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 When I hear an unpublished writer talking about the epic fantasy trilogy they're going to write, my first thought (other than, "Man, I remember that phase.")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 Don't be the guy or gal with thirty unpublished novel fragments taking up hard drive space.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."

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you that reading a lot of fiction writing books helps, even though you think you already know what's in there. On my site I have a list of all the books that I have and recommend, I thought it might be helpful to all: