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Posts Tagged ‘writing advice’

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.

#SFWApro

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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.

#SFWApro

 

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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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Whenever you go to one of those new author panels at cons, it seems pre-published authors are always caught up in the “hows,” that is, “How do you write? In the morning or afternoon?” “How many things do you work on at a time?” “Are you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pantser?” They ask these questions over and over again, as if they’re assembling a dataset from which they can extrapolate how one becomes a publisher writer, when they should be asking, “How do I show instead of tell?” “What makes a compelling character?” “What does it mean when people say your setting is a character in the story?”

The trouble with the first part of this is that every writer (including the questioner) is different, so the answers are completely irrelevant. The problem with the second part of this is that no one really knows the answers. Certainly I don’t. (Especially that last one.) So I’m not even going to try. I’m just going to tell you what I do know.

What I know is that not long ago, I asked for advice about whether to lay aside my novel-in-progress to pursue a new project. Everyone seemed to think I should, and I did, and it worked out better than I’d hoped. The only unexpected thing was that I haven’t gone back to the novel. (I will.) But with pot that safely on the back burner, I’ve been concentrating on other things, to good effect.

I currently have 18 submissions out (possibly a record, although seven are agent subs for one novel); I have three stories awaiting markets that have not yet opened, and I’m working on a new short story. This is all very good, and it leads me to the one piece of advice I can give pre-published (or published) authors:

Writing is important, but submitting is imperative.

Now get to work.

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…are the ones you should be listening to. I know the adage is, “Those who can’t do, teach,” but that is so dismissive and narrow-minded that I could spend most of this post on why I don’t agree with it. Suffice it to say, as it is commonly understood, it’s garbage.

Let me ‘splain. I recently read about a friend who has been trying to become a professional writer nearly as long as I have (which is saying something). Soon after I succeeded, he did too. And so he is justifiably very proud of his accomplishments. Recently, however, he was told in no uncertain terms that he was going about his career all wrong. Independent publishing was the only way to go! Everybody would do better if he’d only abandon the creaky old system of traditional publishing and self-publish!

Well, my friend was justifiably (again) upset. He’s got his career path, it’s starting to work for him, and he doesn’t need anybody coming along and saying how it’s so tough just because he’s doing it all wrong. Becoming a published writer (let alone succeeding at it) requires a ridiculous amount tenacity and a delusional level of self-confidence. Saying it’s only so hard because you’re doing it wrong is condescending and rude. In other words, my career is None of Your Business.

And yet, there is a value in learning from others. Sometimes this even involves being lectured, and occasionally, it involves being told you are wrong. This is called “teaching.” (Simply telling someone he’s doing it wrong because your way worked for you isn’t teaching. It’s gloating. And it doesn’t make you a teacher, it makes you a jerk.) And I would posit that some of the very best teachers are not “those who can’t do,” but rather “those who can’t do for a living.”

Let’s face it. Not everybody can be the best at everything–or even one thing. While there is value from learning from someone who has tried (and succeeded to some extent) what you’re trying to do, it doesn’t mean that just because your teacher isn’t making a living at, say, writing, he can’t be a good writing teacher. I’ve had teachers who were professional writers, and others who have merely written professionally. I have learned from all of them. (I’ve also learned a great deal from myself, and I’m certainly not making a living as a writer.)

I would go further and say I’d rather learn from the guy who hasn’t made it than the guy who has, or at the very least that you can learn more from someone who has failed than someone who never has. The successful (writer) can tell you how he made it and you can try to emulate him. The moderately-successful writer who has twice the number of rejections as acceptances can teach you how not to fail. In my experience, you can’t really understand winning until you understand losing.

Case in point, as provided by my friend: self-publishing. I entered the self-publishing field about three years ago. I tried to find out what I was getting into by going to panels at cons, featuring self-published authors. I went to all I could. They were very encouraging. They thought everyone should try it. After all, they’d succeeded with no more of a book idea than I had. The problem was, they had all succeeded. They never talked about failure. Eventually, one actually said, “Your first book never sells,” which was manna to me because my first book wasn’t, in fact, selling. No problem, says I, the sequel will.

The problem with listening to all these successful self-published writers was that they didn’t know (or talk about, anyway) how not to fail. They never spoke of the need to stick to one series in one genre because audiences won’t follow you across genres. They never said that it can take three or four or more books to gain an audience (if you ever do) and how those four books had to come out no less than every four months (six if you must, but you’re taking an awful chance that people will forget you). They never talked about the hundreds of dollars you must spend in cover art, copyediting, and advertising. Yes, advertising, preferably with a heavy social media presence to raise your books out of the morass of the thousands of other books self-published every year. They didn’t mention the ten hours a week you should be spending on your blog, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and whatever other media platforms have been invented since I started writing this post–and that if you’re not prepared to do that, or if you don’t already have 50,000 Twitter followers, your chances of ever being noticed are slim to none.

So, yes, I shared my friend’s outrage and being told he was writing “the wrong way.” Because no two writers work exactly the same, and self-publishing is not a panacea and anyone who tells you it is, is either selling you a bill of goods or selling one to himself.

It’s true that “those who can’t do, teach,” but it’s a damned good thing, because they’re the ones with the courage to admit they haven’t always succeeded. And that’s a lesson we should all learn.

#SFWApro

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