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Category: Write Advice

China Miéville’s Structure

If you’ve seen a photo of China Miéville, you know he’s a structurally significant human. I mean, just look at him. Oh wait, he’s talking about novel structure? I guess that’s relevant.

I was wondering if you could give me some advice on how to deal with structure? How do you deal with it?

“You’re talking about writing a novel, right? I think it’s kind of like…do you know Kurt Schwitters, the artist? He was an experimental artist in the 1940s who made these very strange cut up collages and so on and very strange abstract paintings. And I was just seeing an exhibition of his, and one of the things that is really noticeable is he is known for these wild collages, and then interspersing these are these really beautiful, very formally traditional oil paintings, portraits, and landscapes and so on.

And this is that old—I mean it’s a bit of a cliché–but the old thing about knowing the rules and being able to obey them before you can break them. Now I think that that is quite useful in terms of structure for novels because one of the things that stops people writing is kind of this panic at the scale of the thing, you know? So I would say, I would encourage anyone that’s writing a novel to be as out there as they possibly can. But as a way of getting yourself kick-started, why not go completely traditional?

Think three-act structure, you know. Think rising action at the beginning of the journey and then some sort of cliff-hanger at the end of act one. Continuing up to the end of act two, followed by a big crisis at the end of act three, followed by a little dénouement. Think 30,000 words, 40,000 words, 30,000 words, so what’s that, around 100,000 words. Divide that up into 5,000 word chapters so you’re going 6/8/6. I realise this sounds incredibly sort of drab, and kind of mechanical. But my feeling is that the more you can kind of formalise and bureaucratise those aspects of things. It actually paradoxically liberates you creatively because you don’t need to worry about that stuff.

If you front load that stuff, plant all that out in advance and you know the rough outline of each chapter in advance, then when you come to each day’s writing, you’re able to go off in all kinds of directions because you know what you have to do in that day. You have to walk this character from this point to this point and you can do that in the strangest way possible. Whereas if you’re looking at a blank piece of paper and saying where do you I go from here you get kind of frozen. The unwritten novel has a basilisk’s stare, and so I would say do it behind your own back by just formally structuring it in that traditional way. And then when you have confidence and you’ve gained confidence in that, you can play more odder games with it. But it’s really not a bad way to get started.”

Via this link right here.

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Slush Wisdom

Aidan Doyle has posted a great piece over at Medium, What I’ve Learned From Slush Reading at PodCastle, which as well as containing some great advice for submitting to PodCastle in particular and to other venues in general, it also contains links to some other fantastic articles, and is well worth checking out.

Aidan links to Confessions of a Slush Reader over at Shimmer which contains a lot of advice for writing a story too compelling for a slush reader to pass on with examples of story foibles and suggestions for how to avoid them.

He also links to Zen and the Art of Short Story Titling by John Joseph Adams, which has some tips for writers who – like me – struggle with finding the perfect title for a story… or even just a good one.

Check those links out, and find Aidan on twitter right here.

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Ride the Wrong Way

Go where your energy is, and when you come to a point where you need to make a story choice, go with the less comfortable one.  It’s only time and paper. Ride the wrong way for a while and see what happens.

– Warren Ellis, from this post.

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Ditch Better Have My Diggers

There exists, for everyone, a sentence – a series of words – that has the power to destroy you. Another sentence exists, another series of words, that could heal you. If you’re lucky you will get the second, but you can be certain of getting the first.

Philip K. Dick – VALIS

[Full Disclosure: My first idea for a title of this post was “I got 99 Problems, but a Ditch Ain’t One (Because I’ve Already Been Digging It)”. I am a terrible human.]

It’s been a while since I posted any writing advice or resources, so let me rectify that now. Near the end of last year I got onto Mur Lafferty and Matt Wallace‘s podcast Ditch Diggers.  Now, whilst I’m sure there are a hundred podcasts out there related to writing, the thing I like about Ditch Diggers is the way they aproach writing as a job – a job that you should be paid for.

Amongst some writers and readers, there seems to be an expectation that you should only ever create something for the love of it. Now, I see where they’re coming from, because a mercenary approach to art is how we end up with awful film novelisations, tired tie-ins, lacklustre (or downright terrible) film remakes. But on the flip-side, one day I would like to write for a living – so, until we get Universal Basic Income, that means considering the financial aspect of writing – and also, if I create something that has value, why shouldn’t I expect to be paid?

Or, in other words, Fuck You, Pay Me.

I opened with that quote (or maybe paraphrase?) from VALIS to illustrate a point about the merit and beauty of art versus the reality of making a living. That is to say: of course I want to write stories and books that resonate with people, that contain a single line that could heal a person, but I’m not there yet, and I might never get there. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t write. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t publish. And that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t get paid while I continue honing my skills in whatever form or genre I choose to write in.

Anyway, Ditch Diggers. Subscribe to it wherever you get your podcasts from, and if you go back through the archives, might I recommend:

  • Episode 36 with Cassandra Khaw
  • Episode 34 with Kameron Hurley
  • Episode 26, which is largely a discussion between Kameron and her agent – Hannah Bowman.
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Editorial

I swear I’m not actively trying to talk about my upcoming book with every post, but seeing as it is my first book, this whole experience is one of many firsts. So today I want to talk about editorial, and why it might be tough, but very, very necessary.

Like I said, this is my first book, so I’m going to assume (perhaps wrongly?) that my experience is more-or-less the norm, and tell you about how it has all been unfolding for me, so if/when you find yourself in the same position, you know what to expect.

Step 1: Editorial Letter

Now, I’m not sure why it’s called an ‘Editorial Letter’, or even if that’s an industry-wide term, but it is far less formal than it sounds. It’s basically just addresses issues in your manuscript in a  loose, big-picture kind of way. This is where your editor says “Your book is great, but this, this, and that don’t quite work as well as the rest.”

Chances are, the things that your editor points out are likely things that you weren’t 100% sure on yourself, but after beating your head against the keyboard on a number of rewrites, you simply couldn’t come up with a better way to to do it. But guess what? Now you have an editor on your side, and they’ve already agreed to publish your book, so if they want it to be the best book it can be when it comes to market, they HAVE TO HELP YOU FIX IT.

This editor is likely working with you because something in your manuscript spoke to them, because they love it, because they believe in it, or some combination of those things. They also have likely edited (or at least read in slush) any number of manuscripts, so you can trust that they’re going to have a fine eye for picking out issues in your manuscript. They may also be accomplished writers themselves. Either way, trust that they know what they’re talking about.

When it comes to fixes, they might have ideas that completely resonate, and which you can immediately see and grasp, and which set your mind spinning with all the ways you’re going to incorporate these changes, or they might have ideas that don’t sit quite right with you. But, hey, this is a dialogue, so if it’s the latter, talk about it. Try and figure out why they’ve made those suggestions so you can come up with your own solutions that answer the same questions.

(Or, in other words, don’t be stubborn, don’t be a dick [obviously], don’t try and argue with them when they want to kill your darlings [they need to die for a reason], and realise that just because they want to publish your manuscript it doesn’t mean that it’s perfect.)

Anyway, after you’ve fixed those bigger-picture issues and you’re both happy with the changes, it’s time to move on to…

Step 2: Line-Edits

For some reason, this step caused my anxiety to peak. Personally, feedback from friends is easy, no matter how thoroughly it tears my work apart, because I know them, I understand their tone and exactly where they’re coming from. When it comes to people I know less-well however – like an editor I’ve only met in person a couple of times, or absolute strangers on a critiquing website – the criticisms get right under my skin for some reason.

I realise this is just down to me and my mind-spiders, so perhaps none of this is relevant for you, Miss No-Mental-Illness-For-Me, but hey, I’m talking about my experience. It’s not that my (brilliant) editor (Carl Engle-Laird) was harsh or anything like that – again, this was totally about me, not the experience – but going through the line edits was almost paralysing. I’d be able to spend two (distracted, anxious) hours at it, and then need to stop. By day three I’d convinced myself that the manuscript was so shit the only reason they decided to publish it was because it was somehow the least shit out of the submissions they received and they’d taken pity on me. Needless to say, that was a dark day. Thankfully, by day five, nearing the end of the manuscript, I’d completely turned a corner on the line-edit process. I’d come out the other side and realised all the things that would have been obvious if it weren’t for the anxiety:

  • It’s a good manuscript.
  • It’s not shit.
  • The line-edits were to make it sing, not to tell me that I’m a bad writer and I should feel bad.
  • The process had made the manuscript that much better.

Seriously, I was so happy with the manuscript at the end of that first run-through that I was slightly embarrassed that an earlier draft had gone out to other authors in the hopes of getting blurbed. The word I’ve been using to describe the effect of the edits is ‘elevated’ – it pointed inconsistencies (or things that weren’t necessarily inconsistent, but which needed clarity), and completely elevated the prose of the book by pointing out over-used verb forms and sentence styles, repeated words and phrases, and probably other things I’m forgetting.

I realise that when it comes out, Killing Gravity is still not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m not satisfied that it is a damn fine cup all the same.

You’ll go back and forth a couple of times with the colours of Track Changes scarring your manuscript until you’re done. Up next is…

Step 3: Copy-Editing

Which is the step I’m waiting on now, so I can’t actually tell you much about it. Though I’m assuming it will be someone with extremely technical knowledge of the English language telling me all the things I did wrong and telling me that all my dumb, made-up sci-fi words are entirely too-dumb to see print. But hey, we’ll see, and if the process is interesting enough, maybe I’ll write about that too.

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How to be a Writer…

There are so many posts like this one, and so many of them are dull, repetitive, or full of shit, but I thought Rebecca Solnit’s 10 Tips on How to be a Writer hit the nail on the head.

2) Remember that writing is not typing. Thinking, researching, contemplating, outlining, composing in your head and in sketches, maybe some typing, with revisions as you go, and then more revisions, deletions, emendations, additions, reflections, setting aside and returning afresh, because a good writer is always a good editor of his or her own work. Typing is this little transaction in the middle of two vast thoughtful processes. There is such thing as too much revision—I’ve seen things that were amazing in the 17th version get flattened out in the 23rd—but nothing is born perfect. Well, some things almost are, but they’re freaks. And you might get those magical perfect passages if you write a lot, including all the stuff that isn’t magic that has to be cut, rethought, revised, fact-checked, and cleaned up.

Thank you to Jane Rawson for the heads-up.

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An Illustrated Guide to Writing Scenes and Stories

If you haven’t already read Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, I cannot recommend those books enough. The series is part Lovecraft, part Stalker, part X-Files, part climate-change polemic, yet completely original. I finished Annihilation in a single night, and read the other two within the week. One day I hope to be able to write a series (or even a book) that is as masterfully-written, intriguing, and harrowing as the Area X books.

But shilling for Mr VanderMeer isn’t why I’m posting today – I’m here to share this post of his, which went up a few days ago at Electric Lit: An Illustrated Guide to Writing Scenes and Stories.

I thought it would be useful to take some very dramatic job that a character has — in this case, a dragon slayer– and demonstrate how it is that the average day of a dragon slayer is no different than the average day of an insurance salesman, in terms of not necessarily being of any interest to a reader.

When you’re first thinking about story and scenes, you have to choose what to dramatize, and what you won’t.

Lots of great advice and helpful diagrams at the link.

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Work Harder

You may have heard about my good friend* Hugh Howey, who is one of those recent few writers who have turned eyeballs on self-published and serialised fiction into success and book deals and bathtubs full of whiskey (but not whiskey that was made in a bathtub, because that would be gross). Anyway, he’s posted some advice, and goddamn if some of it doesn’t sound damn fine. Choice cuts pasted below.

*I’ve never met the man and he has no idea who I am.

So here’s the #1 secret to success and a career of working in your underwear: You have to work harder than anyone else. Period. Look around. What are other aspiring writers doing? That’s your ground floor. Your minimum. That’s where you begin. Double that. I promise you, this is the easiest path to success. What follows is specifics. But this is the general rule: Work harder than anyone else. If you don’t have this as your benchmark, you are going to have to rely on too much luck. And this blog post isn’t about the luck, it’s about how to minimize your required dosage.

[…]

1) Make a long-term plan. My plan was to write two novels a year for ten years before I ascertained whether or not I had a chance of making this work. You don’t get into the NBA without at least ten years of shooting drills and pickup games. If you set a longterm plan like this, and stick with it, you will succeed. Because you’ll find yourself in the top 0.1% of aspiring writers. 99.9% of your colleagues will drop out before they finish their plan. But you’ll outwork them. And yes, even if a thousand of you read this blog post, and all thousand of you implement the plan, all thousand of you will earn a living with your writing, leaving not much room for everyone else. Tough shit. There are more seats on this bus than there are people willing to put in what it takes to make it. Keep in mind that the videogame and TV busses are packed. We can lure more and more of them over if you implement your plan. And that plan all starts with:2) Reading. I assume this is a given, but you never know. I’ve met people who don’t read at all but want to become writers because they think it sounds like an easy gig. The underwear! The mumbling! The Googling! The thing about writing that’s different than playing a guitar for a living, or acting on stage, or painting, is that we all do some writing. In fact, we do a lot of writing. We write emails. Blog posts. Facebook updates. A novel is just more of that, right? Wrong. The writing is the easy bit compared to the crafting of engaging plots and characters. There are some things you only gain through absorption. Read a lot, read the greats, and read outside your comfort zone. Want to write science fiction? Read crime thrillers and romance novels. Learn how to unspool a mystery and how to inject love into your stories.

[…]4) Daydream. Most of the writing takes place away from the keyboard. I did most of my writing as a yacht captain, roofer, and bookseller. I also got in the habit of driving with the radio off, in silence, with just my thoughts. Tune out the distractions and live in the world of your creation. Know your characters, your plot, all the twists, the larger world, before you start writing. And then keep most of that shit to yourself. The reader doesn’t care. Most of what you think is interesting is boring. Your novel is going to be a greatest hits collection, every one of your best ideas packed into a single volume. Hold nothing back. You’ll have more great ideas.

5) Learn to fail. Your first book will not be your best. The elation of completing that first draft is awesome; soak that up; remember it; get addicted to it. Because you’ll want to do this ten or twenty times before you write your best work. We’ll get to the craft stuff in a bit, but for now, just know that you should revise, revise, revise, edit, publish, and then get started on your next book. This was the best thing I ever did: I didn’t waste time promoting my works until they were already selling. I kept writing. So when things did heat up, I had seven or eight works out there. All those works are brand new as long as they stay undiscovered. You aren’t in a rush. Remember the plan.

Learning to fail also includes learning to write like crap and not care. Push through. We all write like crap, some of us by the steaming, fly-buzzing bucketload. The reader will never see it. You’ll revise it to perfection and delete the bad parts. The key is to have something down to work with. So learn to fail. Keep going. Ignore the sales of existing works. Ignore the bad reviews. Keep reading, writing, practicing, and daydreaming.

[…]
6) Plot trumps prose. The thing you absolutely should not do if you want to make a living as a writer is go to school to learn how to write. MFA programs churn out editors and waiters. Sure, you can craft a perfect sentence, but you’ve got nothing to write about, because you’ve been in school your whole life. Readers prefer the clear and concise delivery of an exciting story more than the flowery and sublime delivery of utter ennui. Hell, they’ll even take the horrible delivery of a great story over the absolute perfection of dullness. Some of the bestselling novels of my lifetime have been lampooned for the writing style therein. Granted, if you can do both, please do. But first learn to craft a story and tell it in the clearest manner possible. That means studying story. Read Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces ($13 for the hardback!). Watch great films and TV shows to see how they pull it off. Read what’s selling and ask yourself why it’s selling.

[…]
9) Write Great Shit. This seems obvious, right? But here is what separates failed works from those that succeed. I think a lot of craft writing advice is outdated. Times are different. Attention spans are shorter. You can coax a reader along, and give them a slow build, but only if you hook them first. So start your story at the most tension-filled moment, even if that’s in the middle or at the end. Introduce a likable, flawed character in the first paragraph. In that same paragraph, name the stakes. It used to be that we had to distill our novel down to an elevator pitch for prospective agents. Now we need to do the same for readers, and your book should open that way.

[…]

10) Find your voice. I put this last because it’s the hardest, will take the longest, but may be the most important thing you ever do as a writer. What the hell is your voice? It’s how you write when you aren’t aware that you’re writing. Everything else you do is mimicry. Self-awareness is the enemy of voice. When you fire off an email to your mom or best friend, you are writing in your voice. When you blog, you will begin to find your voice. Your voice will change the more you read and the more you write. That’s normal. It’s still your voice.

Why is voice important? Not because it will land you an agent. Or because your works will win literary awards. No, screw that. Your voice is important because you can’t enter a flow state without it. When you find your voice, your fingers won’t be able to keep up with your writing. You won’t stumble. You won’t flail. You won’t sit there wondering what the next best word is. You’ll have an idea or a concept, a visual image, a conversation that you want to convey, and you’ll know immediately how to convey it.

Your voice will get easier to find the broader your vocabulary becomes. You’ll have more pieces to slot into the jigsaw puzzle of your prose. Your voice will improve as you study your own writing to see what works and what doesn’t. My voice is sing-song. I fell in love with Shakespeare’s sonnets and read so much iambic pentameter that I can’t help but have my syllabic stresses rise and fall to a beat. I like the way it feels. It feels like me. I also discovered that I love run-on sentences, with lots of comma clauses, but only if I intersperse those sentences with a bunch of choppy, short, incomplete clauses. My mother pointed this out to me. She was right. Nailed it. And I learned to embrace this.

Getting comfortable with your voice means becoming less self-conscious about your writing. When this happens, you can tell the story in your mind without getting in your own way. Stop reading what you’re writing as you write it. See the world in your head. Visualize it. Smell it. Hear it. Sprinkle in details from the periphery of your character’s senses. Make the world real. Then just tell it as naturally as you can. I promise this will go better than trying to impress yourself or anyone else. I promise.

There’s plenty I didn’t bother to copy, so go have a look at the whole thing yourself. The only thing I’d add based on my own experience – self-care. Look after yourself. Find out what your limits are and don’t push yourself beyond them. Burning out isn’t fun. Stress sucks. Mental health issues are real issues that you need to be wary of and consider when you’re chaining yourself to the keyboard.

And now, speaking of, this novel isn’t going to edit itself.

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Advice from Ursula Le Guin

I came across this post at openculture and thought I might share it here with you all. There’s more at the link (and more at a links at the link), but here are the three bits that grabbed me the most:

  • The problem of exposition:

Most of us, Le Guin writes, “Are telling ourselves backstory and other information, which the reader won’t actually need to know when reading it.”

To avoid the “Expository Lump or the Infodump,” as she calls it, Le Guin advises the writer to “decide—or find out when revising—whether the information is actually necessary. If not, don’t bother. If so, figure out how to work it in as a functional, forward-moving element of the story… giving information indirectly, by hint and suggestion.”

 

  • The problem of description:

It’s not just facial features—a way of moving, a voice quality, can ’embody’ a character. Specific features or mannerisms (even absurdly specific ones!) can help fix a minor character in the reader’s mind when they turn up again…. To work on this skill, you might try describing people you see on the bus or in the coffee shop: just do a sentence about them in your head, trying to catch their looks in a few words.

  • The problem of dialogue:

All I can recommend is to read/speak your dialogue aloud. Not whispering, not muttering, OUT LOUD. (Virginia Woolf used to try out her dialogue in the bathtub, which greatly entertained the cook downstairs.) This will help show you what’s fakey, hokey, bookish — it just won’t read right out loud. Fix it till it does. Speaking it may help you to vary the speech mannerisms to suit the character. And probably will cause you to cut a lot. Good! Many contemporary novels are so dialogue-heavy they seem all quotation marks — disembodied voices yaddering on in a void.

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