This is a thread I put together on twitter between April and June 2018, and I thought I should transcribe it to blog format, since I think it does have some good information. I cleaned it up, and while it still rambles a bit, but also contains a lot of my impressions about writing structure.
I’ve found writing is like painting. I layer down a background of setting and sketches of characters in the first draft, then paint in more and more detail about the subjects during each revision. Characters have a life of their own, and will mess up your background setting, especially when they won’t keep still! That’s alright, because they’re the stars. Repaint as needed to make the whole painting come to life.
I think of writing like tying new shoes. First you thread the laces through the holes, but then you have to make several passes to tighten everything up. In published books, authors seem to unfold emotions and events at the best possible places. How? The secret is that this is the result of many revisions. Don’t be discouraged–any story can become polished with feedback and editing!
Most important while you’re writing: finish the first draft! Even if you know one part isn’t what it could be, you can go back to it after you’re done and fix it. You might come up with something better after you know the end! Pay attention to little clues you’ve placed subconsciously while writing. Why did a character do or say that one strange thing? Often, these can become great side stories and personality-building moments. Your mind has been trained by the stories our society tells, so even if you’re not sure about your plot, use those nagging feelings that come up! It will likely make a better story. And that little nagging voice? Listen to it. Every single time I write something and that voice tells me “this could be better,” one of my beta readers picks up on that part. I’ve started editing those parts preemptively.
Learning what to edit before sending something out to beta readers doesn’t mean my writing is now perfect. It means beta readers can focus on finding new issues I haven’t realized, making me a better writer. to continue the analogy, writing and editing is like lifting weights. You gradually get used to lifting a certain amount, then you add a little more weight. In this case your prose is now stronger the first time around.
I started my writing weight training by doing NaNoWriMo. I learned I could write 1600 words at a time, if I wanted to. It also helped me set a schedule of writing. Now I get itchy if I don’t write when I’m used to doing so. This sort of “weight training” can be applied to anything, not just writing. For example, I also get itchy if I don’t get my karate practice in.
Training yourself to practice a skill regularly is very rewarding. There’s a saying that embodies this. “The mind is like fire: it makes a good servant, but a bad master.” Fortunately, if you learn how to train yourself like this, it’s very easy to translate to another skill set. It becomes easier to learn new things. One of the most important things I learned in college was not in a specific class. It was learning *how* to learn. That’s the “teach a person to fish” skill. It’s served me well.
Learning how to learn is like knowing “how do I say X?” in a different language. Once you get to the level of using this tool, then you can begin to learn everything else. Don’t be discouraged if you’re not to the “how do I say X” level yet in writing (or anything). Just like learning to speak, you have to first learn basic sentence structure and grammar. Then you can layer on the harder stuff. My perennial recommendation for a starting writer is to read Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style.” All the way through. Cover to cover. You may not agree with everything Strunk and White say, especially as writing had evolved in the last, oh, 60 years, but you can only start breaking the rules effectively once you know them. It’s certainly alright to break the standard rules of writing–and even encouraged. However, it’s also a higher skill set. Start out with the standard rules, then make your custom deck.
When you get the basics of sentence structure and grammar down, then you can start on the advanced stuff: Character, Setting, and Plot. You can divide these up into many categories, but they are at the root of every story.
Character is the easiest to define and the hardest (for me) to nail down. We all know what people are like, but describing a character in prose so they feel real is very hard. Setting is worldbuilding. For SFF authors, this is the time to show your Cool Idea, but it can also be a hole you fall into, then never get past chapter one. World Builder’s Disease has struck down many a potential author! Finally, there’s plot. I hesitate to say this is the least of character, setting, and plot, but I’ve read many books I really enjoyed, where nothing much happened. It’s easier to get away with a shallow plot, of the three.
If you have really good characters, or a really Cool Idea, you can bring in a lot of readers. However, if you’re dependent on a tightly woven plot with wooden characters and a standard setting, you might be out of luck. This doesn’t mean you should do away with plot. I plot my books out intricately (a 10-20 page outline per novel). However, that’s just the framework holding the story together. The real stars are the characters and settings.
However, one of the hardest parts of writing (just as in any job) is selling your brand and your work. It’s incredibly hard for artists in general to get their work seen. I’ve gained some experience with marketing over the last few years, since I’ve gotten into self publishing. The hard part is, there are a lot of people creating really cool things and somehow you have to get your voice heard. You can market by shouting to the void for people to buy your stuff, but that rarely works. Even “contest” marketing like giveaways and raffles mostly attract people interested in free stuff. It’s harder to make lasting fans.
One of the best marketing things you can do is connect with other authors and agents and make friends–like actual people you want to hang out with. Find out what they’re working on and promote it to your fans. If you promote other creative efforts, you won’t “lose” money when people buy their stuff. Instead, they’ll be grateful you pointed out another quality piece of art. You might even get more sales/followers/etc…
It’s easy to get jealous of another’s success, but there are plenty of people who want to buy things. By making friends, you also reach new markets. Yes, I said you should make friends and not get carried away with marketing, while also saying you can use your friends to make money. Welcome to small business. Of course, “use” in this means taking advantage of happy accidents and natural turns in conversation to sell your products. Don’t be a pest about it. Try to determine when people are actually interested in what you’re saying.
This part is tricky. How do you tell when someone is no longer interested? Often, it’s in body language. Crossed arms, feet pointing away from you, or eyes staring rather than focused, can all mean a loss of attention. When in doubt, disengage. Ask about the other person. If the topic comes back to you, then they might be interested in your work.
But this gets us back to writing! Use your observations about people and how their body language lines up (or doesn’t) with what they are saying. It can help fill out your character reactions. If a character is lying, does their body language betray them? Does it make them an unreliable narrator? You can have a lot of fun showing a character saying one thing and their body saying another. You can make a character nervous, or annoying, or courageous, or anything else with a few good descriptions of body language. Remember, show, don’t tell (in most cases).
And now, a bit about work balance. Work balance is something easy to get, well, unbalanced when writing. I have a day job, which means I try to cram in all my writing time when I’m at home. This is fine, except when I have a deadline. When I have a book I need to finish, my free time contracts greatly (just ask my wife…). Writing will take up all the time you give it.
On the one hand, devoting a lot of time to writing means you might be producing Great Works. On the other, if it’s not your primary income stream, you might be holed up somewhere not doing things that need also to get done. There’s only so much time each day and writing as a second job is very demanding. I’ve been writing consistently for the last year and a half (as of June 2018), and I’ll soon have three books published (and five total) from that time writing.
However, getting that many words down, and edited, takes a toll. I haven’t had many free weekends since last September. The yard desperately needs to be weeded. Why do I write, then? Because I can’t not do it. I like writing. However, when I get these two latest stories finished, I’m taking a well-deserved break for a bit. Going to play games and get caught up on the to do list. There is a lot of truth to “refilling the well.” I’ve been writing consistently for about a year and a half now, coming up on 240,000 published words, when my two latest stories come out. That’s a lot of creation. It’s time for me to pay more attention to what other people have created, than what I create. This lets the mind rest, and remix what our society’s artists are saying in their stories.
All writing is a conversation, happening over years and decades. Writing evolves just like anything else. Our stories today could not exist without the ones that came before. Previous stories include mistakes and books that are just bad, or racist, or otherwise flawed. We must realize previous generations erred in removing women, or POC or LGBT characters, so new books can celebrate them. This is how a society progresses. We see what is a problem, then address it. Sometimes it’s painfully slow, or too late. I have hope we will continue to improve ourselves.
I’ve started to infuse my stories with non binary, and queer, and genderfluid characters. Many of my alien species have more (or less) than two genders. It’s a lot more fun to write about these inclusive cultures. After all, what is SFF for, but to experience different cultures and people? It’s oddly similar to real life in that way. The more new things you experience, the more you understand how life works. The converse of this, I think, is also true. If you avoid experiencing new things, then you cannot learn about them. You will be stuck in your routine, doing the same thing, writing the same words. This brings us back to “refilling the well.” If you only write, and you don’t consume others’ works, then you are creating from a limited subset–an echo chamber.
All this points to one of my favorite quotes: “A writer is a reader moved to emulation.” – Saul Bellow
And that’s some of my thoughts about writing! I hope you enjoyed it, and maybe learned something. Let me know what you think!