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Posts Tagged ‘Stephen King’

Fighting (and slaying) a dragon is an old, old fantasy trope that we’re all familiar with, but there’s one invincible dragon that we seem to have to confront at some time (maybe several times) during our careers, especially when we’re trying to gain some traction in the industry. I’m talking about the green-eyed monster called Envy.

Nobody’s immune to that particular behemoth. Some of us are lucky enough to see success early, but even if that success is sustained (of which there is no guarantee), at some point envy of a colleague’s greater success is going to arise. We’re human; we want what the other guy has. This is not to say we necessarily resent the other person, merely that we covet his (or her) accomplishments. (Note that we covet the accomplishments, not the work that went into attaining them. Even an “overnight success” probably isn’t.)

It’s good that we don’t resent the other person, because the closer you are to the person whose situation you are examining, the more envious you feel. And while reading about the latest seven-figure deal for King or Scalzi may leave you thinking merely, “Wouldn’t that be nice?”, hearing that the guy you roomed with at a writing conference three years ago has just been nominated for a Hugo can drive you up the wall–even if (or perhaps especially) you’re still Facebook friends. You don’t hate him for his good fortune, but you agonize, “I’ve seen his work. I gave him critiques! Why him and not me?”

Knowing the answer(s) to that question doesn’t make it any easier: maybe he writes faster than you and has subbed more stories, or his stories are simply finding the right editors, or maybe he paid off 500 Hugo nominators. Or maybe, worst of all, he’s just a better writer than you are. (Ouch.)

But it gets even worse. We know, deep in our souls, past the envy, that if we want what that guy has, there is only one way to get it. It’s just like politics; if you don’t like the person who represents you in Congress, you have to vote. If you don’t like the reception your stories are getting, you have to write.

And it’s not like the friend of whom you’re envious is immune. You envy the friend with the Hugo nomination. He envies the woman who won the Hugo. She envies the person who won the Nebula, who envies the woman who won the “Best Novel” Nebula, who envies the Grandmaster, who frets about why SF authors never win Nobel Prizes. It affects us all.

But the only one you have to worry about, is you. Compared to a Nobel Prize, winning a Hugo doesn’t seem so hard, does it?

#SFWApro

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I’ve recently devoted a couple of posts to advice that new authors get which may or may not be worth its weight in gold. After all, everyone agrees that there are no real “rules” in writing–except when there are. (Seriously, no. 3.) What I thought I’d like to do this go-round was offer some tips that I’ve come to value over time. These aren’t rules, so you don’t have to worry about following them. On the other hand, they might make your life easier.

  1. You don’t have to write every day. Stephen King says you do, and he probably knows more than me, but, really, you don’t have to. It would be great if you could, and you should want to, but it simply isn’t practical. We have spouses, kids, work, hobbies, friends, lives… Unless and until you’re writing full-time to support yourself, don’t feel bad if you take a day off. Or the week-end. Burn-out is a real thing. Which brings us to…
  2. If the story isn’t coming to you, walk away from it. Writer’s block is real. Staring at the screen for an hour in mounting angst isn’t going to make the words flow. (Unless that’s your process. I’ve even seen it work a few times.) But while writing should be work, it should not be combat. It’s okay to get up, take a walk, play with the dog…exercise is a great way to free your mind. But don’t feel you’re goldbricking if you take time off to charge your batteries. (See no. 1.)
  3. Do whatever you want with your first draft, because no one will ever see it. (This comes courtesy of Anne Lamott, who wrote the greatest writing book I’ve ever read, Bird by Bird. I know this isn’t a list of rules, but trust me, buy this book.) You don’t show anyone your first draft, because (a) it’s going to suck, and (b) knowing no one will see it gives you the freedom to put down any old garbage, in the interest of getting the story written. You can always edit it away, and who’s going to know? How many drafts did Tolkien take to write Lord of the Rings? Beats me, what difference does it make? You only get to read the final version.
  4. Trust your instincts. If you feel a passage isn’t working while you write it, your reader isn’t going to like it, either. Feel free to trash it. I once had to delete and re-write the first 20,000 words of a novel. It hurt, but I went on to finish the book, which wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
  5. Don’t expect perfection. You won’t get it. Eventually, you reach the point of diminishing returns. Let someone read your third draft. Submit the story to some markets. See what happens. And get started on a new story. One of the best ways to deal with rejection is to know you already have something even better working.
  6. Don’t get discouraged. You will, of course. It’s inevitable. It can take years (decades!) to sell even a single story. Even when you’ve done that, there’s always another step to climb, another plateau to reach, another market to crack. Take a breath, look behind you, and see how far you’ve come. (Or try re-reading some of your earliest stories, if you dare.)
  7. Defy rejections with persistence. Send that story out again. And again. And again. I’ve sold stories to top-paying venues that had been rejected two dozen times. I sold one story that had been rejected 44 times. “Never give up. Never surrender.”

The classic image of a writer is a loner crouched over his desk in a freezing garret. It may be classic, but it’s not true. You’re not alone. We’re all in this together; we understand what it’s like. And take one last tip from me: It never gets any easier.

But it’s worth it.

ETA: There are no original ideas, and somebody is almost always writing the same story (or blog post) as you, possibly better. Case in point.

#SFWApro

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Having been to my share of “Writing 101” panels at conventions over the years, I have noticed an odd trend, a question from (I assume) aspiring writers that runs something like this: “What are your writing habits?” In other words, how many words a day, do you write longhand first and then transcribe, do you listen to music while you write, do you write in the morning or at night…? I used to be interested in the answer myself, until I finally asked myself, after some repetitions: “Why? What difference does it make?”

Were this asked in general interviews, or autograph sessions, or like situations (which it is), I would understand. For all that there is nothing special about writing–it’s just somebody working at that which he does well, just like teaching math or prosecuting a lawsuit–there is still that air of mystery which pervades all of the arts: Those whose talents do not lie in that direction are in awe of those whose talents do, and who succeed thereat, are treated with respect and sometimes reverence by those who appreciate those talents, i.e., their fans.

That being said, I don’t understand why this question keeps coming from other writers, or even would-be writers. Because how Stephen King keeps his desk,* or when John Scalzi writes, or how many words George RR Martin puts down in a day,** has no effect at all on how successful I am as a writer. No matter how much I know about these people, it’s not going to make me better; the only way to get better is to write. And that’s true if you’re a neopro or pre-published (or Stephen King).

It’s not a crime, of course, to want to emulate your heroes, but you’d get more value emulating the qualities that contribute to their greatness. And even then, everyone is different. Even a common requirement like daily word count varies tremendously among writers.

So in the end, it all comes down to the same thing: Be yourself. Blaze your own trail. Let others ask you your habits if they think it’ll help them.

*Actually, I’ve read King’s On Writing, and I recommend it.

**Yes, I know, the answer is “not enough.” ETA: However, Scalzi just published this column in the LA Times, addressing that same question.

#SFWApro

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Recently I was asked for some gift recommendations for a high school graduate who wants to go to college to become a writer. Of course my recommendation should have been “Don’t,” but that’s no more helpful than saying, “You don’t have to go to college to become a writer, better you should bum your way cross-country for a couple of years working odd jobs and meeting people.” (Which was my original plan, actually, but after college.)

So instead I recommended some books that I have on my shelf, books that stand out among all the writing manuals I’ve collected over the years. There are three: Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott; On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King; and Zen in the Art of Writing, Releasing the Creative Genius Within You, by Ray Bradbury. Each is different as each author is different, but each is similar in that the instruction is not limited to writing, but delves deeply into how each writer’s life has informed his writing.

Bird by Bird: I remember two things from this book. First, your first draft can be as awful as you want, because no one is ever going to read it. It can be terrible, atrocious, a pile of dog doo, and no one will ever care, because no one will ever know. Second, don’t try to do everything at once. Build your scenes like you build a wall, brick by brick. This book is essential if you want to learn to write.

(Digression: For basic writing skills, you can’t beat The Elements of Style, by Strunk & White. It’s concerned with non-fiction, critical writing, but the rules are the rules.)

On Writing: I’m not a fan of King’s fiction, but this writing memoir pulls no punches in describing his personal writing journey, and is a valuable look into a writer’s soul. There’s a lot about pulling fiction from your own life, and about discipline.

Zen in the Art of Writing: In my mind, Bradbury should be mentioned in the same breath as Shakespeare. Not for the same reasons, Shakespeare was a stylist, Bradbury a characterist (to coin a phrase), but both were brilliant. I haven’t read as much Bradbury as I ought, for the simple reason that he makes me want to put down the book and go write like that, and at the same time cry for not being worthy. I can imitate a lot of styles, but his escapes me–because it’s not a style, per se. Bradbury wrote the way he lived, and he makes you want to do the same. You won’t, not like he did, but it’s inspiring to try.

Ask a hundred writers for a writing book, you’ll get a hundred recommendations. But ask a hundred writers for the best writing books, and these three will be very high on those lists. If these books don’t speak to you as a writer, you’d be well advised to go to college and study something else.

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Note: Usually when I delve into matters of f/sf fandom, I try to make a point that is equally applicable to the wider world. This is not one of those posts. If you do not care about the Hugo Awards, you might as well skip this one and go get yourself a cup of coffee. So the nominations are in and, as predicted, the Puppies (Sad and Rabid) have left their mark on the carpet. Equally predictably, anti-Puppies are already rushing about looking for a clean towel and a spray bottle to clean up the mess. So did the Puppies win? Well…not yet. Although the majority of nominees are Puppy-endorsed, there are those who aren’t. Those nominees (let’s call them Soft Kitties) might win, preserving their side’s honor for another year. (Although I should point out that, in most cases, being one side’s choice does not mean that you support that side–or any side. As in any war, some volunteered and some were drafted. Unfortunately, there are casualties from both classes.) And Hugo ballots have the “No Award” option, which will see unprecedented use this year. Whether No Award will rank first in any category remains to be seen, but it would, again, be seen as a blow against Puppies. But let’s say the Puppies carry some awards (or even all of them). Can they say then that they won? Of course they can, but I fear it would be a Pyrrhic victory. Let’s face it: Everybody who votes this year is going to know what’s going on. The Puppies put forth a slate (perfectly legal), and pushed it hard (again legal, if not quite kosher). No matter who wins, this year’s ballot results will always have a metaphorical asterisk attached. The winners will always be under a cloud. In fact, I will not be surprised if some of them are booed at the awards ceremony. And that leads us to the next reality: As of now, the Hugos are a war zone. Yes, the Puppies command a large following, mostly through Larry Correia’s fan base, but the Soft Kitties are not exactly unknown. Scalzi is a best-seller, and while he probably won’t sound the clarion call, his fans are capable of assembling a mob all on their own.* In fact, the whole purported purpose behind Sad Puppies was that the “insiders” controlled the Hugos, which would mean that there is already an organized cabal willing and able to put its own stamp on the awards. And now that syndicate is challenged. I foresee next year’s awards as a battle between two or more slates. Sad Puppies 4 v. Soft Kitties v. Blue Meanies? Most f/sf fans, however, will stand by and ignore/watch with horrified awe the train wreck that the Hugos will have become. Very soon, the awards will cease to have any marketing or promotional or even personal value, because it the award will no longer even pretend to honor literary excellence, but merely which side can buy the most votes by assembling the most voters. This year it was the Sad Puppies who bought the most votes. Next year it may be the Soft Kitties. The year after that–the year after that it won’t matter because fandom will be divided into armed camps that don’t speak, don’t read the same books, and refuse to attend the same conventions. Which will make the Puppies and the Kitties very sad. *To my knowledge, none of the real heavyweights in the genre have signed on to either side, because the Hugos just aren’t on their radar. If Stephen King decided to rally his fans to the cause, or George RR Martin, it wouldn’t matter what any Puppy or Kitty did.

ETA: And now Mr. Martin is weighing in, although not in the sense that I facetiously suggested.

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Interesting facts about the Hugo Awards that you probably didn’t know (or much care about):

Stephen King has never won a Hugo for fiction.

J.K. Rowling has not won a Hugo for fiction since 2001, and only two of the Harry Potter books were nominated for Best Novel.

George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” novels are still awaiting a Hugo.

If you could name three better-selling SF/fantasy authors…well, you can’t. These people have literally hundreds of millions of fans. If the Hugos were a popularity contest, these folks would need to build extra wings on their houses to hold them all. So why do they have only one Best Novel Hugo between them? Probably because Hugos are voted on by members of the Worldcon, and 99.999% of those millions of fans aren’t Worldcon members.

About now, you’re asking yourself: Is there a point to all this?

Sadly, yes.

And I use the word “sadly” advisedly, because for the third consecutive year, there has been published a slate of proposed Hugo nominees dubbed the “Sad Puppies” slate (hereinafter “SP”). SP started as an effort by self-proclaimed conservative authors to combat what they perceived to be a liberal bias in Hugo voting. (I am short-cutting a lot of background here. If you want, google “Sad Puppies.” I haven’t the space to supply a representative sample of links.) This year, the political thrust seems less apparent, a welcome development. Works should be nominated on their own merits, regardless of their authors’ personal choices. And presenting your recommendations for nominations, whether individually or as a group, no problem! Go for it! However, the slate still presents for me an occasion for head-shaking puzzlement.

You see, the Sad Puppies represent themselves as promoting “entirely deserving works, writers, and editors — all of whom would not otherwise find themselves on the Hugo ballot without some extra oomph received from beyond the rarefied, insular halls of 21st century Worldcon ‘fandom.'” They say, to those Worldcon members who are evidently disenfranchised, “this is YOUR chance to make sure YOUR voice is heard.”

Yeah, well, if you’re a member of the Worldcon, then your voice is already as loud as anyone’s. You have the same right to nominate and vote as anyone else.

The problem seems to be that there just aren’t as many of them voting for Hugos as the SP would like. Or else they aren’t voting the way the Sad Puppies want them to. They can’t understand why popular books don’t get awards. Well, ask Mr. King, or Mr. Martin, or Ms. Rowling. The best candidate isn’t always elected President, the best movie doesn’t always win the Oscar, and the best novel doesn’t always win the Hugo. You take your electorates as you find them.

The SP slate, though, isn’t satisfied with that. Members are on record soliciting people to buy Worldcon supporting memberships just so they can vote SP. Now I realize $40 isn’t a lot of money these days to some of us, but a lot of us have a better use for $40 than supporting a political agenda in what amounts to a small, private club. Put your money where your mouth is, SP; set your books out on the net for free and I’ll bet you’ll get a lot more fans, some of whom might even vote for the Hugos.

But hitting up your supporters to shell out $40 to help you win a trophy because otherwise they wouldn’t vote for you on their own? That’s sad, puppies.

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One-hit Wonderer

Through the miracle of modern technology, I am in contact with/able to read the utterances of various writers across the globe, many of whom are in the same somewhat-pro-but-not-terribly-well-known boat that I inhabit. I’ve recently run across the writer’s version of the well-known “one-hit wonder” syndrome that we usually associate with music (i.e., a band produces one big hit and never charts again. The examples are legion.) In this case, a writer may produce one story which sells big, gets reprints, and generates award buzz, but after that he has trouble selling to Dog-Catcher’s Quarterly.

I hadn’t really known that this was a thing. I’d heard of the novelist’s plight: you write a series of books and the first or second or third doesn’t sell very well, and you’re dropped by your publisher, leaving you and your series (and readers) high and dry. I didn’t realize it applied to short stories as well.

It did get me thinking, though, about the definition of success, and how that definition changes as your perspective changes: Success is a moving target, and they’re hard to hit. For years, my definition was “to sell a story.” I achieved that, so now my definition is…hmm. Ultimately, it’s to have people say, “You know, Stephen King is okay, but that Lowe guy, he’s something else.” Perhaps it would be wise to have an intermediate goal.

But that’s tougher. If I were to go back 20 years and show my list of sales to the Me of 1994, his jaw would drop. He’d think he’d made it to the top of the mountain and the view must be incredible. The Me of 2014, on the other hand, would shake his head pityingly, and say, “Kid, you have no idea.” Because today, although I take great pleasure in my accomplishments (I will never forget that first sale), I can’t consider myself successful. And that’s without comparing myself to my peers. (Don’t ever do that. It’s the first, second, and third steps on the road to madness.)

So here I am, thinking I’ve barely scratched the surface of success, and along comes a new worry: Even if I make that next big sale, will it be the only one? Will I be a one-hit wonder? And then I think, wait, you sold that novelette to IGMS last year, your biggest sale ever. Maybe you already are a one-hit wonder.

Eventually, I soothe my own shattered nerves and remind myself where I started. I go over how far I’ve come. If I were to re-read my own early stories (all lost, probably for the best), I would see that the writer I am today is light-years ahead of that kid. And I tell myself that if I were to meet the Me from 2024, his publication list would floor me.

Of course, maybe the Me from 2024 would shake his head pityingly and say, “Kid, you have no idea.” But I’ve got ten years to make him happy.

And maybe he’ll be saying, “Keep aiming, kid, you’re getting closer.”

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