Serious Writers

A lot of people offer the advice that writers need to write every day. And a lot of people call bullshit on that notion, for a variety of reasons. If you want to know what my biggest pieces of advice are for aspiring writers:

  • Live as cheaply as possible.
  • Work as little as possible.
  • Put the time you saved into writing.

This is what worked for me. It was around two and a half years from the time I decided “I am going to take writing seriously”, cut my work hours back to part-time, and started putting the hours in, to when I signed the book deal for Killing Gravity. Two and a half years. That’s nothing. At the time, it felt like an eternity of constant writing and endless story rejections, but in the grand scheme of things, it is no time at all.

Now, if I wanted to take the above advice and distill it down even further, I would say this:

  • Consciously decide to take your writing seriously.

That’s it. That’s the one piece of advice that works for everyone, because it is different for everyone. I’m not saying “write every day”, I’m saying, make a conscious decision that this is what you want to do with your life and find a way to make it happen. For me that means writing six days a week (and, honestly, Sunday I’m still working on the newsletter and other stuff), but for you it can just mean carving out a few hours a week to dedicate to writing.

I have no kids, and no mortgage, so I can live very cheaply, and I can get away with only working 20ish hours a week (yes, I still work a day job). I also don’t go out much, and I rarely spend money on anything that isn’t a necessity or books (so, just the necessities). This is the life I chose for myself. If you have chosen a different life for yourself, then you will need to figure out your own solution. Only you can know what becoming serious means for you. But I will say this – the most important thing is making that decision. Until you do that, you’ll feel lost. Trust me, I know.

People always say “I want to write…”, “I just can’t find the time to write…”, “I’ve got this idea for a book…”, or whatever, but until you make the decision, it’s only ever going to be this nebulous maybe for a nebulous future that, frankly, you’re never going to reach. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but it’s true. Nobody accidentally stumbles into a successful creative career. (Ok, that one person did, but they’re a once-in-a-generation talent who makes everything they do look effortless, and we hate them.) If you’re not going to take it seriously, then give up. I did this too, and experienced the worst depressive episode of my life. But this was at least instructive. I learned that if I don’t write, I don’t enjoy life. Now if I ever feel like quitting for whatever temporary depressed reason, I can look back at that time and know that I need to press on.

Did I just get real? I think I got real.

So, make that decision, and dedicate what time you can to your craft. I’m not saying you’ll get published, but I’m saying you’ll write, your writing will improve, and that little voice in the back of your head that nags you for not writing will finally, mercifully, shut up. (There will be a whole new host of voices, but I’ll talk about them at some other time.)

Also, tangent: the other non-negotiable thing that writers do (apart from take it seriously), is read. If you come up to me and want to talk about writing and you don’t read, the conversation is over.

Writing is a conversation. It’s a conversation between the voices in your head, it’s a conversation between you and the reader, and it’s a conversation between your work and the stories and authors that inspired it (and if you’re lucky, it’s a conversation between your work and the stories and authors it will inspire). If you’re not reading, then you’re the arsehole at the party who loudly talks over everyone else without listening. Don’t be that arsehole.

If you think you don’t have time, listen to audiobooks on your commute, or at your job. Read novellas – they’re short enough that you can read one in a day. If you want to write short stories, read short stories. If you want to write comics, read comics. Pay attention to what works, and try and figure out why.

Anyway. When I first came here to write this, I was planning on referring to this post that I came across thanks to Ryan K. Lindsay. Go read it, there’s plenty of interesting stuff there.

Turkey City Lexicon

It’s been a while since I did a writing advice post, and I just came across this post via Cat Rambo’s twitter feed. The Turkey City Lexicon is a collection of terms that help define some common pitfalls in science fiction, as seen and defined by a number of SF voices, including some of those who were integral to the creation of the cyberpunk subgenre.

Sadly, most (if not all) of these pitfalls are still common in SF today, so it’s worth reading to see where you might be able to tighten up your prose.

And just to prove I have some ability for self-criticism, here are some I know slip into my work (hopefully most of it is stamped out before publication, but maybe not:

“Burly Detective” Syndrome
This useful term is taken from SF’s cousin-genre, the detective-pulp. The hack writers of the Mike Shayne series showed an odd reluctance to use Shayne’s proper name, preferring such euphemisms as “the burly detective” or “the red-headed sleuth.” This syndrome arises from a wrong-headed conviction that the same word should not be used twice in close succession. This is only true of particularly strong and visible words, such as “vertiginous.” Better to re-use a simple tag or phrase than to contrive cumbersome methods of avoiding it.

Not Simultaneous
The mis-use of the present participle is a common structural sentence-fault for beginning writers. “Putting his key in the door, he leapt up the stairs and got his revolver out of the bureau.” Alas, our hero couldn’t do this even if his arms were forty feet long. This fault shades into “Ing Disease,” the tendency to pepper sentences with words ending in “-ing,” a grammatical construction which tends to confuse the proper sequence of events. (Attr. Damon Knight)

“Said” Bookism
An artificial verb used to avoid the word “said.” “Said” is one of the few invisible words in the English language and is almost impossible to overuse. It is much less distracting than “he retorted,” “she inquired,” “he ejaculated,” and other oddities. The term “said-book” comes from certain pamphlets, containing hundreds of purple-prose synonyms for the word “said,” which were sold to aspiring authors from tiny ads in American magazines of the pre-WWII era.

Tom Swifty
An unseemly compulsion to follow the word “said” with a colorful adverb, as in “‘We’d better hurry,’ Tom said swiftly.” This was a standard mannerism of the old Tom Swift adventure dime-novels. Good dialogue can stand on its own without a clutter of adverbial props.

Check out the full list here, along with introductions from both Lewis Shiner and Bruce Sterling.

Killing the Blank Page

As if proving what I said in my last post, Warren Ellis offered this piece of writing advice in his latest newsletter:

The only screenwriting “trick” I have is a tip picked up from John Rogers, who you probably know best from having co-devised and produced the show LEVERAGE. He builds every stage of the story from the one before.  Rewrites the beat outline into the treatment.  Rewrites the treatment into the screenplay.  Just pastes it in and starts working with it. This particular job is the next stage of a treatment I wrote earlier in the year.  It’s 5000 words long, twelve pages.  The pleasure of this approach is that, after the roughest of outlines, you’re never working with a blank page.  Just expanding and adapting (and fixing!) what you’ve already done.

I make notes at the top of every story document.  Usually just two things.  What’s it about, and what does each character want?  It’s simple and simplistic, and doesn’t contain the entirety of the work in any way, but in a rigorously structured thing, it can help me keep on track.

 

From the latest Orbital Operations.

He’s talking specifically about screenwriting here, but it’ll work for prose too. If you’re the kind of writer who plans, split that outline up into (possible) chapters, and either space them out in your Word doc, or paste them into a separate Scrivener page (?) and build from there.

Another trick I use, is to put points I want to reach, or currently-disconnected thoughts in [square brackets], and write to them, deleting the bracketed thought once it’s been implemented into the manuscript. I prefer square brackets because they’re not generally used in prose (whereas regular brackets can be used for asides), which makes them stand out more as you’re scrolling through a document, and makes it easy for you to Search for these thought/idea seeds.

Personally the blank page isn’t much of a block for me, but I know it can stall a lot of writers when they’re starting a new project, so these couple of tricks can help to dirty that page up and give you an excuse to just start, get that first draft down, and worry about improving it later.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.