Saturday, June 16, 2012

Chasing the First Sale (Part 3): Becoming a Student of the Job

"All artists are willing to suffer for their work, but why are so few prepared to learn to draw?" —Banksy

I grew up loving stories. Not in a normal way; I loved them so much it hurt. It wasn't enough just to enjoy them; I had to own them, imitate them, and—eventually—create some of my own. No matter what I did with my life, I knew telling stories was going to be part of it. I wanted to write for comics, for video games, for the screen. But like a would-be musician desperately wanting to "be in a band," I had to learn an instrument first. Short stories were the first instrument I picked up. If you're reading this, maybe they're your first instrument too.


That's right. One step at a time, little guy.
Wait. Is that the new Guitar Hero controller?!
Because they're a good first instrument to learn. You can't make a career writing short stories—sadly, those days are gone—but they can teach you most of what you need to know to write in other capacities later on. They teach you, first and foremost, how to tell a story. They teach you how to format a manuscript, how to submit to editors, how to deal with rejection and—occasionally—success.

For example, what do you do when an editor says, "It's great, but I hate the ending. Make it better. I'm not going to tell you how, but if you're up to the challenge, I'll buy it." (Big gulps, huh? Welp. See ya later.) Aren't you glad you aren't going through that with a novel your first time out? Aren't you glad it's just a story you have to fix? Learn to fight the battles in short form so you'll know what to do when you have to fight them in long form; if you learn your lessons well, when that times comes it will be a (not-so-simple, but simpler) matter of adjusting what you already know.

Short stories are a proving ground. They let you get out there, try a bunch of things out, and make your mistakes small so you don't have to make all of them big. When I hear an unpublished writer talking about the epic fantasy trilogy they're going to write, my first thought (other than, "Man, I remember that phase.") is, "What a shame." Not because I don't believe they can someday do it, but because they're trying to play to a stadium crowd without learning a G chord first. Practice in the garage, play some local shows, then bigger shows, etc. Don't be the guy or gal with thirty unpublished novel fragments taking up hard drive space. Be realistic, even if it hurts. Look at where you are, own it, and grow from there.

So how do you grow? How do you learn that G chord?


You start (I'm abandoning the music metaphor now) by making sure you've got English down. This means grammar, punctuation, the works. I can hear you groaning from here, but I'm serious. If you aren't sure where commas go, how to use a semicolon, when to write in past-perfect, what the subjunctive mood is (and why or why not to use it), learn that shit. I was fairly fortunate in that most of this stuff came easily to me. The tangles I found along the way (and the tangles I continue to find), I comb out, first by googling them to make sure I have them right, then by drilling them in my brain until they're second nature. Every time [problem x] comes up, a bell goes off in my brain, followed by a little voice that says, "That's that thing you've been doing wrong; you just did it again. Stop it. Forever this time."

Sound nuts? Welcome to life as a writer.

If you want to be a pro writer, it should bug the hell out of you when you don't know something. You should make it a point to be as technical as you can stand to be, because the industry doesn't have time for your mistakes, and there are plenty of people who are just as hungry and talented who know and follow the goddamn rules. Know them. Follow them. (Unless you need to break them for some compelling reason, in which case, for god's sake, know why you're doing it.) Don't fail on a technicality before the game even starts.

Here's how nuts I am: I don't even text in improper English. Sure, I swear like a sailor and say the kinds of stupid things we all say, but I capitalize. I put in my apostrophes and commas. I spell out my words. Whether I'm texting, Facebooking, you name it, I make sure to do these things.Why? It's not because I'm a Nazi or because I think my shit don't stink; it's because, when it's time to write something professional, I want it to be effortless, like buckling your seat belt without even realizing you're doing it. Because it's important stuff. I'm a member of a forum called Codex for pro and neo-pro writers. Guess what? It's the only forum I've seen (other than SFWA) where every member can spell, punctuate, etc. It's amazingly refreshing. Now go, and do thou likewise.

"i do it 2 sav time!!!1 itz werth it duh"

And yes, I realize I just painted a big target on my back. I'm human too, and if it'll make you feel cool to point out the typos and errors I've (no doubt) made while writing this blog, knock yourself out. But when you're done schooling teacher in front of the class, I hope you'll remember the point of the lesson. Work hard. Do your best to weed out mistakes. You'll be glad you put in the time, because we're about to get to the harder stuff.


Harder stuff? But the headline has the word "fun" in it!

Changing what you do for fun (or at least paying attention to it in a productive way) can be really difficult. We don't like being told to change our lives, not the least little bit, but that's exactly what I'm about to ask you to do. (I'm being dramatic; this will only sting a little.) Here are some ways you can tweak and transform the things you enjoy to help make you a better writer:

1) Read. For god's sake, read.

First, find some heroes. These will be a few writers you want to emulate, to idolize, to learn all you can from. My heroes are Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Orson Scott Card; between the three of them, my awesomeness bases are more than covered. Find your heroes (I'll happily share mine), those writers you find effortless to read, who make your head spin with their brilliance, who become like old friends and teachers. Chances are, you already have some people in mind. It's usually these heroes who inspire us to take up writing in the first place. Never abandon them. Keep them nearby as a measuring stick. Don't aspire to be the best in your school or your critique group or your family. Aspire to be like your heroes. Don't settle for anything less. And, if at all possible, leave open the possibility of looking past your heroes. You may never grow to their level, but who knows? You may grow beyond it.

Once you have some writers to look up to who are doing the kinds of work you want to do, it's time to branch out. Read outside your genre. If you write horror, read westerns. If you write sci fi, read romance. If you write fantasy, read mainstream. Don't camp inside your genre and spend your career reheating Tolkien or Lovecraft. If you want to do anything of lasting value in your genre, you have to bring new things in from outside it.

Read nonfiction. (Documentaries count too.) Read books on history and science and psychology and astronomy and anything else you can get your hands on. Read books on business and marketing (believe me, you'll need 'em). Hell, read books about mathematics. Devour this stuff. Know the world you live in, and you'll have more meaningful things to say about it.

2) Listen to audio books. Wait, isn't that the same as reading? Yes and no. Audio books will teach you something that reading text on a page can't: the music of language. There is a flow to the spoken word, a kind of rhythm that just sounds right when it's done well. I've never heard of anyone being able to teach this in a class room or a workshop. It's a slippery, subjective concept, but an important one all the same. Listening to stories (even nonfiction) read aloud is the only way I know to improve your awareness of this aspect of writing. I'm not even sure you can "pay attention" to this. Just give your ears time with words. (By the way, reading your own work aloud can—almost without fail—instantly improve it. Read everything aloud. You can file that away with your other tricks.)

"These ARE the world."
3) Play roleplaying games, video or tabletop. I don't give this piece of advice lightly, and it's not without its dangers. Roleplaying games use numbers to create a model of the world, which in turn allows you to simulate anything you could possibly imagine. Kinda. This is the danger—not that you will lose your soul or become a satanist or something similarly ridiculous—that you will lose your worldview to that model, and with your worldview, you'll lose any chance you had of being a truly creative individual. You'll drop your keys and say, "Oops. Failed my Dex check." You'll wonder what level or alignment the characters in your story are.

That's a HUGE red flag. If you start rolling up character sheets for the characters in your stories, you'll know you're in too deep. I've seen this happen. I've seen smart, potentially creative people lose themselves in the false limitations of the game. Their fiction becomes rigid, like a cardboard cut-out of a story. Combat drags on. Every story is about a team, one member strong, another stealthy, another magicky, another healy.

God in heaven. Don't. Let. This. Happen to you.

But! If you're careful as hell, there is one wonderful thing roleplaying games can teach you:

The Moment.

Players always want to be doing something. They want a reason to be where they are, they want to know what the next step is, and they want a chance to do something to get there. If you can apply this mentality to your fiction—that every moment should have its own entertainment value, not because it's pretty or clever, but because it's relevant to the journey and it moves—your style (and your readers) will thank you for it. Don't have people walk into a room, say some shit, and walk out again. Put the scene in a cool place, give it some zing, and have the characters do something.

Making up a story on the fly for an audience, being able to gauge their reaction to each event in real time—there are few experiences more valuable as a storyteller. Video games can teach you this same lesson, but you don't have the benefit of sitting in the creator's chair. You have to hold the experience up to a mirror to get the full effect.

Let's say you're writing a fantasy novel about a teenage boy at a swordsmanship school. In this particular scene, your main character needs to ask a female teacher for some dating advice. You could have him go into her office, stand awkwardly by her desk while he spills his guts and talks and talks and talks. OR! You could have him trying to sneak questions in while he's taking his swordsmanship final, dueling the female teacher in the clocktower of the school, jumping between giant cogs, dodging blows, trying not to get killed, trying to land just one strike before the clock strikes twelve. That's a hell of a lot more fun. And it opens up all kinds of story opportunities. He might fail the exam he's so concerned with his girl troubles. He might get injured. He might realize during all the sweaty running around that he's actually (gasp!) attracted to the female teacher!

"I said parry, not thrust."

Mastering "The Moment" isn't just a matter of flavor. When things move in a scene, they bounce around and collide with other things. You could end up with new ideas that take your story to the next level. So don't write a dull moment. This doesn't always mean action; what it means is having an awareness of each moment's entertainment value, each moment's importance and inertia. Learn this well, and you can pick your publisher.

(I'm still working on this myself, and the biggest problem I've had is laziness. It's easy to miss opportunities when you're not putting your all into your writing, allowing yourself to be distracted by life, liberty, and the pursuit of your kids not trashing the house. But that's a whole other blog, folks, written by somebody who ain't me.)


Once you're harnessing your free time to better your writing, it's time to learn the nitty-gritty of the craft. There are a few ways to do this well, but one of the cheapest is to read books on writing. I hear a lot of writers talking smack on writing books, saying they don't really teach you anything, that you're only ready to learn what you're ready to learn, that practice is the only way to get better. Almost true. Practice is the best way to get better, but there are some things, especially for new writers, that you shouldn't have to learn through trial and error. Sometimes, it's easier to have someone just tell you. That's what writing books can do for you: they can save you time.

I've read a stack of writing books in my time, and I can tell you, not one of them left me feeling empty. I came away from each with new tools, new perspectives, and new enthusiasm for the job. That's not nothing, ya nay-saying snobs. That's a big something, and I'd like to pass it along to you.

Here are some of the books that taught me the most (and, in many cases, continue to inspire me):

(I ain't gonna pad my list for no man!)

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes
by Jack M. Bickham

This is a great first book if you're new to writing fiction. It's short, simple, and it hits the basics. If writing were basketball, this would be the fundamentals. Dribbling. Passes. etc. I've gone back to this book over and over just to remind myself what's what.

The Art of War for Writers

by James Scott Bell

This is the book I pick up when I really need refreshed. It's a beautiful, slickly-designed little tome full of good advice and motivation, and it always gets me excited about making things up and writing them down. This is a fire-extinguisher (and a damn fine piece of instruction as well). In case of burn-out or depression, break glass.

How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy
by Orson Scott Card

If you want to write sci fi or fantasy and you haven't read this, you have to. It's an essential handbook on writing spec fic. I've found none better.

On Writing
by Stephen King

Stephen King is a rare talent. (If you don't like him, fine. But don't be a hater; the man's got chops.) He rarely outlines his books and has an amazing capacity to do things on the fly, and few, if any, of you reading this will reach your potential writing the way Stephen King does. So why is this book important for mortals like us?

First, because of King's staggering and unpretentious skill with language. The whole second half of the book is dedicated to this. If there is a book to teach you the nitty-gritty about the music of words, this is it. The first half of the book is largely biography, etc, but you skip it at your own risk. Why? That's the second thing.

This book is like having a teacher in your brain. Not a list of dos and don'ts, but a REAL human being who just happens to be the most widely-read living writer in the English language. If you skip the first half, it takes the knowledge out of its human context and greatly weakens it.

Lastly, this is a great read. Fast, engaging, personal. It's effortless. You can learn a lot just from that. If you can figure out why on God's green earth this book is so easy to read, that's something big.


Wait? Screenwriting books? What about all that stuff about short stories and learning to play your first instrument? I stand by all that stuff, but once you've banged out a decent prose style—through loads of study and practice—screenwriting books become just as valuable as other writing books, if not more so. They can teach you story itself better than almost anything else. Here are my favorites:

The Writer's Journey
by Christopher Vogler

The first chapter of this book will change your life. If you're looking for a perfect formula for good stories, this is probably as close as you'll ever get to finding one.

Save the Cat
by Blake Snyder

This is essential shit all around, but if nothing else, you'll learn to make your reader instantly care about your characters. I can't think of many things more important than that.

by Robert McKee

Everybody I talk to who has read this book swears by it. I'm just now reading it, but I can already tell it belongs on this list. Read it with me. Let me know what you think.

There are lots of other great books on writing. The First Five Pages comes to mind. Also, the Writer's Digest's Elements of Fiction Writing books are a great go-to. Especially don't miss Orson Scott Card's Characters and Viewpoint. Avoid books on manuscript submission, querying, publishing trends, the internet, or any other topic you think might go out of date quickly; it's best stick to blogs and such for that kind of info. For example, if you want to know how to format a story for submission, just google it. (Here: I'll save you the trouble.) Better yet, read each magazine's guidelines. There are also some great books on self-editing, such as The 10% Solution and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (the chapter on dialogue beats is worth the price of the book by itself).

Gettin' ahead of myself. It's been a long night and one hell of a long, rambling blog post. Thanks for reading through to the end. I've made a mental note to keep things tighter in the future. There's a story about a famous writer who wrote a really long letter, then at the end said, "I apologize for the long letter; I didn't have time to write a short one." I can relate.

Be sure to check in next time when we'll talk about what could prove to be a very important aspect of your learning to write well, becoming a part of the writing community, and getting your first toe in the publishing door (it was for me): Audition-only workshops! It's a big topic that deserves its own post, and I'm looking forward to it. We'll see you in two weeks for "Chasing the First Sale (Part 4): Attending Audition-Only Workshops."

Monday, June 11, 2012

Switching to Weekly

I'll be blogging weekly from now on instead of semi-weekly. I wanted to start these two blog series strong, and I think I've done that in these first few weeks; it's time to pull back, spend more time working on my fiction, and continue to hone in on that ever-elusive "balance" everyone is always talking about.

There will be a new "Chasing the First Sale" this week, and a new "Owning Comics" next week.

By "the alien Perry" I of course mean "editors rejecting my ass."

Friday, June 8, 2012

Owning Comics (Part 3) : Superheroes and The New 52

We've talked a bit about how to read, and I've introduced you to a few classics to get you started; now we're going to delve deeper into what to read. We'll be getting into manga (Japanese comics), indie comics, movie/novel/game tie-ins, and a few other categories. [ETA: This may not happen for a while.] But first...

We're going to talk about superheroes.

First of all, let me apologize to the Marvel fans. I'm a fan of all kinds of (good) comic books—Marvel titles included—but I will admit to reading and enjoying more DC. Some people are cat people and some people are dog people. I'm an animal person (dare I Animal Man?), but I'd probably prefer to own a dog. Because they love me...and they have Batman.

My own metaphor is confusing me.

I'll try to give Marvel some quality time later on, but for now, we're going to focus on DC's superheroes, specifically the New 52. They say write what you know, and I've been devouring New 52 titles lately; they're where my heart and enthusiasm are currently hanging out drinking beer.

Even if you're new to comics, I'm sure you're at least vaguely aware there are two big dogs (oh, so now they're both dogs?) in the world of comics, Marvel and DC. They each have their charms, their flagship characters, their own ways of doing things. The only way to get to know them well is with time and experience, but here's the short of it:

Reader, meet Marvel.

And this is his big brother, DC.
(It's short for "Detective Comics," but he doesn't really like it when you call him that.)

(Intimidated by the ridiculous number of characters? Don't be. Just pay attention to the front row or two. When in doubt, remember: Marvel = Avengers, Spiderman, X-men. DC = Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman.)

DC is the one we're concerned with today, specifically the New 52 titles. I'm going to list some of my favorites for you to check out, and we'll talk about where and when you can get a hold of them, but first, a little history lesson about "continuity":

DC comics has been making comic books since 1934. Back then, the concept of comic book continuity was in its infancy. Superman and the other heroes just...did stuff, and that was enough for a long time. But as comic series continued to run, the fans grew more savvy and sophisticated, and soon, the demand for a shared universe where cause-and-effect would carry over from issue to issue couldn't be ignored. Soon, continuity became one of the defining facets of comics, sometimes for the better, other times taking precedence over storytelling. (It's not hard to imagine how decades upon decades of continuity, encompassing the creative decisions of dozens of writers and artists from different time periods, could become something of a creative buttplug* in the hole of the industry.) Eventually, continuity became a straight-jacket, strangling the life out of the stories it had been intended to deepen. Survival of the fittest kicked in, shrinking the fan base down to only the most obsessive and dedicated, fans willing to interact (and put up with bullshit) on a level the average person couldn't. Woe.



In late 2011, DC made perhaps the best decision anyone ever made ever period and rebooted their entire line of titles, and the New 52 was born.

What this means for you: 

1) Instead of seeing Batman issue #704 on the shelves, you'll (currently) see issues in the #1-9 range. Let me say that again: In a lot of cases, you can easily find ISSUE NUMBER ONE of Batman, Superman, etc. This is a big deal. For collectors, sure, fine, but mostly for freakin' readers! You can find the beginning of the story! Being able to start at the beginning, the sense of involvement and ownership that gives you—that's magic.

2) The comic books are better than they've ever been. Freed from all that bulky continuity, the writers and artists of the New 52 are able to do better work that we've seen in a long time. They're free to pursue good craft, not just good continuity, and it makes all the difference in the world.

3) You have a rare opportunity to engage in something old-school, yet palatable to modern tastes. Reading the New 52 is like watching The Avengers at a drive-in theater while drinking a root beer float. There is something timeless and charming about a good, ol' fashioned serial reading experience—the delayed gratification of buying issues monthly, enjoying a small piece of the story each time, having it to look forward to. There's nothing quite like it.

The New 52 is currently the biggest thing happening in comics. It is to comics themselves what Marvel's Avengers movies were to comic book movies. The New 52 is the now of comics. And it can belong to you. You can own Superman and Batman the same way previous generations did—not just the paper and ink and staples of the books themselves, but the characters, the iconography, the pure superhero-ness of them—and not as an amusing piece of American nostalgia, but as something relevant and fun, something you read because you want to read it. Now that's pretty amazing.

(I swear to god, I am not on DC's payroll.)


Without further ado:

(It should be noted, there are freakin' 52 of these series, and I have read only a small percentage of them. This list contains some of my favorites, compiled with a bit of consideration for general importance and artistic merit. I've excluded a few for being either too niche—like Blue Beetle—or too guilty-pleasure-y—Catwoman. The order is spongy, and I'll probably want to come back and revise this list every time I read another good title, but as a general list of good shit for beginners to read, this will do fine.)

1) Batman - There are lots of New 52 Batman titles (Detective Comics, Dark Knight, etc), but good ol', standalone Batman is still the best. This is top notch work in every way, and it belongs on the shelf next to The Dark Knight Returns and Batman Year One and The Killing Joke. I really think in ten years, people could put this story in that same category. This story presents Batman with an all-new threat to face, the mysterious Court of Owls, a body of masked, aristocratic manipulators and their deadly assassins (known as the Talons) whose roots go deep into Gotham's history and infrastructure. This series can be read on its own or as the core of the memorable Night of the Owls story, a comic book event spanning several titles (continuity used correctly!). The hardcover recently made the New York Times Top 50 Bestseller list. (Not the graphic novel list; the big list.) Don't miss out.

2) Aquaman - I never thought someone could make me care about Aquaman, let alone rocket him into the tip-top of my favorite superheroes, but Geoff John's smart, self-aware writing takes every joke you've ever heard about Aquaman and throws it in your face in the first issue. (He goes to a sea-food restaurant for shit's sake. It's gold.) But even if you've never so much as heard about Aquaman, you'll be captivated by the story of this noble, selfless person who sweats and bleeds to protect people who misunderstand and ridicule him. And, come on, after so much time spent gazing at city skylines, a trip to the ocean can be a welcome change of scenery.

3) Animal Man - This title literally gave me nightmares, and I'm a tough dude to disturb. This book has a maturity, depth, class, and boldness that reminds me of Sandman (my favorite comic ever, remember?). Here we have a less-recognizable superhero and really likeable guy living out his everyman existence with his family, and the shit hits the fan in a big way. It's surreal, it's touching, it's grotesque, it's inspiring, it's devastatingly creative, it's—just...just read it.

4) Justice League - This is a fantastic introduction to the Justice League, a who's-who organization of superheroes containing flagship characters like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and Aquaman (among others). The story itself is secondary in this book, serving as a backdrop for the real fun of watching these iconic characters meet each other for the first time. In many cases, the banter is on par with the Avengers movie. Pure fun. (Oh, and there's the ice cream thing with Wonder Woman. ... It's not what you're thinking.**)

5) Nightwing - When he was a boy, Dick Grayson was the original Robin. Now he's grown up, he's spent some time filling in for Batman, he's grown tremendously, and he goes by the name of Nightwing. Dick is one of the most likeable characters in the New 52. I didn't know him well before this, but I've become a fan. He's the kind of guy you just want to spend time with. The story is not only entertaining, it feels important. Other than Batman itself, this is the most important series dealing with the Court of Owls. We get to go back to Haly's circus where Dick's parents died. We get to see Batgirl. It's a ton of freaking fun. Highly recommended.

(I'll get into where you can buy individual issues later on, but for now, I've just linked to the trade paperbacks and hardcovers on amazon. Some of them haven't been released yet, but this way you can wishlist them if you'd like. If you'd like to know more about what comes out when, here's a list of the titles and when the various collections will be out.)

To learn more about the New 52 and all its titles, click here. Don't neglect the abundance of good reviews online. A quick google search can help you sort out the must-read titles from the must-skip. Happy reading!

See you next week when we'll be getting into "Owning Comics (Part 4): Manga."

*If you clicked this link, you are a very brave soul. Now go clear your history.

**Cute doesn't do it justice.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Chasing the First Sale (Part 2): What a Pro Story Is

Today, we're going to look at what a story is and how to tell one. It's going to be the crashiest of crash courses, but I think it's important to touch on this, at least briefly. It's my opinion that no amount of networking, no reputation, no amount of anything will sell a story that isn't a story. There are (unfortunately) exceptions to every rule, but they are (blessedly) rare. You may be tempted to say, but Steve, what about the piles and piles of crap published every year? Fair enough. But let's hold off criticizing other writers (especially published writers) until we've done some publishing of our own. It's been my experience that the meanest, most bitter and brutal critics are the ones whose work isn't any good. A good writer knows what it takes to tell a story. They realize even if another writer only gets a story 80% right—if the story has a skeleton it can stand on, even if the skin ain't so pretty—that's still something worthy of respect. This shit is harder than it looks.

There are tons of resources on writing fiction, and I won't even attempt to repeat all that information here. What I'm going to focus on (aside from a few recommendations of books to read and resources to keep in mind—these will come next week) are the macro, big-picture things I've learned through experience. Hopefully, they can save you some time.

First of all, let's get this out of the way. The old question "How do I become a writer?" really only has the one simple (and demonically difficult) answer: "Read a lot, and write a lot." That really is it. Most of the stuff I'm going to tell you, it's the details. It's icing. It's trim. It's freakin' parsley. If you don't read and you don't write, my blog will do nothing for you—and neither will any other resource. Unless you're a genius (trust me; you'd know if you were), you have to work. Once you're writing consistently, all the pieces of information you've picked up along the way will start to click into place, one by one, like cogs in a living machine. But until you start doing the writing part of being a writer, the cogs will just lie there on the floor, looking pretty (perhaps making you sound smart when you talk about how you would have written somebody else's book), but ultimately they'll just collect dust.

"The characterization was thin."
So what is a pro-level story? It's a joke.

I don't mean stories aren't to be taken seriously—quite the opposite. And I'm not saying the concept of a professional story is elitist or outdated (blah blah self-publishing, etc). God no. I'm saying that a pro story is a complete idea that evokes an emotional response, at any length. Have you ever met someone who likes to drag their jokes out with lots of details? What about someone who just tells it, hits the important bits, and gets to the punchline? Both methods work if the joke is a good one. It can be passed along, from person to person, but the core of it remains the same. A pro story is like that. If the concept is good enough, you should be able to get people excited just by explaining it, sometimes in just a sentence or two. A pro story's concept should be so good, people want to tell their friends about it. It should get stuck in their heads. They should say, "Man, why didn't I think of that?"

"So a voice actor lands a job playing an alien actor's roles in television shows captured by SETI satellites, all the while avoiding phone messages from his estranged daughter. When he learns the alien race who made the TV shows have all died in a supernova, he has to record the speech given by the alien actor to his dying people. This painful event gives him the courage he needs to reunite with his daughter, and he learns she has had terminal cancer the whole time.

OMG. It's so hilarious, I could chew my fingers off!"

Basically, when you begin developing a story, you should begin by saying, "What is this? What am I making? What is it supposed to do?" As a writer, you're not just putting down words or expressing yourself or "being creative." You're building an intellectual property. You're turning your thoughts into words into a product you can sell. If this concept makes you uncomfortable, it could be you aren't right for commercial or genre fiction. If, on the other hand, you get excited at the sheer power implied in what I just said—that people will pay you for building a construct of thoughts and letters—then great. We're on the same page; it's a pretty crazy page to be on.

As a beginner, it can be easy to feel like you've got story down; it's just your writing that needs work. I don't know you, but I feel confident in telling you that's probably bullshit. I believed the same thing once, and I spent years trying to teach myself to "write purdy" before I realized that wasn't the important part. The important part was what is the story about and how does it happen?

"Basically, there's this guy..."
Once you know what you want your story to be, it's time to figure out what it is. These aren't always the same; in fact, usually they aren't. Stories in our heads are incorporeal clouds of emotion. They're pristine, unblemished by logic or prying eyes from the outside. Your job as a writer is to take that cloud of emotion and imagery, examine it, throw it away, then try to build something that makes people feel the way you felt when you first had the idea.

But how do you know if your idea is actually worth developing into a story? Well, try explaining it to someone. Trying writing it out in a sentence or two. If you can't do this, I can almost guarantee your story isn't a story; it's still an emotion cloud. At this point you can either abandon it, or build a skeleton to hang it on—a concept that will carry that emotion, a plot to make it move, characters to make it relate-able, and zing to make it sing.

The zing I just mentioned is the only original thing you will ever bring to a story: you. The rest has been done and done, but this is the first time anyone has ever been you, with your unique experiences and perspectives. If I had to pick a most-important piece of advice to give a brand-new writer (other than the ol' "read a lot, write a lot") , it would be this: Put as much of yourself as possible into your writing. Not your life; you. (Autobiography is, almost without exception, dishonest and boring. Avoid it.)

Don't write from your life; write from your personality. Write from your soul. It's all you've really got to offer.

But if you don't have a good story, nobody is going to give shit-one about your soul, so we're back to that. So where do writers come up with good concepts? The dreaded question: Where do you get your ideas? I'm actually going to attempt to answer it.


1) Gather ingredients by living your life and paying attention to the amazing, funny, heart-breaking things that happen all around you, every day.

2) Mix the hell out of them in every imaginable combination.

3) Keep what pops.

I mean it. Mix the shit out of stuff.

It really is that simple. And believe me, if you have any small measure of talent (or humanity), you'll know when something really, truly pops. You'll see one concept line up with another, and suddenly you'll see all the possibilities between them, the tension, the way they play off one another. That's a great feeling.

Take the concept for my first novel (which I can't claim; it was my wife's idea):

"The story is about a guy and girl who take a love potion." Did I lose you? Are you asleep yet? That's not a story, not even close.

Now try this: "The story is about a guy and girl who despise each other. They're tricked into taking a love potion that makes them fall madly in love when they're apart, but not when they're together." Now we've got something to work with. That little twist—they don't want to be in love, they didn't mean to take the potion, and it only works when they're apart—sets the whole thing off. Now they have to be together to be themselves. (Love Potion + Proximity = Neato!) I almost peed myself when Lynna shared this concept with me. The ideas for what to do with it came almost immediately, like someone had turned on a hose. (The pee and hose comments are unrelated.) That's how you should feel when you have a good idea on your hands.

4) Repeat as often as desired, forever and ever, amen. You'll never run out of ideas until the world runs out of shit to show you.

Once you have your concept, the hard (and fun) part begins. You have to make your story into something people can read. You have to manifest it, bring it into existence, give it form. You have to provide it with a world and a chronology and characters. You have to give it tone, pace, and rhythm.You have to make it, and the only way to learn to do this well is with study, love, and loads of practice. Orson Scott Card once told me during one of his workshops, "Every writer has 10,000 pages of complete crap in them. Some writers get those all out in the beginning, and some—like me—insert them a page at a time throughout their career." The other students and I laughed, but we also learned the lesson. You won't improve if you don't write.
This post ended up being (and taking) longer than I expected, so we'll get to the rest of it next week. I'll be recommending some of my favorite books on writing and how to use them to get better. I'll even talk about attending audition-only writing workshops, how to get in, and how to get the most out of them. So be sure to check back in next week for "Chasing the First Sale (Part 3): Becoming a Student of the Job."

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Cold Beyond the Pools

My flash story "The Cold Beyond the Pools" just went live in Redstone Science Fiction. I originally wrote it for a Codex contest called Weekend Warrior where participants write a flash story every weekend for five weeks; "The Cold Beyond the Pools" ended up taking first in its round. I went on to take first in the whole contest against 50ish pro and neo-pro writers, some of whom were Nebula and Writers of the Future winners who wrote some damn fine stories of their own. It was one of those highs that keeps you writing.

Anyway, I'm happy to share the story with you. New blog post up tomorrow, "Chasing the First Sale (Part 2): What a Pro Story Is."