batch when you get them out of your brain onto paper or screen. I don’t know if I will reach opus two-hundred but when I started, I doubt if I imagined reaching half of that.