The Way I Write Part 4: Something Resembling a Style

Over the past month I’ve explored my writing as it’s developed these past twenty years. I’ve been using the Flesch-Kincaid readability scores and the old fashioned eyeball test to chart changes in my work. We’ve looked at some of very early pieces, purple and laden with adjectives, a more transitional phase where I started to reign in my wordier impulses, and then some of my published work, where my voice and prose began to resemble something similar to how I write today. In this last post we’ll look at recent work, and see how the writer I am today is different from the writer I used to be.

Before we get into to those recent examples. Here are the other posts in this series for reference.

“Night Games” (circa 2014 A.D.)

This is passage from my short story “Night Games,” which I completed in 2012 and sold in 2014 (after a revision or two). I sold it again to Pseudopod in 2016 (click this link to listen). “Night Games” is an important story to me because it’s one of the first pieces I wrote where I really felt like I knew what I wanted the story to accomplish, and then I went and did that (and it mostly worked).

Randall Simmons only plays night games. As he steps into the right-handed box and taps his bat on the plate, he reminds me why. His smile, aimed at the pitcher’s mound, is wide and predatory. The bright stadium lights catch for a moment on his teeth. Even from 60 feet, 6 inches away, those teeth are too long and too sharp.

Randall is showing me his secret smile, some of it anyway. His smile is for me because I’m here to preserve the Kansas City T-Bones’ one-run lead in the top of the ninth against his team, the Wichita Wingnuts. It’s also for me because I’m the only person in the stadium who knows Randall Simmons is a vampire.

Anytime I step out of the bullpen it’s a big deal. It’s a chance to earn a save, win the game, and even make someone notice a washed-up twenty-five-year-old pitcher trying to make it to the bigs. That’s a tall order in the independent leagues, where dreams of big-league baseball and big-league money go to die. Unlike most nights, I’m not thinking about my fastball, my curveball, or the good slider that got me drafted by the A’s five years ago. I’m thinking once the game is over Randall Simmons will kill me.

I’d had the idea for this story rattling around in my brain for a few years, and then one day it all clicked, and “Night Games” became a thing. I’d say it’s the first story I published in, well, my current era of writing, for lack of a better word. With this story I started to figure out what my strengths were and how best to utilize them, but let’s have a look at the numbers.

  • Passive Sentences: 0%
  • Flesch Reading Ease: 73.3
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 7.0

You might notice those numbers are a little higher than where I was trending in the last post. The difference here is that I am trying for a specific voice, one that’s going to come across as technical and a little wordy (baseball is a pretty nerdy sport). That voice is borne out in the numbers, but, as opposed to the wildly purple prose of my stories from the early aughts, this is still very readable.

Let’s move on a couple of years and look at another piece.

“Scare Tactics” (circa 2016 A.D.)

With this story I started using a voice and style that is very much what and how I enjoy writing. This story is one of the first of my horror/noir/urban fantasy mashups that features a healthy dose of black humor. It’s also one of my most successful stories, as I’ve sold it three times. The Dunesteef did a great little audio version of the piece you can listen to right here.

She got out of the car, popped open the trunk, and made a face at the awful stink within. A pungent mix of the worst fart overlaid with rotting meat and old garbage wafted up from the dark enclosure.

“Jesus,” Lindsey said, covering her mouth. “Can’t you control that?”

A jumbo-sized Raggedy Ann doll that had seen better days lay face-up in the trunk. Moth holes pocked its pinkish cotton, and its once-bright dress was dirty and stained. Only the red yarn hair retained its original color.

Adramelech’s voice drifted up from the doll, faint and irritated. “You know I can’t help it. You keep a demon in physical form, you get the stink. That’s the way it is. Maybe you shouldn’t stick me in a small, enclosed space.”

“And have that stench up front with me? No thanks. Hey, switch to silent mode. It’s almost show time.”

Ugh, are we doing this again? Adramelech’s voice spoke in Lindsey’s head now, as she’d requested. It wasn’t quite telepathy. He couldn’t read her thoughts, like she couldn’t read his, but they could “hear” each other when they wanted. It’s demeaning, you know. I’m a demon of the first order, a goddamn chancellor of Hell. I’m not some bullshit scare artist.

Lindsey stifled a chuckle. Chancellor, my ass. I’ve read de Plancy. He says you were primarily Lucifer’s fashion consultant.

I had so much fun writing Lindsey and Adramelech, and I’m about to write a whole lot more about them. Anyway, this story just clicked for me, the characters, the subject matter, the genre mashup, all of it. I think a lot of having any success as a writer is figuring out where you belong, and for me, this is probably it.

Okay, what about the numbers.

  • Passive Sentences: 0%
  • Flesch Reading Ease: 80.5
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 4.4

Yep, that’s right where I want it. Nice and conversational. These stories have a ton of dialog (and a fair amount of four letter words), and so they make for quick and, well, easy reading, and that too is where I live now.

One more story.

“A Point of Honor” (circa 2019 A.D.)

The final story is one I published last year, and it’s a bit of a departure for me in genre and tone. It’s near-future dystopian sci-fi that deals with a real-world issue–cyberbullying–in a Twilight Zone-esque manner. You can check it out from the publisher, Radix Media, right here

Jacob opened his mailbox and froze. The sight of the scarlet envelope between the bills and advertisements twisted his stomach into cold knots of dread. He’d never seen a declaration from the Bureau of Honorable Affairs in person. 

Jacob glanced around the street, empty and quiet, terrified someone might see. He snatched the declaration from the mailbox, tucked it into his robe, and hurried inside.

Sara stood at the kitchen counter drinking coffee. “Anything in the mail?”

He pulled the declaration from his robe and tossed it on the counter. It looked like a fresh bloodstain on the white tile.

Sara’s eyes widened and she covered her mouth with one hand. “Why do you have that?” 

“I don’t know. I haven’t hurt anyone.”

“Of course you haven’t. You’re a forty-year-old computer programmer.” 

He grimaced at his wife’s blunt assessment. “Maybe it’s a mistake. They’re a big government agency. They screw up, right?”

“Yes, a mistake.” Sara seized on this scant hope. “Has to be.”

The difference between this story and “Scare Tactics” is mostly tone. The writing is fairly similar I think, with direct, even Spartan prose and a lot of dialog, but let’s check the numbers.

  • Passive Sentences: 0%
  • Flesch Reading Ease: 75.1
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 4.5

Yeah, that’s still in what I’d call my sweet spot. The reading ease is a tad higher in this passage, but if you run the entire 5,000-word story its right at 84.


Before I wrap this thing up here are the readability numbers for all the stories in the blog series.

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
2014 Night Games 73.3 7.0
2016 Scare Tactics 80.5 4.4
2019 A Point of Honor 75.1 4.5

So what have I learned from this exploration of my writing over the last twenty years? I think the easiest conclusion to draw is as the writing became simpler and more direct, i.e., more readable, I started getting published. This is not the only way to get published, of course, but for me, stripping things down, focusing on dialog and action (things I’m good at) instead of long descriptions and beautiful prose (things I’m NOT good at) has allowed me to publish a fair amount. I’m certainly still a work in progress, and there’s more growing and learning to be done, but I like where I’ve ended up. I don’t think I’m trying to sound like other published fiction (at least not on purpose), and I now have something resembling a style. But who knows? Maybe in five years I’ll change my mind and start trying to sound like H.P. Lovecraft’s dictionary again. 🙂

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.

2019 Writing Rearview Review

Well, it’s that time of year when writers the world over tell you all about the stuff they wrote and published for the prior year. So here I go! 🙂

Short Story Submissions

Okay let’s start off with short story submissions, rejections, and acceptances:

2019 2018 Difference
Submissions 81 120 -32%
Rejections 61 100 -39%
Acceptances 14 19 -26%
Accept % 17% 16% +1%
Publications 17 16 +6%

As you can see, my production in 2019 was down significantly from 2018. The only thing that increased were the number of publications and my actual acceptance percentage, which is good, though I can’t help but think if I’d had the same output in 2019 as I did in 2018, I might have 20+ acceptances for the year (or maybe just 20 more rejections).

So, why fewer submissions this year? Mostly because I was focusing on long-form fiction, a novel, and more specifically revising that novel, and it ate up a lot of time. Also, I didn’t write much new stuff, and the new stuff I did write was, well, harder to sell until I figured out where I should be sending it (that happened late in the year). The truth of the matter is that some of the old stories I’ve been shopping probably need to be retired, and I need a new crop of pieces for 2020.

Words, Words, Words

Okay, so the above is what I submitted, but how much did I actually write in 2019? Let’s have a look.

  • Written in 2019: 183,632 words
  • Published in 2019: 90,494 words
  • Written AND Published in 2019: 74,978 words

That total written number includes 54,745 words of blog posts, 12,455 words of microfiction, and 6,950 words of stories I began but did not finish (yet). The published numbers do NOT include blog or microfiction totals. I spent a lot of time revising my novel and a bunch of old stories, but it’s hard to quantify that in terms of words written. It feels like another 50,000 or so, but, hell, it could be 100,00 for all I know. Anyway, I stuck with the most easily quantifiable numbers.

Those numbers on a whole aren’t bad, but if you look a little deeper, there are some things I want to change for 2020. For example, of the words written and published in 2019, a measly 2,068 came from submitted short stories, the rest are the novel I wrote for Privateer Press. I simply did not write enough new material this year. Most of my short story publications came from material I wrote last year or the years before. I need to finish and write more new stories for 2020 and stop being lazy and trying to sell old stories that, well, aren’t selling.

There were 260 work days in 2019, and I average a bit over 700 words for each of those days. I’d like to get that up to 1,000 in 2020. That shouldn’t be too difficult, as I’m starting a new novel and revising another.

Goals for 2020

You gotta have goals heading into the new year, right? Well, here are the broad strokes of a few things I’d like to accomplish in 2020.

  1. Write and submit more short stories. Let’s say a solid 100 submissions and at least 20 new stories. This year, I’d also like to crack more pro markets. You know, markets like Fantasy & Science Fiction, or The Dark, or Nightmare, or any of a dozen others. That’s no small feat, and I know I’ll need to up my game, but I think I learned a thing or two in 2019 that might give me a fighting chance. We’ll see.
  2. Release at least one short story collection. I’ve been threatening to do this for years, and now that I have enough published pieces for a respectable page count, it’s time to pull the trigger. Gonna shoot for first quarter, but I won’t hate myself too much if it’s second quarter.
  3. Write a new novel and revise the one I have. I spent a lot of time last year revising my novel Late Risers, but it’s still not where it needs to be, so I’m taking a short break from it and I’m writing another novel, something more inline with what I normally write, more me. That’s not to say that Late Risers isn’t me, just that it’s more experimental, and I struggled with it in places. So the goal is to write the new novel in the first quarter of the year and return to Late Risers after that. It generally takes me about two to three months to bang out a first draft of a novel, so this should be an achievable goal.
  4. Redesign Rejectomancy. The blog needs a fresh coat of paint and slight refocus in 2020. Don’t worry; it’ll still be chocked full of rejections and advice about rejections and all that jazz, but you might have to endure a few more shameless plugs of *gasp* my own writing. 🙂

And that’s my rambling review of 2019. How was your year? Tell me about it in the comments.

The Way I Write Part 2: Evolution

Last week, I delved into the earliest existing examples of my fiction (all unpublished) to see how and what I was writing back in the early aughts. I gave examples from two short stories and used the Flesch-Kincaid readability scores, plus the old-fashioned eyeball test, to gauge the quality and publishability of what I was churning out back then. To refresh your memory, both stories were crazy wordy and very purple. If you’d like to see for yourself, check out The Way I Write Part 1: The Early Years.

Now we’re going to jump ahead a few years and look at two more pieces (still unpublished) and see if I improved at all. One quick note, I was working and publishing in the tabletop gaming industry during this time, but that is a decidedly different kind of writing, and these posts will focus solely on narrative fiction.

“The Tow” (circa 2006 A.D.)

This passage comes from a 3,500-word story I wrote in early 2006. I remember when I finished this one I really thought I had something, but I was still too chickenshit to submit it. Of course, what follows is not publishable, but let’s take a look and see if the work has improved at all.

Jack owned the only towing service in town, and for that matter, the only tow truck. Most of his time was spent hauling the broken-down junkers that dominated the streets of Arbuckle, dragging their rusting metallic carcasses to the scrapyard, or, if the owners had any money, to Kyle’s Repair. But this tow was different. The call he received from Norman Gaston at the Lucky Load this morning offered Jack the rare opportunity to make some money from his small impound yard.

Jack could not suppress a smile when he thought of the exorbitant amount of money he was going to charge the owner of the Mercedes to get it out of hock. He figured a person who owned a car like that was bound to have enough spare cash to make Jack’s morning one of the best he’d had in weeks. He sat for a moment behind the wheel of his modified Ford F-650 super cab, idling thirty feet away from the Mercedes, soaking in the sight of the lonely German luxury car. He was grinning and imagining crisp hundred-dollar bills floating out of an expensive alligator skin wallet and into his own dirty canvas and Velcro rig. He savored his good fortune a minute longer, then put the truck into gear and rolled forward to claim his prize.

What I think is interesting about this passage and what surprised me when I dug it up is that it’s kind of an embryonic version of how I write now. Yeah, it’s still way too wordy and it’s definitely clunky in places, and, yes, it highlights some of the issues I STILL deal with (like being overly procedural), but I think there’s maybe, kind of something that could be called a voice here. Anyway, let’s look at the numbers.

  • Passive Sentences: 0%
  • Flesch Reading Ease: 61.6
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 10.7

Like I said, still very wordy, but this is a definite improvement over the two stories from my first post. Both of those had reading ease score below 55 and grade level scores above 13 (college textbook density). This is better. Not great, but better. All that said, I love the concept in this story (which you can’t really see from the excerpt), and I’ve started rewriting this one from scratch. I dig what I have so far, and I hope to finish it and submit it in the new year.

Let’s jump ahead to 2007 and switch to fantasy instead of horror and see if things improved.

“The Fate of Champions” (circa 2007 A.D.)

This passage is from an unfinished story I began in 2007. It is decidedly high fantasy and thus includes some fantasy tropes (like long, impossible-to-pronounce names) that tend to bloat readability scores.

Umbar stared up at the ragged battlements of Illumar’s Shield, counting the wasted, ashen faces staring down at him. The fortress had once been a shining beacon of purity and law, its white towers gleaming like the halo of Illumar himself. It was now a decrepit, magic-scorched wreck. Still, the walls had held. After six months of relentless pounding, both magical and mundane, Illumar’s Shield stood defiant of everything Umbar had thrown at it.

A single arrow soared out over the battlements, wobbling in its flight from the unpracticed hand that had loosed it. The shaft, guided by luck or perhaps even the vengeful hand of Illumar himself, struck Umbar’s blackened steel breastplate with a hollow clang. It had been a simple hunting arrow with a blunt iron point, and it failed to pierce Umbar’s armor, doing little more than adding yet another scratch to its battle-worn surface.

Hey, now we’re getting somewhere. It’s not perfect, and it’s still far wordier than I write today, but this a bit more readable than the earlier excerpts (once you get past the names). I even like some of the imagery here, and I’m not wracking the poor sentences (as much) to do it.

Let’s have a look at the numbers:

  • Passive Sentences: 0%
  • Flesch Reading Ease: 62.3
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 9.1

That’s a definite improvement, and it’s getting closer to what you might actually find in popular fiction, especially fantasy. One interesting thing here is that you see a divergence of styles. The first excerpt is the beginning of how I writing everything but fantasy, and the excerpt above is the beginnings of a style I use for things like Privateer Press and the steam-powered fantasy setting of the Iron Kingdoms.

This is another story I actually quite like and I think might have legs with a serious rewrite.


I think there is definite improvement in these two excerpts over the very early ones from the first post. The work is becoming less wordy, more readable, and, dare I say, more publishable (but not actually publishable) than what I was doing a few years earlier. So, yeah, I’d call this improvement, evolution, or, you know, positive yardage. 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 62.3 9.1

Next week we’ll continue on and look at some of the first short stories I actually published and see if those readability scores improve further.

The Tiny Adventures of Lucky & Sal

So, as many of you know, I’ve been writing microfiction over on Twitter (@Aeryn_Rudel) under the #vss365 hashtag, and having a lot of fun with it. Much of my microfiction falls into the crime genre, and a while back a created two characters, a pair of hitmen Lucky and Sal. I’ve written a bunch of them, and most are little snippets of conversation between these two killers, usually with a humorous slant. Anyway, I thought it would be fun to collect the ones I’ve written thus far right here. They’re not all winners, of course, but I had fun with them. Hopefully, you will too. Who knows? Maybe there’s a complete short story or even a novel waiting to be written about these two guys. 🙂

Oh, the hashtagged word is the prompt for that day. If you click the date for each entry, it’ll take you directly to the tweet, you know, if you wanna throw me a like or a retweet or something. 😉


March, 2nd 2019

I don’t watch Lucky work. It creeps me out. My job is talking, his is making people receptive to talking. He comes out of the garage, wiping blood from his knuckles, that weird satisfied look on his face. “You’re up.”

“Can he still talk?”

Lucky shrugs. “He can #listen.”

(In this first one, I was still figuring out their voices, hence the first-person).

 

April 15th, 2019

“Hey, Lucky, are we #villains?” Sal asked, wiping blood from his knife.

“Nah, just bad guys,”

“There’s a difference?”

“Sure,” Lucky said. “Bad guys work FOR villains

“Man, it would be great to be a villain.”

Lucky nudged the body with his shoe. “Keep working at it, Sal. You’ll get there.”

 

April 21st, 2019

“And that works?” Sal asked, grimacing.

“Sure does,” Lucky said. “Most guys don’t get past the fingers before they start singing.”

“Jesus, what happens when you run out of fingers?” Sal shuddered, dreading the answer.

Lucky shrugged. “Lots of stuff fits in a vise.”

 

April 26th, 2019

“Gun, knife, or garrote?” Lucky asked.

Sal rolled his eyes. His partner would often #vacillate between tools of the trade.

“What?” Lucky said. “It’s an important decision.”

“And a fuckin’ easy one,” Sal said. “The gun’s too loud, and you wore a white shirt today.”

 

April 27th, 2019

Lucky put his gun away and frowned. “I need a #vacation.”

“Yeah? Where do you want to go?” Sal said.

Lucky pointed to the splatter of blood on the wall behind Mr. Favero’s head. “Hey, what’s that look like?”

“Kind of like Florida.”

Lucky nodded. “Florida it is.”

 

May 5th, 2019

“Sal,” Lucky said. “Little help here.”

“Sorry. You caught me #reminiscing.”

“About what?”

“The first time we, uh, cleaned up.”

Lucky chuckled. “Jesus, we made a mess with that hacksaw.”

“We’re smarter now.” Sal smiled and picked up the chainsaw. “Head or feet first?”

 

May 8th, 2019

“Hey, Lucky, do you #love your job?” Sal said, looking up from an issue of Cosmo.

“I don’t know. Why?” Lucky said.

“This article says if you don’t love your job, you should quit.”

Lucky looked down at the corpse of Joey Fritz, partially wrapped in plastic. “And do what?”

“Something else. Whatever.”

Lucky shook his head. “You ever heard the term institutionalized, Sal?”

 

May 24th, 2019

“What’d this guy do?” Sal asked and stooped to pick up the spent .45 casing.

Lucky rolled the corpse up in the carpet they’d brought with a grunt. “I don’t know. Something #vile, probably.”

“You think?”

Lucky blinked. “What, you think we’re offing guys who do Doctors Without Borders and work at soup kitchens in their spare time?”

 

May 31st, 2019

“He looks kinda peaceful, don’t he?” Lucky said.

Sal nodded. “Yeah, guy looks like he’s lost in #reverie.”

“What?”

“You know, reverie. Daydreaming. Pleasant thoughts.”

Lucky glanced at the hole in Donnie Ranallo’s forehead and chuckled. “I doubt that last one was pleasant.”

 

June 7th, 2019

“Don’t stand too close,” Lucky said. “That #smoke ain’t good for you.”

Sal stepped back from the two-story bonfire consuming Ivan Petrov’s house, lit up a cigarette–Camels, unfiltered–and took a drag. “Thanks, Lucky. I’d hate to get the wrong kind of lung cancer.”

 

June 11th, 2019

“Hey, Lucky, do I lack #empathy?” Sal asked.

Lucky shook his head. “Nah, you’re a real sweetheart as hitters go.”

“You think so?” Sal pulled his knife from the body with a wet squelch.

“Sure. I’ll bet Mr. Luciano there appreciates you only stabbed him the one time.”

 

June 16th, 2019

“What’s around your neck, Lucky?” Sal asked.

Lucky held up a coin on a gold chain. “Magic quarter. Keeps the bullets off me.”

“Uh, you’ve been shot eight times.”

Lucky smiled and showed Sal the lead bullet embedded in the other side of the coin. “But not nine.”

 

June 23rd, 2019

“Sal, what do you want to eat?” Lucky shouted.

Sal shut off the chainsaw and wiped blood from his face. “What?”

“Dinner? When we’re done with Mr. Russo. What are you in the #mood for?”

“Oh. I don’t know. Kinda feelin’ roast beef or steak.”

 

July 1st, 2019

“You run last month’s numbers?” Lucky asked.

“Yep,” Sal replied. “Five hits. Twenty-five Gs.”

“Not bad.”

“Less expenses, we netted only fifteen.”

“What? Why?”

Sal sighed. “The Rosetti job. Clients thought he was a werewolf. Silver bullets cost a #fortune.”

 

July 7th, 2019

“This might #sting,” Lucky says and pours hydrogen peroxide over the bullet hole.

His partner gasps. “Jesus, that hurts.”

“Come on, Sal. Just a little through and through.”

Sal brightens. “You think it’ll scar good?”

“Yep. It’ll be a nice addition to the collection.”

 

July 21st, 2019

“No way. I’m not going unless we drive,” Sal said and crossed his arms.

Lucky sighed. “You’re a goddamn contract killer. You work with some of the scariest motherfuckers on the planet. HOW are you afraid to #fly?”

Sal rolled his eyes. “I can’t shoot a plane, Lucky.”

 

July 23rd, 2019

Sal handed Lucky another #stack of hundreds and sighed. “Getting paid in cash sucks.”

Lucky shrugged. “What do you want? Something like Venmo?”

“Yeah, but for contract guys.” Sal grinned. “Maybe call it Kilmo.”

“Oh, genius. You should take that shit on Shark Tank.”

 

August 18th, 2019

“The gun, the knife, and the garrote?” Lucky said as Sal packed for the job. “How many times you gonna kill this guy?

“I just don’t want to play #favorites.”

“I don’t follow.”

“They’re like my kids, you know?” Sal grinned. “I want them to know I love them all the same.”

 

September 13th, 2019

“This article says killers are triggered by the full moon,” Sal said, tapping his iPhone.

Lucky glanced at the corpse at his feet. “Uh, there’s no moon tonight.”

“Guess we’re doing it wrong.”

“Yep, we’ve just been killing for money like a couple of assholes.”

 

November 14th, 2019

Sal handed Lucky the cordless #drill. “You do it.”

“Me?” Lucky said. “Why the fuck me?”

“I got a code. You know that.”

“Bullshit. I watched you dismember a guy with a hacksaw last week.”

“Sorry, Luck. No kids, no civilians”–Sal shuddered–“and no fuckin’ teeth.”

 

October 4th, 2019

“Damn it, Lucky,” Sal said, “Look what you did.”

“I shot him. He’s dead. That’s our job.”

“Right, but look at your shot placement.”

Lucky shrugged. “So?” “Heart, liver, kidneys.”

Sal flicked the driver’s license at his partner. “Guy’s an #organ donor, asshole.”

 

October 24th, 2019

“He ain’t #invincible,” Lucky said. “Just huge.”

“Bullshit,” Sal replied. “He strangled four hitters AFTER they shot him.”

Lucky closed the cylinder of the .500 S&W Magnum and grinned. “Those guys went after a man.” He patted the giant revolver. “I’m packing for bear.”

 

December 3rd, 2019

“You going to Jonny Fazio’s wedding?” Sal asked.

Lucky picked up shell casings from the ground and nodded. “Yeah, just need a few more of these.”

“What for?”

“You ever been to a hitman’s wedding?” Lucky shook the brass casings in his fist. “You don’t throw #rice.”

 

December 23rd, 2019

“Lucky, what the fuck is on the end of your gun?” Sal said.

“Huh? Oh, #jingle bells. The recoil makes ’em jingle.”

Sal rubbed his eyes. “Why would you do that?”

“It’s Christmas. Everyone deserves a little holiday cheer.”

“Even dead guys?”

“Especially dead guys.”


Well, I hope you enjoyed the exploits of Lucky & Sal. Keep an eye on my Twitter account (@Aeryn-Rudel) for further adventures. 🙂

The Way I Write Part 1: The Early Years

This will be the first of three (maybe four) posts that explore my writing over the last twenty years, focusing on how it has changed, and, hopefully, improved. With twenty years of writing under my belt and about fifteen of those years being the paid, professional variety, I have a lot of examples to draw from. I’ll be using the Flesch-Kincaid readability scores to assess passages from various stories so we can get good hard numbers on each piece of work and see how it differs from those that come after it.

Okay, let’s start with the early years, basically 2000 to 2005. This is before I actually published anything besides poetry (a whole other story), and though I think I had some solid ideas, the execution of those ideas were, well, lacking. A quick disclaimer before we dive into this. This post is an examination of my writing, what worked for me, and what eventually led me to publication and full-time writing and editing gigs. (Getting the whole me thing?) If I say something is bad or purple or whatever, I’m only doing so to compare my unsuccessful works with my successful ones. Much of what is coming is going to be opinions on style based on personal experience, so, please, keep that in mind.

“Lullaby” (circa 2000 A.D.)

The first passage comes from 6,500-word short story called “Lullaby” I wrote sometime in 2000. This is one of my first true attempts at a short story and the first I actually finished. I never sent it out for submission, well, because by the time I started doing that, I realized the story had some issues. That said, there is still a compelling idea here, but it REALLY needs a rewrite. Anyway, have a look.

I am not sure what woke me that night, but near three o’clock in the morning my sleep-numbed mind began the rigorous ascent to consciousness. I opened heavy lids to absolute darkness and a shivering chill that filled the room and pierced even our heavy comforter. As my eyes adjusted to the weighty gloom, I heard Karen breathing in short quick gasps and felt the tension in her body even through the heavy padding of our mattress. As I reached out to shake her from the grip of whatever nightmare held her, I caught, from the corner of my eye, a visible shifting in the deep shadows in one of the corners of our room near the floor. I froze, my hand hovering over Karen’s trembling form and watched with growing horror as a single shadow separated from its brethren and began a slow, stalking undulation towards my wife’s side of the bed.

As the shadow grew closer, and my eyes adjusted further to the darkness, I was able to discern a definite, fiendish outline to our unwelcome visitor. There was most certainly a roundish protrusion from the central mass of shadow that could only be a head, and two amorphous appendages projecting from either side that pulled the thing along the floor towards my slumbering wife. There were no legs to complete the vaguely man-shaped bulk, only a wispy trail of fading darkness that ended in the corner among the shadows that pooled there.

So this is how I wrote twenty years ago. Can you say purple? I knew that you could. Talk about tortured sentences. I mean, “. . . my sleep-numbed mind began the rigorous ascent to consciousness” is, uh, well, one way of saying “I woke up,” and probably not a good one. The other issue is that I’m aping the voice of writers I was reading at the time, such as Jack Vance and Robert E. Howard, who are very wordy. For the record, there’s nothing wrong with writing Vancian science fiction or Howardian sword & sorcery, but it’s important to have your own voice while playing in the literary sandboxes of those authors. I was obviously struggling with that.

So what about the raw readability numbers for this passage? Have a look.

  • Passive Sentences: 0%
  • Flesch Reading Ease: 53.5
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 13.4

No passive sentences is great, but, oof, those readability scores are off the charts, in the wrong direction. You’ll find very little popular fiction this dense and wordy. Most of that is going to have reading ease scores between 65 and 90 and grade level score between 4 and 9, with most of it being in the middle of those two ranges. For actual literary comparison, you’d have to look at the writers like H. P. Lovecraft and other pulp fiction and turn-of-the-century authors. In other words, not many folks write like this anymore, and those that do it successfully do it way better than this.

Okay, let’s jump ahead a bit and see if a few years taught me anything.

“Rearview” (circa 2005 A.D.)

This next passage is from a 3,500-word story called “Rearview” that I wrote in 2005.  The difference between this one and “Lullaby” is I actually submitted this one. I’ll tell you how that turned out after you read the passage.

Jacob first noticed the object at midnight, a small luminous shape hovering silently in the center of his rearview mirror. It lacked any real substance or definition and called to mind the infamous unidentified objects, the “foo fighters,” that military pilots sometimes encountered over lonely stretches of the Pacific Ocean. Jacob struggled to discern the distance that separated him and his unidentified pursuer, but the isolated section of Interstate 5 cut through the featureless Nevada desert in a straight and unwavering path, making such a judgment nearly impossible. The object was the only thing he had encountered for most of a very dark and moonless night. The gloom receded, somewhat reluctantly it seemed, from the twin glow of his Mustang’s headlights, but beyond this splash of yellow illumination Jacob felt the ominous weight of a truly stygian darkness.

Despite the eerie atmosphere, Jacob felt nothing more than a mild curiosity regarding the object in his mirror, dismissing it as the monocular glow of a motorcycle’s single headlight or something equally harmless. The fact it had stayed with him – neither receding nor gaining ground – also didn’t concern him. The motorcycle, or perhaps it was a car missing a headlight, was likely traveling at the same speed he was, allowing the distance between them to remain a constant. Jacob was traveling at seventy-five miles per hour, trying to keep a tight rein on his notoriously leaden foot. Despite his caution, Jacob could not bring himself to drive the speed limit, figuring ten mile-per-hour over wouldn’t tempt any Nevada Highway Patrol he might run afoul of.

Uh, yeah, not better, and, honestly, a little worse. It just so wordy, and, I mean, how many adjectives do you need in one paragraph? The answer is less than this. I really did a bang-up job making that second paragraph sound like a complex math problem too. Hey, and how about the term “monocular glow”? Yeesh.

Anyway, let’s check the numbers and see if it’s more readable than my 2000 story.

  • Passive Sentences: 0%
  • Flesch Reading Ease: 37.9
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 14.4

Ye gods, that is dense. Folks, the only things with readability scores this low are like technical manuals and, well, H. P. Lovecraft again. This is not an improvement. I’m still trying to sound like the writers I’m reading (and not doing a great job of it), and I don’t have a clear voice. Like “Lullaby,” there is a decent story in all this mess, but it would need a complete rewrite.

As I said, I did actually send this one out for submission, and if you’d like to see how that turned out, check out the post Baby’s First Rejection. 🙂


So those are my first attempts at writing fiction. In the next post, we’ll look at some of my work that was actually published in the late aughts, and see if things improved at all. Thoughts or opinions on these passages? Let me know in the comments.

Submission Statement: October 2019

Finally getting one of these out in a timely manner. Here are my submission endeavors (and results) from October.

October 2019 Report Card

  • Submissions Sent: 6
  • Rejections: 8
  • Acceptances: 1
  • Publications: 1

I’m still behind on my goal to reach 100 subs for the year. I’m sitting at 69 at the moment, which means I need to slam out 15 subs in November and December to hit 100. I think that’s pretty unlikely at this point, and I’ll end up somewhere in the high eighties (maybe). With 14 acceptances, I’m still within striking distance of last year’s number of 19, so it’d be nice to hit or exceed that, even if I don’t reach 100 total subs.

Rejections

Eight rejections this month.

  • Standard Form Rejections: 5
  • Upper-Tier Form Rejections: 2
  • Personal Rejections: 1
  • No-Response Rejection: 1

Mostly form rejection in October, with one rare no-response rejection. The personal rejection was a shortlist rejection and is worth taking a look at. See below:

Spotlight Rejection

This is one of those useful rejections that can sometimes highlight the idea that “good stories get rejected too.”

Dear Aeryn,

[story title] made it through to our final round of consideration, but unfortunately it was not a good fit for us at this time.  We wish you the best of luck in finding a home for it elsewhere.

Thank you for thinking of us at [publisher]. We hope you’ll consider sending us more of your stories in the future.

This was a shortlist rejection, the story’s third. I know this one will eventually get published, but I just have to find the right fit. I know “right fit” can seem like a platitude, but I think it is one of the most common reason stories get rejected, especially good ones. It could be a wrong fit for the issue, the market, or they’ve simply published something similar recently. Hell, it could also be that you’re good story was passed over for better ones. Sometimes the competition is fierce. So, if you get a shortlist rejection like this, send that story out again right away (I did).

Acceptances

One acceptance this month, and it was a good one. Here’s the acceptance letter. You’ll note I’m revealing the publisher here. That’s simply because I asked and received permission from the publisher to announce the sale.

Thank you for sending us “The Back-Off”. The editors were impressed with the story, and we are pleased to offer to purchase the rights to use your work in an upcoming issue of On Spec Magazine. If the work is still available, kindly let us know with a brief note to [email address].

You will be sent a standard contract offer in due course, and we’ll let you know the next steps in the process.

I’ll be straight with you. I didn’t expect this acceptance. I mean, I don’t usually expect an acceptance, but there are certainly times when I feel I’ve got a better shot than other. Here, I thought I had no shot. And that, friends, is why you should never, ever, ever self-reject, no matter how much you think a market won’t be interested in your work. Send it anyway because you never know. Anyway, this story had been rejected a fair amount, but it kept getting these nice personal rejections. The problem generally was the story wasn’t horror enough for the horror markets or fantasy enough for the fantasy markets, so I finally got wise and sent it somewhere that published speculative fiction in a broad sense. That, uh, worked. 🙂

Publications

One publication this month from one of my favorite markets, The Arcanist. The story, “Small Evil,” took second place in their Monster Flash contest, and you can read (or listen to) it below:


And that was my October. Tell me about yours.