Friday, December 12, 2008

...Feels Rushed

The title phrase seems to be the most common bit of literary criticism that I've been receiving lately: "The story is good, but the execution feels rushed." "The setup is unique and the characters are very original, but it feels rushed as a whole." "It looks like the author wrote this in all of thirty minutes or less."

There's a deep, dark, dirty secret to that, of course, and it's the fact that my stories have been quite rushed lately.

I work a rather tough job, to start with, and I've taken on a couple of new roles in recent months. Unfortunately, my predecessors and colleagues are almost all located in North America, which means that I've had to stay up late at night for a lot of meetings. That, coupled with a spate of real-life deadlines, has left me with precious little time to conceptualize, plot, and lay out a story. It's really been a question of spending more time at the office and less time playing with my mind. (Yes, the two of them are mutually exclusive at times.)

In addition, most of my writing has taken place here on this blog. I write my "serious" stories — the ones geared towards printed publications and worthwhile contests — on Microsoft Word 2003, usually after two or three days' worth of agony and rewritten drafts. In contrast to those, my blog stories are more "throwaway": I write them up with considerably less effort, with no obligation to follow a word limit or any setting constraints.

This is not to say that the stuff I write on this blog is of lower quality, of course. I am merely admitting that I use this blog as a perpetual "free-mind" exercise. As a result, you will see far more stories on this web site than you will see under my name in various publications... with the trade-off being that I make no guarantees with regards to their quality of execution here. You will find a diamond in the rough every now and then, but the works on this site obviously can't all be gems.

However, that means that I need to take a step back and take a critical look at the situation. I know that I've spent a lot of time recently coming up with short stories on the fly — I mean, I have ten examples from last month alone — and I think that I might need to regain some "serious" writing time. Fortunately I have some vacation leave coming up as a result of our glorious end-of-year holidays, so I might spend some portion of that trying to catch up on my old habits.

My recent "by-the-seat-of-my-pants" phase hasn't been a total loss, though. I suppose that I now know that I can wing it when the deadlines come knocking at my door. However, it's easy to fall into the trap of waiting till the last minute in order to write, and I suspect that I've been pushing that limit for a while now. It's literally time for me to sit staring at the computer screen for long hours again, knowing what it's like to agonize over the perfect phrase. And hey, I'm cool with that. Anything for me to improve, really.

And with a little luck, I'll get better reviews and see print in more venues next year. Like that's going to happen anytime soon. :)


Charles said...

Not the first time I'm going to disagree with you Sean but this is where I put my foot down.

Simply put, don't publish* it (online or in print) until you're satisfied with the story. It's simply called quality control. All writers have to deal with editing and revision. Deal with it. That's why you don't see me or Joey Nacino or Dean Francis Alfar's stories up on the web... because we don't publicize it until we've edited it (whether this takes a few days, a few weeks, a few months, etc.). We show it to alpha readers, beta readers, other editors, etc.

As I said in a previous blog post, the worst thing that can happen to a writer isn't that his/her story is rejected. The worst thing that can happen is that their unedited work is put up for the public to read in all its agonizing glory.

Suffice to say, don't complain about or make excuses about your fiction being "rushed". Readers don't care whether a work is rushed or not. All they care is the finished product. Whether the author is young or old, experienced or inexperienced, doesn't really factor in the reading experience. The text should stand well on its own. And in this case, you did have time to edit the story (it's been xx months since you last wrote the story and quite frankly the magazine still isn't out yet). Even when I submitted my story (which I also felt was rushed on my part), it was returned to me for revisions by the editor. After that, all criticisms and complaints are upon my shoulders--I had my chance to edit and revise and do whatever to improve the story.

My other complaint is limited to your writing philosophy in general. I think--and this is just my opinion--you focus too much on the "concept" of the story. For me, that's not what counts. What counts is execution, whether it's characterization, plot, language, etc.

*Putting it up for critique is different from putting it up for public consumption.

Sean said...

Charles: I was going to whine at you and say that I'm not trying to present my circumstances as an excuse for the "rushed" work, but reading over the post gets me thinking that your stance is more accurate than I originally thought.

I suppose that I do have a problem right now. I'm not sure if it involves the reduced time, or if it involves the inability to check and reread something before I click the big POST button... but I suspect that it has more to do with my self-doubts. A few months ago, I found myself wondering why I wasn't writing anything beyond one or two stories a year; I felt that I could be a lot more prolific than that. However, it seems that my immediate solution was to dash a bunch of half-written works off the top of my head, and hope that they could be passed off as high-quality, publishable stuff. I guess that was wrong.

So now I have to take a step back and rethink this. I want to increase my output per year, perhaps submit more things to various venues. How could I do this while taking the principle of quality control into account?


I will argue against your stance on conceptualization, though. While I do agree that execution reigns over all, I feel that this applies primarily to the "reading" side of the equation. I mean, I will be all too glad to respect a work that contains a brilliant execution of even so much as a mediocre concept. I admit that the quality of a work's writing will impress a reader more than the quality of the base idea. But I feel that that would be me speaking as a reader, and not as the man who puts the words to paper.

Put simply, I feel that this does not apply to the "writing" side. I don't set out to write a story because I want "some good execution"; I place a high value on conceptualization because it's what gets me interested to write a story in the first place. It's what makes me feel that I'm writing something different from any work that's preceded me. From a "writing" standpoint, I feel that execution is more a practical measure to be applied once one has the concept well in hand. I can hone my powers of execution to the point where everything I touch can turn into gold... but darn it, it's the idea that will still get me to write. And as long as that's the case, I will continue to put a certain value on concepts as a whole.


But then, that might be part of the root of the problem. Maybe I've tossed execution too far off to the side while allowing concept to hog much of the spotlight.

While I still vehemently disagree that conceptualization shouldn't be placed on its current pedestal, I suppose that a certain emphasis should be placed on execution as well. In this, I don't think that my problem is that I focus too much on concept... but rather that I focus too little on execution. I don't know if that makes sense to you or anyone who may be reading this little exchange... but I feel that it ties in neatly to the lack of quality control that you've implied.

And if you still see some flaws in my argument here, you can feel free to have another whack. Differing philosophies exist so that they can engage in round-robin fisticuffs, I suppose.

Charles said...

So now I have to take a step back and rethink this. I want to increase my output per year, perhaps submit more things to various venues. How could I do this while taking the principle of quality control into account?

When you find out the secret be sure to tell us.

The practical answer is I don't know. The unhelpful answer (for you) is to get better, dedicate more time to writing, etc.

What I can tell you however is what not to do: don't publish unrevised manuscripts: 1) It tells your reader "this is your style" of writing and you want them to judge you by your best work, not your crappiest, 2) quantity doesn't trump quality. Look Sean, I also have a couple of trunk stories that aren't polished. But I don't submit them because, well, they're not polished! Your goal as a writer isn't to come up with a "competent" story. Your goal is to deliver a story that wows them and amazes them--the type of story that will make people pay attention to YOU if you're in an anthology or in a magazine. It simply can't be decent, it must be amazing. (Of course we'll typically fall short of this goal but if you submit something and you already think it's semi-crap...) 3) It hurts your chances for publication because many publications only accept stories that haven't been previously published.

In line with that, I think your previous "free fiction for the week" was a bad idea because of the reasons stated above. And I can understand why you did it. I'm also guessing you were motivated because PGS picked up one more of your stories because it was previously published in your blog. Sean, you must understand that's a fluke and the exception to the rule. And most professional markets don't work that way. You submit to them typically (or they solicit material from you).

I will argue against your stance on conceptualization.

Sean, it's up to you to come up with reasons as to why you write. However, here's the thing with concepts:

What sets them one "text" (it could be film, TV, fiction, etc.) from another is execution.

For example, look at the cartoon The Original Ghostbusters and The Real Ghostbusters. Both have the same concepts (exorcising ghosts) and certainly the former came first (it was based on the live-action show of the same name) but for most people, the latter is better. Why? All the difference is in the execution.

Same goes for the C.S.I. clones. Or urban fantasy novels. Or heck, look at all the Super Robot anime shows. They're all based on the "same concept" (boy piloting indestructible robot). Or hell, let's narrow it down to Combattler V vs. Voltes V (they roughly even have the same vehicles). Certainly the first came first. But what's the appeal of the latter? It boils down to execution.

Or look at all the film remakes, the renditions of various songs, etc. Obviously you don't like them equally and one will stand out, even if they're following virtually the same lines and melodies. Why do you like one over the other? Execution, execution, execution.

Concepts are common enough. I have them, you have them, everyone else has them. Actualizing them is what differentiates one from another.

Sean said...

Charles: Let's get this straight: As much as you may think so, I did not engage in the "ten short stories" project in a subtle effort to get something published. Put simply, I did this to see if I could do it. I admit that the November stories do not depict my best work, but then again, neither did I plan to submit any of these in their current form to any publishers. I wrote these to see if I could write them, plain and simple. They may be of lower quality, but I don't presume that somebody's going to suddenly option them from this site *just like that*, previous occurrence or no previous occurrence.

"Tech Support" was in exactly the same vein. It was originally written solely for this blog, with no intention of being submitted to a magazine of any sort. I was surprised to find that someone was interested in taking it, and didn't touch much of the story under the assumption that there was a reason in their taking it. You're certainly accusing me of submitting unworthy stories with the intention that they be taken as worthwhile works, Charles, but there is a definite line between writing them specifically for publishers, and doodling works for this blog. I have no idea how you managed to equate the two in my case.

I hold a lower standard for works on this blog because it's my blog. To equate that to the stuff that I release to publishers on the basis of one single story that hasn't even been properly released yet... well, I don't know how you've managed to come to these conclusions. I admit that I've dashed off a few stories for publishers (and have had well-deserved rejections for my trouble), but I have never personally initiated the submission of any work on this site for physical publication. To imply that I do so on a regular basis is just insulting, Charles. It just ticks me off.


On our argument on conceptualization, Charles, I will still have to disagree. I write based on concepts because I want to write based on ideas that I haven't seen before. I don't feel as though I should try my hand at a theme that I feel has been done or overdone, difference in execution be damned.

Yes, you point out that there is a difference in quality between multiple approaches at a certain idea, whether it involves Ghostbusters, CSI clones, or Giant-Robot cartoons. But I don't want to write stuff like this. I don't want to approach ideas that I feel have been done already, under the impression that I can do them better. I want to come up with stuff that's fresh in my point of view, and in order to do that, I have to toy with conceptualization far before I get down to the execution. The fact that I find myself fascinated in the conceptualization process makes that easier, and brings up what you probably see as an uncomfortable "focus" on it.

You must understand - I place an emphasis on concept because this is how I approach the literary world. This is one of the reasons why I write. While it's a noble practice, I feel that execution is more a technical and a practical measure, something that comes in once I write the story itself. In fact, I've already pointed out that I think I need more dedication to this part of the writing process. But that doesn't change the fact that I feel that it is the concept that drives me, and why I still disagree with your point of view.

Charles said...

First off, if I was insulting, I apologize.

Second, okay, it's your blog, yadda, yadda, yadda. Couldn't your own goals have been private? But it's your blog, your stories, your choice.

Third, "Tech Support" and stuff, not necessarily that they're being picked up but it's certainly motivated you to publish your stories online. Again, see my second point. Lousy generalization on my part? Okay, fine.

Fourth, again, I won't be telling you how to write. Your method, your technique. I just want to clarify that I'm not saying don't come up with a good concept. I'm saying that a good concept won't salvage a mediocre story.

Sean said...

Charles: Over the years, this site has kind of blurred the line between what's private for me and what's open for people to read. I don't know if that's a good or a bad thing; I just write whatever happens to be on my mind here. Sometimes that just happens to include little pieces of fiction, "Tech Support" or otherwise.

I'm not saying that a good concept can salvage a mediocre story either, and I admit that your advice pointed out a likely cause of what I perceive to be the lower quality of work that I've been putting out. I plan to take your advice here and see if I can improve my quality by placing further focus on execution. I'm not quite sure yet if I should set some of my interest in conceptualization aside, mind you... but I'll see about that. I'll see what I can do.

Charles said...

Sean, you misunderstand me with conceptualization. I'm not saying you should set it aside. But rather hopefully devote as much time and effort to the other qualities of a story as well. And sometimes, to not be afraid of writing a story even if somebody else did the same concept. Because the story YOU write will be different from theirs. It's the story only YOU can write.

Sean said...

Charles: All right, Charles. Give me a while to spend more time on the execution rather than the conceptualization, and we'll do another look at this after the next few pieces. Deal?