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.

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.

Character As Plot

This is some fantastic advice from Charlie Jane Anders on how to build a character-focused story in a way that also helps you to build a plot with a lot of forward momentum.

In the 11 ‘ways’ she outlines, I see some things I manage to do in my writing, some things I really need to work on, and some stuff that never occurred to me before. Needless to say, I highly recommend following Charlie Jane on your social media platform of choice, as she is full of wisdom.

HP Lovecraft’s Writing Advice

He was a creepy-looking racist, sure, but you can’t pretend that HP Lovecraft hasn’t had a huge influence on weird fiction and horror in all it’s permutations.

Courtesy of Julian Simpson’s excellent INFODUMP newsletter, I came across these ‘Notes on Writing Weird Fiction‘, which I found quite interesting.

The reason why time plays a great part in so many of my tales is that this element looms up in my mind as the most profoundly dramatic and grimly terrible thing in the universe. Conflict with time seems to me the most potent and fruitful theme in all human expression.

He also suggests first writing an outline in chronological order, and then in narrative order, which is a writing tip I’ve never come across before, but sounds like it could be an interesting way to think about your plot, the revelations therein, and how you might wish to reveal everything.

So, check it out, it’s relatively short, and you might pick up something useful.

Ideas – Where? How?

I’m dating another writer, which is a new experience. It means they get it, they understand the weird compulsion to write, they know how much a rejection hurts, they understand the way we have to steal from real-life, and that we sometimes put our craziest, least-attractive selves on the page.

It also means you get to see the way another writer works up close, it means you can try and find out what makes them tick… It also means you can share in (and be jealous of) each others’ successes. My partner is having an absolutely killer year, but she still gets jealous of my unpublished arse because of the way I generate story ideas constantly. A couple of times, late at night, I’ve woken her with the bright light of my phone screen, tapping a story idea into an email to myself for later.

So, I thought I’d try and write down a few thoughts, things that I actively do that might help others maintain their own constant flow of ideas.

  1. Steal from everywhere. There’s some famous quote about artists stealing that I can’t be bothered looking up right now, but yes, STEAL. Steal from headlines, steal from overheard conversations, steal from real life, steal from fiction. Obviously, you’re only stealing tiny little bits and pieces and then weaving those into something bigger, but what this is going to help you do is hone your observational skills, and also your deep-reading skills.
    What is it about the way that person speaks that catches your attention?
    How do people use body language?
    How do other writers describe things? For instance, Lauren Beukes’ description of healed burn scars in Zoo City is perfect, and now that I’ve read it I couldn’t think of any other way to describe that kind of scarring.
    What is it about a turn of phrase that makes it hook into your head/heart?
    You’re not stealing for the sake of stealing, you’re stealing for the sake of learning.
  2. Related to the above – be wary of what you consume. If you’re going to get ideas, steal ideas, and be inspired by what you consume, then think about what you’re consuming. For example, for me personally, books and comics can get right into my head and start setting fires (in a good way). So can long-form articles and email newsletters. But movies? TV shows? Video games? They might generate some reference points (for instance, using Primer-style time travel in a TT story), but for me they don’t generate ideas.
  3. Keep ALL your ideas somewhere, even if they seem stupid or pointless, or if it seems like you’ll never be able to do anything about it.
    Warren Ellis has always talked about his ‘Loose Ideas folder’, but it wasn’t until I got serious about writing fiction that I actually found the idea useful. Prior to that I’d have an idea and I’d write it, and that was that. Nowadays I have heaps of ideas, and some of them don’t work now, some of them don’t quite get my brain’s attention now, some of them aren’t quite a story on their own, but I put them aside anyway. My doc is called ‘Orphans’ (it seemed to work, and then I realised there was a Tom Waits connection, so that made me happy), and a whole lot of half-formed/malformed things go in there. This year I’ve lost track of how many times one of those ideas has combined with other ideas to form a story, or one of those ideas has been able to neatly slot into something else I was working on – and often in unexpected ways.
    And just last week on twitter I saw that Kelly Sue Deconnick calls her loose ideas folder ‘the Morgue’. So make one, give it a cool name, and USE IT. And remember to go over it once a month or so. Delete or cross out ideas you’ve incorporated, and just freshen up on what’s still there.
  4. This is some ancient wisdom, but I’m going to reiterate it because it, y’know, works. Always keep something in, or right beside, your bed that you can write ideas down in. No, you won’t remember it in the morning. Best case scenario you’ll remember you forgot something, and that’s just irritating.
    I find sending myself an email from my phone is the best way – I don’t have to turn on a light, and if I would have otherwise forgotten that I even had the idea, I’ll get reminded in the morning when I check my emails (particularly important for ideas related to projects you’re currently working on, when the sooner you can incorporate that idea into your thinking the better).

That’s it for now. But think of generating ideas as a type of mental exercise – the more you work on it, the better you’re going to get.

World-building

World-building should never be done inside your book. This is another of Corey’s writing rules. Note: Corey’s first writing rule is you can (and should) break every writing rule if a) you’re good enough to pull it off, b) do it well enough to get away with it, and/or c) break it in a way that hasn’t been done before.

So, that’s why I like this world-building system. A quick and dirty, index-card based system for generating just the most important facets of your world. Once you’ve come up with them, they might find their way into your story organically, or they might not, but anything is better than paragraphs or pages, or even chapters, full of expository world-building that you couldn’t bring yourself to cut because it shows just how damn inventive you are.

Second Person

As a general rule, you should never write a story using second-person perspective. And like all writing rules, you can and should break it at least once. If a story’s good enough, you’ll get away with it, if it isn’t, try again some other time.

Anyway, lately I’ve come across some examples where it works.

  • Liminal Grid, by Jaymee Goh, recently published at Strange Horizons.

One of the interesting things about the story (which is sort of a post-civilisation Mr. Robot, if I’m to be reductive), is the way it forces you to take on the role of the character in the story, and embeds you into their conversations without explaining the local colloquialisms or bits of non-English because obviously the ‘you’ of the story understands all that. Which I think is perhaps one of the strengths in second-person in general – it can force you to sympathise with a character, even if they are intrinsically other. But what if you went the other way? Imagine a second-person story where “you” keeps doing horrendous things and the narrator is trying to figure out why…

Excerpt:

Because you live there, in that condemned building, you know that the plants in the buildings are carefully planted into a low-maintenance, edible garden. What looks like lalang is actually serai. The branches of the trees hang with fruit that feed the local fauna on the outside, but inside, they are covered with discarded CDs to confuse the birds. There are window boxes on the inside growing leafy vegetables, and chickens are allowed to run free to keep down pests. The courtyard used to have a pool—it still sort of does, but it is home to a crop of water-plants.

  • There’s also Ted Chiang’s Story of You, which I’ve only had a chance to glance at so far, but which sounds fucking fascinating (and is to be a film by the incredible Denis Villeneuve). It’s actually a hybrid between first person and second, almost a conversation between ‘I’ and ‘You’.

 

Excerpt:

The whites of your eyes are yellow, a consequence of spiking bilirubin levels in your blood. The virus afflicting you is called hepatitis E. Its typical mode of transmission is fecal-oral. Yum. It kills only about one in fifty, so you’re likely to recover. But right now you feel like you’re going to die.

Your mother has encountered this condition many times, or conditions like it anyway. So maybe she doesn’t think you’re going to die. Then again, maybe she does. Maybe she fears it. Everyone is going to die, and when a mother like yours sees in a third-born child like you the pain that makes you whimper under her cot the way you do, maybe she feels your death push forward a few decades, take off its dark, dusty headscarf, and settle with open-haired familiarity and a lascivious smile into this, the single mud-walled room she shares with all of her surviving offspring.

What she says is, “Don’t leave us here.”

Passivity

Some more little bits of writing advice I’ve come across here and there, posted for my reference, as much as yours.

T. Gene Davis offers advice, as well as publishing family-friendly genre fiction from themselves and others, on their blog. In this post here, they detail ways to put your submissions above the competition, and 2 of the 3 are interesting and practical suggestions – avoid using narrative summaries, and avoid those evil, dastardly passive sentences (which they expand on here).

And speaking of passive sentences, if you already know they’re bad, but struggle with locating them in your work, this post here could help you out.