The Way I Write Part 3: Refinement

Once more we’re taking a look at my writing as it’s progressed over the last twenty years to see how it’s changed and if it’s improved. The first post focused on pretty amateurish works of fiction from the early aughts. The second post jumped ahead a few years and we saw what might be called an evolution of style and voice. Still, the fiction in these first two posts was flawed, overly wordy, and pretty much the polar opposite of how I write now. In this post, we’ll jump ahead a few more years, starting with 2010, and see what’s changed.

“Blasted Heath” (circa 2010 A.D.)

This passage is ones of the first bits of fiction I wrote for Privateer Press, not too long after I took the position of editor-in-chief for No Quarter Magazine. This was a bit of league fiction supporting the organized play of the tabletop miniatures games WARMACHINE and HORDES.

Grim Angus stared at the faint tracks in the muddy ground, rubbing his chin with one blunt-fingered hand. He’d expected to find skorne tracks—the Bloodmseath was full of the murderous bastards—and maybe even tracks of the few humans that lived in the marsh. But these weren’t skorne; neither were they human or trollkin.

By the size and spacing of the tracks, Grim counted two dozen man-sized creatures. The depth of the depressions on some of the tracks suggested armor, and heavy armor at that for such narrow feet to leave lasting impressions in the swampy earth. Others tracks were fainter, left by lighter armored troops – scouts perhaps.

“What’s that, Grim?” A deep, gravelly voice asked over Grim’s shoulder. A resounding thud that shook the ground followed the question.

Grim sighed, stood, and turned to address the speaker. Noral Stonemapper was an immense trollkin, easily seven feet tall and so stoutly muscled he was often mistaken for a full-blood troll. The huge trollkin was a krielstone bearer. His honored burden, a six-hundred-pound chunk of granite inscribed with the great deeds of trollkin heroes, was sunk a full foot into the mossy sward in front of him.

What I like about this piece, as opposed to the earlier passages I’ve shown, is I’m definitely starting to simplify, to edit down, especially when the voice of the character demands it. In this case, Grim Angus, a trollkin bounty hunter, and a stoic and pragmatic one at that. In addition, this just sounds more like the stuff I currently write, but let’s look at the numbers.

  • Passive Sentences: 6%
  • Flesch Reading Ease: 75.1
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 6.0

Now that, folks, is pretty damn readable, and it’s well within the parameters of most published fiction. Additionally, if you look at the stuff I’m writing for Privateer Press today it’s within this range, so as far back as 2010 I was starting to dial in my fantasy fiction voice. Now let’s look at something in another genre.

“At the Seams” (circa 2012 A.D.)

This is from one of the first pieces of flash fiction I wrote back in 2012. I initially wrote it as apart of a one-hour flash fiction contest, and the following passage comes from that first draft.

My head is throbbing now, but I have to maintain focus. If I let the thought slip for just an instant, I’ll lose something—maybe just a bit of fingernail or a few flakes of skin and maybe a whole lot more. I almost look down at the smooth stump where my left foot used to be but manage to avoid it. I’d like to hold on to my right foot a little longer.

In the end, I know it’s pointless. How long can you keep thinking about not falling apart? How long can you think about any one thing at all? It’s not really possible. The mind wanders, and you just can’t—

Blinding pain in my right hand wrenches me away from thinking about thinking. I look down to see that my right index finger now ends after the second knuckle. The rest of the finger lies on the floor. There’s no blood or anything, just a clean separation, as if my finger never had that extra inch of flesh and bone.

If you were to look at a some of my fiction now, I think you’d see a lot similarities, but let’s look at the numbers.

  • Passive Sentences: 0%
  • Flesch Reading Ease: 85.8
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 4.7

Yep, this is pretty much where I live now. Sure, the occasional story goes a bit higher or even a bit lower on the readability scale, but for the horror, crime, and even sci-fi I write these days, this is my happy zone. My style has grown into something you might call streamlined, hell, even straightforward (I can even live with spartan), and I’m happy with it. One other thing to note is I published this story with The Molotov Cocktail in 2013, my first flash fiction publication.

Well, I think the improvement between 2007 and 2010 was a big one, and it’s pretty clear my style became much more streamlined, less wordy, and well, actually publishable. Again, for reference, here are the readability score and dates for the excerpts we’ve covered so far.

Date Story Reading Ease Grade Level
2000 Lullaby 53.5 13.4
2005 Rearview 37.9 14.4
2006 The Tow 61.6 10.7
2007 The Fate of Champions 62.9 8.7
2010 Blasted Heath 75.1 6.0
2012 At the Seams 85.8 4.7

In the final post in this series, I’ll look at stories I’ve actually published in the last few years and see if we can detect any further improvement.


I assume you’re all quite familiar with the term rejectomancy (or at least how I interpret it). I’ve spent years and a slightly embarrassing number of blog posts talking about what rejections mean, but what about acceptances? What if we turned our overly optimistic, high-powered literary microscopes on the yeses rather than the nos? Is acceptomancy a thing? Let’s talk about it.

Sure, if you get an acceptance for a story, then, uh, that market likes that story. Two points for Captain Obvious, right? But let’s dive deeper. What else can an acceptance tell you? Here’s three things they’ve told me.

  1. It’s often about timing. This is one of the best things about an acceptance. If you have a story that’s been rejected a bunch, and you finally get that acceptance, it validates the theory that publishing is all about right story + right market/editor + right time. I’ve had multiple pieces published after double digit rejections, some at pro markets, and I often haven’t changed a thing about the story. These acceptances have taught me to hang in there on a story even if it doesn’t land the first, second, or, um, the sixteenth try.
  2. Oh, so that’s what they want. I recently cracked a market after they’d rejected me ten times in a row. I sent them flash fiction, short stories, horror stories, fantasy stories, the works. Then, after ten nos I got a surprise yes on a story I didn’t think had a chance in hell. Of course I was thrilled to get the yes, but I also wanted to publish again with this market, so I took a very close look at the story they accepted, noting the style and tone, and sent them more of the same. I haven’t received another acceptance from them, but the next three rejections where either personal or short list rejections (I’d only received form letters before). Yeah, it’s kind of obvious, but an acceptance tells you pretty much exactly the kind of story the market wants, a discovery made even more profound after a bunch of rejections.
  3. Maybe this idea isn’t total shit. My most recent acceptance is an important one. It not only hits the first two points I mentioned, but it was one of the more validating acceptances I’ve received in a while. You see, I’ve been writing a lot of genre mashups, mostly a mix of horror, urban fantasy, and crime/noir stuff. I’d been getting really positive rejections on these stories, but they were all “not quite right for us.” They were either too horror for the fantasy markets or two fantasy for the horror markets. I started to think maybe this combo of genre, style, and tone was a dead end. Then I got an acceptance for one of those stories from a very tough market. I was shocked, eccastatic, sure, but shocked. So, sometimes an acceptance can be validating for more than “Hey, I’m good enough to get published.” It can be validating for “Hey, this crazy genre/style mashup might actually be marketable.”

Thoughts on acceptomancy? What have acceptances revealed to you? Tell me about it in the comments.

Proofing Checklist: Just Nod & Smile

I recently finished the latest revision of my novel, and after all the heavy lifting was done–you know, adding new scenes, tweaking character motivations, all that–it was time for one more proof before it goes back to my agent. Now I have a pretty lengthy proofing checklist that includes all kinds of things, from overused words, sentence structure bugaboos, adverb annihilation, dialog tag correctification, the works. What I want to focus on today, though, is body language and nonverbal cues, and more importantly the ones I tend to overuse.

As usual for these things, what follows is how I write, revise, etc. I’m trying for a specific style with my work that won’t be a good fit for everyone. So with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s nod, smile, shake our heads, and grimace this thing to death. 🙂

As I alluded to above, the prime suspects for overused body language in my work are nod, smile, and shaking heads. The first two, especially, can get pretty egregious, and I end up removing half or more of them in a given manuscript. I also tend to overuse frown, grimace, and, oddly, shudder to a lesser degree, plus a few others.

So how and why do I fix my nods and smiles and so on? Well, here are some examples.

1) It doesn’t make sense. Sometimes I’m just writing along, making everybody nod and smile, and for some reason I pop one into sentence where it doesn’t make sense. Case in point:

When are you going after them?” Everett asked.

She nodded. “Soon, and you’re coming with us.”

So, uh, why is she nodding there? No good reason. This one just gets nuked, and the sentence and dialog are fine without it.

2) It’s redundant with the dialog. This is kind of a stylistic choice, but I prefer to let the dialog do the heavy lifting when it comes to character emotions, intent, and so on. Often as not, the body language is just redundant. Example:

Everett nodded. “Yeah, that night.” He took a risk and lied. “I spoke with Howard on the inside. He saw the same thing.”

I don’t really need the nodded here because he gives the affirmative in the dialog and I don’t think it adds anything. I might rewrite this one as:

“Yeah, that night.” Everett took a risk and lied. “I spoke with Howard on the inside. He saw the same thing.”

Now there are times where the body language, a nod in this case, does add something to the dialog. Case in point:

He didn’t sit, but he put his hands on the back of the chair and nodded. “Go on.”

I could remove the nod here, but I actually like the three little bits of nonverbal communication here followed by the dialog. Your mileage may vary, but this is one I’d keep.

3) There’s a better word. Sometimes I’ll default to one of my go-to bits of body language even when there’s a better choice. Now, this differs from point number one in that I actually want some kind of nonverbal cue in the sentence. Just, you know, a different one. Example:

He grimaced. “They could have brought you at night to spare you that.” He remembered his own troubles with the sun.

Now a grimace is usually used to denote disgust or pain, but that’s not what the character is feeling here. It’s frustration or even anger, so something different is needed. Maybe it’s:

“Goddamn it,” Everett said through clenched teeth. “They could have brought you at night to spare you that.”

In this case I think that extra bit of dialog and the nonverbal cue sells the emotion I want better than just a facial expression. I also think it works better without the last sentence.

So how many of the offending words did a remove from my 103,000-word manuscript? Here’s the score.

Word Start End
nod/nodded/nodding 108 47
Smile/smiled/smiling 89 47
shake/shook head 88 38
shudder/shuddered/shuddering 23 11
frown/frowned/frowning 15 14
grimace/grimaced/grimacing 13 9

Not bad. As you can see, I removed half or more of the prime offenders while I was more lenient with the others. It should be noted that not all those nods, smiles, and shaking of heads were simply deleted. Like the examples I included, sometimes they were replaced with a more appropriate word or action.

Well, that’s a glimpse into my proofing process, and, again, this is just how I do it. You may use more nods and smiles than me, and that’s cool. Hell, I recently looked at a best-selling novel around the same length as my book, and it had 276 instances of nod/nodded/nodding. That clearly didn’t keep it from getting published or selling in great numbers.

What types of body language and nonverbal cues do you tend to overuse? Tell me about it in the comments.

Get Your Hooks In: Even More Fun With First Lines

For a while now I’ve been revisiting my published stories specifically to look at the first line and determine if it’s the kind of line that immediately hooks the reader. Once again, this is because of an essay by Stephen King called “Great Hookers I Have Known” from his collection Secret Windows. It’s a great little piece where King looks at the first lines from his novels to see if they qualify as “hookers.” That’s apparently old publisher slang for a first lines that grab a reader’s attention.

So let’s look at some of my recently published stories and see if I’m getting better, worse, or just treading water with my first lines. I’ll give you a link to the story if it’s free to read online, then the first line, and an excuse, er, I mean an explanation of why it’s a good or not so good.

1. “The Thing That Came With the Storm” published by The Molotov Cocktail

I’ve burned all the furniture and every scrap of paper in the house.

Pretty good. Like a lot of interesting first lines, I think it gets the reader asking questions. In this case, that question is why is he doing that? That’s the kind of thing that usually keeps a reader reading. Grade: B+

2. “Big Problems” published by Jersey Devil Press

Gorrus crawled on his hands and knees, squeezing through the narrow halls of his house.

Meh. This is one that gets a whole lot better when paired with the second sentence. His bedroom was the only room that could accommodate a giant’s frame because he’d knocked down the walls of the adjoining rooms. There’s an argument to be made, of course, that you should focus on the first paragraph as a hook, and this is one that probably supports that argument. Grade: C+ (B with second line)

3. “Paint Eater” published by The Arcanist

Ajay tossed the empty can of black Krylon on the ground and stepped back.

Yeah, bleh. I have a good paragraph to open this story, but this first sentence is kinda boring. The black Krylon is, I guess, mildly interesting just because you don’t read those words together very often and it tells you something about the story. Still, not awesome.  Grade: C-

4. “Far Shores and Ancient Graves” published by New Myths

Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” Grace smiled, hoping the stuffy looking British archaeologist had a sense of humor.

Not terrible (a little cliche maybe). This one gives you a little character note from the get-go, but it’s not exactly knock-your-socks-off. British archaeologist gives a hint at what the story might be about, but I’d say this one is just okay. Grade: B-

5. “Old as the Trees” published by Ellipsis Zine

Simon stood next to an ocean of waist-high weeds, their thin yellow stalks so densely packed you’d have to walk on top of them rather than through them.

I like this one. There’s some good imagery here, but it doesn’t tell you a whole lot. This is a horror story, and if I’d been able to inject something ominous into this first line it would really sing. As it is, it’s not bad, but not great. Grade: B

6. “Time Waits for One Man” published by Factor Four Magazine

Okay, so you’re immortal?” Nadine set her iPhone on the table and pressed record.

Here we go. This is a good one. I love starting a story with dialog when I can, and I think it works here. The question “Okay, so you’re immortal?” is pretty interesting, I think, and I believe most folks would want to keep reading (the whole point of a good first line). Grade: A

7. “Beyond the Block” published by Tales from the Magician’s Skull

My cell is not far from the executioner’s square, and the headsman is already at work.

Another solid first line. This one tells you a lot in a short space. You immediately know the narrator is in some kind of trouble and there’s the threat he’ll get his head chopped off. That’s pretty good. It’s not the best of the bunch, but well above average. Grade: A-

As usual, these grades are super subjective, and your mileage may vary. A lot. Ultimately, all these stories were published, and the question, as always, is did the first line help or hurt the story’s chances? This is not scientific or anything, but I will say the stories in this batch with better first lines were rejected fewer times or even sold on their first attempt. There are, of course, other factors at play. I’ve sold to a number of these markets more than once or even a lot, so the editor might give me the benefit of the doubt and read past a boring first line (bless them). Or, it’s entirely possible that some editors don’t really care about the first line and read every story start to finish and judge it in its entirety (also, bless them). Who knows? But it remains a fun little exercise. 🙂

Thoughts on first lines? Tell me about it in the comments and/or share some of yours.

The Post-Rejection Process

Rejections are inevitable. You can’t avoid them, you can’t (and absolutely shouldn’t) argue with them, and though they lose some of their sting over time, they’ll always have some bite. What you can do is control how you deal with rejections. For me, that boils down to a specific four-step process that lets me put rejections in perspective and move on. Of course, this is going to be a very different process for each writer, but here’s what I do.

  1. Read and feel. You can’t avoid this part, so I just lean into it. Be disappointed, be angry, be sad. There’s nothing wrong with any of that . . . as long as you set some kind of time limit. If I need it, I’ll usually give myself anywhere from ten minutes to an hour just to deal with the emotions. I remind myself none of this is personal, that selling a story is all often about putting it in front of the right editor at the right time, and all the other little adages and affirmations I talk about on the blog. What I don’t want is to let those emotions overwhelm me and keep me from being productive, i.e., sending out more submissions. This is also a time I might reach out to other authors to commiserate, normalize the experience, and, hey, get a little sympathy from folks going through the same thing.
  2. Observe and report. The next thing I do is all the bookkeeping. It’s a clinical process that removes me from the emotional aspect of rejection. First thing I do is move the rejection email from my inbox into a rejection folder. It’s kind of an out of sight, out of mind thing, but it’s also so I can put the rejection where it belongs. There’s something vaguely comforting in that. The next thing I do is head out to Duotrope and report the rejection there. I want to keep accurate records because I need them for my blog, and I want to make sure I don’t make stupid mistakes like sending a rejected story to the same publisher. I can’t let a disappointing rejection hurt my chances at future publication.
  3. Get analytical. Okay, now that I’ve let my emotions have their moment and I’ve done all the necessary accounting, I’m usually in a pretty objective place. If I’ve received a personal rejection with feedback, I’ll pull up the email and really try and absorb it. Is it useful to me? Do I need to revise the story based on the feedback? More importantly, does the feedback possibly pinpoint a larger issue in my writing? If the feedback resonates with me, then I’ll revise the story. If I’ve received a form rejection, then I generally go straight to step four.
  4. Fire and forget. I often send out a rejected story right away if I received a standard form rejection and the story has only been submitted a few times (or if I can’t use the feedback I received from a personal rejection). It’s another process that has, I don’t know, kind of a cleansing element, especially after I’ve done all the stuff above. Sending that story out again feels like the final step in the process, one that allows me to put a rejection behind me and move forward.

So that’s my process, my ritual if you will. It keeps me sane and keeps me sending out more submissions, and that’s all I can hope for.

What do you do post-rejection? Tell me about it in the comments.

Deadlines: What Can They Teach You?

I’m currently writing on deadline, something I’ve done a lot in my career. From short stories to novels, I’ve frequently had to bang out the words under the gun. That got me thinking. What has writing under a deadline taught me and how has it shaped my writing? Here are three deadline-induced skills I’ve developed, which I’ve reduced down to acronyms because it’s more fun. So, lets talk about ABO, GID, and FIP.

1) ABO (Always be Outlining)

Look, I’m not saying outlining is the one true way. A lot of writers prefer to fly by the seat of their pants, and that clearly works for them. For me, however, outlining a fiction project does two things. One, it alleviates a lot of the worry that goes hand-in-hand with writing under a (tight) deadline. If I know where the story is going, and I have a solid road map to get there, I worry less about that and can focus on the writing. Two, it makes it easier to get started. An outline is kind of like a practice run or a warm-up, and it allows me to dive into the story without all the anxiety-inducing baggage of actually writing it (yet). That, for some reason, make the whole thing easier.

What ABO has Taught Me

Well, this is pretty simple. I’ve become a dedicated plotter in my own work for the same reasons I describe above. I write detailed outlines for short stories and novels, and it’s made both starting and finishing my own projects much easier. As I said above, outlining is not for everyone, and I get that, but it’s been an invaluable tool for me.

2) GID (Get it Down)

When I’m writing on a deadline, I don’t have time to let self-doubt and fear get in my way. That’s not to say they aren’t present (they are), but the only thing that frightens me more than getting those words on the page is, uh, not getting those words on the page and missing my deadline. So I sit down and write, no matter how I’m feeling, not matter how my brain is screaming “THIS IS ALL TERRIBLE.” I just forge ahead, word by word, paragraph by paragraph, at a pace of 2,000 to 3,000 words per day until I have a first draft. Basically, I tell myself “just get it down,” which is to say get it on the page, get that first draft done, and, most importantly, you can worry about the rest later.

What GID has Taught Me

With my own writing, I often pretend I’m on a deadline. For a novel, I figure out a writing schedule that requires a pace of about 10,000 words a week. I write my outline, and then, well, I just get it down. It allows me to knock out a first draft in about nine to twelve weeks. Really, what GID has allowed me to do, in conjunction with outlining, is finish things. It’s often a struggle, but if I can allow myself to not care about everything being perfect as I write it and really just focus on getting words on the page, I can get things done, and it’s never as bad as I think it’s gonna be, which leads me to the next skill.

3) FIP (Fix it in Post)

The bosom buddy of get it down, fix it in post or FIP is another mantra I recite as I’m writing a first draft. It’s more of a film/TV term than a writing term, but the concept of cleaning up and editing raw footage still applies. Working in the gaming industry as an editor and writer for all those years taught me just about everything can be fixed (often at the last minute) once you have a complete draft to work with.

What FIP Taught Me

Like the rest of these acronyms, FIP is all about finishing. It’s another way to do an end run around the fear and doubt that might keep me from writing. When I’m working on that first draft of a story or a novel, and I start to get a little freaked out that it’s not going well or whatever, I tell myself “fix it in post,” often right after I tell myself “just get it down.” Those two together are a powerful force that lets me forge ahead and keep working.

Armed with ABO, GID, and FIP, I feel I can go into just about any project with the understanding that a) I can complete it, b) it won’t be nearly as bad as I fear it will be, and c) even if it needs work, I can DO that work. They’ve been a great confidence booster, and I learned them all because of the looming threat and ticking doom clock of years and years of deadlines. Those skills–though I guess they’re more mindsets than actual skills–have definitely paid dividends in my own work.

So that’s what deadlines have done for me. What have they done for you? Tell me about it in the comments.

Micromanagement: 4 Benefits of Writing Tiny

I’ve been writing Twitter microfiction under the #vss365 hashtag for roughly two months. This is my first experience writing at this very limited scale, and I’m finding it both fun and educational. I’m by no means an expert, but there is definite value in trying to cram a story into like 50 words. Here are a few of the benefits, as I see it, from writing microfiction.

  1. Savage self-editing. One of the best parts of writing microfiction, at least for me, is how it forces you to be utterly brutal and precise with word choice and sentence structure. What I mean is it’s largely an exercise of stripping an idea down to its bare bones so that that only the most vital words remain, and when you do it right, there’s a beautiful simplicity to the piece. Depending on the kind of fiction you write (and how you write it), that’s a skill that translates to longer works, from flash fiction to novels. I tend to have a fairly Spartan style anyway, and I find writing microfiction still forces me to knuckle down and make those hard choices (almost always for the better).
  2. Stretching your literary legs. If you’re writing microfiction based on a prompt like I’m doing, I think you’ll find yourself writing outside your comfort zone a lot. Yeah, I still fall back on my favorite horror genre tropes a fair amount, but I also find myself dipping a toe into other genres and even subjects approaching lit-fic (hell, I’ve even written a few limericks). That’s maybe not something I would attempt with a longer piece, but with micro I feel like I can experiment a little.
  3. Story seed generator. Look, it’s pretty difficult to write a complete story in 50 words (it is possible, though), but even if you don’t end up with a perfect micro, you might end up with a pretty solid idea that can be expanded into a longer piece. I’ve written something like fifty or sixty micros over the last few months, and I’m already developing two of them into longer stories. What’s better, they’re both a little different than what I usually write (back to point two) and might let me hit some markets my work normally isn’t a good fit for.
  4. Easy to share. Obviously, I’m writing microfiction on Twitter, so every piece is getting shared to the folks who follow me. That’s a big benefit because it’s an opportunity to potentially let a lot of people see my work in easy bite-sized chunks. It has also introduced me to a fantastic group of writers and THEIR awesome work. Let me tell you, there are some supremely talented folks writing microfiction on Twitter under the #vss365 hashtag (and others), and I strongly urge you to head out there and take a look.

Again, I’m no expert on microfiction, but in just a short amount of time I’ve found the practice of writing tiny to be immensely beneficial. I plan to keep at it on a daily basis, and if you’d like to follow my microfiction journey, follow me on Twitter @Aeryn_Rudel.

Do you write microfiction? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject in the comments.