Nearly four years ago, in early 2012, I started taking Taekwondo. I was overweight, out of shape, but my oldest minion had been taking classes for a year plus and had just turned old enough to start doing family classes. So I buckled down, drank plenty of water, tried not to smoke so much and gave it a shot.

I didn’t just show up to class with him one day, though. The last thing I wanted was for my son to see his old man collapse in a fit of coughing or pass out from exhaustion or wind up twisting himself into so many Gordian knots even the EMTs wouldn’t be able to save him. I took adult classes for a few months to get a bead on where I really stood physically. Turned out I wasn’t in all that bad of shape. Also, apparently very few folks actually went to the adult classes, so I wound up getting a bunch of private lessons at regular cost and getting to know the masters pretty well.

After a few months, I started going to the family classes with my son. And aside from occasionally getting round-housed by a pre-teen, all was well.

Fast forward to November 2015. My second son has arrived and earned his dark green belt. My first son and I are both preparing for our black belt tests. Things are seemingly going well. But they’re not.

I’d started experiencing some discomfort early to mid 2015, wound up at the doctor’s in July with back pain, was given some meds and sent on my way. I’m not huge on taking pills, but I tried one anyhow. Didn’t much like the way it made me feel, so I opted instead to put a little more effort into stretching my back muscles. Though intermittent, the pain was not going away. In fact, it actually got worse, but so slowly and so unpredictably that I didn’t really take much notice until November 18, when I wound up going back to the doctor. I’ll spare the details of my visit, but the diagnosis was a left inguinal hernia. My black belt test was already scheduled for December 5.

Needless to say, I cancelled my test and stopped going to classes while I sorted the situation out. I met with the surgeon December 2, had the surgery on December 14, and let myself recover for the following few weeks.

Yesterday, January 9, I returned to Taekwondo. In the space of a month or so, I’d put some extra weight back on and my joints had become relatively stiff and inflexible. The moves were familiar, yet I was clumsy and uncertain in my execution. My performance was less than stellar, at times a little embarrassing considering a mere month prior I was deemed ready to take my black belt test, but I tried my best, and that’s what mattered. I showed up. I tried. And before long I’ll be back to where I was and headed for more improvement.

Why am I writing about this on a blog (using the term loosely) that hasn’t been updated in three years? Because I learned a few things in 2015 that are worth capturing, if for nothing else as a reminder to me going forward.

First, hernias suck. However, mine was relatively minor. The surgeon didn’t have to go through any muscle to fix it, I was in and out of surgery in roughly an hour, and only used pain medication for one day. A really good friend of mine at work had undergone similar surgery a month or so prior to mine, but his damage was more extensive and required a longer recovery time. By the way, talking with him is part of what took me back to the doctor on November for a proper diagnosis. Anyhow, my point here is that no matter how much your tough experience sucks, in all likelihood someone else has it worse. My hernia was tough on me, but not nearly as tough as it could have been. In fact, I’m pretty damned lucky as far as hernias go.

Second, when you feel pain or discomfort, it pays to take time and figure out why. Between July and November I did nothing about my physical pain and discomfort. I tried to ignore it in the hopes it would all go away. Not usually the best tactic to take. The pain was telling me something was wrong, and I should have listened more closely sooner than later.

Third, when getting back into something you’ve stepped away from, you have to be forgiving of yourself. It’s unreasonable to expect to pick up exactly where you left off when taking time away from something. It’s okay to take a step back. In fact, it’s more than okay. It’s human.

Those three things apply to a much broader situation in my life, one represented in some ways by the fact that I haven’t posted on this blog in three years. Just like the hernia pain cause so much difficulty in my Taekwondo, I’ve suffered some stresses over the past few years that have affected my writing. Most notably, I took a new role at my company three years ago. If I recall correctly, my start date was January 21, 2013.

In the most general terms, I took a new role that relied less on my strict technical skills and forced me to work more on my people skills. Like the hernia, that new role was, and at times continues to be, a tough experience. Unlike the hernia, I took the role voluntarily precisely because I knew it would be tough in ways and challenge me to work on aspects of my personality that I’ve neglected. And even though the experience was tough, I’m actually very privileged to have a good paying job at a company that cares for its employees and to even have the opportunity for choosing to change roles. This was my choice, and by virtue of that fact alone my tough experience pales in comparison to many of those around me. I have friends and family who suffer, some physically, other emotionally, on a daily basis. Life for them is a struggle. I will not pretend my tough experiences are as bad as theirs, but they are the only experiences I have to share. If you think I have it pretty good, I happen to agree.

Even though the change in role was voluntary, and I expected some degree of pain and challenge, I also underestimated the number and types of new stressors involved. Essentially the role was more work than a single person could tackle. In fact, a couple of months in my boss and his boss asked that my role be split into two. For whatever reasons that didn’t happen until around October 2015, and by mid-2013 I’d mostly forgotten I was doing the work of two. The matter would come up at times with my boss (who’s been a champion for me since day one), but for the most part I soldiered on, did the best I could, safe in the knowledge that I had full direct managerial support in my effort to accomplish what I could. I expected the pain of growth, the stress of having to stretch myself further in ways I hadn’t before, but what I neglected to realize was that the pain and stress were from more than just normal growth. Something more was wrong. The stress affected my productivity, my personality, my happiness, yet it came on so gradually that I failed to notice. These problems manifested most notably in my writing life but the energy drain had affect pretty much across the board: work, family, friends, writing. Three years since I’ve even attempted a blog post. I spent a year plus working on a science fiction novel an effort to help me stretch and grow as a writer, only to scrap it because it was too tough. I started a side project that combines analytics and fiction, only to let that dwindle as well. I’ve been working on the sequel to Tearstone, but that’s been a slog at times and the thought has crossed my mind more than once that I should just give up on it.

But I won’t.

Like I mentioned above, my role was finally split in October 2015. A second person was brought in and roughly half my responsibilities were given to him. Again, I’m lucky. He’s smart, trustworthy, and very capable. During November and December I gave myself permission to slack off on the writing, not because I was giving up but because I realized that I needed to let myself recover from the stress I’d only recently recognized. I needed to heal.

I had originally planned on having the first draft to the Tearstone sequel done by the end of 2015. I’m only half-way through, but I’m back at it, and I’ve brought with me something I haven’t typically been good at - the capacity to forgive myself for not being perfect. I cannot pick up exactly where I left off in my writing, but I will get back there, and probably much sooner than I think.

I will have this first draft finished well before June rolls around, but if I don’t, I’ll forgive myself and keep working at it.

I wrapped up a first draft of my next novel in early December, and I decided to make 2013 a year for building my short story skills. I love short stories but I’m more inclined toward novels and long fiction, I think in part because they’re, well, longer. I like robust stories with full worlds and deep characters.

I write 3-4 shorts a year, which isn’t a lot, and they reflect my inclination toward longer stories. In fact, one of the most common critiques I’ve heard over the years of my short stories is, “This feels like the start to a larger piece.” And truth be told, most of them were, because it’s how I think. Too big, too much.

In prepping for my 2013 focus I began by doing a review of common story structures, convinced I’d missed something peculiar to short stories. Much of what I’ve read over the last month was familiar, but then I came across this older post by Philip Brewer on Story Structure in Short Stories.

Like Philip, I’m no stranger to story structure. I’ve attended several courses and read a few books on the subject. I still have notes from a wonderful lecture on Conflict, Plot, and Scene by Timons Esaias, in which he provided a classic structure for use to help a writer get started. You might recognize this as a common structure for fairy tales:

  1. A Person
  2. In a Place
  3. With a Problem
  4. Protagonist Strives & Fails
  5. Protagonist Strives & Fails
  6. Protagonist Strives & Succeeds (or Fails)
  7. Resolution

It’s a valuable structure, but with my approach to storytelling I’m looking at easily 5K words. This isn’t a problem with the structure, it’s a problem with my thinking, and until I read Philip Brewer’s post I was convinced I’d never quite get it.

Philip has this to say:

…short stories tend to have parts of the structure pared down: Not all steps are shown in full-blown scenes. It is important that the steps “take place” in the context of the story—that’s what makes it a story. But it isn’t necessary to show each step. It is enough simply to mention them. In fact, it can be enough simply to imply them.

I’ve heard this before, or something similar. A lot can and should be implied in a short story. My problem is in figuring out what can be implied and what’s essential. I can see this struggle as I look back over my work. But it’s what Philip says later that cracked it for me. An honest-to-god short story structure that makes sense to me:

It was less important to me to learn the answer to my first question, about the structure of a successful short story, once I understood how those structures relate to “complete” stories: I could now build up my own successful structures. But, as it happened, Geoffrey A. Landis had a pretty good description of the essential core of a short story. A story needs to:

  1. Require the character to make a choice,
  1. show that choice by actions, and
  1. those actions must have consequences.

I put this to the test in December as I was working on a short targeted at a specific anthology. I won’t know if the story’s been accepted for a few months, but for this first pass I was more interested in whether the structure helped me tell the story rather than whether it helped me sell the story.

It worked. I managed to write a first draft in a few hours, which for me is record time as I generally feel the need to throw everything in up front and edit out later. But this time, those three essentials kept me so focused on what needed to be there that I found myself naturally implying parts that I normally would have tried to include.

I now have a good model to help me move forward through the year. By no means would I say this is a universal model, but it’s workable and practical:

A short story must imply a full story structure while demonstrating a character’s relevant decision and that decision’s consequences.

Hopefully this will help another writer struggling with the same issue. And thanks to Philip for his brief yet insightful post.

Following the lead of Chris Shearer and Heidi Ruby Miller, I’m sharing my reading list from 2012.

My goal was 40 books, and I came in just over at 41. Some of my favorites were Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, John Dies at the End by David Wong, Westlake Soul by Rio Youers, The Passage by Justin Cronin, and The Croning by Laird Barron.

My 2012 reading list in alphabetical order:

  1. Ancient Images by Ramsey Campbell
  2. Back Roads & Frontal Lobes by Brady Allen
  3. Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st Century Writer by Jeff VanderMeer
  4. Bottled Abyss by Benjamin Kane Ethridge
  5. Brimstone by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child
  6. Dead City by Joe McKinney
  7. Dreaming While Awake: Techniques for 24-Hour Lucid Dreaming by Arnold Mindell
  8. ECTOSTORM: Book Three of the Stanley Cooper Chronicles by Scott A. Johnson
  9. In the Midnight Museum by Gary A. Braunbeck
  10. John Dies at the End by David Wong
  11. Mama Said by Lee Allen Howard
  12. Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
  13. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
  14. New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird by Paula Guran
  15. Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory
  16. Pyrotechnicon by Adam Browne
  17. Rage Against the Night by Shane Jiraiya Cummings
  18. Rumors of My Death by Gina Ranalli
  19. Seven Stories by Brian James Freeman
  20. Take The Long Way Home by Brian Keene
  21. Tequila’s Sunrise by Brian Keene
  22. The Bone Factory by Nate Kenyon
  23. The Croning by Laird Barron
  24. The Ghost IS the Machine by Patrick Scalisi
  25. The Inhabitant of the Lake & Other Unwelcome Tenants by Ramsey Campbell
  26. The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
  27. The Men Upstairs by Tim Waggoner
  28. The Midnight Eye Files: The Amulet by William Meikle
  29. The Other Place by Nancy Robison
  30. The Painted Darkness by Brian James Freeman
  31. The Passage by Justin Cronin
  32. The Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others by Kristi Hedges
  33. The Red Church by Scott Nicholson
  34. The Sixth Seed by Lee Allen Howard
  35. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
  36. These Trespasses by Kenneth W. Cain
  37. Torn Realities by Paul Anderson
  38. Trinity by Kristin Dearborn
  39. Veins by Lawrence C. Connolly
  40. Vipers by Lawrence C. Connolly
  41. Westlake Soul by Rio Youers

I’m keeping my goal for next year at 40 for now as I have some pretty thick books in mind, but may bump it up mid-year if I’m making good progress on both reading and writing.

Sheldon Higdon asked if I’d do this “Next Big Thing” blog chain. I’m not particularly keen on this sort of thing, mainly because my work is so volatile right up until it goes out the door, but Sheldon’s a good friend, and my last post on this project was somewhat cryptic. So I thought I would follow-up with something a little less vague. This is my next novel-length project. Whether it turns out to be any kind of “Big Thing” remains to be seen.

1. What Is Your Working Title Of Your Book?

The Galvanized Man

2. Where Did The Idea Come From For The Book?

The book stems from several points of origin. One is the wonderful short story “These Things We Have Always Known” by Lynda E. Rucker. There are a couple of lines in it that stuck with me like good barbecue:

“What are they?”

“Instruments,” I said. “Instruments for the summoning of dead races.”

The Galvanized Man was also inspired, in part, by this old political cartoon, A Galvanised [sic] Corpse. I like stretching the term galvanize to mean resurrection, although that’s not strictly what the cartoon’s about.

The book also draws on my love of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos and some recent reading I’ve been doing on dreams and the Aboriginal Dreamtime.

All of these things kind of clicked together in a strange way that I hope has turned out to be a pretty compelling story about how our dreams shape our lives and our lives shape our dreams.

3. What Genre Does Your Book Fall Under?

Ostensibly it falls under horror. Maybe even occult horror, as I’m coming to realize I gravitate toward such things as dark religious themes and secret societies. However, there are some elements of fantasy and a touch of soft science fiction involved.

4. Which Actors Would You Choose To Play Your Characters In A Movie Rendition?

Hmmmmm. That’s a tough one. I don’t typically visualize actors while I write. Maybe a young Clancy Brown for the antagonist (who’s not really bad, just misunderstood). Lucy Liu for the sidekick. Vin Diesel for the ex-boyfriend.

I’d have to say Milla Jovovich for the protagonist, but that’s probably wildly inaccurate.

5. What Is The One-Sentence Synopsis Of Your Book?

In a future stained by a failed apocalypse, Victoria Cliffborn embarks on a journey to save her father and becomes entwined in a war between two ancient cults for control of reality.

6. Will Your Book Be Self-Published Or Represented By An Agency?

I’ll shoot for establishing a relationship with an agent, then look at the small presses. As of now, I have no plans to self publish.

7. How Long Did It Take You To Write The First Draft Of Your Manuscript?

About a year. I wrapped up the first draft a few weeks ago. Too long, if you ask me.

Part of what I’ll focus on with my big project is shortening the first-draft phase. I have several ideas on how to do this, and I’m going to shoot for 3-6 months.

8. What Other Books Would You Compare This Story To Within Your Genre?

Maybe Laird Baron’s The Croning in terms of tone, but that’s probably a stretch. I just finished reading it, so it’s fresh in my mind. There are similarities to King’s Dark Tower series as well, such as time bending and questionable realities, but I can hardly compare the writing to King’s, or Baron’s for that matter. In terms of plot and character, there are similarities to Gaiman’s Neverwhere, but I don’t write like Neil Gaiman at all. There I go, being vague again.

9. Who Or What Inspired You To Write This Book?

I’m continually inspired by many things, so I can’t point to any one item in my life and say, “Here! This inspired me!” My wife and sons are always a source of inspiration.

That said, see question #2.

10. What Else About Your Book Might Pique The Reader’s Interest?

The book was really a stretch for me. It’s written in first-person from the female protagonist’s point of view. I wasn’t sure I had the attention span to maintain a single voice throughout, but I think I managed pretty well. And writing in first person led to what I think is an interesting little end to the book. It’s not a twist ending necessarily, or gimmicky, but I don’t think I would have ever imagined closing the book the way I did if I’d used any other point of view.

Thanks to my inviter, Sheldon Higdon, author of Hand-Carved Coffins:

Check Sheldon out. He’s a talented writer and one of the most generous people I know.

I’m supposed to tag five other authors to write similar posts. For several reasons, I’ve decided to break the chain. I am going to list out some other writers you should go check out, but I’m not asking them to do this “Next Big Thing”. I just think you should read their blogs and take a risk on their work.

Scott A. Johnson, author of The Stanley Cooper Chronicles.

Scott was one of my mentors in my graduate program. He has a keen sense of humor, writes some very cool stuff, and has a lot to share about writing and the writing process.

Tim Waggoner, author of Like Death and The Shirley Jackson Award nominated The Men Upstairs.

Tim was my other mentor in my graduate program. He’s a thoughtful person, an excellent teacher, and crafts some pretty strange stuff. Well worth checking out.

Chris Shearer, writer, editor, reviewer, critic.

Chris is one of my trusted sources when it come to contemporary fiction worth reading. His reviews are found at FEARNet and Cemetery Dance. I’ve read some of his short fiction, and it’s clear he has a handle on what this thing called Horror is all about.

Kristin Dearborn, author of Trinity.

Kristin’s debut novel Trinity was released in late September. It’s a solid book, well written, with a unique take on alien abductions. She recently did this “Next Big Thing” thing, so take a look as see what else she has coming down the line.

Jason Jack Miller, author of Hellbender.

Jason’s the only writer I’ve met personally who successfully parlayed self-publishing into a book deal. He has a lot to say on the subject of self-publishing and is worth listening to regardless of your perspective on the matter.

Lawrence C. Connolly, author of The Veins Cycle.

Larry taught several classes in my graduate program, and I’ve had occasion to hang out with him at a few Cons. He’s extremely insightful when it comes both to writing and the business of writing. His Veins Cycle books are a wonderful blend of horror, action, and Native American mythology.

Over the past couple of weeks writers have been debating the wisdom of Duotrope’s decision to start charging for their service. The site’s been around for years and has relied solely on donations to keep it running. And apparently donations were not enough.

Like so many others, I’ve been considering what to do come 2013. I’ve donated to the site a few times, giving what I felt was a fair price for the service on a yearly basis. It was not, however, the $50 per year they’re now asking. I’ll admit had sticker shock on first hearing the price, and I’m not alone.

I’m not opposed to paying for a legitimate service that helps me reach my writing goals. But Duotrope’s asking price seemed a bit much at first blush for things I could essentially do on my own. After all, Ralan still provides an excellent speculative fiction market listing for free, and really, how hard is it to track submissions in a spreadsheet? Not that hard.

There are also other options paid options. Most notably, the Writer’s Market Deluxe Edition is about $40 and comes with a one-year subscription to the online service, which includes up-to-date market listings and a submission tracker. I used Writer’s Market online years ago, so I figured I’d give it another go.

Step over here a minute so I can explain something. We’ll get back to Duotrope and Writer’s Market shortly. When someone says they’re a writer, it’s not so different than someone saying they’re a programmer or a teacher. Writing a wide field, and usually the first question asked is, “What do you write?” Programmers tend to work in a specific set of technologies, and teachers tend to work with specific subjects or age levels. So tools appropriate for a Java programmer may be completely useless for an Erlang programmer. Tools appropriate for a Kindergarten teacher may be completely useless for a Professor of Intergalactic Ice Cream Churning.

Tools appropriate for a freelance journalist may be completely useless (or close to) for a genre fiction writer.

I write speculative fiction (mostly horror). Writer’s Market strives to cover the entire gamut of writing markets out there, everything from consumer magazines on retirement to trade journals on maintenance and safety. They have a section for literary magazines, which includes many of the genre markets I target, but it’s no where near as complete as what you’ll find on Duotrope. Ralan is arguably even more complete than Duotrope, but it’s also focused only on speculative fiction. Writer’s Market has a separate market guide dedicated to Novels & Short Stories, but if you buy the deluxe edition and get the online subscription, you get access to all of their market listings on the website. So from what I’ve seen so far, Duotrope has a niche in the genre fiction markets, and they cover it far better than Writer’s Market.

In terms of submission tracking, the Writer’s Market tool is very general. The UI is clunky at best, and it lacks some of the features found in Duotrope’s tracking tool. All of my data from my last subscription (2008) was still there, and I quickly recalled why I’d abandoned it in the first place.

I’m not opposed to putting in the hard work required to research and track, but Duotrope has been my site of choice for both research and tracking for 4-5 years primarily because the tracking and market listings are tightly integrated. I’ve donated in the past, and had planned to continue donating in the future. And, I took time to compare the service with what seems to be its closest pay-based competitor.

I can afford $50 a year. Not everyone can, and I get that. Even though I can afford it, I still haven’t settled on whether I’ll subscribe. But if I couldn’t afford it, I would stick with using Ralan for market research and a simple spreadsheet or even paper for tracking submissions. Duotrope removes some of the tedium for these tasks, but using the site won’t ever become critical to success as a genre fiction writer.

If you’re a genre fiction writer who can afford their fee, give it serious consideration. They’re a top-notch site with a well-integrated submission tracking tool.

Duotrope has another feature, but I don’t believe it’s as beneficial as they would have us believe. Incorporated into the submission tracker is the collection and compilation of market statistics, namely things like number of submissions to a market, average response times, average acceptance rate. Personally, I only really ever look at response time stats so I have a general idea of how long I can expect to wait. The other stats are, in my opinion, dubious at best.

All of these statistics are based on self-reported data. Duotrope claims a major benefit of moving to a pay service is the weeding-out of users who are poor at reporting their data. While this culling of bad data may improve completeness of reported stats, I don’t believe those stats will really improve anything for us as writers. In fact, I would argue that Duotrope’s method of collecting stats is flawed from the start. To get good data around the markets, users shouldn’t be entering data at all. The data should be collected as part of the submission process.

There are a myriad of tools out there gaining popularity among the markets to manage the submission process. Sites like Submittable are available for general use, and some publishers have developed their own systems, such as CWSUBMISSIONS created by Clarkesworld Magazine.

Dear Duotrope: You want good stats? Provide an open API that allows these submission automation tools to report statistics as part of the process. Humans are notoriously bad self-observers.

Further, if you want to be a paid service then provide your customers with more than, “You’ll be able to continue using our service.” Give us a roadmap of features or services you’re working on.

And while you’re at it, consider telling us who you are. There are no names or faces listed on the website. The best I can find is that you’re an LLC registered in New Mexico. A little bit of research yielded one name (which I’ll keep to myself out of respect for privacy), but if you’re not going to list people’s names on your site at least give some reasonable explanation as to why. Put a human face on Duotrope and we’ll be more likely to trust you.