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Posts Tagged ‘writing advice’

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.

#SFWApro

 

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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.

#SFWApro

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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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Every once in a while, if you’re going to write a blog about writing, you have to write about writing. Right? This is one of those times. If you’re not a writer or planning to be one, you can skip this one. (But you don’t have to…)  If you are a writer–why aren’t you writing? Oh, you’re just taking a break from the next Harry Potter? Then settle in. You need to know this stuff.

Writers are always concerned with how they’re going to get their message across to readers. Unless you’re planning to self-publish, that’s the wrong way to go about it. (And if you are planning to self-publish, there are some other blogs you should be reading.) What you want to do is get your message across to an editor. The editor buys your story from you. He gives it to the publisher. Readers buy their story from the publisher. If you don’t sell the editor, you don’t sell.

How do I sell an editor, you ask? Very good question. And a very big task. To begin with, there are as many ways to sell to an editor as there are editors. (Even so, selling to readers is a lot harder, because  there are a lot more of them than editors.) On the other hand, editors will tell you exactly what they are looking for. These are called “guidelines,” and if you follow them, while you still might not get the sale, you will develop a reputation for dependability, which can be almost as good. (For purposes of our discussion, we will limit ourselves to magazine editors.)

See, even though editors read hundreds of stories a month, they tend to see the same authors over and over, and they remember you. The first time an editor said such-and-such story was not as good as my other stories, I was over the moon. I never sold to him, but he knew my name. He found it worth remembering, and that’s huge.

If an editor is going to remember you, you want it to be for the right reasons. That means read the guidelines and follow them. You’d be surprised how many writers don’t.  On the other hand, sometimes guidelines aren’t as strict as they appear. An anthology’s theme might stretch to cover your story even if it doesn’t fit like a glove. And word limits may be flexible. If the guidelines say, “3000 – 5000 words, firm,” then respect them. But if they don’t, maybe they can be exceeded–but if you’re going to try that, ask first. You can query an editor to determine if exceptions are allowed, and the mere fact that you asked may get you the answer you want.

Well, you may get the answer you want concerning whether you can skirt the guidelines. Getting the answer you want about a sale, that’s going to take some more work. But when you sub that next story, having an editor who remembers you isn’t going to hurt…

#SFWApro

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Figured it out yet? Last post’s hint: “You have to wait until my next post.” On the face of it, it’s about patience, which is one of the most important skills you can develop as a writer. Because if you’re a writer, you’re going to do a lot of waiting, like an extra between takes. But the experienced extra takes a paperback or his phone with him to occupy him in the downtime, and the smart writer knows that waiting time is time best spent writing something new. That will help you stay sane, but it will not help you survive. Survival is a harder task.

The secret to survival is a tough skin.

Initially, you need a tough skin because you’re going to be rejected. A lot. (Actually, you’re not. Your stories are. You won’t be rejected until later.) It takes some stubbornness to insist that you know better than all those editors who are turning you down, that you have that thing that will raise you above the slush pile hordes, even if you haven’t found it yet. (This takes longer than you think. In fact, you will always be proving yourself–if not to others, than to yourself. And there’s nobody harder to persuade that you’ve “got it” than you.)

But as you go on, you need to get tougher yet. Because blind rejection of your work is not the meanest and hardest criticism you will ever receive–it is the nicest and mildest criticism you will ever receive. If you think it’s tough being rejected by one editor at a time (who is being paid to read your work and who really may be sending your manuscript back for reasons entirely unrelated to its quality), try being rejected (read criticized) by people who have themselves paid to read your work.

You see the problem. And it’s compounded by the fact that a lot of that criticism, again, has nothing to do with the quality of your story. Some won’t like your choice of protagonist (for his/her gender, color, religious affiliation, favorite liquor); some won’t like your genre (yet feel qualified to render an opinion on your specific story); some won’t like your author photo.* No wonder so many writers swear they won’t read reviews.

And then there are the people who honestly do not like what you’ve done. Those are the hardest, because they can’t simply be dismissed. Ironically, they should be. Because it all comes down to the fact that nothing is universally popular. There are people who don’t like Star Wars, for heaven’s sake. There are people who would honestly argue that Sean Connery was not the best Bond. (Okay, assuming there are infinite universes, somewhere there exists a person who would argue it.)

No matter how many Hugos and Nebulas your work wins, no matter how many Oscars the movie version takes home, someone won’t read/watch it, someone will find fault with it, and someone will hate it. If you want to make your life as a writer, you have to develop the skill to accept that you can’t change these things and not let them affect you. Of course, none of us is Spock; it’s going to have an effect. But that effect can be managed.

Other than output, it may be the only aspect of one’s career that can be managed.

 

* I once had a reviewer who started out with, “I don’t like these kinds of stories,” and went ahead anyway to render an opinion anyway.

#SFWApro

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“Kill your darlings.” That’s what they tell you in Writing 101. Don’t hesitate to cut sentences, even paragraphs, no matter how much you love them, if they don’t serve the story. Take your writing scalpel and remove them from the body of your work.

In a recent survey of market opportunities cross-referenced with the stories I have available for submission, I came across a pro-rate paying magazine whose guidelines immediately put me in mind of a certain story.*

Now, this is one of my favorites. I have held onto it, refusing to submit it to less than pro-rate markets, knowing in my heart that it is good enough to pull down top money—despite the fact that all of the top markets so far have rejected it (even if one did request a rewrite). New markets pop up with some frequency, however, so I’ve been living in the hope that it would find that one editor who would believe in it as I did.

I didn’t recall, though, sending it to that market. “Is it possible I never subbed that story to that magazine?” I wondered. “How could I not?” But in checking my files, I saw that no, I never had. Why? Because a second review of the guidelines showed that their maximum length was 4000 words, and my story was 4500.

I immediately thought, “Five hundred words? How am I going to cut 500 words from a 4500-word story?” I live by the rule that after you’ve drafted and polished a story, you should go back and cut another 10%. I had already done that. But I bent to the task, intending to try to identify some scene that could be excised, much as I believed it impossible. Every scene was absolutely crucial!

It took exactly one pass to remove 450 words.

The rest fell quickly after. There were unwieldy constructions and unnecessary exposition. I even added a few words at one point to make a critical scene clearer, and still managed to reach my goal. The whole process took less than an hour.

What’s the take-away here? Should I change the 10% rule to 20%? I don’t think so. You don’t want to compile so many rules about how to write that you forget just to write. Truthfully, when I started this essay I didn’t know myself where it was going. But the answer was in front of me almost from the beginning: You can’t set a story on a pedestal. Sure, when it’s published, out in the world, it’s set. But until then, it can always be improved, no matter how much store you set by it.

Kill your darlings with a scalpel? Sure. Except when a machine gun will do the job better.

*According to SFWA guidelines, “pro” rates start at $0.06/word.

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