Posts Tagged ‘Writing Advice’

But it isn’t enough to write a story. There has to be a reader for that story, and it can’t be just you.

“A story is a collaboration between teller and audience, writer and reader. Fiction is not only illusion, but collusion….Without a reader there’s no story. No matter how well written, if it isn’t read it doesn’t exist as a story. The reader makes it happen just as much as the writer does.”

Writer, story, reader: it’s an abstract dance that requires all to participate. If you write a story and stuff it into a drawer when you are finished, without letting others read it, you have slapped words on a page that may or may not have recognizable form or recognizable meaning. To be valued, to be a story, to be a work of art, your baby has to be SEEN. That means letting it out of the hermetically sealed bubble at least a little bit. Being read by others is like oxygen for humans: your story needs read to live.

However, you have to write something someone will read or you haven’t done your job. This means making your story interactive. To be successful, your reader must identify with the situation, characters, and emotion in some fashion. Your reader must be able to follow the plot with all of its twists, turns, and arcs. Your reader must desire the entertainment you attempt to provide. You have to make them desire it more than dinner, and make them go after that extra cup of coffee at the breakfast table because they want those precious extra minutes in your world. You have to engage them, transfer your vision to them, and let their imagination fly. You have to make them willing to suspend their disbelief and soak in the magic you have created.

It all comes down to a matter of trust. You have to trust your gift is sufficient to tell a story, and it won’t fail you at an inopportune moment. You have to trust the story enough to even begin writing it, and then allow it to evolve beyond your initial ideas and plans to develop into that masterpiece everyone wants on their shelves. You have to trust your readers to see your vision, to interact with your story and commune with it. You have to trust your gift and the story to show the reader the looking glass, and trust the reader to want to be led to the other side.

It is hard, this trust. It is hard to overcome the fear of failure, of rejection, of harsh critiques. But the rewards of that trust—in your gift, your story, and the reader—the rewards of overcoming that fear of failure, rejection, and harsh critiques, can set you free, can make you soar.

“A Matter of Trust” in The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. Ursula K. Le Guin. Shambhala Publications, Boston, 2004. ISBN: 978-1-59030-006-0 (or 1-59030-006-8)

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Action, high emotion, and those scenes which are being PITAs (pains in the ass) cause me some writer’s block usually because I want them to be perfect. It is also called stage-fright and over-rehearsing, the bane of every performer. I CAN force my right brain on stage at gunpoint, under the lights, and edit the results later. This is shooting six rolls of film to find one or two gem-quality shots.

But most times, I let the right brain slip its leash by closing my eyes and writing the scene as I see it in my head, like I’m watching a movie. This isn’t a new idea, but it DOES work. Blanket the eyes of the panicked horse, and the horse will trust you to lead it from the burning barn. In other words, what you can’t see (the blank page) can no longer scare you.

With my eyes closed, my imagination and fingers have wings. I word-paint what I see in my mind’s eye: broad strokes, tiny details, and splashes of color; all emotion, and what caused the emotion; action, movement, any words that leap clear and stick in my head. I get the essentials, the bones of the scene.

I open my eyes. It might look like ten miles of mud fence, but it’s a million times easier to edit the ugliest prose I have ever written, than to agonize over a blank page full of nothing but air. And I don’t have to keep this melodramatic drivel. I hit replay and slow it down. I find more details, cut the stuff that doesn’t work, flesh out the bones, layer in what makes the scene live on paper. Right brain. Left brain. Right. Left. It’s slow, but it gets me beyond the block.

I think the worst thing an author can suffer is overweening pride and blindness to new opportunities to learn, which lead to hubris and stagnation. Throughout the essay, Ursula reminds us to keep an open mind, especially in reading others’ works, and learning about our craft. Learn, practice, and hone your craft until it gleams in starlight. There is always more to learn, but don’t let that stop you from writing. You have to practice and show off what you have learned.

“I must trust my gift, and therefore trust the story I write, know that its use, its meaning or beauty, may go far beyond anything I could have planned.”

Trust your gift, trust your story; give both freedom. Freedom to use the skills you have to tell the story, and freedom for the story to express itself through your gift, with or without prior planning. This trust, this freedom, can lead to unexpected surprises, both delightful and troubling, which weren’t in the original synopsis or outline. The delightful ones are seen as immediate improvements. The troubling ones might require more extensive readjustments because you’ve painted yourself into a corner; get paint on your shoes, or build a window. Changes, delightful or troubling, can make your story deeper, more meaningful, the tension and emotion more vibrant, turn it into a prose work of art, simply because you allowed your story room to move.

Again, it boils down to trust. Trust in you, trust in the story.

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But what is this about trusting the story? You’re the one writing it, for pity’s sake, how much more trust is there to give?

“…to trust the story….means being willing not to have full control over the story as you write it. First you have to learn how to write English, and learn how to tell stories in general—techniques, practice, and all that: so that you are in control. And then you have to learn how to relinquish it.”

Relinquish control? Surely she jests. Yet there is light at the end of the tunnel; it isn’t a train.

“Deliberate, conscious control, in the sense of knowing and keeping to the plan, the subject, the gait, and the direction of the work, is invaluable in the planning stage—before writing—and in the revision stage—after the first draft. During the actual composition it seems to be best if conscious intellectual control is relaxed. An insistent consciousness of the intention of the writing may interfere with the process of writing. The writer may get in the way of the story.”

We have to strike a balance between the knowing part of our brains (the left) and the actual act of creation (the right), a balance between the technician and the artist.

“Lack of control over a story, usually arising from ignorance of the craft or from self-indulgence, may lead to slackness of pace, incoherence, sloppy writing, spoiled work. Over-control, usually arising from self-consciousness or a competitive attitude, may lead to tightness, artificiality, self-conscious language, dead work.”

I am a plotter. I spend months or years on set-up work before I start chapter one. I must have a written plan in order to write smoothly and more consistently. I have to remember the only perfect plan is the one not yet implemented; the plan is nothing more than a good suggestion. In the first draft I should primarily create, not dissemble, so I must remember to shut my left brain (planning, editing, logistics) in the dressing room because the right brain needs the whole stage.

I pursue perfection; my left brain escapes the dressing room frequently. I meddle and muddle and masticate; I over-analyze, tweak, add, remove, adjust—all red-sign flags that my left brain needs to be shut in solitary confinement for disturbing the peace. Planning, editing, self-critiquing, self-doubt, procrastination, and fear are ALL left brain activity, and all can be the root of dreaded writer’s block. So, yes, the left brain derails telling the story.

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Ursula K. Le Guin says in her essay, “A Matter of Trust,”

“In order to write a story, you have to trust yourself, you have to trust the story, and you have to trust the reader….Before you start writing, neither the story nor the reader even exists, and the only thing you have to trust is yourself….the only way you can come to trust in yourself as a writer is to write….To read, to write, to practice your trade, to learn your job, until you know something about it, and know you know something about it.”

To write, you must read. Everything you read has value: articles, classics, research material, how-to books, the modern greats in all genres, even the worst piece of fiction a publisher ever had the disgrace to put on the shelf. Great, good, mediocre, and horrid, all that reading shows you what is good writing, what errors to avoid, and clues to how you can improve your writing through literary devices, facts, ideas, and simple common sense in grammar and spelling. Be open to those lessons. Some will sink in by osmosis. Some you’ll have to revisit constantly. The trick is to practice a lot. You’ll learn to apply these lessons, eventually, without overdoing or flubbing.

Ursula comments further that at some point, early on, you may think you are ready for agent and publisher. Don’t be hasty even if you think your first novel will be the best thing since flush toilets. Take a minute. Stand back and reevaluate with a critical eye, talk to a friend, a writing professor, a critique group, other writers. You think it’s good enough, you might even be correct, then again no one wants to believe their story desperately needs a hatchet and an early grave, do they?

However, knowing you don’t know anything can be just as bad as NOT knowing you don’t know anything.

“I know some very good writers who never finish anything, or finish it and then destroy it with over-revising to meet real or imagined criticisms, because they don’t trust themselves as writers, which means they can’t trust their writing. Confidence in yourself as a writer…you earn…by doing, you build it up slowly, by working at it.”

I trust my writing between blinding moments of self-doubt. I am my own worst critic. Then I read a published author’s work, and notice that though they were published, their writing is on par with an eighth grade education, and their editor must have been smoking crack even on the most basic of grammar points. Books like those give me hope, not only because I think that since they were published there is hope for me, but because I KNOW I can do a better job than that published author. I don’t think this is excessive pride; I think it is self-confidence in what I know I know, and in my knowing how much I don’t know still, which is just as important.

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One thing our visual design instructors instilled in us was the ability to be creative on demand. Design (graphic, information, way-finding, etc) is a business. You don’t have time to wait for the Muse to come in, she has to be on the clock. You might get a new client at 8am and have to present ideas for an identity overhaul by the scheduled lunch at noon. No, really, you’ve gotta do.

Sure, you’re going to get it wrong (that’s another post), but you have to present ideas. That means after the hour long meeting where you learn basically nothing you need to know and a lot about things that don’t matter at all (like the hair gel the AD – art director – just switched to) you spend an hour doing “research” (now that means googling, back then it was sitting in your chair, head in your hands, thinking “OMG, OMG, OMG, OMFG!” over and over), which leaves you two hours to do a hundred thumbnails, twenty sketches, and three or more comps (doing this on computer now means the hundred thumbnails – maybe – and then right to the comps). And don’t forget to include half an hour for paste up on presentation boards (or now, struggling with Powerpoint, merging with the sales materials being developed, and cursing BIll Gates’ name unto the seventh generation).

Think I’m being overly dramatic? Heh. You probably actually won’t get the assignment until 10 as the AD/Sales goes to get their second Starbucks. So, yeah, I gave you twice as much time than you really had. Now can you see why out of 24 or so fellow graduates, there’s less than 5 of us still doing this two decades down the road.

The best job related functions you can learn is 1) be quick, 2) be precise (spelling fluorescent “flourescent” on the presentation to the lighting company won’t keep the business, and your sales person doesn’t know the difference), and 3) get the work out (all this wraps up to being competent, it’s a rare job skill)

So, yeah, you can be creative when “cold.” This is why it’s important to be stocked with ideas and the creative pump primed by all the off-time research. Now, it’s always better to allow the subconscious to masticate on something for awhile. Yes, the end result will be better with that, and if you’re “inspired.” The trick is being able to get “inspired” at the drop of a hat. That’s a trick you learn by doing.

There are various group activities that can help you learn this trick. One is to have everybody in a group write the first line to a story. Then everybody trades and gets 30-45 minutes to spin out the full story. Now, more than likely you won’t get a full story written, but you should be able to get the frame of it out (the voice, the overall thrust, somewhere at about 500-1000 words). Then everybody shares what they got. This exercise works because you’re not invested in the story (it’s not “your” idea – well, it is, but you can fool yourself) and there’s a deadline, plus you need to share. You can see variations on the theme here (give everybody a character, a plot, a setting, etc, and have them write what they get in 30-45 minutes, pull a story from literature and write an extension/version/joke/etc based on it). Select any of the various “writing prompts” (Writer’s Digest, Writing Excuses, there’s several websites that have lists of them) and have at. After doing this several times you’ll get faster and better with it. You’ll also become more comfortable with being creative on the spot. It’s like calisthenics for the Muse.

This post? I have a list of blog entries for this concept (what I learned as a designer translates to writing). I looked back at that list about 20 minutes ago and this post is a result. I can be “cold” and still write/design. That’s what I learned.

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As I said, I have a BFA. That means a large whopping percent of my college career was spent in art classes. And while the other disciplines in the school had critiques less often (maybe twice a week), for the graphic design program we were critiqued on our output every single class. If you took a basic full load of courses that meant being critiqued at least two times a day Monday through Friday (sometimes 3 or 4 times a day). We critiqued thought processes, thumbnails, proofs, comps and final art.

One thing you notice about college is that the people you end up with the the junior level of courses is much smaller than those in the freshman level of courses. In computer programming that was because of General Programming II and Calculus II. In graphic design we didn’t have “weeder” courses. Every damn course weeded out those who didn’t have what it took to go on.

You may think I’m being overly-dramatic there, but these critiques were not gentle things. Usually once a week was the “did you really mean to put so much suck into this?” critique. Now student to student we were pretty light. However the teacher always got their say. Most where rat-ass bastards too. Sure, they’d help you in class, give you all the help they could outside class, but when it came to critique time, they would open with both barrels.

Seem cruel? Obviously you’ve never been in a client meeting discussing design work. The only thing better for us would have been to include mind-reading courses.

So after four years of that type of crucible you develop a tough skin. Or you drop out. By the senior year of classes if you haven’t developed the mental calluses to allow scorn and ridicule roll off your back you would probably need to see a psychiatrist to help with the cluelessness problems. In my “freshman” class we had about 300 students. I graduated with 24 in the winter (and I believe there were only 20 that spring). That’s what’s called attrition.

Some people have asked me why rejection doesn’t bother me like it does other writers. This is why. Sure it bothers me, but I get over it quickly and move on. In my critique group sometimes I want to tell the person critiquing me, “You’re holding back, damnit, tell me what you want to say!” Of course you can’t do that in the Milford/Clarion style.

See, there’s two different kinds of critiques. There’s the professional kind which talks about the work (art or writing), it may or may not include suggestions (“I thought you were going here…” or “I think this could be stronger if you…”). Suggestions aren’t necessary (although they do sped the learning process). This is the kind of critique that as a writer you should be seeking out. The kind that points out the flaws in the work, the things editors would toss your manuscript in the bounce file over. Of course, there are always differences of opinion (many of my later critiques with the Hamsters have extra notes on the hard copy that say, “so-and-so is correct pointing this out,” or “so-and-so is completely off base with this comment”). In that case you look at if the majority agrees you messed up the imagery, you’ll want to look at it. If the audience splits, or if only one person points something out, it’s author’s choice (which doesn’t mean ignore it, it means evaluating the critique and seeing if a change would make the story stronger or if it would lose something). And all these critiques, even the ones you think are most cruel, are an attempt to help you and your work be better.

Then there’s the other kind. The poisonous personal attack where the critiquer decides that it’s mostly a character flaw of the author for any problems in the manuscript. Ignore these people. Find a better group of critiquers. A critique about a piece of work is never about the person.

I think I related the story of my worst critique a long time ago (and it’s a post by itself). Nothing, I repeat, nothing an editor can say or do, nothing a fellow writer could say or do, could come close. The #10 has been set. Most others don’t get past #6 in comparison. I am invested in my work, and if you tell me my baby is ugly I’ll be upset. But it doesn’t come close to the inferno that was that critique (short story, it changed my life). Tell me that you don’t want to publish my piece. Eh. I’ve had clients tell me to my face my work sucked and they weren’t going to continue working with me/pay for it. Just giving me a rejection or telling me that this simile doesn’t work for you isn’t even close. This far down the road, there’s only one person that could get close to affecting me that deeply. And it’s not anybody in my critique group or any editor I submit to.

Unfortunately I don’t have much advice on how to get to where I’m at. It involves walking through Hell. Once you do that a little flame doesn’t bother you. And if necessary, you know you can do it again.

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Okay, well let’s start with a meta lesson I learned in college. It’s not to late to change your mind and switch directions. And if you do, there is a price to be paid.

My first major in college was Computer Programing, Math Option (that’s the hard one). I was pretty good at both (programming and math). Hell, I won a full ride Air Force scholarship for it. I was admitted to the Honors Program and choose an eclectic alternative general studies program including a minor in Creative Writing. Then came my sophomore year and my life decided it was going to go to shit. By the start of my Junior year I was out of the Air Force and had switched majors to Graphic Design.

It would take me another four years to finish my degree program. I would be working four jobs and taking our loans to repay my scholarship and afford to live at school (and afford school). I would get permit slips from my professors to work in the art building overnight (to do my coursework as my apartment wasn’t large enough and I couldn’t afford a table of my own). After a decisive event (which will be the subject of another post) I got the fire in my belly and while I didn’t graduate with honors (the fallout from the self destructive cycle of my sophomore and junior years) I ended up in the last two years being on the Dean’s List at the very least (and in a good way). I made President’s List three times.

I didn’t take art classes in High School. I had never done much more than cartoons and simple sketches before this. But with hard work and applying myself I excelled in design. It did help that I had interest in the field and a slight aptitude for information architecture. One of the first things I would learn with a new programing language was the output functions (this was in the time before GIU computing) and I would format and label my output.

I changed my life. I paid the price for that change and I worked hard for the change. But I did switch majors and I’ve had a somewhat successful career so far. So it is possible to do new things and be successful at it.

The other lesson of this was that I wasn’t very successful at first. Eventually with that hard work, acceptance of critique, progression of skills, and continuing to learn (heck, I’ve been a professional visual communications designer for nearly twenty years and I’m still learning new things), I became good at what I choose to do. I can do the same with writing fiction. So can you.

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In one of the latest posts on writing advice I had a link showing what to put in and what to leave out to make a successful picture. As I said, this was helpful with creation of scene in a story (prior experience coming in). Now, Jay Lake (man, I’ve been grooving on his Link Salad lately) had a link to this methodology for creating new ideas. This wasn’t a technique I learned in school, but I learned it from other professionals. On my own I think I’ve used is only a few times, but when you’re stuck this is a good way to brainstorm and concept into reality.

While this methodology works well to create visual impressions, it also can translate to full plots or even scene building. It’s a way to cut the dross from the cycle and get to what is needed. And since it’s word based, you have some good ones to include in the writing.

Also, a reader on my other blog suggests that I do some more posts about how my previous training in graphic design has translated over into writing. I think that’s a good idea. So (he said tempting the fates) I’ll try and get some of those thoughts posted soon. And they might work pretty well over here.

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One of the things I’ve gotten over since I started writing (I think this came in as either the second or third Big Writing Revelation(tm)) is saving ideas. At a certain point in the writer’s life, you realize that you’re creating crap, but that you have to go through that woodland crap to get to the glade of good words. And then like blue jays screaming through the woods come these gleaming moments of non-crap and you need to decide what to do. Now, this new stuff is good, having handled crap for long enough you know when ideas and words have that different feel to them. The new stuff fits into what you’re working on, but the rest of what that work is crap and you know it. Do you put these chunks of gleam into the crap making the gleam craptapulous or do you hoard your gleam until you get better and that gleam can shine with the other shinola you’d be producing then?

And the young writer, like a pack-rat dragon wondering when he’ll get his next hit of gold-plated meth, will think “I’ll hoard the gleaming things until the pile will shine forever.”

Resist this behavior. With all your might, resist. The only idea that shouldn’t be put into the story you’re writing is the idea that doesn’t fit. You can’t horde the good words, they don’t behave like that. And ideas, if hoarded, grow stale and die, losing their gleam. Then they begin to stink. The bright leaves flare and fade into the forest floor.

Here’s the secret though, just because you use it once doesn’t mean you can’t use it again. So throw that idea, or those words, into the big pile of crap that is the story. You might have to scoop them out later when you’re killing your darlings, or they might impart some shine to the rest of the load. They may even inspire you to polish up the rest of it. Who knows, it might make the story successful. Even if it does help your story get published, that still doesn’t mean you can’t use it later.

And if you stop the flow of gleaming ideas by hoarding them, then you get idea constipation. And the ex-lax for that condition isn’t any fun at all and ranks right up there with a unicorn enema. So roam through your woods plopping out the craptastic and the shinola with great glee and abandon. Soon you’ll see more shinola than crap. And eventually you’ll get to the editing point where you’ll be cutting the crap out instead of the gleaming parts to make the writing smooth.

Ideas work better when they can rub up against other ideas in a story. Keeping them herded off doesn’t help anybody.

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Paper chasing

Questions from newly minted writers tend to come in candy flavors. There’s some difference in how the questions are asked, or the actual words used, but they all tend to boil down to some basic metaquestions.

The first one often asked by fresh novelists is, “How do I get an agent?” That one is easy to answer. I have no clue. Well, yes I do, it’s the same as getting published. Write the best manuscript you can, research agents like you’re researching a market (ie. the agent you query should handle the type of work you’re sending), read the submission guidelines and follow directions, and send it off. Cross your fingers. Also in this case the general Wheaton Rule#1, “Don’t be a dick,” applies.

Fortunately at the panel on Short Stories we didn’t get this question. This is good. Because the answer for shorts stories is, “Agents, in general, don’t handle genre short stories. There isn’t enough money to make 15% worth their while.” (for some reason there’s a voice shouting in my head, “Castles don’t have phones”)

The other question did get asked. That question (which I’m going out on a limb here and say 95% of all questions about writing boil down to) is, “How do I get accepted?” My answer seemed glib, and I apologize for seeming that way, but it’s still true. My answer was, “Suck less.”

Every story is full of suck (no, really, I’m reading the Years Best and there is plenty of suck there to go around). Your story needs to be the best in the slush pile, it needs to suck less than all the others.

Your writing, if you’re doing it right, needs to suck less than your previous writing (it’s not always a linear progression, but you get what I mean). Two years ago what I wrote that year, it was IMHO brilliant and the perfect example of exemplary craft and skill. This year, re-reading those stories to figure out why they aren’t selling I’ve come to wonder just who rewrote them so full of suck while I wasn’t watching. The answer is that what I’m writing now sucks less than what I wrote last year, two years ago, and (shudders) eight years ago.

On the subject of submissions, I still send the wrong story to the wrong market sometimes. But I’ve gotten better in my selection. My submission process sucks less.

My fellow panelists, who are all made of win, BTW, with very little to no suck present (I was the token “suck” panelist) gave much more concrete answers about the slush process, joining a critique group, read a lot, etc. But it all boils down to learning the craft, learning the business, sucking less, and following Wheaton’s Rule #1 (might need to make that the Prime Directive, but I don’t think he would like that comparison), “Don’t be a dick.”

There’s also a lot to be said for being in the right place at the right time. But even that won’t work unless you have the right story, one that doesn’t suck. Also, you might have the most bestest excellent story ever, and if the market isn’t right, doesn’t have a slot open, or it’s the wrong size to fit in the holes they have, they still might reject it.

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