On Writing #13: Momentum and Focus — And a Trick to Keep Novels On Track

Finishing the rough draft of a novel is all about momentum and focus. It’s about not giving up halfway through, not giving into the temptation to go write something else when you’re almost done.

Novels are big. You have a long way to go until the end, and chances are things won’t be perfect after the first pass (there is a lot of evidence to suggest that even Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” — a famed “first draft” novel — actually went through several revisions before publication, and I have sneaking suspicion this happens to all of them).

Basically, don’t worry about making your novel perfect the first time through. It’s probably not going to happen. The key is to keep slogging on. Don’t let your momentum wane or you might get stuck. Don’t give into temptation and go write a different book or you will (most likely) never come back to this one.

I hear you ask, dear reader: But how? How do you keep going when there is so much still broken?

I use three relatively common techniques (and while I have not sold a novel yet, I have, at least, finished several, and gotten a full in front of an agent).

A) I revise the previous session’s work before starting new words. This is probably the most common technique out there, and it works for many of us (everyone is different, of course). I simply re-read and edit-as-I-go all the words I wrote last time. It gets me into the voice again, and into the flow, and it helps keep the total number of continuity errors down.

B) I keep a “Fix Later” list. Sometimes there are really big changes — changing the sex of a central character, inserting a character/theme you’ve just invented throughout the rest of the story, or maybe I’m worried that someone’s pistol is anachronistic or changing brands — edits that would require some research or maybe even days of work to fix. In these situations, I usually just jot down a few notes about what I think is wrong on my “Fix Later” list. Then I put it out of my head and pretend it’s already done. It’s kind of like Wile E. Coyote running on air, and it’s probably the most important technique I learned to actually finish a novel.

C) I fix the ones that give m nightmares. Sometimes B) is not enough. Sometimes your brain starts to feel out of balance and can’t “pretend” anymore that all the edits have been made. In these few situations, I go back and make the edits that are bugging me ASAP. Best practice is to keep these times to a minimum, less the momentum of your novel die.

My current novel editing process:

1) When the “very rough” draft is done — meaning that I have have finished writing the last chapter — I work through all my “Fix Later” list. This takes a while. As I go, I find more scenes that I don’t like and places where I’m missing info. I make a list of these too. Then I fix them. Once all these basic edits are done, I have a first draft.

You say: A first draft! You must be done, right?
You must be ready for beta readers?
What do you do with a first draft then?
Well, the primary rules is — I don’t show it to anyone. It’s only a first draft, and not even really that. It’s the first take of the first draft.

2) Now I search the first draft for overused phrases, -ly words, etc, and make sure I need them. If I HAVE to have them, I leave them. Otherwise they end up dead on the floor. I now have the first draft, second take.
So you’re done, right? Beta reader time?

3) I now read the whole first draft to myself, ALOUD. Reading aloud really helps me catch rhythm mistakes, missing words, awkward phrasing, and (unintended) grammatical errors.

I also usually can see the major clunky bits of scenes, and I end up either adding description or taking away stuff I don’t need. Lots of scenes get rewritten from the ground up.

Once this is done, I have a second draft. And before you ask, no it’s not done.

4) Now I read the second draft aloud to my wife (or other willing victim, though I have yet to find one). The performance of the piece makes me note where things still don’t move smoothly. Also, she will catch flaws as well. When this is done, I have the third draft.
Ahh, beta readers now?, I hear you ask.
Yes. Now you’re right.

5) This third draft goes to beta readers. After I incorporate feedback from them, I have a fourth draft and (hopefully) a submittable novel.

But if you’re hoping this is the end of the story, let me burst your bubble right here: I haven’t sold a novel yet, but I’ve heard that this is just the beginning of edits. The agent may request changes, then the editor at the publisher, then there are page proofs, galleys, etc.

My advice: Write a novel you love, or you may end up sick of it.

I am Reviewed: A Distant Sound of Hammers

Errant Dreams has a review up for the Zombiesque anthology, and of “A Distant Sound of Hammers” as well:

“S. Boyd Taylor’s A Distant Sound of Hammers delves into what might happen if the zombies organized and ended up on top, breeding humans for food. Questions of the pros and cons of being a zombie or a human in this society, set within the prickly relationship between a zombie man and his human sister, elevate what could have been a simplistic story into something with much more depth and interest.”

Full article available here.

I also received a wonderful message from a reader that enjoyed the story. I need more of those. 🙂

On Writing #12: So You Want to Write, But You Can’t Find the Time

So… You want to write. Maybe you want to write short stories, books, poetry. Maybe you actually want to finish a memoir, or you’re in love with the idea of publishing articles.

If you’re like a lot of us out there, the problem you’re having isn’t finding an IDEA. Ideas are cheap. Once you start writing you’ll be drowning in them.

The real problem you’re having is just WRITING. I don’t mean stringing words together so they make sense (that can be an issue for even the best of us, but it’s not the focus of this article) — let me explain.

Just about everyone I’ve met says they want to write a book one day. Most of them probably could write some astounding stories too.

So I ask them: Why haven’t you written?

That’s when the clearing of throats and mumbled excuses start pouring forth — usually excuses eventually boil down to one common thread: that with kids and work and “everything else” they can’t fit it in. They just never find the time.

The Time Problem – I Have It Too

I get the time problem. I really do. I have a job. I commute 45 mins each way every work day. I have a kid, a wife, several very demanding hobbies other than writing. While the baby was learning to sleep (6 months to 18 months old), no matter what I tried I could NOT find the time. Every spare moment I had had to be dedicated to sleep. Time is an intense problem for me, and sometimes — in very special situations like the one above — there is no solution.

So how is it that I write fiction? that I study writing, and find time to write about writing itself? How do my friends do it, too, with their busy lives?

It’s Hard – And Not for Everyone

It’s HARD. Don’t let anyone tell you any different. Evne for the most gifted and natural of writers, fitting their art into a busy modern life is PAINFUL.

We all have to give things up, and some of us have to sacrifice more than others, and for some of us — sometimes — writing does not fit.

The cost of fitting it in for those people is just too high. And there is nothing wrong with that. Priorities have to be set!

There are Things that Should NOT be Given Up

Many of my readers may be shocked — floored, even — to hear me say this, but there are MANY things more important than writing. I might even hazard to say that MOST things in life are more important than writing — among them family and health and, yes, even freinds. These things, I believe, should not be cut back or pared away in an extreme manner. Maybe you have to duck out of a few of your friend’s birthday parties, yeah, but don’t ditch them all together. Life is for the living, people! And definitely don’t make your spouse or your kids suffer for writing. Take what tmie they are willing — and happy — to give you, but listen to them and listen to yourself. There is a limit to how much time it is appropriate to take away from them — and writing time is not worth causing either them or you permanent relationship stress.

I also do not recommend quitting your job or changing to a much simpler job to find time to write. This HAS worked for a few writers, and it might work for you if you have the right bent and the right set of situations – single, no kids, or a spouse with a ton of cash. But I am the sole income for my family unit, and — for someone in my situation — reducing income voluntarily is an impossible decision to make.

So what do you give up then?

Alright, we’ve looked at a few things I do NOT universally recommend: quitting your job, your family, your friends, your health.

But if you want to fit writing into your life, some things do have to budge. This is obvious: it’s a simple fact that the number of seconds in a day is finite, and there are PLENTY of things out there to fill them.

Your job as a writer/aspiring writer is to identify as many spare seconds and as many wasted seconds as you can, and then make a plan to use them to empower your writing.

I’ll warn you, these ideas are nothing new — but perhaps my experiences with them can help you pick which tools will help you.

Step 1) Carry a small notebook with you. It has to be small so it can fit in your back pocket or your purse or somewhere else where it can be convenient, unobtrusive, and omnipresent.

This is the book where you write the random ideas that fall upon you during the day. Some call it a journal. Some call it a writer’s book. Some just call it a scratch pad. It doesn’t matter what you call it, it’s useful.

Me — I have a tendency to write on whatever paper is at hand, forgetting that I have the journal with me — this gets many of my ideas lost in random notebooks. I end up with piles and piles of notebooks with one page full. But every once in a while I go through them. Collect them all together. Cull out the bad stuff. That, or a stumble randomly across an idea when I’m looking for a shopping list. The juices start flowing right there, right in the middle of everything else. Suddenly, I have an idea, a new persepective on a WIP.

Some say you should journal every day. Maybe they’re right. Me, I just jot ideas down when I am possessed by the muse to do so (maybe that’s why I’m so poorly organized). I go weeks, sometimes months, between notes, then I do ten in one day, every day, for a week. This is the only way I have any hope of capturing the fire.

Even for the poorly organized like myself, journalling is a valuable tool.

Step 2) Find the spare seconds I was talking about — and schedule them.

One book I read (I do not remember the title) recommended that you write every time you take a bathroom break or coffee break at work. Just one, two lines. This is extreme, but I have tried it. It does work, but only for certain stories and only when I am in a certain mood. Perhaps it will work for you — it certainly cannot hurt — even if all you write is junk, you will be getting better, you will be practicing. Just don’t be discouraged if the quality isn’t as high as you were hoping.

But, seriously, you do have to fit writing into your life. Some of my frieds get up at 5:00am every day and write for an hour before commuting an hour to work.

Others write every night, 10:00pm to 11:00pm.

Me, I write at lunch for about 45 minutes. I reread the previos days work and fine-tune it lightly, then I proceed to write the next bit. Sometimes I get 0 new words, soemtimes 250, and on a few rare and wonderful days I get lucky and get 2500.

As little as 15 minutes a day can keep you going, but you really need 30 minutes to an hour on a regular basis. Move things around. Make that one, scheudled writing space. It’s okay if it’s only on weekdays. The schedule is the important part here.

3) Think about making writing a ritual.

This is the “sacred space” concept, and is tied intimately with the idea of scheduling the same time of day.

This is idea that if you make a special place or a series of things you always do before you write, writing will become a habit and you will always fit writing in because otherwise you will not feel right.

Go to the same restaurant every day (I do Schlotsky’s) and write there. Or maybe build something more elaborate — always ride the stationary bike ten minutes, take your shower, and then write. or light a couple of candles. Maybe play the same song before you start, listen to it deeply. Maybe, like Stephen King used to, Write in a small utility room so your family will not come out to bother you.

There is a danger to this, though. I now write nowhere but this one Schlotsky’s. What happens if it closes? What happens if I need to write on the weekend and I don’t feel like driving across town?

Jay Lake can write anywhere, in any sitting or prone or standing position. This is a decison you have to be careful of making, because it can limit you — but it can also keep you writing when nothing else will.

4) Cut back on TV, Video games

You don’t have to give them up. But you probably will have to cut back.

Most of an American’s day is filled with TV. I don’t even have cable, and I still watch an hour or two of it per day.

This can be hard to do. Prime Time TV is essentially it’s own ritual, it’s own sacred space (the same concept we just discussed). Video games give you instantaneous positive feedback – the same type of feedback most of us are hoping to get from our writing.

Your writing is in direct competition with these two time sinks. Writing takes work — unlike TV. Writing is slow and takes a LOT of time to get feedback on — unlike video games.

It’s amazing anyone breaks away long enough to write, really, considering how powerful TV and Video Games can be, emotionally.

But, really, here’s my experiences cutting back:

For video games, I’ve had two different things work:

1) Play your video games only AFTER you’ve written your minimum time or word count. If you don’t write, you don’t get to play. This worked for a while for me, but eventually I gave up.

2) What’s working right now: I play video games only in a certain time window every day. I am allowed to play in that time window — one hour, right after work. I set an alarm, or my wife does, and when teh alarm goes off I have to leave. Period. Slowly this has become a sacred space, and I just don’t feel right playing at any other time of day.

For TV:

Same things as above work for TV.

I also cancelled my cable, and I only watch the shows I want to watch on Hulu, or I use the money I would have spent on cable and buy an entire season of a show.

The real key here has been: I have 2 shows, maybe three, that I watch, and I tend to watch a whole season at a time — two weeks, one episode a night, or one weekend with most of them piled all together. No waiting for the next episode, no wondering what happens next, and entire series are out of the way in a relatively small amount of time.

Maybe it’s bad, but I binge on TV. But then for days and weeks I don’t care about it anymore.

I keep up, but it’s not central to my life, or my evening, and this frees up time for me to do writing drills or just to THINK about my stories — and that, in iteslf, s an imporant activity.

There are Many More Ideas Out There

Like I always say, you have one of the most powerful research tools in the known universe at your fingertips — the internet. The problem with it is that half the stuff you read will be wrong — but when you’re looking for time saving tips, you can usually sort the wheat from the chaff pretty easy.

So go, find more ways to save time, apply them. And then share with me, so I can find more time too!

Review of “Ines of My Soul” [Audiobook] by Isabel Allende

Well, I just got done with “Ines of My Soul”, and it was fun journey. Not as moody a piece as I expected considering the dark times it deals with, but very solid.

The novel somehow balanced itself precariously between the Conquistador and Native perspectives, even though its main character — and exclusive narrator — is biased. The sins and virtues of both sides are discussed at length.

But really the core of this novel is the story about the failed relationship between the main character, Ines Suarez, and the Conquistador and first Governor of Chile, Pedro de Valdivia. And that’s what bugs me.

The book starts in Spain, telling of Ines’s early life, her first marriage, her eventual travel to South America — brave and unique, because she is one of the few Spanish women to travel there, and she has done so with no male escort. This build-up is long. VERY long. And it is not until she meets Pedro de Valdivia that the book suddenly develops the soul and energy that carry it through. There were several places where I stopped listening and nearly did not come back — but I’m glad I did.

Unfortunately, I am not a scholar of South American history, so I cannot comment on the veracity of Allende’s interpretation of the historical record — but I can say that she has created a very convincing world and extremely intriguing characters. Once the book really starts — perhaps a quarter of the way in — it really delivers.

About the reading: Blair Brown does a bold job delivering the Spanish accent, but it does crumble away from time to time in very subtle ways. Also, she pronounces the title of the book “Inyes” — with an ~ over the n, but the rest of the book the name is not pronounced this way. These small flaws tarnished the otherwise shining coin. Unfortunately for this book, I had just finished Gorge Guidall’s incomparable reading of Don Quixote — it is hard to stand up to such competition.

Overall, 4 out of 5 jelly-filled teddy bears.

On Writing #11: Deliberate Practice Drill – Quick and Dirty Style Analysis

In everything from sword fighting to martial arts to painting to — yes — WRITING, one of the key ways the good get better and the better become experts is to analyze the styles of those they respect.

Perhaps you like Dan Brown’s “DaVinci Code”, perhaps for you the Sookie Stackhouse books are just the best series ever, perhaps you are amazed by Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow”, perhaps you cannot understand how Herman Melville creates such emotion and vibrance in every line. There unnumbered different writers, different readers. We all have different goals and different tastes, but if we want to write — and write well — this takes DELIBERATE PRACTICE.

I am not here to give a lecture on deliberate practice, to define it, or to discuss the “10,000 hours to expertise” theory. There are plenty of books, articles, and links out there about them.

I do need to put a disclaimer here first, though: Beginners who start deliberate practice find it boring, slow, and it usually causes them to drop out — it is much more important for beginners to just HAVE FUN. Deliberate practice is for later, after you love your hobby already, so you can get that much better at it. So if you’re new to writing, maybe you should skip this post and come back to it later, after you’re already in love with it.

In case you haven’t heard about Deliberate Practice, here is an overview, but this is not exhaustive:
– The best in any field get that way NOT because they work “harder” than everyone else, but because they work “smarter”
– Normal practice is not good enough — just playing your sport, writing a novel, going out and doing a gymnastics routine, playing a new song on a piano will get you good, but it will take a long time, and you may never be one of the best.
– Deliberate practice is the type of practice where you design, participate, and review drills that improve SPECIFIC ELEMENTS of your chosen field. This includes such things as: Playing blues scales in different tempos and rhythms, drilling specific kicks/angles/passes for soccer players, practicing that ONE MOST difficult step in your martial arts form for hours, etc, etc.
– There is no limit to the types of drills that can be created as part of deliberate practice, but some will be of more use than others.
– The best of the best usually grow to LOVE their drills and exercises for their own sake — because they can see how much the drills make them better.

For a more detailed discussion of Deliberate Practice, check here: http://www.suite101.com/content/deliberate-practice-a132437

Just remember, if you’re still new to writing, don’t let deliberate practice chase you away.

So now that you know what deliberate practice is, or at least you have a general idea, let me discuss one of the drills that I do to add to my toolbox and improve my writing skills:
Quick and Dirty Style Analysis

Whoever your favorite writers are, whether the critics love them or hate them, there is always something you can learn from a pro. In general, since books are made of words, these lessons involve tearing books apart — dissecting them, if you will — so you can see how the different parts of them work.

There are many ways to do this. I’ve designed perhaps 5 different drills, analyzing the structure within an individual chapter, the way chapters are organized in novels, shifts of POV, voice, mood, metaphorical analysis — but, really, I can’t fit them all in here.

So we’ll focus on one: Quick and Dirty Style Analysis.

I’ve already talked about style/voice at length in On Writing #3, but process described there is when you want to completely grok and work into your own DNA the way your favorite writing genius works. What if you don’t really have time for that. Or what if you’re comfortable with your current voice in the middle of a story and you don’t want to risk your voice changing dramatically half way through — but, at the same time, you can’t stand the thought of NOT learning, NOT getting better.

Well, this is where Quick and Dirty Style Analysis comes in.

1) Find your favorite book, or at least on that affected you greatly.
2) Find your favorite part of that book.
3) Copy your absolutely favorite paragraph/sentence out LONGHAND on a blank piece of paper.
4) Take this sentence apart. Find it’s structure. Find why it works.
5) Switch out nouns, verbs, adjectives in the same structure. The move the words around. Cut out articles, play with the phrase. See what does work, what doesn’t.
6) Repeat with more sentences until you think you understand how the person you are learning from does some of their best tricks.
7) Implement the techniques you’ve learned as you need them.

Note to beginners/intermediate writers: I’ve already said I don’t think you need to do this drill for the very good reasons stated earlier. But if you ignore me and do it anyway, Do NOT copy directly — or even summarize the work of — another writer in your own writing. Copying or summarizing even small parts of someone else’s work is Plagiarism. Don’t plagiarize. Ever. A little later on you will learn how to give an homage those who have influenced you, but this early don’t worry about it.

Okay, that’s it.

Wait! This isn’t easy, you say. No, it isn’t. It’s hard work. All of writing is hard work. But this drill is effective.

And let me be clear — a many writers do this, or do something similar.

Variations of this drill that I have seen people do (that I actually use myself) include the following:
A) Simply underlining/highlighting sections you like and coming back to read and chew on them again
B) Writing out paragraphs from your favorite book long hand just before bed and dreaming about them
C) Doing what William Faulkner used to do — picking up a book he considered an old friend, and turning to directly to your favorite passages, and imagining you are in the room with the writer.

All I have done here is introduce a little actual analysis to the process — and depending on your temperament — or depending on your mood that day (this is my case) — this drill may not suit your needs. Feel free to ignore it, change it, or mix it up. I sure do.

Art, after all, is not a science. It cannot be contained. And every writer is different.

Many of us, though, have stumbled into similar processes because reading and thinking critically about other peoples’ writing is a great way to get better at writing yourself. Simply put, IT WORKS.

[Greatest Hits] On Writing #3: The Myth of “Finding Your Voice” and How to Develop One (or Two or Three) of Your Own

Well, since I’m actually in the middle of a writing project and I haven’t had time to fully develop this week’s post, I thought I’d offer up one of my most popular articles, a kind of re-run or greatest-hits, if you will.

So: Without any more ado, probably the best article so far on the blog: “On Writing #3: The Myth of ‘Finding Your Voice’ and How to Develop One (or Two or Three) of Your Own”

One thing I’ve seen endless posts on is “Finding Your Voice”, as if there is a magical voice that is yours — and one day you’ll just run into your voice and BOOM you’ll be a real writer with a real style.

First I need to be clear here. I’m not sure if this is a revolutionary view, but it is certainly MY view and I haven’t seen it anywhere else:

I do NOT believe that if you keep writing you’ll just accidentally run into “Your Voice” and then you’re done and the quest is over. In fact, I don’t believe that a writer has a single voice at all. No, indeed, I believe a writer has as many voices as he/she decides to DEVELOP, and each of those voices will be unique to the writer.

You see, VOICE is a TOOL. Each voice is slightly different, sure, and each one has different strengths. That’s why having multiple voices at hand is extremely useful — each voice can be employed in a different story or even in a different chapter in the same novel in order to heighten certain effects.

Voices can be short. Brutal. Rhythmic. Human skin stretched tight on drums.

Other voices twist and writhe about and keep diving into different holes until you can’t see where they’re going in the dark tunnels of mind and then in one heartbeat they leap out at you and grab you like you’re a rabbit and shake you once, twice, thrice and leave you bleeding and twitching in the mud.

They can be anything you want. Quick, sassy, velvety, violent, whatever.

But all voices have two elements in common:
1) They are composed of words
2) In order to use one, you have to DEVELOP it first

There’s that word again. Develop. Why do I keep saying “develop” when everyone else says “find”? Well, first let’s discuss how most writers develop a voice.

How most writers develop a voice
We are all, to some extent, built in with a certain voice and a certain style. It is an amalgam of what we have read and enjoyed, mashed together with whatever you remember from English classes, plastered over with yours or someone else’s opinions on Grammar (Strunk and White, anyone?). The problem is this style we start out with (usually anyway) just isn’t good. Go back and look at your last failed short story, or — if you’re established now and none of your stories fail — go back and look at one of your early short stories from high school or junior high. See those stilted lines. Why are they stilted? What’s going on? Why does that high-school/college/whatever prose seem impossible to disentangle even though you’ve rewritten entire BOOKs now?

Why? Because the style/voice in that piece is in conflict with itself. It wants to be the way you talk and think. It wants to be the way Hemingway talks and thinks. And don’t forget your Composition teacher or your favorite SF writer or Strunk and White either. It’s a vast CACOPHANY of OTHER voices, all struggling to be heard. All drowning each other out.

Why does it take people 1, 3, 10, or even 15 trunk novels to finally find a winning voice? Because it’s a lot of work to overcome those voices, especially when you don’t know that you’re trying to write like other people and follow all these built-in rules. Struggling blindly like this, it’s amazing anyone develops one voice much less two or three or more. No wonder it feels more like you “find” your vioce than a conscious decision to “develop one”.

Sure this process works. Eventually. If you don’t give up. Plenty of writers have gone through the process and ended up writing well or even dazzlingly. The problem is, this is the hard way of doing it. “Writing Like Other People” is exactly the process of DEVELOPING voice, yes, but you can speed the process up.

Let me show you how.

A repeatable process to develop voice and style FASTER.
Say you really like Cormac McCarthy. You’d like to write a bit more like him, adopt a few of his flourishes. Good on you, he’s a great writer. A Pulitzer and a National Book Award are hard to argue with.

But how do you do it?

Step 1) This is the obvious step. You’ll need to READ him.

Sadly, this is where most writers’ plans on developing a voice END. You read “The Road”, “Blood Meridian”, and “All the Pretty Horses”, and think “Well, I hope that rubbed off.” But strangely, it doesn’t seem to work. So maybe you read again and again (pleasant but not strictly necessary). This is similar to brute-forcing your way into a password-protected computer. Hard, brutal, and it may eventually work, but it will take time.

Step 2) Define WHAT YOU LIKE about him.

In this step you are defining to yourself EXACTLY what you like about the author. This equates almost precisely with WHAT YOU WANT TO LEARN from the author.

Me, I like the lack of commas and apostrophes and quotation marks. To me, the streamlined prose falls straight into my brain faster and with less effort without all the noise. You may HATE this, though. If you do, don’t put it on your list. Me, I also like his use of “and” to connect long lists of very simple sentences in All the Pretty Horse. I love his vast vistas that yank directly at your soul in Blood Meridian. I like his short, terse, chopped up prose in The Road. I like his images that burn like fire in your mind.

Your list might be COMPLETELY DIFFERENT than mine. That’s okay. We might like him for different reasons, but that’s why you do this:

So you can figure out what you need to focus on.

Step 3) Figure out HOW your author does the things you like.

This is the hard part. Sometimes you have to call in friends or relatives or even other writers to look at a passage and help you noodle HOW or WHY this unexpected sentence works or how he crafts this particular list of images. Where are the roots of them? How does he marry the words syntactically?

Like I said, this can be pretty hard, but all you need is one to three bullet points to keep in mind about any stylistic element.

Step 4) Write an inspired piece. Preferably three. And then try it on a novel or a novella to let it really sink in. (This is, like step 1, is something that many writers do, but without steps 2 and 3 it usually falls apart or reverts to your previous voice.)

Sounds simple, right? I’ve been reading McCarthy, so I should write a Western. Actually — no. I don’t recommend that at all. I actually recommend taking elements from TWO DIFFERENT WRITERS and doing your best to mash them up. That way you don’t get too trapped in one author’s vein. That way YOU can take the elements and make them YOURS.

An example, my short story “Teddy Bears and Tea Parties” ( http://www.chizine.com/teddy.htm ) was my second attempt at mixing McCarthy’s style from The Road with Paul Jessup’s blend of surrealism and postmodernism. It sold to ChiZine. I did three stories in this vein, each in a different setting and working on different elements of voice and theme, and of them #1 sucks and is trunked and #3 is still making the rounds and seems to get me more personalized rejections and “please-submit-again”s than any other story. Still, it may never get published. But that’s okay. All three of these were experiments, and I learned staggering amounts from each of them.

Step 5) Do it again if you want to. There is always something to learn out there. Melville’s ability to send shuddering meaning into even the whizz and smoke of a rope. Chabon’s ability to express the entire history of a tenement building that has nothing to do with the plot and still keep you hooked.

After all, these are your saws and your lathes. Keep them sharp!