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My Creative Process

My creative process is in no way good or efficient, but if you’ve ever wondered how an author creates and publishes a story, this is how this particular one does it.

At some point, I will write out a concise step by step process on how to get a short story published. It will leave out the self-doubt and emotional turmoil. It will neatly describe the way the process should be done by perfect, unfeeling, robot writers.

This is not that process.

Step 1: Inspiration

This step is the hardest to describe because it just happens. I get an idea. A bolt out of the blue strikes me. It often hits at an inopportune time; when I’m just too busy to do anything about it. So, I write it down somewhere and move on.

Sometimes, inspiration strikes when I’m actually looking for it. There’s a magazine or anthology that I want to submit to, but I need an idea for their theme. This becomes a problem to be worked. I think about a cool setting or characters I could use and try to fit them into a plot. I think about this while I’m doing other stuff, chores, walking, showering, just before I go to sleep. Then suddenly, it all clicks together, and I have run to my phone or a pad of paper so I can write the idea down.

Step 2: Work begins

The idea I had won’t leave me alone, or the deadline for the thing I want to submit to is coming up fast. I create a quick outline of the work. I won’t follow it, but it provides a rough map of the plot points I want to hit and the ending I want to get to. Then I began to write. This is the best part of the process. I see nothing but potential for the piece. I’m energized and eager to write it.

Step 3: The work continues

After the initial euphoria of starting a new project wears off, I’m left with lots of writing to do. The further in you write, the more possibilities you close off. Your characters have to make decisions. They choose a path and go down it. Perhaps they can cross back over, but you only have so much time, so many words you can use in a given project. As the story drives forward, the writing process gets more complicated. Things have happened in the story, and there are consequences to those things. Plot holes become an ever-present danger. Writing becomes work.

This is the hardest part of the process. This is the part where I inevitably tell myself that the piece sucks, and I should quit because finishing it is a waste of time. I almost never quit. I’ve learned that you never really know how well something will turn out at this stage. But more than that, I’m stubborn. No matter how wretched the piece may be, I trudge on.

Step 4: The editing

An ending has been written down, but the piece isn’t really done yet. By this point, it’s full of typos, bad grammar, and thoughts I believe I had fully written down, but didn’t. I make quick editing passes the whole time I’m writing. Whenever I get stuck, I run back through the story, so the thing isn’t an incomprehensible mess, but now I run through the whole thing from beginning to end. I cut lots and lots of words that fail to add anything to the story. My stories can shrink by 20% or more during this brutal phase. Sometimes I realize the story doesn’t work the way it is. A plot point needs to be emphasized or cut if the ending is to have the impact I want. Paragraphs get added or removed. Chapters get added or removed. I’ve cut entire characters out and added characters in.

Once my round of personal edits are finished, there comes the scary part. I get other people to take a look at it. I’m fortunate that I have some very good fellow authors I can rely on. Friends can provide good feedback, but I need some ruthless criticism too. Publishers won’t care about my feelings. Sometimes the criticism cuts deep, especially if I’m attached to the piece, but it’s usually not as bad as I fear it will be.

I take some of the advice offered. I discard some of the advice offered. Although it’s hard, I have to trust myself. At this point, I at least have the mantra “I’ve been published, I know what I’m doing” to fall back on. Sometimes, I really do know what I’m doing. Sometimes I don’t. I won’t know for sure until it gets rejected a few times or accepted.

The editing process often takes longer than the writing process.

Step 5: Submitting

I hate finding markets. It requires lots of research and some mind reading. I try to target markets that have very high response rates and ones that will get back to me within three months. At this point, I only go for paying markets. I tend to hit my second choice first. Once I find which market I’ll be submitting to, I go over its submission guidelines as if I’m a lawyer that’s been subpoenaed. All the hard work of creating the piece is for naught If I get rejected because I don’t use the right font.

Step 6: The long wait

After all the hard work, I hit send and then … nothing. It’s always a bit of a let down after the work is finally finished and sent off. Days and weeks go by and I hear nothing back. It’s hard to feel as if all the work was really worth it.

There’s always other stuff to write. I work on other projects and try to forget about what I just submitted.

Possible Outcome 1: Rejection

Then one day I get a response! And 80% of the time it’s a rejection. I’m kind of used to it by now. At least I have a resolution to the submission. Sometimes the rejection comes with feedback which is incredibly valuable. Editors rarely have the time to personally comment on why they passed over a story. When they do, it’s because they believe the story has real potential even though it’s not right for their publication.

I go back and look at the story again. Months have passed and I’m a better writer now, so I make the story better. I find and re-work awkward sentences. I reconsider advice about the story that I had previously passed on.

If, after the re-work, I’m feeling better about the story, I’ll now submit it to a favorite market.

Possible Outcome 2: No Response

This outcome feels worse than a rejection. Months pass, a year goes by, and there’s no response. Publishing is a tough business. Sometimes a magazine goes out of business, or an anthology doesn’t get enough financial backing. Many editors will send out an email to all the waiting submitters informing us that they are closing down. Many don’t. Perhaps they’re too heartbroken. At some point, I decide that’s long enough and look for another market.

If I know that the publication is still in business and their guidelines say to query after a set time period, sometimes I’ll query. Sometimes emails really don’t make it. But sometimes I won’t query. Well organized publishers will respond to a query fairly quickly, but a lot of publishers won’t. Or if they do, it’s six months later, by which point, I’ve moved on. If they’re that busy, my submission won’t be missed.

Possible Outcome 3: Acceptance

Seeing an acceptance letter is a bit like being told you’ve won a small lottery. At first, I don’t really believe it. Maybe my piece just made it through one round of consideration and there’s another round to go. Okay, it’s been “accepted” but it’s not really accepted until it goes through their editing process. I typically, stubbornly, keep my hope in check until I have a contract to sign. Then I finally believe it, and it feels pretty damn good. Then the good feeling fades, and I wonder if it was just a fluke, or I wonder how desperate this magazine must be for submissions to be accepting my crap. But then, sometimes, the publication posts how many submissions they received, and it’s always in the hundreds, and I realize that my story beat out a lot of other stories to earn a spot, and I begrudgingly accept that I must be a decent writer.

About half of my stories eventually reach this outcome, which is pretty darn good. Of course, by the time a story is accepted, it’s often vastly different than the story I originally wrote because I revise and edit the piece throughout the submission process. It can take years for a story to get accepted. I’ve had stories get rejected a dozen times before finally being accepted. Sometimes, I quit submitting a story for years until, one day, I spot a call for submissions that sounds just right for it.

The shortest time I’ve ever had a story accepted in was two days. The longest was about six years. The one that took six years is a novella called The Clockwork Queen. I gave up on it for a long time until this spring when I found a publishing company that was looking for novellas. I revised it, and submitted it, and it comes out this fall. I have two novels waiting in the wings. One, set during the US Civil War in a steampunk alternate history, has been cast aside for now. The other is a YA fantasy story about a dragon that I’m still actively trying to find a home for. Who knows? Maybe one day, years from now, they’ll get accepted somewhere.

Step 7: Go to step 1

Write some more.

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