The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, June 06, 2005

Year Long Writing program Contest...

I'm soliciting comments for my next project: a year-long writing course to be sold over the internet.  A great comment from a friend...


Dear Steve

The bit that strikes me first in your description is the certificate
for one free short story evaluation.  That excites me.  But then I take
myself to the writing section of an imaginary bookstore and think "if
anything I could imagine is here what would I buy?".  That free eval
would get your product to my cart but not necessarily to the cashier.
It's after all only a one time deal.

I want a product that could help me better evaluate myself.  How do I
know if I'm an absolute beginner or a seasoned amateur or... whatever
the rungs in this particular ladder are?  While practice (writing a
short story every week) is bound to improve my strengths, how do I know
whether or not I'm repeating the same weakness story after story?  Can
you give me a tool to honestly evaluate myself- where I am as a writer,
how I'm progressing?  I want to identify and correct my own weaknesses
not repeat them ad nauseam.  Friends will tell me I'm brilliant,
editors will tell me I'm not what they're looking for at this time,
neither is very constructive.

Please be explicit.  Don't give me subjective measures like "enough".
Tell me I should write for x amount of time, or x amount of words daily
or weekly or... whatever the instruction give me detail.  Show me a day
in the life if you care to.  I know my day won't be exactly the same,
but your details are still educational.  I like specific resources too,
but that's a tricky one, it dates the source.  If you're going to tell
me to read short fiction I'd love a list of anthologies or periodicals
where I can read good short fiction.  That sort of thing.

I'm also a huge fan of a well-written index.  I have no idea who writes
indexes but it is an under-appreciated gift to be sure.  All hail the
index Gods!  Okay maybe that was taking it a bit far, but this is a
reference material and I hate holding reference books in my hand
knowing that the last time I saw a certain piece of knowledge it was in
there, but now I have no idea where precisely in those hundreds of
pages it's buried.  I like summaries in reference materials too.  It's
tricky too, 'cause some people will take that to be equal to the long
version, but once I've read the long version I like to look back at the
short version from time to time just to jog the memory.  I haven't
taken a college course in ages, but I'm about to start highlighting
everything like I used to in those old textbooks.  My brain is simply
too full to try to remember what section it was in anymore and I don't
want to skim every page optimistically.

I prefer cross-references to repetition.  I generally read books cover
to cover and my short-term memory just isn't that bad.  I prefer to be
told to see ch.8 for more information rather than have half of ch.10
recap it.  If I feel like I've been there done that I get tempted to
skip ahead to something new but then I'm always afraid I'll miss the
prize in the box if I do.  Give me a resource that doesn't tempt me to
skip to the new information.

You are the insider, use that.  You've taught writing, but you aren't
just a teacher expounding theory.  You've written in multiple venues.
I suspect each has had it's own customs and culture to learn.  Give me
a travel guide that tells me the etiquette before I commit the faux
pas.  Give me that boost by building on the wisdom of your successes.

Give me the benefit of your knowledge of failure too.  Share your own
stumbling blocks if appropriate.  If not, you know countless frustrated
writer's who swear they want it more than anything, but they aren't
there, not even close.  Examples of hurdles I can easily think of- "I
like to write, but I don't want to write professionally (except that I
do, I'm just too afraid of failure and saying that I don't want it is
easier than saying I might not be good enough)"/ "I want to write
professionally, but I want to skip all the beginning level stuff and
start with my masterpiece"/ "I want commercial success but I will only
write about Iroquois, transgender, dwarf, seismic-geologist
protagonists because that's who I relate to and the truth I feel
compelled to speak"- et cetera.   Can you take these hurdles present
them clearly enough for your customer to recognize themselves and then
show us the way to overcome them?

That's all I can think of for now.  I'll let you know if more comes to
mind later.  Hope it's helpful.

Thank you,

Excellent, Crix!

Note--the best feedback is editorial feedback.   The sincerest complement is a check that clears the bank.   Count that the first twenty stories you send to an editor will merely get the "not what we're looking for" comment.  Keep sending them.  Eventually, they'll start remembering your name, and begin to give you more personalized responses.  When you get them, apply the ideas to your NEXT story, rather than just re-writing the previous one.  when I started my career, I set a numerical goal: I would write and have circulating 100 stories before I even began to evaluate my chances of making it.  As a result, I didn't have a lot invested in any particular story, and rejection slips didn't hurt.  I created a list of every short story market I could find, sorted them for appropriateness, sorted again with the highest-paying first, and started sending out.  When a story came back from one market, I immediately sent it to the next on the list.  By the time I got to about 10 stories, I was getting personalized feedback.  By the time I got to about 25 I was selling.


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