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Posts Tagged ‘writing advice’

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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One of the best pieces of advice for a new (or any) author is: “Write what you love. Write the kind of story you would want to read.” The theory behind this is, if you’re going to pour the effort into a work, you might as well enjoy the process. What they don’t say is, you might as well enjoy the process, because the satisfaction of the work itself may well be the only reward you receive.

Let’s face it: No matter how good you are, and no matter how much you love your story, there are only so many outlets, and they are inundated with stories that somebody loves.* Added to the hurdles facing you is the fact that the stories you love may not be in vogue at the moment.

And therein lies the rub: What do you do when the stories you want to write are not the stories that are being published? Granted, there’s a good chance that the kind of stories you like are being published somewhere (and there’s always self-publishing), but let’s assume you actually want to make money and have people read your work–what do you do?

Beats me. I wish I had an easy answer, but there isn’t one. Your choices may be selling to lesser markets, waiting for your kind of story to return to the forefront, or writing things that you believe are more commercial. (Beware–writing to commercial tastes is a very chancy business. By the time you submit your story, the popular current may have changed and you’ve done all that work for nothing.)

In the end, I’d opt for writing the best story I can, even if it’s not what I’d truly love to write. After all, just because it isn’t in your preferred milieu, that doesn’t mean you can’t write a great story. One of the biggest problems with beginning genre story writers is that they concentrate on “genre” instead of “story.” While it’s true that the SF in an SF story has to be integral to the plot (although that rule can be broken later on in your career), the SF should aid the plot, not the other way around. For example, Star Trek is not popular because it’s cutting edge SF (or ever was, with a few notable exceptions), but because people love Kirk, Spock, McCoy, et al. It could have been a Western, or a cop show, so long as it had those relationships.

So write a strong enough story and people will read it. If it’s really strong, people will read it no matter the genre or setting. And at that point, as they say, you will be able to write your genre and read it, too.

*Pro tip: Watch for new markets and get something in quickly before the editor becomes jaded. It doesn’t always work, but it has for me.

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I heard about a discussion on a board concerning a very popular book series, where the fans passionately argue each and every minute bit of plot, character, and setting. During a recent conversation, someone asked why everyone was arguing this or that point, anyway? “After all, it’s only fiction. It doesn’t have to make sense.”

Right there I knew the poster wasn’t a writer.

One of the very first things they tell you in Secret Writer School (also known as “the real Hogwarts”), is that your stories have to make sense.* This doesn’t mean they have to agree with reality, that’s an entirely different question. If you write SF/F, in fact, your stories are required not to agree with reality.**

The dichotomy comes from the need for internal consistency. You can write about elves, dragons, and werewolves fighting off invaders from Mars, but you have to set up rules about how each of these characters works, and you can’t deviate from them.*** If your elves are trapped at the bottom of a volcano’s caldera, even if the only way out is to fly, you can’t suddenly say, “So I unfolded the wings the author hasn’t mentioned in 200 pages and rode the updrafts to safety.” (This is precisely one of the reasons I didn’t like E.T. In fact, E.T. is a perfect example, but I’m not here to do a review.)

If you don’t write consistently, then when you fall off the wagon, the reader will be thrown out of the story. More importantly, you will have lost the reader’s trust, and without trust, the reader will not be led where you want him to go.

And where you want the reader to go, of course, is to the bookstore to buy your next book–which is a consistent desire, no matter what kind of writer you are.

*One of the great things about the Secret Writer School is that, it being “the real Hogwarts,” genre fiction enjoys its proper place.

**This is also a requirement if you plan to work in the White House.

***I see you there, reaching for your pen. Hands off! Come up with your own ridiculous ideas.

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I recently became aware of…I guess you’d call it a game, called “Tom Swifties.” The idea is to see how many examples you can come up with of the kind of writing that was used in the old Tom Swift books, i.e., Adverbs Gone Wild. I was horrified to learn that I am rather good at it. Some examples of my own:

  • “Your axe has hit me in the chest,” Tom said half-heartedly.
  • “There is no one staying in this hotel,” Tom said vacantly.
  • “I understand it all now,” Tom said comprehensively.

I said I was horrified. Now, these are quite silly (and believe me, there are worse), but at the same time they do show up a major problem that even highly-successful writers have: the use of adverbs to describe characters’ feelings. In other words, they are telling instead of showing.

“Show, don’t tell,” was one of the hardest lessons I ever had to learn as a writer, mostly because no one could explain it to me. Now I understand, and I try hard not to make this mistake. It’s very easy once you see an example of it: Instead of saying, “Tom said vacantly,” you write, “Tom said with a faraway look in his eye,” or “Tom said, staring into space,” or some other description of Tom’s actions. If you can stay out of Tom’s head, you’ll do fine. And that’s all there is to showing instead of telling.

When I was younger, I tried to imitate writers I liked, and usually made a hash of it. It took years to develop my own style, to stop trying to be someone else.

Ironically, I’d still like to be Tom Swift. Maybe he couldn’t write his way out of a paper bag, but he had the coolest adventures this side of Jonny Quest.

#SFWApro

 

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Generally speaking, the best way to immunize yourself to a disease is to have the disease.  The exceptions to this rule are legion, of course, so we won’t go into that, we’ll just stick to the principle. And apply it to writing, of course.

The disease involved with writing (other than writing itself, which is a mental disease), is called Rejectionitis. It is characterized by a widespread lowering of self-esteem brought on by an editor sending back a story. The more you loved this story, the more you thought it was perfect for the market, and the level of desire you have to break into this market all affect the severity of the symptoms. In a slap in the face of our guiding principle (see above), there is no immunizing yourself to Rejectionitis by actually getting the disease.

You can, however, immunize yourself somewhat by exposing yourself to carriers (i.e., submissions). In the best case scenario, you start out by being laid waste to by the disease, but then you find a magic bullet called Acceptance. (Acceptance has a long latin name which describes its ingredients, but fortunately you never have to suffer through a TV commercial listing its side effects. If Rejectionitis ever becomes a disease suffered by a large number of baby boomers, though, you might.) Acceptance works by propping up your writing immune system to the point where you believe that maybe, just maybe, you have something to offer that people will want to read. If the dose of Acceptance is big enough, and the timing is right, it may carry through your next bout of Rejectionitis. Or it may not. Your results may vary.

There is another, less efficacious treatment, called Submissions. Yes, the same submissions which are carriers of the disease are also a form of defense against it. Since Rejectionitis is a disease of the mind (like writing), you can guard against its worst effects by having a lot going on in your writing career. (“That story came back, but there are eight others out there who have a chance!”) And of course, re-submitting the same story that was just rejected is the best therapy. (“Take that, you illiterate editor of a Nebula-winning magazine!”)

I am currently exercising this latter defense. Lately I have been on a tear, submitting stories like crazy, to where I have only a half-dozen viable candidates sitting on the sidelines, and one of those is just awaiting a submission window to open. I re-submitted a story yesterday that has been rejected three times–in the past week. (There are some fast editors out there.) But I believe in this little piece; it just needs to find the right spot to land. You’ll be hearing about it soon enough.

Of course, none of this will completely or permanently cure Rejectionitis. Even the biggest authors sometimes suffer from it (so they say, but I’ve not seen their medical records). It’s a lifelong struggle. But writing itself is a lifelong struggle. That struggle usually manifests in a syndrome called “Writer’s Block.”

I’d like to go on about Writer’s Block, but I honestly can’t think of a thing to say…

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I recently attended the end-of-season banquet for the UCLA women’s basketball team, of which I am a long-time fan. Yes, the men’s program at UCLA has a long and legendary history (of which I am justifiably proud, although I had absolutely nothing to do with it, but that’s college sports for you), but I have found the women’s team to be a more rewarding experience to watch. The men’s program has constant turnover from one-and-done players who just use college as a way station on their way to the NBA. Very few quality players stay four years, so what’s the point in getting invested in them? If they don’t care, why should I?

On the distaff side, however, there are no lottery-ticket deals in their future. Even the few who proceed to the WNBA won’t get rich off of it. Which leads to the question: Why do it? College is hard enough, why make it even harder?

Simple: because they love the game. And you can tell when you watch them: the drive, the tenacity, the unwillingness to give up even when the score is lopsided and the clock is winding down. These women have taught me a lot about toughing it out–and that is the number one skill a writer needs, too.

It is said you have to write a million words before you learn how to write. Seems pretty solid to me. How long that takes is up to you–but even if you do it, it’s not like there’s a magic switch that clicks on at that point and suddenly you’re selling stories to Asimov’s. Or even Cirsova. Some people sell their first story; others take decades to reach that mark. If you can’t stick it out, if you can’t summon up the self-confidence, the drive, or simply the stubbornness to keep writing even when all of your friends have secretly written off your chances and only ask, “So, are you still writing?” because they’ve run out of small talk–then you won’t make it. Not because you can’t–you simply won’t.

I have seen my team play with seven players out of 14 unable to suit up because of injury–for the entire season. And every one of those women played like she was the only one who could do her job for 40 minutes because she was the only one who could do her job: There was no one else. I have seen them come back from 20 points down in the second half–when even I had secretly written them off–because they didn’t know how to quit.

I had already started selling when I became aware of how remarkable my team was, so the lessons they taught weren’t quite so essential, but when you’re a writer, self-doubt is never far from your doorstep. And when those creeping doubts ring my doorbell, I look back on that team–my team–and I remember that we all need to rely on the same resilience if we’re going to succeed, that same knowledge that doing our best is going to help us, even if we lose this game, because there’s always the next game.

Look at it this way: Charlie Brown lost practically every game he pitched, but he never stopped showing up. I like to think he grew up to be a writer.

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I just finished writing about 500 words. I should have written more, but I’m writing longhand, and you can only go so long before you have to take a break. Besides, I’m up to the point where I have to make a point, and I’m not sure how I’m going to do it. But I will.

When you’re really going, writing seems almost automatic. You don’t really have to pay attention to what you’re doing. It’s like driving, where  you can watch the road and listen to the radio and think about what you’re going to do when you get to work, all at the same time. (And like driving, you can’t write while you’re on the phone.)

I don’t think I had noticed that before tonight. At the same time the words were unspooling, I was able to look at them almost objectively (never totally objectively). As I watched myself scribble them (and scribble is the right word, believe me), I marveled at (a) how they arranged themselves so neatly, and (b) how good they looked. Not that I claim to be Shakespeare by any means; it’s just that I can still recall how I used to write years ago, and the difference is profound. But I wonder if the real miracle isn’t either of those things, but rather how I was able to separate my brain into two parts, one writing and one watching. Usually when you write, your brain is separated into “writer” and “editor,” and the toughest part is stuffing a sock into the editor’s mouth so the writer can work. This wasn’t that. The observer did make a few cogent suggestions, which were followed, but mostly he let the writer work. It was he who found the whole process amazing. (The writer was too busy to care.)

Oddly enough, now that I’m blogging, the two halves seem more in partnership. I stop and edit more, and the writer doesn’t mind having the editor peer over his shoulder. It’s a funny thing.

It’s a funny way to live, if you think about it. Writer vs. Editor. And then there’s Marketing Manager… Thank goodness they’ve got him locked in the closet for the duration.

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