Writing advice

Yeah, I’m back on this.  But it’s important.

So, when I tell people I’ve published a book I get some very odd questions, but one that comes up often is “so how did that happen?”

How does one answer that?  I usually go with “I went through most of a pack of paper and several ink cartridges.”

Thing is, that is how it happens.  I know a lot of writers, but I don’t know many authors.  The difference?  The former have ideas, and they write … a lot … but they never finish anything, or never put it out there when they’re done.

Some don’t want to publish, they write for their own pleasure.  This is well and good.  Just as there are plenty of people, some of them brilliantly talented, who paint or draw just for the pleasure of it and others who sell their work so the same should be with any art or craft; writing is no exception.

For the rest, just get to work.

Now, some myths:

You must write every day, no exceptions and no excuses!

Bullshit.  This is so very much not true.  This seems to be more prominent among Americans.  For those in other countries, America is a barbarism where paid sick leave (or even unpaid!) isn’t always available and rather than rise up in revolution against it we developed “the American work ethic” and it’s as perverse as it sounds.

No, art suffers if you do it when you’re not up to it.  Now, you must be self aware enough to know the difference between “I’m just not feeling it today” and “I really don’t want to write this scene”.  The former is fine.  There is no point spending an hour staring at the paper writing nothing, or in writing for an hour a few thousand words that you’ll throw away tomorrow.  The latter … get it over with and move on.

There’s no such thing as writer’s block; it’s all in your mind!

Mmmm … yes and no.  There can be a number of things that are preventing you from moving forward in your story.  Maybe it turns out you need to backtrack and rewrite something, but until you discover that you’re stuck and you can’t move on.  Maybe your dog died and you just can’t concentrate.  Maybe you’re a chronic depressive and you’re having a low day, week, month, year … and you can’t seem to write anything or write anything you want to keep.

Writer’s block is no superstitious concept.  It’s a simple lack of inspiration.  It can have a billion and one causes and reasons, and it can have two billion and five solutions.

Find your solutions, but don’t let anyone tell you that all you have to do is plant your arse in the chair and write (unless, you know, that actually works for you).

You should write like … / Never use …

Just … no.  No, definitely not.  Proof?  Look at the criticisms of any wildly popular work.  I mean the stuff that lasts, like Harry PotterThe HobbitAlice in Wonderland, and so many many more.  They break rules, some break every modern rule.  Bill Shakespeare broke the rules, his contemporaries did not; who do we remember?  Ms Rowling was writing in a “dead genre”, among other “writing faux pas”; who is the best selling author of all time (no Bible comments, please)?

Don’t take thou shalt and thou shalt not from any author, even the most successful ones.  First off, Stephen King said to avoid adverbs, not to never use them; he uses them.  Thing is, it makes a kind of sense for the pacing and tone of his books, but that’d be horrid advice for Lawrence Block to follow.

I mean “thou shalt write thine own damned book” and “thou shalt finish what thou starts” and “once it’s bloody finished, bloody publish it” and so forth, those are fine.  “Thou shalt find thine own voice/style”, etc. this is good.  Absolutes suck, but “absolutes” are good reminders that we’re creating art.  We’re not building and designing nuclear reactors here, there is no precise science to follow; this is art, it’s all about imperfections, experimentation, creativity, and doing whatever.  Well, unless you’re trying to put out a cheap dime pulp in a hurry that’s deliberately formulaic and such … but that’s a complete other kettle of popcorn.

You must do X, Y, Z before you can write your novel / [blah blah blah] pay your dues …

I don’t know where to begin with this one.  It’s just not true on many levels.

  1. Some people just don’t write short fiction
  2. The “examples” usually given weren’t people following a deliberate career path, they were coincidences (and if you’ll notice it’s generally the same list of specific, mostly, old scifi authors.) and leaves out the numerous examples of people who are just as famous or more-so who didn’t go this route.
  3. There’s not really a short fiction market anymore.  Well, self-published, but not a “professional” short market.
  4. That “gotta write a million words” or whatever it was, wasn’t meant to be literal gospel truth and it certainly wasn’t thinking just write a million words of pure drivel.  You must always be aiming for quality and somewhere in there will be mistakes and pitfalls from which we learn and grow.  Read all of Sir Terry Pratchett‘s work from earliest to final (moment of sadness) and you’ll see it.  Heinlein, Asimov, Dickens … you see it if you look at someone with a long enough career.  Some start to lose their touch and so the opposite can become true as well.

In simple, and as always, to be blunt:  go ye forth and write, finish what you write (unless it really is garbage, but get at least a second if not twenty-fifth opinion on that subject before genuinely trashing it), find a means to get it to the world.  That’s the only sure-fire formula for success.  Everything else is superstition.

What’s so great about Hemmingway?

Ed Greenwood

Ed Greenwood (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not just Hemmingway, but Jane Austin, Steinbeck, Stephen King

I’m not saying they’re awful, though I can’t stand three sentences in a row by a single one of them. I simply ask why are they sainted in the annals of recent fiction and literature? Certainly why do so many blogs and forums dispensing cheap writing advice swear by them as such deities of the written word?

Why is not the advice to first ask who the person likes to read the best and say, “Read that carefully and think about the things the author does that you do and don’t like. After, try to borrow and unashamedly steal those techniques you love and consider how you might do differently those which you loathed.”

How boring would the world be if all writers were determined to be the next of only a small pool of very similar writers?! (Rather dry ones, in my opinion) Would the world read even less than already it tends to do?

I do believe some works do deserve their deification. The Discworld series by Pratchett is undeniably brilliant and holds the attentions and imaginations of scholars and huddled masses alike; The Hobbit, Alice in Wonderland, and Wizard of Oz too are inarguably timeless classics, along with the adventures of our good bear who “lives under the name ‘Sanders’.”

Still I would not presume to tell anyone they ought to write more like Tolkien, Milne, or Carroll. For one they’re ill suited to a suspense-horror.

I suppose it’s the idea that King is a famous best selling author so must know something … please note, so is Seanan McGuire, J K Rowling, and Stephanie Meyer. Rowling, outsold and outsells the others in that list combined, yet you’re supposed to not write like her … so I’ve no idea how King is a god.

The others are all classified Literary Fiction, which is somehow superior to all other sorts (Literature majors who try to write the stuff say so, and they’re experts and should know, right?) despite being that dry boring stuff we’re made to read in Literature classes which probably turned rather a lot of people off reading altogether.

To each her own personal gods of the pen, be it Mercedes Lackey or Lawrence Block, Ed Greenwood or Danielle Steel, Dean Koontz or Louisa Mae Alcott … when you write study the master who you so loved you wanted to write, carry on that writer’s legacy. The acclaimed saints of writing need no undue worship unless you happen to favour their styles.

P.S. Is it me, or is the list of people you’re supposed to strive to write like nearly always Americans, primarily from around the Depression?  Never minding the rather selective era, but … why are we excluding other English speaking authors … or non-English (they don’t say English or American lit, just lit — I’m fair certain a Frenchman would have something to say about the superiority of, say, Voltaire to any six Americans you care to pick.

Writer’s can’t take time off

Greatest Hits (Billy Joel albums)

Greatest Hits (Billy Joel albums) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s another National Novel Writer even this month and while I’ve ceased having anything to do with them I still haven’t got around to blocking/unsubscribing from the periodic emails, and I’ve friends who still do it and still peruse the forums.

There is this pervasive notion among those who give writing advice that boggles my mind so thoroughly it deserves a second post … I’m not sure I’m up to providing a link to my first tackling of this subject.

What topic? This idea you have to write. You can’t take time off for family, for holidays, for illness, for simple lack of inspiration. To this I say “bullshit“, emphatically and unshakingly bullshit.

Now the argument is that, if you find one reason to not write you’ll find other and fall into a vicious cycle of unwriting.

Lawrence Block says:

“If you want to write fiction, the best thing you can do is take two aspirins, lie down in a dark room, and wait for the feeling to pass.
If it persists, you probably ought to write a novel.”

Excerpt From: Block, Lawrence. “Writing the Novel.” Open Road Integrated Media, 2010-06-15. iBooks.
This material may be protected by copyright.

Check out this book on the iBooks Store: https://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewBook?id=411349843

If you have a story you want to write, you’ll write it. If it is such a chore that you can talk yourself out of it, then you may wish to ask yourself what is your real reason to do this and if it’s worth it.

Me? I just spent a week in hospital. I’m fine, but in pain – major surgery is unpleasant that way; I’m on narcotic pain relief, suffice to say I’m not writing. Besides, I can’t pick up my writing back without popping my stitches so I can’t write if I weren’t vaguely out of it.

My point is, I still want to see the end of Now & Forever, so the day I can pick that bag up and complete a rational though at one and the same time I’ll be right back to writing, and probably better at it as the surgery fixed a painful problem that is not an open topic for discussion (not embarrassing or tragic, just personal and private).

Artists need not bleed for their work. Certainly they should not buy the razor blades, bare their wrists, and make all the cuts themselves. Our art should be part of us, it should be something we can’t not do. Art is also life, we cannot make good art if we do not live. Take musicians who take their music so seriously they burn out after a half dozen albums because they are never not touring or recording, now think of Buffett or Billy Joel with their decades long careers, upwards of hundred albums, and no burn out: they remembered to live. They took time off for love, divorce, children, getting shot at by Jamaican police, philanthropy, etc.

It’s true for all of us. Take a day off to climb a mountain, take a two week honeymoon in the Italian Riviera, relax and recover when you find yourself stapled shut after a visit to the ER, take a nap in a hammock on a warm sunny spring day … it’s okay, your book will still be there when you get back.

To those who say I should have written while in hospital and should be while recovering, I repeat: bullshit.

Chekhov’s gun

Anyone who’s ever come across writing advice has probably found various things referring to 3 or 5 act structure, and something that sounds like a reference to a Star Trek character’s firearms.

This is a curious phenomena that truly boggles me.  Those elements have to do with playwriting and not with narrative, yet they’re rather vocally advocated by fiction writers.  I’ll grant, JMS’s love of Chekhov’s Gun is excusable — he is, after all, a script writer for TV and film.  But why should a novelist care if Chekhov has a gun, a sword, or a herring?

Personally, I don’t think we ought to.

For anyone not familiar with it, I shall enlighten you:  There’re various versions of the quote from various sources, but our good Sir Chekhov essentially says “If there’s a gun in the first act/chapter by the second or third it should be fired, else it shouldn’t be there.”

I can, honestly, understand this for script writing, so long as it’s used sensibly.  Prop department puts a gun, fishing pole, tuna fish, or moose head over a mantle it doesn’t have to be anything but scenery.  The thing is, though, if some importance is placed upon this thing over the mantle (such as a dramatic, momentary zoom of the camera to it) or some scene of minor characters doing something mysterious and secretive with it before scurrying off stage left while the protagonists enter stage right … oh, sure, to do nothing with the gun after this is going to confuse and probably annoy the viewer.  In writing, though we have far more freedom.

The study was quiet, lit only by the fire crackling in the hearth casting dancing shadows over everything.  Jack sat in the well-worn plush chair by the warm fire and looked around the room hardly seeing the thick bearskin rug, or his grandfather’s ancient rifle resting below the large oil painting of the man.  He took a sip of the bourbon and tried to work up the nerve for what he knew he must do.

Sighing heavily he slipped the small vial of deadly poison from his coat pocket and walked over to the cabinet with its beautiful crystal decanters.  He hated to do this to such a fine, well aged cognac, but the man had to be stopped.  He upended the vial into the cognac and placed it back in the cabinet.  Knowing his father’s habits, in a few hours Lord Percival deWinter would be dead, and by his only son’s own hand.

In that, the gun isn’t important.  Its presence is neither foreshadowing, nor pertinent, or is it?  It’s scenery, clearly, nothing more than a prop.  But it sets a tone, sets an expectation.  It tells something of Jack deWinter’s family, his grandfather, apparently, hunted or perhaps was fond of antique weapons.  Given its juxtaposition to a bearskin rug we can safely guess hunting.  Was Grandfather deWinter a good man or evil?  Clearly either his son or his grandson is, depending on why it is that Jack felt such an urgent need to poison his father with no more remorse than the ruination of a fine spirit.

In narrative there is this notion that one must adhere to various rules of structure.  That items should only be referenced which are going to prove critical or useful later, or that are symbolic of something.  That the flow and pacing of the story should fit a specific pattern (3 or 5 act, again or perhaps The Hero’s Journey).  I think not.

Poetry, of course, has structure.  By definition, a poem must — else it isn’t a poem, it’s just words placed on a paper in odd fashion.  Meter, scansion, rhyme and rhythm all or some must be present.  A poem is its structure.  Hence, once upon a time, prose was a wretched thing, only any good for the uneducated masses and not worthy of attention by those more learned and intelligent.  Let the peasants have their prose.

Prose, however, opened doors and those doors were flung wide and unignorable by things such as Don Quixote, or Les Trois Mousquetaires.  Others, too, I’m more than certain, but give me a break — my tastes lean to the ancient Greek and then skip to Lewis Carroll.  A few in between exceptions exist, but emphasis on ‘a few’.  We threw off the bonds of poetry, and could tell any story almost any way that suited us.  And with that came the chance to prove to the naysayers that prose could be intellectual, brilliant, and all that other stuff too.

Of course we’re still confined to the rules of grammar, and some conventions of grammar exist almost exclusively for the purpose of writing narrative, but that’s as it should be — one must still be able to convey one’s ideas to the audience in a meaningful way.  But now we’re free in the telling.

In this freedom we have the following facts:  Our audience is not captive.  Unlike a script we don’t have to hurry.  We can take the time to smell roses, and contemplate bees.  If the reader needs to pee, they can take the book with them or simply put it down.  Our audience can put us down.  We can tell a story that takes 57 hours to enjoy — that’s fine.  The audience may put us down at the end of this chapter and go to sleep and pick us up where she left off.  We may be enjoyed in the park, in the sun, in candlelight, in the bath, in bed, in the car, on a plane or train, we can be enjoyed with a fox, we can be enjoyed in a box (I couldn’t resist, sorry).  We need not make a fuss.

Now, there’s limits.  A reader has his patience.  Either Lawrence Block or Terry Pratchett said (I’m sorry — I can’t recall, and searching for the quote got me sites giving resumé advice) “The purpose of page one is to get you to read page two.”  Pacing is important, but pacing isn’t the alpha and omega of keeping a reader’s attention.  Keeping their interest does too.

John woke at exactly 0700 and stood, stretching.  He padded thirty-two steps to his closet where he pulled out a dark blue navy suit, and a ivory coloured pressed and starched dress shirt.  He decided on a narrow, midnight blue tie …

Pretty dull, awful lot of detail and most of it pretty unimportant in that it isn’t interesting.  Thing is, context is important.  If it’s just that excerpt, then it’s just a bad bit of narrative.  You could trim lots of it out because it’s the kind of not important that bogs things down.  On the other hand, perhaps this is very important as it could be part of something illustrating what a monumentally dull person this is.  In that instant this boggy, mind-numbing bit of narrative could be fairly attention holding.

I also criticise other bits of fiction structure Gospel — act structure and Hero’s Journey, and others I can’t think the names of right now.  I’m not saying a story shouldnt/can’t have these.  It just shouldn’t be the intent.  Hero’s Journey being a grey area — though, I’m sure you could just as easily write a Quest story that accidently follows the Hero’s Journey as doing so on purpose.  If a story, after the fact, plots out to some named structure (and odds are pretty good it will to some degree) that’s all well and good, but why constrain yourself to this from the beginning?

To those who need it or can do it and well, that’s fine too.  We all have to tell our own stories our own ways.  I’m just referring to the plethora of advice that says Must.  As if there is some rule to writing besides the rules of spelling, punctuation, and grammar — all of which might be violated in a pinch to tell the story better (e.g. Mark Twain’s fondness for writing in vernacular).

My writing advice?  My contribution to this great big mess of How to Tell a Story and What Makes Fiction or whatever?  Write.  Tell your story. That’s all.  Let the rest take care of itself.  It generally will.

If you’re such a rigidly organised person you can’t write without a solid framework to build upon then yes, look into concepts like the act structure or the various other Formulae of Fiction; maybe in the educational journey of writing you’ll start to morph and modify that framework to fit your own needs.  For the rest of us … tell your story, end done full stop.

Publishing, agents, and my thoughts

To be frank, I think self and indie publishing have a bad rep.  I know that, part of it, is deserved; far too many people out there who went to a vanity press like Lulu without any actual work except pressing buttons on a keyboard until there were thousands of vaguely English (or French, Italian, Japanese, or whatever) words spread across a few hundred pages.  Sad thing is, there’re books out by major publishers that are hardly better, really.

The sad reality is that, while self-published and indie press are gaining momentum and a foothold, while they are being given respectful nods from the likes SFWA president John Scalzi (well, he’s given up the post to someone else, but he hasn’t taken charge yet, that I know of — I’m not a member and doubt I ever will be, so I don’t watch closely), but by the same token no matter how many copies you sell a self-published title and some indie press titles don’t qualify for membership.

The reality ought to be that putting it out yourself with today’s POD and digital options what they are, that a self or indie published title gets the same respect as any other.  If it’s good, it’s good, if it’s bad it’s bad.  This isn’t the case.  A book that sells less than 2000 copies, but through Tor, might get a movie deal.  An indie or self press that sells that many can forget it, unless you know someone.  A book on the NY Times bestsellers list, might get a deal (self or indie, I mean), but they still might not.  Another sad fact.  Apple is the only electronic distribution channel that allows everyone to arrange for pre-orders.  Can’t do that through Amazon’s KDP or CreateSpace, nor Kobo or Nook or … anyone, let’s not be silly here, I mean you’re not a serious author or publisher or whatever!  You’re just a cute child making a four page picture book with crayons and running to Mother.

Until this perception completely changes, for some authors, self publishing really shouldn’t be the way to go.  An agent, a big publisher, years of waiting to see your book … that’s the only way.  Oh, sure, you can say “It’s more important people see it, than anything else, so I’m selfing it.”  Bully for you.  The point is, you’ll have to be a mix of lucky and prolific to make and maintain a living.  If writing is a hobby you’re quite good at, this is fine, but if you wish it to be what you write on census forms as your job, then probably not so much.

Now this isn’t to vilify the traditional publishing methods.  Some agents are very nice people, some publishers apparently try quite hard to do their job well.

The fact remains, some genres and types of books you pretty much can’t self-publish … the market doesn’t really exist yet.  The would-be professionals should stick with agents and traditional methods, while the quality hobbyists pave the way, and of course you could elect to write something to help in this, by all means.  Want to do middle grade reader books?  Want to be in the Scholastic Book Fair?  Yeah, and look around, there’s a reason that Goosebumps and Fear Street, Baby Sitters Club and Sweet Valley are still fairly common at certain age ranges.

In other cases it’s nothing so dire.  Erotica or Romance?  DIY or take an agent, the question is just how fast do you want to make those sales, and do you want an advance?  SF?  Don’t bother, in my opinion, with traditional model.  If it isn’t Military SF and NEW Space Opera (which in my opinion isn’t Space Opera) you won’t sell it to the big boys, and even if you write the stuff they want the typical rates are just insulting, you may as well go DIY for all the difference it’ll make, unless you really need a bit of lump sum cash to make a downpayment on a car, or some such.  Westerns?  If your name isn’t Louis L’Amour you’re probably better off self publishing … or possibly not depending how you look at it — Westerns are pretty close to dead, so possibly that Advance, if you can get one, will be the only pennies you see for the book.  Mysteries?  I couldn’t say, if it isn’t the Bernie Rhodenbarr books by Lawrence Block I haven’t really read it, well … the first half dozen Sneakie Pie and Rita Mae Brown books, too.

Research.  All I can say is research, and when in doubt try to get your questions straight, straight forward, and clear and then find a good, helpful person in the industry to ask them of.  An agent, perhaps, or an editor.  Don’t ask them about your work, ask them about the details in general.  Ask them for the numbers, for the fact, for the stats.  Ask them for what one might expect.  Then think, soul search.  Are you writing for money?  Possibly you want to go major publisher, unless you know you’ll be prolific — self-published work doesn’t necessarily sell many copies, but a few copies over several books adds up well, but a few books with an advance might be a nice lump sum you can invest.  Writing an obscure thing?  Is there actually a major publisher out there who’ll touch it?  Might just as well do it yourself.  In the end it’s up to you, what do you want out of your writing, how do you want people to find it, and so on.

I still feel that I’d rather self-publish most thing, but Now & Forever, for example, I have decided (given a positive response from an agent) to traditionally publish.  It seems a better choice given its genre, but I’ll merrily drop it onto the world myself if they say no, because think it’s a fun, cute story and had fun writing it so I’ll have fun sharing it as well, how and via whom doesn’t matter.

The worst part: this isn’t even a remotely unique story. One can find people giving first hand accounts of their own publishers, or the publishers of friends, etc. pulling such ridiculous nonsense.


This is just too good to keep to myself.

An independent bookseller I know landed a major bestselling author for a rare in-store signing. He got the word out, took advance phone and internet orders for signed copies, and called his sales rep at the publisher to make sure the books would reach him in plenty of time.

“You’ve ordered 450 copies,” the rep told him. “I’m afraid we can only ship you 200.”

Why, for God’s sake? Hadn’t they printed enough?

“No, it’s policy,” he was told. “Two hundred books is our maximum order. We can’t take the chance of huge returns, or credit problems.”

“But the copies are sold,” the store owner said. “I’ve got prepaid orders for them, and I’ll pay in advance myself, and take them from you on a non-returnable basis. There’s no risk, and there won’t be any returns, and that’s 450 copies of…

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