Measure What Matters as a Fiction Writer

In my middle-management day job, “measure what matters” (the title of a book by John Doerr) is an oft-uttered phrase. In business, “what matters” is an articulation of the real goals, the things that, if achieved, will enable the business to succeed, and if not, may cause the business to fail. You can measure a lot of things about your business, some more easily than others. And when you consider yourself to be “metrics driven,” you’d better be sure you’re driving from the right metrics, not just the most accessible ones. Choose the wrong metrics, and you can win battles but lose the war.

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First Principles of Productivity

I’m back from vacation, and ready to be productive. But I’ve forgotten what that means, and I suspect it’s something philosophical. So it’s back to first principles.

Goal: The most basic, unambiguous measure of success. Examples: Delivering a competitive software product that can generate revenue. Writing a story I’d want to read.

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I’m an SWFA Member Now

[EDIT: It should be “I’m a SFWA Member Now”–members pronounce it “sif-wa.” But the URL generated from the title is out in the world now, so there we are.]

I’ve always loved to write, but it was only as an adult that I became serious about it. That word, “serious,” made it weird. “Serious,” to me, meant committing to improving my craft and increasing my output. The latter goal served the former. “Commitment” meant setting up structures of internal and external accountability. I took night school classes. Wanting some tokens of accomplishment, I finished two, 2-year certificates in the Creative Writing of Fiction at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago. And finally, in 2012, I submitted my first story for publication. It was rejected, and I didn’t try again until 2016. That was when I got three acceptances–and the validation to keep trying.

What I didn’t realize was that “getting serious” about something, at least in my mind, entailed shaping it into something that looks serious to others. Academic credentials. Product. Revenue. Exclusive community membership. During the dry spells, when those things didn’t come easily or at all, I made a philosophical commitment to stop distracting myself with activities that were adjacent to writing, but not actually writing. That lasted as long as my next set of completed stories, and an ego-driven impulse to see if I could sell them. One sold, and I was back on my bullshit.

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All the Best Stories Are Endings

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end”

“Closing Time,” Semisonic

“There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.”

The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan

Sometimes, someone articulates an idea that has been rattling around in your brain with such simple clarity, that it unlocks a new way of looking at familiar things. That’s what Darren Mooney did in The Escapist Magazine when he said that all of The Lord of the Rings is one big ending.

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Butterfly (Do You Remember Being the Worm?) (full text)

by Rajiv Moté (Fantasy-tinged fiction, 3,500 words)

Before we stopped talking, my best friend Davis saved my life three times from the Sirynz. It’s funny that I still call him that. “Best friend” is a concept I put away with other childish things when I left Marysville, but the obligation it carries lingers like a photograph standing in for a memory, a thing twice removed from the original. Still, it’s an idea that has pull. At least I owe him a call. But I keep coming up with excuses.

The first time Davis saved, they weren’t Sirynz yet. Tina, Jacqui, and Kayla had just started playing as a band called The Mantics. That afternoon at the Peony Park pool, they were three girls wearing two-piece bathing suits during a summer of great hormonal awakening. It was one of those summer days between fifth and sixth grade that you remember like a postcard picture: blue-skied, perfectly framed, hot only by implication–without the sweat, sunburn, bug bites, or grit at the bottom of the pool lacerating your bare feet. Idealized memory. 

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Scared of Bees (full text)

by Rajiv Moté (Fiction, 3,400 words)

Aryeh Levin picked up the newspaper from his driveway to see how the world would disappoint him today. “Rockets Break Cease-Fire.” Well what else would they do? When your only tool is a sword, every problem looks like a neck. Sarah saw vindication in the headlines, never a sign we ought to do better. But on this side of the world, the morning street was quiet. The big houses lining it were variations of his own, with tidy lawns, shady trees, and gardens dappling the green with a Crayola box of blooms. A summer breeze carried their scents. Here, there was enough room to live and let live. He had resisted moving here. Places like this were walled gardens in a complicated world. He encouraged his students to start their adult lives and careers outside such walls. But Aryeh came to agree with Sarah that this was where Dina should grow up. In this neighborhood, on this block, Dina could learn what civilization could be, before her generation had to rescue it.

Aryeh returned a wave from a neighbor, the father of Dina’s friend, the bossy little one with pigtails. He started climbing the stairs to the porch when something strafed in front of his nose. He jerked back, stumble-hopping down a step. It was a bee. The porch was swarming with them.

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Every Day Is a Miracle (full text)

by Rajiv Moté (Flash fantasy, 500 words)

Palms slide on palms, knuckles bump. Tail lights turn the corner. The stereo’s thump fades into the city. Bayard stands at the mouth of the dark alley. His smile dies.

The English accented voiceover says the gazelles know there are lions nearby. See how they keep watch. Tense.

Predators hunt here. Shapeshifters: Adze. But after a night of swagger, your friends don’t walk you to your door. “You can’t live in fear,” they say. But they do. Every damn day. The mayor wants more police, but police can’t tell Adze from human beings. Everyone’s a predator. Everyone’s prey.

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I’m Done Selling Stories

As a kid, I loved writing short stories. Of course, I also loved sharing them with anyone who’d read them, and basking in their praise. That dual thrill never went away, but as an adult, they started to conflate. Yes, I still loved writing stories, and wished I could do it all the time. But I started to crave real validation. Publication. Praise is cheap; if someone were willing to pay me money for my stories, that would be a level up from family and friends. I got serious. I read books and blogs about craft. I listened to podcasts. I completed two 2-year certificate programs in creative writing at local universities’ night school. I wrote and revised and workshopped. I worked like I had something to prove.

I submitted my first story for publication in 2012. It was rejected. I didn’t try again until 2016 (at the age of 45), with a story I wrote specifically for a themed call. I still remember getting the email that Unlikely Story had accepted my story “Old Customs” at a pro payment rate. Such a rush. I was giddy. I was a paid, published writer. Other publications followed. I learned about The Submission Grinder and started tracking my submissions, searching for new publications, and generally feeling like a “real, working writer.”

I was also refreshing the Submission Grinder page constantly, obsessively watching the response progress of all my submissions, and speculatively searching for the next publication where my stories could fit. I spent a lot of mental energy on that. Eventually, more energy than I spent writing. It got emotional, and not in a good way.

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Plot Structure Lessons From WXR/SiWC 2020

I’m a long-time listener to the Writing Excuses podcast, and the pandemic this year forced their annual retreat (WXR) from a cruise ship to online, in conjunction with the Surrey International Writers’ Conference (SiWC). That made it both accessible and more affordable, so I attended. I was glad I did. I learned a lot about story structure in lectures from Elizabeth Boyle, Mary Robinette Kowal, Liz Palmer, and Dan Wells, and some new ways at looking at the emotional character of scenes from Tetsuro Shigematsu. This blog post is an attempt to distill some of the lessons into a framework for outlining.

As the instructors repeat (and perhaps belabor), these lessons are not the answer to how to structure a story. They’re at best an answer, and more realistically, a diagnostic tool. If a manuscript feels like it isn’t working, analyzing it per these structures can reveal where something is missing or weak.

In this post, I’ll show you how I’m using the structural tools in my process. I will typically free-write a First Lousy Draft that captures as much of the raw story idea as I have. I then start an outline template that unifies the Three Act Structure, the DREAM framework, and the 7 Point Structure. I slot my First Lousy Draft scenes into the outline, and look where I need to flesh out the plot. I’ll then use the completed outline to write a Second Less Lousy Draft that feels more like a complete story. Then comes the development and revision, which is beyond the scope of this post.

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“The Old Ones, Great and Small”

UPDATE: “The Old Ones, Great and Small” can now be read, for free, at Diabolical Plots!

With great pride and pleasure, I can now announce that my story “The Old Ones, Great and Small” is now available in the Diabolical Plots Year Five collection! It will also be available to read for free on the Diabolical Plots website in March 2020.

Charles Payseur wrote a lovely QuickSip Review in his long-running short fiction review column.

Tara Grimravn also wrote a lovely review for Tangent.

Jeff Xilon had kind things to say in his Short Fiction Roundup.

A.C. Wise included this story in her “My Favorite Short Fiction of 2020” list.

Author’s Notes

Writing this story started, as is so common with a fledgling SFF writer, with being inspired by H.P. Lovecraft. Maybe it’s a burning desire to use “squamous,” “cyclopean,” or “non-Euclidean geometry” in a sentence. Maybe it’s a desire to describe the indescribable. Maybe it’s a need to respond to the xenophobia and gynophobia underpinning Lovecraft’s stories. Or maybe it’s curiosity about why and how those stories endure and continue to spawn a thousand young.

I’m not immune. To me, the horror of H.P. Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones is the Fear of the Other to the ultimate degree. Not only are his horrors shadowy and inscrutable, they are so alien as to defy understanding; the sane human mind is incapable of comprehending them. Merely knowing of them, of their scale and cosmic indifference, moves us far from the center and threatens our sense of significance. How existentially angsty!

So, what if we beat them? What if humanity did what it always does in the face of an imminent, adversarial threat: girded ourselves, developed weapons and defenses, and subdued or annihilated our foe? “The Old Ones, Great and Small” takes place in the after-times. Humanity has gone into the shadows and dragged what lurked there out into the light. We’ve caged them, studied them, and even forced them to perform for us. Now, once we’ve gotten past our fear, how do we see the Ultimate Other? Is it much different from how we’ve evolved on all the other Others we feared?

I read that the original concept pitch for the movie Jurassic World described a scene where a bored teenager takes a selfie with a Tyrannosaurus Rex. I love that notion. I’ll never forget the sense of wonder from the original movie, when they first see the Brachiosaurus stand on it’s hind legs to reach a treetop. But years later… Ho hum. Kids these days, right?

Of course the protagonist of my story would be an old man. Not the sort to take selfies. A brooder, a park bench philosopher. And in a short story, I didn’t have to make a Lovecraftian Jurassic Park in three acts, complete with escaping, rampaging monsters (as fun as that could be) and a cautionary message. The story could focus on a smaller, quieter concern. Like where the sense of terror (and wonder) had gone–and whether it could ever be rediscovered.