Forget write what you know, write what you love. Find the things that make you WANT to write and cling to them like a life line. You will never succeed writing things that you hate. You may not succeed writing what you love either, but you will have spent time on a thing that matters to you and that’s always worthwhile.
I know that many writers need to disengage the critic* parts of their brain in order to create. But that’s not me.
Artist and critic go down the road hand in hand. That because my critic is more of a structural engineer to my artist as architect.
For me writing a novel is a lot like building a bridge. I know exactly where the banks are, and I have a good sense of the river bed.
Sometimes, I’ll find that in one of the places I wanted to put down a pier the river bed is spongy or otherwise won’t support the weight.
Then, I have to get creative about building a good foundation for that anchor point in the greater span, and it might take extra time.
But the real trick comes in building the arches to bridge gaps between supports. That can be tough, especially if I had to move a supporting pier.
By the time I put foot on the far shore, the bridge is usually sound and ready to cross, even if the deck might need significant smoothing.
The idea of wild experimenting off to the sides is alien to my process. Bridges fail when you do that, but others are building different sorts of paths.
I think that the key thing to know is that there are 1,001 right ways to write a story, and what you as writer need to do is find the right one for you even if it sounds crazy or completely unworkable to every other writer you know.
The bits that bore, the facts that fail!
Beware the as-you-know, Bobs
And handwavious exegesis!
Take not the purple pen in hand:
Lest too long the tedious plot be splained —
Then resist the by-the-way asides,
And babble not the it-all-begans.
And hast thou slain the infodump?
Come to my arms pithy child!
O laconic day! Compact! Concise!’
He chortled in his brevity
And, yes, I know it doesn’t scan perfectly, but I was trying to keep it brief…
The process that is.
See also: will commit doggerel for food.
Every so often I am reminded that I am not like all the other children. By which, I mean that I do not suffer from the same set of confidence issues that many of my writer peers deal with. This is not to say that I don’t have my own personal set of writer neuroses, or that I have always believed my work is amazing, but simply that I am not and really have never been subject to imposter syndrome.
I suspect part of this comes out of my Open School background where I was taught to believe in my bones that I could do anything I wanted to do, if I was willing to work hard enough for it. It is worth noting that I was not taught that I would be good at something from the start, that I was inherently talented at everything, or that I wouldn’t experience a lot of failure along the way. In fact, I was taught and internalized that it would take hard work, that I would have to face a lot of failure, and that talent mattered much less than being willing to do the work. I was also taught methods for realistically assessing my progress toward my goals and the necessity of accepting responsibility when I fall short.
As I said, I’ve never had imposter syndrome. I have had any number of moments where I fell short and realized I needed to work harder to reach the next level with my writing. Then I went on to do that work and moved on and up. It’s been a hard slow climb—I’ve got five hundred rejection letters that speak to that—and there’s still a lot of room for me to grow and improve, but I think that it’s fair to say with twelve published novels and dozens of short stories under my belt at this point that I’m making my way up that wall. I’m just taking a different route than those of my peers whose issues include dealing with imposter syndrome.
There is no one right path to becoming a successful writer or artist. Don’t ever let anyone tell you different.
Dear Writers: You should be reading your contracts at least as many times and at least as closely as you do your prose or poetry. Because that misplaced comma that has you so freaked out in your story? That’s not half as bad as the misplaced comma in your contract.
Over the past few days I’ve been going over novel contracts for a new project. I’ve been posting notes on how I think about contracts and why reading them carefully is so important. This post gathers all of that information in one place.
We (writers) tend to focus heavily on craft to the occasional detriment of the business side of publishing. Contracts are vitally important and signing a bad one can be deeply harmful to both your career and your psyche. So far, I have been lucky in that I haven’t yet hit a bad clause in a contract that I couldn’t live with or get changed. But part of that “luck” is knowing that there is a point at which walking away makes more sense than signing, and being willing to push on stuff you don’t like. This is one of the reasons why I’m glad to have an agent, and why my first criteria for an agent is contract comprehension and negotiation. It’s much easier if you’ve got an agent to do the bad cop side of things.
Without further ado some random thoughts while reading contracts:
Just finished the third pass through the new contracts. This one was quickly cross comparing clauses with previous contracts. I.e. have I signed something like this before without it blowing up. If yes, hooray! If no, lets double check that bit there. Next up, close read of the whole thing with notes. Whee.
Beyond the important who gets paid how much for what stuff, one thing the boilerplate part of a publishing contract represents is a sort of archaeological record of previous author flame-outs. Also, previous publisher flame-outs, rights grabs, etc. It’s instructive reading in that way as well.
The how have things gone wrong with this publisher’s past deals portion of the reading is especially critical for smaller houses. (Catherine Lundoff reminded me of this bit)
Finished 4th pass (close read) through new book contracts. Brain melty now, so, I’m off to kill orcs for a bit (Shadows of Mordor). Next up: Reeading critical bits (things I’ve flagged on this or previous passes). Hopefully by this time tomorrow I can actually sign the things.
Finally, in response to a question about whether my agent shouldn’t be taking care of this:
Rule 1 of agents and contracts: No matter how good your agent is and how much you trust them, it’s still YOUR contract and your work on the line.
I like and trust my agent. I’m very happy with my publishing house and I adore my editor. Verifying everything is still part of my job. If your book is truly successful, that contract could be a big part of your life for the next 20 years. If it’s a smash hit, that contract could be a part of your heirs lives 20 years after you’re dead. You want it to be solid and as favorable as you can get it.
Post Script: This time I’ve done six passes through the latest contracts. Now I just need to briefly discuss two paragraphs with my agent to verify my reading and I can sign them and get them out the door.
An academic friend asked me if I would be willing to put together some thoughts on how I use communication skills in my profession. Since I’m a novelist, a wall of text fell out. I thought it might be of use to others, so here it is.
As an author with a dozen novels in print, my entire job is communication. Primarily that’s via the written word in my fiction, and on social media which I use to keep in touch with my audience and draw in new readers on the professional side, but I also do a lot of public speaking and appearances.
In the written form I mostly work at novel length, but also do things like twitter micro-fiction to keep people entertained in the long gaps between novels. Working at 140 characters is a particular challenge as you’re forced to pack a lot of meaning into a tiny space. Often, in my case including a full joke including punch line, since much of what I do is humor.
That tiny space in need of a big punch is also something I do on the public speaking side of my job. I do a lot talking on panels at science fiction conventions and literary events. When you’ve got four to six people all talking over the course of an hour event, you have on average 10-15 minutes total to address the topic, and to make an impression on the audience. Usually that will come in a series of 30 second to 2 minute chunks in which you need to try to do as many of the following as possible: address the topic, be wise, be clever, be funny, be profound, share your love of the work, share the space with fellow panelists, don’t be a jerk, advertise for you work. Note, I put advertise last. On panels your job, beyond addressing the topic, is to make yourself interesting and likable enough for people to want to look into what you do.
On the public speaking side, I also do personal appearances at schools, keynote speeches, and readings/signing at bookstores and other venues. Each of those requires different sorts of public speaking skills.
Schools are generally mix of reading from my work and question and answer. Kids are a tough audience. They get restless easily, they don’t want to be talked down to, and they’re very curious. I generally keep reading sections with kids to very short pieces and try to spend more time addressing their questions. I’ve found that treating them with complete honesty and like miniature adults in terms of respect is what works best for me there.
Another note on question and answer involves making sure your audience has heard the question and that you’re answering the right thing. With quiet speakers or people who are anxious or otherwise garble the question, I will often restate it for the audience while making eye contact with the speak to make sure I’m really representing what they’ve asked. Sometimes this involves code-shifting, i.e. taking a question that’s asked in a very academic way and shifting it into a more vernacular sort of speech. Or, taking a convolute or slangy construction and rephrasing it more succinctly and clearly.
Keynotes are tougher. I’m a writer by trade which means I normally spend my days alone with a keyboard. Giving a 30-50 minute speech followed by question and answer is a radically different environment and it always makes me very happy that my background is in theater which taught me the value of clarity, enunciation, speaking at a conversational pace, vocal discipline and sustain and how not to say “um” all the time. It also taught me to practice my speeches beforehand.
My theater background is also a huge benefit to me for readings, where it helps me with characterization, dramatic timing, and making sure my audience feels I’m engaging them. For example, I simulate lots of eye contact during a reading—making sure to look out into the audience and rest my eyes on faces in different places. That’s my theater teachers taught me to do even when completely blinded by spotlights and a dark house. I used to do actual eye contact when I could, but I can’t shift between near and far vision that well anymore.
Signings, which often coincide with readings are another and different communication challenge. You need to give a little time and genuine attention to everyone who comes out to have a book signed. These are your hard core readers, the people who most care about your work and they’ve earned that consideration. Especially those who come out again and again. I’m terrible with names, and I make that part of my patter. I let people know that I remember their faces and when I’ve seen them before even if I can’t remember names or spell them to save my life.
That connection is what’s really at the core of all of my non-fiction communication. Whether it’s chatting with people on twitter who’ve liked my work, answering fan mail, meeting readers at signings, or making eye contact while reading and giving speeches, you have to make sure to actually connect with people, to respect them, communicate clearly, and to make sure you’re giving them your best self.
I’m a local politician as well as an author, and many of these things are cross platform skills: the speech making, the clarity and engagement, etc. This is especially true of the code shifting, which I want to talk about a bit more, as it’s something that’s often overlooked or undervalued. My most valuable skill for politics, which is mostly meetings, is code-shifitng. English isn’t really one language, it just sounds like it.
Academics, for example, use one primary set of jargon when speaking casually with each other, a separate one for written communication that will be part of the permanent record, and wide variety of in-disicpline lexicons. Or, a Wisconsin dairy farmer and a corporate lawyer may well use the same words but with meanings that vary from the same, through similar, to wildly different. I do a lot of inter-English translation as part of the politician side of my life.
Code-shifting is a skill honed through theater and public speaking, but developed through growing up in a variety of settings. My earliest memories are of being rural poor in North Dakota living with my single mother and grandmother—one version of English. At six I moved to Saint Paul and became urban poor—another version. As I went to a hippie school and we moved into the middle class, I learned two more sets of the English language. At ten my mother remarried to a carpenter—yet another set terms and meanings. When I went to college I learned both basic academic and the professional jargon of theater. When I later married and my wife went to grad school, I learned both of the more advanced forms of basic academic as well as the specialized versions of education and physics.
Being able not just to code-shift, but to recognize when people are speaking different versions of English and help bridge the gap between the two is one of my best and most useful communication skills. It helps with every part of my job as a novelist and public speaker as well as my political hobby.
I blame Lee Harris…
A couple months ago, Tor.com editor Lee Harris emailed to ask me to be on a game show panel at CONvergence 2015. It was called Ready, Steady, Flsah! and it involved a bunch of professional writers being given themes and five minutes to write a complete flash fiction piece. I was terrified, but agreed to give it a go. Today was the day with Carrie Patel, C. Robert Cargill, Paul Cornel, Melissa Olson, and me. The winner of a round got two points, the second place finisher got 1, the other players got zippo. I went in with the expectation of crashing and burning, but doing it with style. Here are my stories (as they were written, typos and all) and scores for the game. ETA: Carrie Patel has now posted her pieces as well.
1st round. Theme: Reanimation.
There once was a dragon named Fred
Who devored a unicorn undead
Each bit that he ate
He did munch and masticate
Until he finished the undying spread
Then when he finished
He felt dimineshed
Until the unicorn reborn
Came forth from the dragon’s own horn
Unicorn retruned from beyond and within
2nd Round. Theme: Steampunk Romance.
A steampunk romance
All those fancy gears and wheels
Leather and lace- clothes at a fabulous pace
Bronze and brass I’ll take a pass
The real romance of steam comes from the mirror
I’m too pretty for anything that might muss my polish
I’ll keep my romance in the box with my goggles that only look inward
3rd Round. Theme: Little People.
The little people that live in my head write all the stories that fall out of my fingers. Tragically, they work best in the hours of the night when sleeping is on my list. So, when dreaming is my agenda I too often find myself staring at the ceiling and wishing the little people in my head were diurnal rather than nocturnal in their focus and feelings. As a writer my insomnia is my bread and butter. I cannot ask the little people to let me sleep…most of the time.
Score 1 (!)
4th Round. The audience came up with the theme on this: Uncle Sam’s Day Off, and they also supplied us with a word to be used in the story: Cocaine.
Cocaine! Uncle Sam’s favorite firework. There was nothing that the dirty old man liked to do more on the 4th than kick back with his feet up on South America and snort a line that lit his head up like the bombs he exported on his days on.
Score 2 (wiktory!)
I tied for 2nd overall with Paul Cornell at 3 points each. Carrie Patel, the victor had 4.