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Posts Tagged ‘writing advice’

Over time, I have been trying to develop a more studied and consistent method of writing books, largely with the goal of writing them more quickly. For this purpose, I have attempted to outline more before I write.* While my efforts have been semi-successful (I typically outline the first quarter of the book and end up winging it from there), it has contributed greatly to my speed. Ironically, however, it is the latter part of the process, where I don’t have but the vaguest idea of where I’m heading, that I’m enjoying the most.

I’m finding that outlining is good for getting me started on a story (which can be very tough), after which, with luck, I will be so into the flow that I can continue by the seat of my pants. This does lead to some hiccups, but when it works… When it works, there is nothing like it. It’s the joy of discovery.

What am I discovering, you ask? Why, the same thing you are when you read the book. I like to keep my readers hopping, never knowing what’s coming next. It’s not always possible, of course (particularly with the class of readers I attract), but it seems to me that the best way to keep all of you from knowing what’s going to happen next is if I don’t know what’s going to happen next. And believe me, I don’t. Sometimes I don’t even know what’s happened already.

Take my latest hiccup. I finally resolved my dilemma by doing what I should have done at the start: I went back to find the point where the story went off the rails, and as is usual with me, I found it in the first chapter. It wasn’t so much that the narrative had gone awry, as I hadn’t told it right; there was far more backstory to my main story than I had given credit for. So, 3000 words later, I prepared to return to whence I had left off–when I had another inspiration and realized that until I made a proper go of the beginning, nothing that followed would feel right. And tonight, the story is 730 words longer–at the beginning.

Which might never have happened were I a strict outliner. Which is part of that joy of discovery, for me and I hope for you, too. But there’s another part.

I was re-reading some of my manuscript the other day, and it suddenly dawned on me (not for the first time), that what we writers do is really damned cool. We literally make up universes. I mean, yes, we all know that we’re gods to our characters; they live and die at our whim. But it’s more than that; we make stuff up out of nothing and spin it out for fifty, a hundred, three hundred thousand words. I re-read these stories, and re-visit the trials and the triumphs that I wrote, and I ask myself: “I did that? How the hell did I do that?”

And the answer is, sometimes I know what I’m doing, and sometimes I just go along for the ride and watch the scenery. It’s not always beautiful, but there’s a surprise around every corner.

*I actually tried to outline my very first novel start to finish, but I abandoned it pretty quickly. This is probably for the best, since my grasp of narrative structure left a little to be desired.

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I was recently on a panel at a convention where the topic was on developing your “voice” as a writer. The other panelists and I were supposed to supply would-be writers (a quick show of hands demonstrated that this was virtually our entire audience) with tips and advice. Naturally, the first question to be answered was: “What is ‘voice’?” This was also the first (but not last) question to lack a definitive answer.

To refine the problem, someone asked how “voice” differs from “style.” This was an excellent question, so excellent that it became the second question to fail to find an answer. Lest you think we were wasting the audience’s time, however, let me posit that just as there as country brains and city brains, there are country questions and city questions. City questions have hard and fast answers; country questions do not. I could try to answer, but it would only confuse things further.

Despite this, people seemed to think we offered valuable advice, even if we were unable to quantify it. And we all know that there are no real tips and tricks leading to writing success. There is no secret to be unlocked.

But it didn’t occur to me until after the panel was over that what needs to be unlocked, if you will allow me a possibly frustrating metaphor, is your heart. And before you say, “What the heck is he talking about?” let me explain. Just don’t expect it to make logical sense.

Finding your “voice” is like falling in love. You can prepare yourself for it, in the sense that you can make yourself a person who is deserving of love, by making yourself  deserving of having a voice, by learning your trade: Spelling, grammar, characterization, plot, setting. All of these can be taught, to a greater or lesser degree. Eventually, some of those lessons may be disregarded–but only after they have been thoroughly assimilated and you have found your voice. And just like falling in love, you’ll know your voice when you find it.

You can learn all of the things I mentioned above that can be taught, but the most helpful lesson in finding your voice (or being receptive to it when it reveals itself to you) is one you teach yourself: How to read.

When you read, you listen to others’ voices, not so you can imitate them, but so that deep inside you will say, “That’s good, but I would have said it this way.” And the way you would have said it, the way that comes naturally to you, that’s your voice. That’s how you speak, that’s how you will write, that’s you.

Most of us start out trying on other writers’ voices. This is a valuable learning tool: You learn what doesn’t work. Like love, your voice is unique; you can’t find it where someone else has staked out a claim–and it’s probably going to hit you when you least expect it. But when it does, you’ll know it.

Once you’ve unlocked that part of you, you’re ready to go out and tell the world what you think.

If you’re true to yourself, the world will listen.

#SFWApro

 

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This isn’t the usual “how Something is like Something Else” post, because there is no listing of various comparisons. There is only one. In fact, writer’s block is not like life, because so many people (even writers!) don’t believe in it. I would guess that those people would agree that life exists. It follows, even, that they must have an easier time than the rest of us (writers) because they’ve never been visited by the Demon of Doubt which the French call le bloc de l’écrivain.*

But there is one way that I have found in which writer’s block is like Life: The only way to get on is to go straight through.

To a writer (or other creator), a block to the creative process is much like a block in the road of life itself. If you write, or paint, or sculpt, or compose, that is your life. You have other interests, other loves such as friends, family, another hobby (if you have time), or maybe you’re really lucky and include your job. But as for who you are, that’s writing, or painting, or whatever. If you’re not doing that, if you can’t do that, you’re not you.

So the question is, what do you do about it? I learned as a child that the best way past an unpleasant chore was just to do it, and get it out of the way. (Note that I said “I learned.” Nowhere do I say I put what I learned into practice.) And so it is with writer’s block. Being a writer, being a member of writers’ groups, I have both dispensed and received all of the standard remedies: Get up and take a walk, try another project, give yourself a short vacation and “feed your head.” All of these are valid and helpful, but in the end, only one seems to me to be the real solution: Set your feet, put your head down, and push.

I recently went through a block that lasted over a month. It was awful. I tried all of the fixes, and some of them made me feel better, but nothing seemed to help me progress. Eventually, something came loose in my mind and my story began to flow again. But just last week, I hit another block–not a major one this time, just a question of how my characters should (literally) move on. It’s the kind of thing that I would have tackled earlier had I outlined this novel more carefully, but it is what it is.

And it’s occurred to me that, like those chores I should have done long ago, the best way around is through. This is a first draft, which no one is going to see anyway. I can let my characters run in any direction, and if it turns out to be a bad choice, I can simply delete and rewrite. Or I can interpolate enough details to make what I’ve already written make sense. It’s my world; I can do what I want. The laws of physics don’t apply.

But even if I hate what I write and dump the whole section (and I’ve dumped up to 20,000 words at a time), I will be writing. The Demon of Doubt will have to sit and suck its thumb while I work. And whether what I come up with is good or not, there’s a better than fair chance that the simple act of creation will free my brain to find the right path, even if I’m not already on it.

So writer’s block is like life. There’s a time for retrenching, taking stock, and resting up, and there’s a time to charge ahead even if you don’t quite know where you’re going, because sometimes movement for its own sake is enough.

Just keep your eyes on the road ahead and not on your phone.

 

*I wanted to use Latin, but I couldn’t find a translator.

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I just received my notice that my yearly SFWA dues are payable. This marks the seventh anniversary of my joining, the seventh anniversary of a milestone that I had dreamed of since I first learned that the organization even existed, back “when I wore a younger man’s clothes,” blissfully unaware of how long it would take to reach that goal.

I often ask myself if, had I known how long it would take me to gain some traction in the world of professional science fiction writing, I would have ever started. There were other paths I could have taken, more lucrative to be sure, paths that would have led to some prominence, or at least professional recognition, long before this. Had I known just how hard it was going to be to attain professional status, would I have said “That’s crazy,” and given up?

Certainly there were those who, with every good intention, informed me that the odds of being published were roughly 1 in 1,000, with the odds against making any serious money being far higher. Would I have listened, had I known then what I know now?

In fact, I rather think I would have. Looking back, I can see the naivete, not only in my assessment of my chances, but in my work. I needed to grow, and like the mighty oak, I grew slowly. (And also like the mighty oak, my upper reaches are filled with chittering squirrels, but that’s another story.) Yes, all those stories I wrote and sent out and got back and finally stuck in a box were useful practice, but I think my weakness (along with so many) was not stylistic, but material. I didn’t know enough about the world. I still don’t, but I know more than I did.

This is what I know: Style is important, but it isn’t paramount. A poorly-told story about interesting people will always win over a well-told tale that no one cares about. If your story is so badly constructed nobody can follow it, it can be fixed; that’s what editors are for. If your story is so uninteresting that nobody cares to follow it, it’s dead. No editor can resuscitate a dusty corpse.

So maybe I would’ve taken a different course. I know that no matter what I would’ve returned to writing eventually, and maybe I’d have fewer rejections filling those boxes. They say that at the end of your life, you regret the things you didn’t do more than the things you did. On balance, although perhaps I would have done things differently had I known, I don’t regret the way I did them.

It may not have been the best-written story, but maybe it was the most interesting.

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In an ideal world, a story would come to one all at once, beginning to end, and all one would have to do is transcribe it. Of course, in an ideal world, there would be no conflict, so what would you write about? Unless it was the ideal writer’s world, which would have lots of juicy conflicts…but that gets into the idea that everyone’s view of Paradise is a little different, which is a different column for a different day.

Suffice it to say that stories do not come all at once, fully realized. (Well, maybe some people’s do, but we hate them.) Personally, I have an annoying habit of starting to write a story that hits close to home, and I get into all the little personal bits that make a story really sing, but when it comes to the ending the whole thing just stalls. It’s like knowing the question to ask, but not the answer. And since no one else is going to supply the answer, I’m stuck.

It seems that the solution (as opposed to the “answer”) lies in this rule of thumb: If you find yourself trying to graft an ending onto your story, you’ve written the wrong story.

While that ideal world doesn’t exist (for most of us, anyway), an ending must grow organically from what went before. That’s a rule.* So if you’re trying to write to a particular ending, and it’s not working–or if you can’t find an ending at all–don’t mangle some words to make them fit. You’ll end up with a Rube Goldberg contraption that looks like a vacuum cleaner made love to a model train set, and still won’t make toast–or worse. Instead, back up–and keep backing up, to the point where the story went wrong, even if that point is the line right after the title.

They say, “There’s never enough time to do it right, but there’s always enough time to do it over.” I say, “There’s never enough time to write, but if you don’t get to the end, it’ll never be over.”

*Yes, I know there are no rules. Except this one.

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It’s time to admit it. I’m 8000 words into my new novel, Marauders from the Moon, the fourth book in the Nemesis series, and the damned thing is going to be written regardless of my personal feelings on the matter. I am still gamely attempting to write my short story at the same time, but I have a sinking feeling that it is going to take second place, and a distant second, at that.

Now, this may not be such a bad thing. After all, I am writing, which is the number one priority. And maybe the short story just isn’t ready; “Rights and Wrongs,” which was published in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, took me three years and several versions to get done, and then they sent it back with an R&R request (revise-and -resubmit) that took me another two yearsand I ended up re-writing the entire second half from scratch. I believe when a story is ready, it will write itself.

But I don’t want to take five years to write this story; I have one already that’s been half-done since 2015. Hey, it’s my process. I don’t have to like it, but there it is.*

So at least Marauders is progressing. After a quick start, it bogged down, but tonight I wrote 1100 words, and significantly, I did not stop at the end of a chapter; I wrote the first paragraph of the next chapter. If you’re a writer, you will understand what that means. (And if you’re a writer who has not tried that trick, I recommend it.)

Now, I re-read these words as I struggle to find a closing, and I am reminded that the hardest advice to take is that which you give yourself. Example: Three paragraphs ago I said, “…when a story is ready, it will write itself.”

Marauders from the Moon was busy tonight, writing itself. I guess it’s ready. I guess I’d better be ready, too, or who knows where these characters are going to go if I’m not there to ride herd on them?

 

 

*Yes, I understand the irony that I can write a novel in two months but I can’t finish a short story in three years. It is what it is.

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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.

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