I seem to be focusing on time travel a lot lately with my Apex Blog posts. Perhaps there's something in the water?

Anyway, the Apex Blog I posted yesterday, Time Traveling With Lawrence Block, is all about how reading a worthy Grand Master of mysteries can help a writer craft better time travel stories. Go take a look and you'll see what I mean.
My monthly Apex Blog post is up today. This is another essay about writing, Finding and Cultivating Your Writing Strengths, in which I offer some writing advice. Go read it to see how I was inspired to write it from reading an essay in Starve Better: Surviving the Endless Horror of the Writing Life by Nick Mamatas.

And comment there on your own writing strengths, and how you found and cultivated them.
[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

With this rule, Masello takes a look at the question of starting a sentence with a conjunction. Is it okay, he asks, to start a sentence with the word "and" or "but"?

His answer is yes. His basic attitude, which is simple and elegant, is that prose has to flow. There's no need to follow a writing "rule" just because it was taught to you years ago in elementary school. He sums up his main point with the following question, one he asks himself when writing a sentence: "Does it sound right and communicate my meaning?"

Masello also uses this short essay to discuss words and phrases such as "of course," "furthermore," and "consequently." I have to admit that I'm glad to see him encourage these transition words. Frequently (hey, there's one now!), when I'm writing blog posts, I start my sentences with transition words and I wonder if I'm coming off as too formal in my prose. After thinking about it for a while, I came to the same decision that Masello did. If the transition makes my meaning clearer, then by all means I ought to leave it in.

On the other hand, I still try to avoid starting sentences with "and" or "but." Generally, I'll try to rephrase my sentences if I find that I'm starting a sentence with the word "and." The word "but" is easier to replace, though; I usually just go with a "however." However (ha!), I sometimes find that I start two or three paragraphs in a row with the word "however" when writing a first draft, and so I have to go back and edit myself yet again.

Does this post remind anyone else of "Conjunction Junction" from Schoolhouse Rock?

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein
I suspect most of the people who read my blog are probably already aware of this, but in case not...

Jeremy L.C. Jones interviewed ten editors of short fiction, including Patrick Neilsen Hayden, Shawna McCarthy, John O'Neill, Cat Rambo, Mike Resnick, Stanley Schmidt, Jason Sizemore, Gordon Van Gelder, Sheila Williams, and Ann VanderMeer. The interview has been published by Clarkesworld Magazine at the following link:

The Story Is All: Ten Fiction Editors Talk Shop.

It's a very good piece, with a lot of useful information for any writer trying to place a story with any of the editors interviewed.
Yesterday evening, around 7:45 pm, Nomi and I were going home on the Green Line C train, and we couldn't help but be fascinated by a conversation a young woman was having on her cell phone. She was facing the wall of the train, obviously intent on preserving some modicum of privacy, but the fact is that if you're choosing to have a conversation in a public space you have to accept that people around you will be privy to your words.

It was a rather heated conversation, too. At first I thought she was talking to her boss or a co-worker, as she was complaining about how she had already applied for her vacation days for next year, and now all her plans were going to be disrupted. The more we listened, however, the more we realized that the person on the other end of the phone was not her boss, but her boyfriend. Apparently, he had agreed to be in a friend's wedding, which was going to disrupt whatever plans the woman had already made with him.

As we were getting off the train, she was still talking to him, using phrases such as "you should treat me like a partner" and "I can't do this anymore." It sounded as if she breaking up with her boyfriend on her cell phone, while riding a moderately crowded train. And we weren't the only ones on the train intrigued by her conversation.

As Nomi and I walked home, I pondered the advice that fiction writers often get to pay close attention to people's conversations, the better to write dialogue. The fact that this woman was having this conversation on her cell phone meant that on the one hand, we weren't getting the full dialogue. On the other hand, I doubt it's a conversation we would have heard at all if it had not been for the false sense of privacy afforded to her by the cell phone.

So here's an exercise for writers: listen to someone's cell phone conversation on the train or somewhere else public. Jot down what that person says, and then fill in the dialogue you missed on the other end of the phone call.
A few weeks back, after I finished my work as the editor of the special issue of Apex Magazine, I blogged about my experiences as an editor on the Apex Blog (see Thoughts on Professionalism and Guest Editing). One of the goals I had in mind was for writers to learn a little about what editors go through, so they could do a better job of crafting their submissions to the market and thus make the editor's job a little easier.

Jason Sizemore, the publisher at Apex, asked a few of his regular editors to discuss other issues that they deal with, and he's posted their responses at Editor Gripes. If you're a writer hoping to sell your work to a market, take a moment to read over the post, as it's very instructive.

And don't worry if you get steamed by what you read; Jason is giving his writers a chance to post our own gripes next week...
Last month, I moderated a panel at Boskone called How Not to Edit Yourself, and [livejournal.com profile] drcpunk was in the audience taking notes. [livejournal.com profile] drcpunk's notes on the panel can be found here, for anyone who would like to read the pearls of wisdom provided by Eleanor Wood, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, David Hartwell, Josepha Sherman, and me. The notes are a little disjointed, which is inevitable, but [livejournal.com profile] drcpunk managed to jot down some of the more important things we said, including advice on turning off your inner editor when writing, and making sure not to over-edit before sending work out into the world.

"If you have imagination enough to be a writer, you should have imagination enough to be an editor." - Michael A. Burstein

Go read: Panel Write Up From Boskone: How Not to Edit Yourself
Once again, I'm pleased to note that I was invited to participate in a Mind Meld discussion by the fine folks over at SF Signal. This time, the question they asked was, "What's the best writing advice you ever received and who gave it to you?"

They got quite a few excellent writers to participate, including (deep breath): Robert Silverberg, Mike Resnick, Gene Wolfe, Paul McAuley, Kage Baker, Ben Bova, Kit Reed, John C. Wright, Marc Gascoigne, Jeff Carlson, Patricia Briggs, Alan Dean Foster, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Matt Hughes, Walter Jon Williams, Liz Williams, James Patrick Kelly, and Paolo Bacigalupi. I'm honored to be among such illustrious company.

In my own case, I share the advice I learned from former Star Trek editor John Ordover on when to revise a story. But if my own tale isn't enough to get you to check out the Mind Meld, surely one of the other authors listed has written a tale to spark your interest.

Go check it out:

Mind Meld: Shrewd Writing Advice From Some of Science Fiction's & Fantasy's Best Writers
[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

It turns out that I'm very glad I waited this long to discuss Robert's Rule #72, simply because I now have a better understanding of grids and the geometry of a page.

With this rule, Masello discusses the look of prose on a page. He points out that if you are trying to read a long block of prose, such a paragraph that doesn't seem to come to an end, you're more likely to have trouble absorbing everything in the paragraph. (All right, he doesn't say that exactly, but it's what I infer from what he does say.) Masello suggests looking at your longer paragraphs and breaking them up into more digestible chunks.

I have to say, nowhere do I find this piece of advice more relevant or useful than for those of us who write prose intended for the Internet. Even though a long chunk of unbroken prose in a book might make me pause, I still find myself eventually able to get through it all. But that's usually because by the time I encounter that chunk of prose, I've already made a commitment to read the book and I'm already through quite a bit of it.

On the Internet, I find that I'm inundated with articles and blog posts, and that far too many of them include longish paragraphs that force me to evaluate how much I'm actually inclined (or able) to read the whole thing. I'm far more likely to read something if it's either short or broken up into smaller pieces. Not only is it less intimidating at first glance, but it usually implies that the writer has thought through the piece before composing it, and has done their best to make it easier to read.

Which brings me to the geometry of a page. Even though I've been reading my whole life (or at least since I was two), and I've been working in publishing for a while, I still had difficulty grasping how vital the look of a page is for the reading experience. Now that I've taken the course Publication Design and Print Production Strategies, I have a much better understanding of how to design a grid to make a page look welcoming. And, of course, the more welcoming the page, the more likely someone will choose to read the text contained therein.

I only wish I had had more time to do that here.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein
Over the past few days I've discovered that I've been mentioned a few times in various places.

First of all, I am somewhat flabbergasted to discover that I'm mentioned in the latest edition of the Encyclopedia of American Jewish History. The editors of that encyclopedia had asked [livejournal.com profile] shsilver to write their article on "American Jews and Science Fiction," which runs from page 507-511 of volume 2. [livejournal.com profile] shsilver has given me permission to quote the relevant passage here:

Similarly, "Kaddish for the Last Survivor" (2000), Michael Burstein's tale of a Holocaust survivor's granddaughter who is struggling with issues of assimiliation, reflects on what it means to be Jewish, perhaps as no other story since William Tenn's "On Venus Have We Got a Rabbi" (1974).

While the Holocaust is often at the core of stories of wish fulfillment, it has also been used to highlight questions of Jewish identity. Burstein's "Kaddish for the Last Survivor" indicates that the Holocaust has created a new urgency in the maintenance of Jewish identity, for, if Jews forget who they are, the Nazis will have won.

Burstein's "Kaddish for the Last Survivor" and Carol Carr's "Look, You Think You've Got Troubles" (1974) both take a serious look at intermarriage, one of the major issues of American Jewish identity. Both address the issue of a Jewish woman marrying a non-Jewish man, and, although they come to very different conclusions, both reaffirm a sense of Jewish identity.

I've known for a while that I had a Wikipedia entry, but to be mentioned in a print encyclopedia...it boggles my mind.

My second mention has little to do with me and much more to do with someone else. Yesterday's Boston Globe ran an article, True Stories by Kathleen Burge, all about the Boston paramedic who writes the blog Other People's Emergencies: Random Thoughts of an Urban Paramedic. I've been interested in the work of paramedics and EMTs for a long time, since my older half-brother Danny worked for many years as a paramedic on the night shift out of Harlem Hospital. The Globe reporter noticed that I'd commented a few times in the Urban Paramedic blog, and so she contacted me to ask why I read the blog. Here's what I said:

"I keep being fascinated by his stories," said Michael A. Burstein, a writer and editor from Brookline who says he reads Urban Paramedic nearly every day. "I'm probably one of his many readers who thinks that some publisher out there ought to offer him a book contract immediately."

Finally, the most personal mention I've had recently was by a good friend, [livejournal.com profile] scarlettina, who just published a brilliant story called After This Life in the science fiction webzine InterGalactic Medicine Show. She comments on the story over on the associated webzine blog, at Side-Show Freaks: "After This Life" by Janna Silverstein, and she notes the following:

It was science fiction writer Michael Burstein who led me to reading more thoroughly about the theory behind real teleportation. If I was going to write science fiction, he insisted (and quite wisely), the science had to be there. Part of me rebelled; I just wanted to write the story, dammit, and not bother myself with all that pesky research. He was right, of course. The reading was fascinating. In the end, the horror of what I discovered—that every teleportation would be a death—took me that last step toward making this story what it ultimately became when I submitted it to IGMS. Edmund’s insightful revision requests made me think about who would be willing to sacrifice lives to develop such technology.

So, all in all, it's been a good day for my ego. :-)
Last summer, I had the opportunity to teach for one day at the Odyssey science fiction and fantasy writing workshop run by Jeanne Cavelos. At the time, Jeanne asked if they could tape part of my interaction with the students for an eventual podcast release, and I was delighted to say yes.

I'm pleased to note that my podcast, which is all about the plot skeleton, has now been released. Here's the description of the podcast:

Michael A. Burstein was a guest lecturer at Odyssey in the summer of 2007. Michael led the class in a lively question-and-answer session focused on the key ingredients of science fiction and fantasy and shared his experiences as a writer of short fiction. In this podcast, Michael explores plot and describes the plot skeleton. What is the appeal of an "unplotted" story? What are the advantages of a "plotted" story, and specifically of a story that uses the plot skeleton? Why is this basic construction so powerful? Michael leads you step by step through the plot skeleton, beginning with a character in a context with a problem and building as the character struggles to solve the problem. Michael also discusses how to make the reader care and how a character's reaction to a problem reveals his nature.

The podcast is about 15 minutes long, and if you want to learn a little something about plotting – or just how I do plotting – you might find the podcast of interest.

You can download the podcast at Odyssey Podcast #11: Michael A. Burstein on the Plot Skeleton.

Or, if you want to check out all the Odyssey Podcasts, which includes advice on writing from Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Robert J. Sawyer, and many others.
[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Although rule #71 might seem to apply to party activities or vacation plans, those are only analogies for what Robert Masello is really talking about: prose. In his accompanying essay, Masello warns writers of the dangers of allowing your writing to take on a repetitive rhythm, and suggests varying both sentence structure and events to keep the prose fresh and exciting. (Or at least that's how I interpret it.)

Sentence structure and rhythm are actually two of those important issues that often get short shrift in books on writing, so it's not a bad idea to discuss them a little more. When I first started out, the idea of varying sentence structure confused me. Although I felt that my underlying story ideas might be exciting, I worried that my sentences were lackluster and pedestrian. I thought my writing style was too simplistic, and I strained to add luster and sparkle to my prose.

I mainly approached this problem by two methods. I tried to improve my vocabulary and I eschewed any form of the verb "to be" that I could. But I soon realized that I could go further if I analyzed my writing "sentence by bloody sentence" (as a friend of mine from the Clarion Workshop once put it). The easiest way to do that was to read my sentences aloud and experience how they felt against the ear, as opposed to the eye.

Let me tell you, it makes a big difference.

In his book on writing, Worlds of Wonder, David Gerrold mentions the concept of "metric prose," which he learned from Theodore Sturgeon. Part of what made Sturgeon a masterful writer was his ability to play with sentence structure, in a way that lured the reader to plow forward through a story. He advised Gerrold to apply the metrics of poetry to his writing, and Gerrold found that to be useful advice. It's actually one of the simplest ways to vary your sentence structure and to mix things up.

For example, if you want the reader to march forward, recast your sentences in iambs (which, for those of you who don't recall, is a two-syllable foot of one unstressed beat followed by a stressed beat). If you want the reader to stop short, consider a one-sentence paragraph for effect. If you want the reader to get lost in a sea of stream of consciousness, work against any sort of consistent rhythm or pattern, and make the paragraphs as long as possible.

It is said that variety is the spice of life. It's also the spice of prose.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein
[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]


With rule #70, Masello tackles that issue, one that seems to affect all writers at some point or another. Often it feels a lot easier to put off doing our writing than it does to sit down actually do it. As others have noted in their own essays on procrastination, many writers would sometimes rather clean the bathroom than face the keyboard.

Masello's own advice on how to avoid procrastination hearkens back to his school days. He noticed that he always felt uneasy when he put off doing an assignment, and discovered that the only way to relieve this tension was to actually do his work. If he didn't do his work, but spent his time in leisure instead, he noticed that he couldn't really enjoy himself. For him, procrastinating simply wasn't that good an option.

So his main suggestion to fight procrastination is mostly just to do it, because of how it can affect you emotionally. To some extent, I can understand where he's coming from; I too get antsy if I put off work for too long. But on the other hand, the advice he offers isn't very proactive. If you're not the sort of person who gets antsy, you're not going to be able to follow it.

And sometimes, you won't be able to follow it even if you are. On a personal note, this past year I've had a handful of writing projects with deadlines, and I have to admit that I have heard the siren song of procrastination myself. Although I do set goals for myself, like many others, I don't always meet them the way I should. So how do I tackle the issue?

In one of his many essays on writing, "Do It Anyway," Mystery Grand Master Lawrence Block gives advice that is pretty much encapsulated in the title of the essay. He tends to feel that procrastination is rooted in fear that the work you create won't be good enough. The key to facing this fear, he says, is just to do the writing anyway. Chances are it won't be as bad as you think.

(It's possible that I'm conflating two different essays here. If so, there's no need to correct me, as the point is still a valid one.)

But how do we turn Masello's and Block's advice into practical action? I have three techniques I've used to fight procrastination, which might help you as well.

1. Set yourself a daily page or word quota.

It's probably the oldest piece of advice in the book; I know I've heard it repeated too often to count. But it really works. If you say to yourself, today I have to write 500 words (or 1000 words, or 250 words) before going to bed, and you really stick with it, you'll find that the work gets done faster than you expect. As Gay and Joe Haldeman like to say, a page a day is a book a year. Surely those of us who call ourselves writers can eke out the time to write a page a day. Or at least a sentence.

2. Promise yourself a carrot when you're done.

I've also seen this piece of advice elsewhere. In the past, writers used to promise themselves a chocolate or a few pages of reading someone else's novel once they finished their daily quota. Some writers give themselves the license to watch television after they're done. In our modern world, I've known writers who refuse to check their email or anything else on the Internet until they've finished their word count for the day. Find a reward that works for you.

3. Have someone else provide the stick.

This is a technique that I haven't seen recommended elsewhere, so if you offer it to others, be sure to give me credit (he said with a smile). When I took a year off to write full-time, I knew I would need someone else watching over me to make sure I actually got my work done. Since the only reason I had this opportunity was because Nomi was willing to support us for the year, she in essence became my boss. I had a daily page quota, and every day I had to email those pages to her so she would know that I had gotten them done. By our arrangement, I couldn't slack off, because if I did, I'd be falling down on the job. And treating writing as a job, where your boss can fire you if you don't get your work done, can be one of the best spurs for actually getting your work done.

Any other techniques for avoiding procrastination that others would like to offer? My guess is that we'd all benefit from such advice.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein
[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

With rule #69, Masello advises us that writers are never completely satisfied with our work. Even after we've been over a draft a dozen times, when the work finally appears in print we're still liable to read it with far too critical an eye, scouring it for flaws that may seem inconsequential to others.

But Masello says that this isn't such a bad thing. As writers, we're supposed to want to get every word perfect. I can definitely understand where he's coming from. If we're really totally satisfied with our work, we'll never look for ways to improve. It's true that many of us have debates between our inner writer and inner editor, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. As long as we don't let ourselves get paralyzed by over-analysis, it's okay to grumble and fuss over our writing.

It's one thing when it's ourselves doing it, but quite another thing when it's others. I was just at Readercon, and one of the many conversations I had with other writers dealt with the difference between critique and criticism. Those of us in the discussion had pretty much the same opinion. Before the story has been sent out, when we're submitting it to a workshop or an ideal reader, we're looking for critique that will help us improve the story. But once the story is published and out in the world, in a final, somewhat irrevocable form, we really don't want to hear any criticism. There's nothing more we can do with that story now, and all the criticism will do is make us feel bad.

I recall once hearing a story about Stan Lee. It may be apocryphal, but it's still a good story. Supposedly, a fan getting an autograph from Lee referred to one of Lee's comics as one of the worst pieces of trash ever written. Lee smiled throughout the criticism. When that fan left, the next fan on line asked Lee how he deals with that sort of thing. Lee's response: "I'm my own biggest fan. You have to be."

I'll grumble and fuss over my own work, thank you very much.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein
[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

With rule #68, Masello warns us against writing in a fit of passion. He seems to be reacting to a piece of advice he's found in other books, which is to write when you feel most passionate about something. But he warns that such writing tends to come out less than coherent, and will most likely need a good dose of revision.

From my own experience, I have to say that I tend to disagree with this rule. Perhaps I'm confusing passion with obsession, but in general I've found that the stories I'm most passionate about are the ones that flow the easiest, and the ones that garner most of the attention.

If I may, allow me to discuss how I tend to come to write one of my own stories. (Yes, I know this is a digression. I'm using Robert's Rules as a springboard in this case.) What usually happens is that I start with an idea. Or, rather, I should say that an idea comes to me. Furthermore, the idea comes to stay for a long time. It takes up residence in my mind, and refuses to even consider leaving until I've started to jot down a few notes on how to turn it into a story. In fact, in order to exorcise the idea completely, I generally have to write the story, submit it somewhere, and see it published. (Examples of such stories include "Time Ablaze" and "Paying It Forward.")

So when I'm obsessed by a story, I tend to write it next. And, interestingly enough, those stories usually require the least revision. It's the stories whose words flow like molasses in winter that require the most rewriting.

So does this mean I would dismiss rule #68 entirely? Well, not quite. Because I can understand how in the throes of passionate writing, writers might rush through so many thoughts that they lose the narrative thread that holds the words together. To me, Masello's rule #68 is just another way of saying that it's always a good idea to take a second look at your work before you offer it up for publication.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein
It seems my fate in life to collaborate with linear writers, when I myself write in a nonlinear fashion.

As Bob Greenberger has noted in his latest blog post, The Floor Is Now Open, he and I have begun work on the "Things That Aren't" sequel. And, as he also noted, I've sent him some chunks of the first draft, which show him just how differently I write from him.

As I think I've mentioned before, I tend to be a nonlinear writer. From a practical standpoint, that means that when I sit down to write another, say, 500 words of a story, I don't start at the beginning and go to the end. I bounce around the document, writing bits and pieces of dialogue, description, and other stuff beginning with d. My drafts-in-progress are sprinkled with asterisks to mark places where I need to add more words, and notes to myself like "FIX THIS" and "CHARACTER NAME NEEDED." (As an aside, I learned to do this from studying one of John Kessel's manuscripts-in-progress at Clarion, so thanks, John, for helping me free my creativity like that. And I'd also like to thank the inventor of the word processor. This method of writing would be almost impossible on a typewriter.) I work this way until I've filled my word quota, and then I stop and switch to another project.

While Bob didn't state this explicitly in his post, he's more of a linear writer, so looking at what I've written is an interesting experience for him. The chunks I sent him are all in one document, so it's not like I've made it clear which scene is which. And yet, he still can see where the connections will be made. Eventually.

I'm reminded of the other significant collaboration I did, with Shane Tourtellotte, on a novella called "Bug Out!" (Analog, July/August 2001). Shane is most definitely a linear writer; he starts from the beginning of a story and keeps writing until he reaches the end. We had to figure out how we would put the story together, and in the end we came up with a workable method. We started with an outline, which we tossed back and forth until we had a plot document that described every scene. Then we divided the outline up. I took the odd-numbered scenes, and he took the even-numbered scenes (or maybe it was the other way around; it doesn't matter). And then we wrote. This way, he could start from his first scene and write all the way to the end of his last scene, and I could bounce around among the scenes as I wished. When we were done, we swapped the scenes. He rewrote mine, I rewrote his, and we did this once or twice more until the story was done.

Oddly enough, this worked out even better than we expected. For example, in one scene I was writing, I realized that I needed something to exist in the story which had to be set up in one of Shane's scenes. I wrote it in and figured I would add it when I got Shane's scenes to rewrite. Much to my surprise and delight, Shane had also figured that we needed this thing to exist, and he had set it up exactly where we needed it.

Bob and I are handling the sequel to "Things That Aren't" a little differently. We're essentially using the same method that we used for the original. I'm writing a first draft of the story, in my usual nonlinear way, and when it's finished I'll pass it to Bob. Bob, in turn, will rewrite the draft, adding all those things that I will probably leave out. (Like character, conflict, and plot. You know, minor things like that.) Then I'll take it back and probably yell and scream at him for all his changes to my deathless prose. No, but seriously, I'll make other changes, we'll make compromises on those things we disagree on, and then we'll send the new story to Analog, where it'll get the cover and be nominated for a few awards. (Or not, but writers like to dream.)

So, if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to work.
[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

With rule #67, Masello suggests finding an intelligent, diplomatic friend to serve as an "ideal reader." In contrast with his previous rule, in which he advised writers to "doubt everyone" when it came to taking advice, with this rule he suggests that taking advice from someone can be beneficial -- as long as it's the right someone. But how do you find an ideal reader?

My first experience with the concept of an ideal reader took place in college. A friend I shall call F. got me reading science fiction short stories again by presenting me with a subscription to Asimov's for my birthday. F. herself was a reader of science fiction, and so for many years after that, every time I sat down to write, I kept imagining what F. would say about my work. I actually once told her that I was writing for her, an audience of one; she seemed amused by the revelation.

But in fact, F. wasn't actually serving as an ideal reader because she never looked at my prose in its raw form. And while Masello recommends this method, too (of imagining what a friend might say), it's far better if you can actually find an ideal reader to read and evaluate your work.

In my case, the ideal reader is my wife. I know I'm very lucky in that regard. Many writers have spouses who don't understand their desire to write. Nomi is an editor and writer herself, and has a very good eye and ear when it comes to prose. My general rule is not to submit any stories or essays anywhere without first running them by Nomi. As a result, she has become sensitized to the kind of errors I tend to make in sentence structure, which makes her even more of an ideal reader for me. (See, Nomi? I used "which" correctly this time.)

She's also very good at diagnosing plot problems and suggesting fixes. A few years ago, I finished a story that made me proud, and I ran it by Nomi before submitting it. Nomi liked the story a lot, but felt that the ending was a cop-out. I argued with her that I needed to keep the ending vague, but she would have none of that. So I rewrote the ending and sent it to Stan Schmidt at Analog.

When Stan called me to tell me he was buying the story, I said thanks and mumbled something about the flaw.

"Oh?" he said, his voice climbing in pitch. "What flaw?"

"Oh, there's no flaw there now," I said quickly. I described my original ending, and explained how Nomi hadn't approved of it.

"Oh," Stan said when I finished. He paused for a moment, then continued.

"Nomi's right. That original ending wouldn't have worked. From now on, don't send me anything until she's seen it first."

And so there you have it. An ideal reader can save you from story rejection and possible embarrassment. But, as I asked before, how do you find an ideal reader in the first place?

Well, if you're not lucky enough to marry one, I'd suggest (as Masello does) finding a fellow writer whose work you like and whose critique you trust. If the two of you can serve as each other's ideal reader, even better. A mutually symbiotic relationship can help improve both of your stories. And who knows? You might even end up taking that extra step and collaborating on a story.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein
[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Tap, tap....is this thing on? I know the microphone has gotten a bit rusty since I last posted on of these (December 19, 2006, for those of you keeping track at home), but I didn't realize just how encrusted it had gotten. Let me just clean it off...


When I first started this project back in 2005, I tried to post my "Robert's Rules" commentaries about three times a week. Sometimes it ended up being only twice a week, but I still managed to post with some regularity.

Obviously, there have been some recent upheavals in my life, and blogging about "Robert's Rules of Writing" had to fall to the wayside. But I think I'm back now, and my more modest goal is to post a commentary at least once a week. If I manage to do more, that would be great too, but if not, once a week is a manageable goal. And it'll give me something to talk about all the way into 2008.

For those of you who are coming to these discussions anew, note that you can always find all the Robert's Rules commentary posts by using the address http://mabfan.livejournal.com/tag/roberts-rules.

And now, to the actual commentary.

With rule #66, "Doubt Everyone," Masello discusses the pitfalls of listening to the advice of others when it comes to your writing. He points out that although writing workshops are helpful, the advice offered can sometimes dilute a writer's own voice. And he cites the personal experience of listening to agents and editors tell him not to bother with writing certain books, only to find other books on those topics showing up in bookstores a year later.

Having just been a guest lecturer at the Odyssey workshop on Sunday, I've actually been ruminating on this rule a lot. As I listened to the students critiquing stories, I flashed back to my own workshop experiences. I remember how James Patrick Kelly analyzed one of my stories and gave me two pages of notes on how to fix the story...but I couldn't help but notice that his suggestions would have made the story much more a Kelly story than a Burstein story.

On the other hand, I had written a story about our universe getting in touch with a parallel one, and when Howard Waldrop read it, he gave me one piece of advice: set the story in the other universe. I adapted his advice by setting the story in both universes, and it led to a Hugo nomination, so I'm glad that I didn't doubt Howard's advice in that case.

But there are many examples of where Masello's rule is well applied.

For example, it's no secret that Daniel Keyes was told by many editors that if he would just change the ending of "Flowers for Algernon," they would be happy to publish it. I don't want to mention any spoilers here, but anyone who has read the short story or the novel knows how vital the final scene of the tale is. The story's ending resonates so well with what has come before that I can't imagine it ending any other way.

In my own personal experience, I've sometimes found that it's necessary to doubt even one's writing collaborators. A few years back, I collaborated on a story with my friend Charles Ardai called "Nor Through Inaction", that appeared in the October 1998 Analog. Although he writes the occasional science fiction or fantasy story, Charles's forte is mysteries, and in one of the revisions of the story he introduced a plot element involving a computer reading old hard-boiled mystery novels aloud to our trapped protagonist.

But on the other hand...at Odyssey on Sunday, almost everyone gave the same piece of advice to one writer regarding her story. And when it came time for me to add my thoughts, I shared a line from the Talmud, which I paraphrase here: When one person tells you that you're a donkey, pay him no heed. But if two people tell you that you're a donkey, buy yourself a saddle.

So how do you know when to doubt everyone? And how do you know when to accept the advice of others?

In the end, my advice would be to follow these two steps:

1. Solicit the opinions of people you trust.
2. Never take any advice that destroys the heart of your story.

Because in the end, it's your story, and no one else's.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein
Yesterday I had the pleasure of teaching the students in this year's Odyssey: Tthe Fantasy Writing Workshop, which is being held at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. Last year, Jeanne Cavelos, the director and principal instructor of the workshop, asked me if I would serve as the summer's first guest lecturer, and I accepted with delight. Even though I left full-time teaching a while ago, I still enjoy the thrill of working with a group of students in a classroom. It's even better when the students are there by choice, dedicated to improving their skills in a field that obviously means a lot to them.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of a summer science fiction and fantasy writing workshop, it's fairly easy to describe. Students from all over the world gather for six weeks in one location to write stories, critique stories, and learn about writing. I attended Clarion in 1994, and I usually recommend any of the Clarions or Odyssey to anyone who has the time and is serious about their writing. Odyssey does have one major difference from Clarion, which is the advantage of having one principal instructor present throughout the whole summer. Although Clarion does have directors present the whole summer, usually they fill a more administrative capacity. Jeanne serves as the head administrator, but also as a writer/editor/instructor herself. But like Clarion, Odyssey does bring in other writers and editors to serve as guest lecturers. Later this summer, the students will learn from Rodman Philbrick, Michael A. Arnzen, Elizabeth Hand, John Clute, and George Scithers, and the Special Writer-in-Residence will be Nina Kiriki Hoffman.

As for my own day at Odyssey...

I arrived a little before 9 AM and spent the first hour and a half presenting what I've come to think of as my workshop on "Idea-Building: Character, Context, and Plot." (Actually, I spent the first few minutes apologizing for having to switch my appearance from Friday to Sunday.) Generally, this discussion involves any one of three parts: trying to define the genre of science fiction and fantasy, playing the idea-building game, and exploring the concept of the plot skeleton. It's a good workshop to present near the beginning of a program like Odyssey, as it generally helps the students start to focus on the tools they actually need to turn a cool idea they have into something resembling a story.

During the morning session, I also worked in some discussion of professionalism in writing, and I explained how I came to write "Kaddish for the Last Survivor," which the students had read in advance of my appearance.

Over lunch, the students asked me questions. They were a little apologetic about it, since they felt it made it difficult for me to eat. I let them know that my official schedule for the day specified that I would be answering questions over lunch, so that made them feel better.

The afternoon began with actual workshopping of three stories. Now, I'm going to be honest here, even though I know that the students may very well come check out my blog to see what I have to say. (And if you are out there, please say hi!) The stories we critiqued were about what one would expect from the students just starting out in their first week of the workshop. None of them were atrocious -- there, now they can all breathe a sigh of relief -- but they did suffer from many of the beginners' mistakes that most of us struggled with as we became writers.

On the other hand, the level of critique was quite high. As I joked after the first critique, Jeanne may not yet have a group of professional level writers in the class yet, but she does have a good group of editors. Many of the students saw the same flaws in the stories that either Jeanne or I noticed, and it's obvious to me that any one of her students this year has the potential to eventually produce publishable material. Overall, I was most impressed with the brightness and enthusiasm of this group of students. I hope they manage to keep it up over the course of the summer.

On a personal note, I was amused to see how much of my own teaching was influenced by the teachers I had at Clarion thirteen years ago. I kept sharing pieces of advice mentioned by my own instructors: James Patrick Kelly, John Kessel, Ellen Kusher, Delia Sherman, Claire Eddy, Howard Waldrop, Kate Wilhelm, and Damon Knight. In particular, I shared a few of Howard's bon mots, such as this gem: "You can make a reader go 'Huh?' anywhere in a story but not on page nine. And you can never make a reader go 'Huh? What?' A 'What?' is a non- realization of the preceding 'Huh?'" (For more on my own Clarion experience, see my essay The Clarion Call.)

The day ended with my meeting individually with four of the students, to deliver private critiques of their stories. Again, none of the stories were yet at a publishable level, but they all had something in them that could be turned into a publishable story, once the students pick up the skills they need.

I wish them all the best of luck, and hope they'll remember to share with me news of their eventual success.
So for those of you who are patiently (I hope) awaiting my next installment in my discussion of Robert's Rules of Writing, and have been hoping for fresh writing advice from my pen...

I'm pleased to announce that my article "Writing the Language of the Future" is now available as part of the June 2007 issue of Reflection's Edge (issue number 26). If you're a writer of science fiction, and you're looking for a few tips on how to create new words for your future worlds, feel free to check it out. And while you're at it, check out the rest of the issue as well.

December 2016

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