Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Last time, class, we considered the question of the classic advice, “Write what you want to read.” We concluded that it was good advice, so long as one is prepared to accept that one may be the only person in the world who wants to read it. (Or one of a relatively small handful.) This leads us to wonder, however, what other timeless bits of advice have only limited benefits? And how are they limited?

Let’s begin by acknowledging that no one writer’s career path is the same. (Honestly, if we acknowledge that, we can dispense with the rest of this post, but that would be kind of pointless. So let’s simply accept it as an underlying theme.) Just as no writer is going to reach success by the same route as any other, no one set of “rules” is going to apply to every writer. But as one who has been haunting the edges of this business since submissions were made on paper, through the mail, I’ve seen a great many truisms float by my eyes, and I’ve come up with some opinions:

Write what you know. This is good advice. Indispensable, actually. As classic as “Write what you like to read,” but more philosophically obtuse. The question always comes up: “What do I know about spaceships/dragons/zombies?” The answer is that this is not what the advisor is talking about. Fiction of every kind is about people. Write what you know about Life. Then dress it up with zombies.

All authors need a web presence. Well, yes and no. You should have some kind of web page, because readers like to know about their favorite authors, at least listing a basic biography and bibliography. But you don’t need a blog, unless you want one. In fact, if you’re not into the Internet at all, don’t create a page. A neglected web site is worse that none. Same goes for other on-line experiences.

Don’t pay to be published. This is absolutely true. You don’t pay a publisher, and you don’t pay an agent. Ever.

Don’t quit. If you persist long enough, you will be published. Again, yes and no. The only guarantee is that if you do quit, you won’t ever make it. But there’s no guarantee that persistence will always win–although it is an odds-on favorite.

You can break the rules when you’re successful. Well, yes, sometimes, but you may need to break the rules to be successful.* The question is not whether people will let you break the rules, but whether you can break them well enough that people allow it. You may do that first time out; you may never do it. If the story demands it, do it, and let the chips fall where they may.

Self-publishing is the only way to go. You keep all the control, and you reap much more money. This is highly questionable.  No one really knows how self-publishing works. There are a thousand ways to succeed, and a million ways to fail. People who say that self-publishing is the One True Path are as bad as those who swear it is the wide road to Hell. It may be for you, and it may not.

Writers should refrain from taking political stances on social media. Gauge your audience. Are your views such that they will disagree with you? Strenuously? Then you should probably keep your thoughts to yourself–at least by that name. On the other hand, if you think it will help, go for it. Activists like to write; why shouldn’t writers…activate? Just be prepared to take what comes.

Show, don’t tell. We finish with another classic, one of the few real “rules.” Pretend you are the reader, experiencing the story through your protagonist’s eyes. Instead of writing that, “He came upon a village,” tell us what he saw: “A collection of one-story huts, built of ill-fitted timbers plugged with dried mud that would have washed away in the first rain, were such a thing ever seen in this parched land.”

Writing is a lot like life: The only good rules are those which are so infuriatingly vague that you can spend decades trying to figure out what they mean. Try not to think of it as “vagueness” so much as “wiggle room.” Write a story you’d like to read, and make it entertaining. Just don’t get so caught up in following someone else’s rules that you don’t define your own. (Except no. 3. Always follow no. 3.)

*Please don’t ask me to define success. You have to define it for yourself.



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It isn’t easy being a writer. Or any kind of creative person. If it were, everyone would do it, and the world would be an even more beautiful place. But it isn’t, for reasons that most people could come up with if they were to bother: How do you get ideas? How do you stretch those ideas out to cover several thousand (or several hundred thousand) words? How do you find the time? The list goes on.

If you’re a writer, however, you’ve already come up with answers to these questions. (Well, all but the last three…) But even then, there’s the problem of persistence. Not the persistence it takes to submit and re-submit the same story to various markets maybe four dozen times with no reason it will succeed. (I think my record for rejections before a sale is 44.) That’s a long-term sort of persistence; I’m talking about the day-to-day, the persistence it takes to complete a single project, especially a novel.

2017 was a very hard time for writers (at least liberal writers). The year was a socio-political mess (no matter whose side you’re on), and outside events kept getting in the way. This doesn’t count all of the large and small personal crises and problems that nip at your available time (the kids are sick, your boss was mean today, a death in the family). Maintaining your focus in the face of these events is hard. They make you not want to write; they slow you down. What’s the point of creating a fantasy world when the real world is so screwed up?

And maybe that is the point. When we’re writing, when we’re creating, we have control. Our worlds are only as screwed up as we want them to be–and we can fix them (or not). I’m not saying that we should concentrate on our stories to the exclusion of the real world, but perhaps being able to exert some control in here will help us feel we can exert some control out there.

So we can’t feel guilty about focusing. At the same time, feeling guilty about not focusing just makes it worse. This is a hard life we’ve chosen, but then, Life is hard. And we get through it every day.

Just remember, your characters have it even worse than you do.




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I’m editing The Scent of Death, and it’s going… pretty well. As in, I’m not having to erase large tracts of pages and replace them. There are the usual awkward phrasings, the repetitious words, and some inconsistencies that I am correcting (all of them, I hope). But in the main, it’s going okay.

But it’s not going quickly. It feels as though editing is taking longer than the writing did. This is ridiculous, of course; last night I edited sixty pages. (If I could write sixty pages in one night, I’d be producing a novel a week.) But it feels that way.

The problem is that when you edit, you are rereading a novel you just, in effect, read. And when you write the whole damned thing in two months, you haven’t even had time to forget the beginning, let alone the ending. In my whole life, I have immediately gone back and read a novel a second time exactly once. And I wasn’t reading that one critically.

Which is the other problem, or really, the second half of the problem. You aren’t just reading the book, you’re editing it. You’re deliberately finding all the faults in your own work, and that’s everyone’s favorite pastime, right? How can a project which you tackled so joyfully a few weeks ago be such a pain in the neck now?

It’s kind of like being Victor Frankenstein, and after the first flush of creation, you see all the warts and flaws. You’d like to just start again and fix some of those things in the next version, but you’re still stuck with what you’ve just done. A book, like a seven-foot-tall golem, wants to go places. It wants to be seen by people. It doesn’t like being chained in a dungeon. So you have to let it out, but you can’t let it out like it looks now. People would be frightened. They’d call it a monster–and then they’d call you one, too. Worse yet, they’d call you a bad writer. Pitchforks and torches are one thing, but bad reviews…

So you edit your little monster, and you teach it some manners, and  you let it out, hoping that it won’t do too much damage and that eventually, when the next creation is ready, it will help them forget about your earlier, flawed, attempt. But then, if you’re lucky, to your surprise people start to befriend your monster, and to see in it the beauty you had always wanted to show, but thought you’d failed to do. And you realize that, after struggling through all that editing, maybe you didn’t create such a monster after all.

But by then, you’ve got another little creation coming out of the printer, and he’s all covered in warts and flaws, and his ears are where his nose should be, and you wonder if you’re ever going to get this right…


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The storm of events that seems determined to sabotage The Experiment has continued–which is a non-self-accusatory way of saying that progress on the novel this week was almost non-existent. I am at 39,831 words, which is about 2,000 words ahead of last week (as opposed to the planned 6,000). The culprit this week, as you might have noticed, is Comic-Con.

We hadn’t been for several years, but when The Better Half managed to snag tickets (no mean feat), we decided we really had to go. So we went down to San Diego on Thursday morning. This meant, for the purposes of this post, that Thursday was a non-writing day; since I knew there would be no chance to do anything useful, I didn’t even bring the laptop. But it also meant that we had to pack on Wednesday, so that night was lost, too (as was Tuesday, for other pre-event reasons). Ergo, the book was pushed back essentially another week.

I don’t blame Comic-con for this; I was the one who agreed to go, after all. And I thought it might present a marketing opportunity for The Invisible City, currently available for free on Smashwords (hint, hint). Comic-con has rules about these things, however, so our efforts were constrained. (All credit to The Better Half, though, who is far better at getting people to take promotional postcards from strangers than I am. Of course, she’s better-looking, so that helps.)

Comic-con itself was pretty much what I expected, crowded and full of long lines. I was surprised to see how it’s spilled out beyond the confines of the Convention Center; there were some interesting things that you could get into even if you weren’t a member. I had my first taste of VR over the weekend, for example. It needs work, but it’s intriguing.

And it’s one of the few places you can wear a kilt and not be stared at. TBH is a rabid Outlander fan, and I volunteered to attend the panel she wanted to see, in a kilt. This meant wearing the kilt all day. They really are quite comfortable. I might incorporate it into my convention persona.

Okay, yes, there are pictures.


This week there’s no Comic-con, and no excuses! Full speed ahead! Six thousand words or bust! We have a book to write.


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Why is it, when you go into a Starbucks (it’s not always Starbucks, but they seem to attract the species, like flytraps) in LA (I’m assuming it’s only in LA, but I could be wrong–enlighten me) that you see all these guys (and yes, it’s always guys!) writing screenplays on their laptops, an empty cup beside them like their ticket on the train? (“Look, Mr. Conductor/Barista! I paid to be here!”)

No, I’m not asking why everyone goes to Starbucks to write. I’ve written in coffee houses myself, and found it works a lot better than I expected. I guess if it was good enough for J.K. Rowling, etc., etc. It’s not the writing in coffee houses that I don’t understand, it’s writing screenplays.

Look, writing fiction is a crapshoot. Let’s take science fiction, because that’s the field I know. When I was a “kid,” there were those who (I’m sure from an overabundance of caring) made no secret of the fact that your chances of ever getting a story published were 1000-to-1. Even today, with dozens of markets available for short SF, the odds are about the same. It’s not pretty, but it’s true. (Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try!)

But screenplays? I have no numbers to go by (and I’m too lazy to look), but I have to figure that your chances of selling a screenplay are about 1/10th as good as selling a short story. Yes, the rewards are vastly higher, but so’s a winning lottery ticket. So why write screenplays when your chances of succeeding at straight fiction are ten times better? I made more on my last sale than most of those coffee-jockeys will make on whatever they’re writing, if they push it from now until they die. (And believe me, what I make isn’t a lot to brag about. The pro rate for magazines as defined by SFWA has about doubled since the 1960s.)

I guess it’s the same mentality that plays the lotto. And I play the lottery, too, occasionally, though I stay with the small tickets. I guess I’d rather win a little every so often rather than play for the big pay-off that may (probably will) never come.

If you’re the other kind, and you hit it big, good for you. Go back to Starbucks and buy a round for the house.


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With the onset of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is no longer quite so embarrassing to admit that one was reading comic books all through one’s youth and beyond.* I quit about 20 (!) years ago now, but I still follow the genre (and watch the movies). So it’s not surprising that my mind still goes down those roads on occasion (okay, all the time). And that has lead to the following question:

In that world, with superpowers, mutants, AIs, self-contained battle suits, aliens, time travel, superweapons,  and everything, how does anyone write science fiction? SF consists of stories that extrapolate from known science, or at least scientific theory. But if you know that mutants and superweapons and aliens exist because you can see them fly by your window, what is there to extrapolate? By definition, everything you’re writing is simply “fiction.”**

Does that mean that writers like me would be in Fiction & Literature at your local Barnes & Noble? Would there be a reason for a SFWA to exist–and would I not have to regret the fact that I’m not at Nebula weekend right now?

And what about the liability issues? What if some hulking green guy comes up to you and says you’re defaming him in your latest story–which just happens to have a large, green character? What if he claims you’re appropriating his image? And if you write a story about the Skrulls invading the Earth, will the real Skrulls take umbrage and actually invade the Earth out of pique?

Even if you started with the concept that none of the above existed, and then created an SF story, would anyone read it? Science fiction isn’t supposed to be about a world more boring than your own. The only choice left would be alternate history, and that field would get crowded fast.

What would happen, I think, is that all those writers would migrate to another genre, like romance, or mystery. Mystery would be a fertile field in that world, with questions like: What’s with those capes, anyway? How do those young sidekicks explain all those bruises without social services investigating? And why are there so many super-powered people in the world, anyway? How did they get that way?

Oh, wait, that veers into science fiction. And then we start all over again.

*The same thing happened to science fiction with Star Wars, and fantasy with Lord of the Rings.

**Fantasy writers would have the same problem.

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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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