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Posts Tagged ‘writing advice’

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.

#SFWApro

 

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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.

#SFWApro

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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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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.

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