Friday, January 4, 2008

Eight Ways to Avoid Publication

By Keith McComb

If you're serious about being a writer, then you should probably keep something important in mind. I guarantee you that ignoring the advice in this article will destroy your chances at being published.

Arrogance? No. Simple common sense and you'll see why when you read further.

There are many things that you have no control over when you try to get a short story or novel published: Did the reader have a bad day, so nothing got past his or her circular file that day? Did the reader not like your work, even though you believe that you've written the masterpiece of the Millennium? No matter how much you’d like to, you can’t prevent these sort of thing from happening.

What you can prevent is your story being discarded for errors that make the publisher believe that you are either unintelligent or simply don't care. I'll take them in no particular order.

1) Spelling

Always reread your documents, and get someone with a good vocabulary to read through them as well. DO NOT RELY ON YOUR COMPUTER'S SPELL-CHECKER! I cannot stress that point enough. The reason is clear: Eye can rite a sentence that past the spell-checker and still doesn't make real cents.

See what I mean? That last sentence did, in fact, make it past my spell-checker. If all you're doing is looking for a wiggly red line under the word to tell you it's wrong, then you'll get a story bounced so fast that you'll probably hear the BOING! at the publisher’s.

You need more than your own eyes and the “eyes” of your computer to get the spelling right in your story. I won't belabour this point overly much; this very sentence involves a different issue – spelling variations. There are many words that have what are referred to as “British” spellings, such as the form of “belabour” I just used. I could also have written “belabor” and been just as correct. The problem arises when you flip back and forth. If you're typing “colour” early in the manuscript, do NOT suddenly switch to “color” elsewhere. If you’re an American writing for the American audience, it’s best to avoid the British spellings altogether.

There's a further point to make regarding spell-checking on a computer: as I write this, my computer is telling me that “color” is incorrectly spelled. That's because it's currently set to UK English. As soon as I switched it to US English, it told me that “colour” was the incorrect one. Yet another reason to avoid trusting the computer's spelling suggestion as the right one.

2) Grammar

I'm going to rewrite the sentence from above to see if you can catch the other error in it. Obviously, spelling isn't part of that error. The error in question was put in there intentionally.

I can write a sentence that passed the spell-checker and still doesn't make any sense.

I'm not going to throw out all those terms that some people do – not everyone understands what you mean when you refer to a “pluperfect” tense – but I will tell you that I changed time sense in that sentence. “I can write” implies that it is not written, or is about to be written. “That passed the spell-checker” states that it has been written already.

Get your tenses right!

3) Homophones and similar-looking words.

A homophone is a word that sounds like a different word. The most common examples are “through/threw” and “two/too/to”. Several were used in that sentence I keep coming back to - “eye/I,” “rite/write/right,” “past/passed.”

A similar situation comes with words that are close in appearance. “Breathe/breath”, “loose/lose”, and even things like “tome/tomb”. Be very careful when writing these. They are terribly easy to slip in and not notice, which can lead to a sentence such as the following:

“John found Marsha in the library pouring over an old tomb.”

She should be “poring” over a “tome”. Either that, or John should be asking why she's pouring some liquid over the place where someone was buried, and what that burial place is doing in a library.

I won't stress this point too much, because you either get it or you don't. If you don't see the problem with “Take a deep breathe,” or “Faster, or else we'll loose him!”, then there are other obstacles in the way of your getting published.

4) Commas

This one is a big deal. Usually punctuation is a problem because people either use too much of it or not enough. People will either pepper their documents with commas, or use them sparingly. (There are other punctuations that are misused. I'll deal with them shortly.)

I have been known to overuse commas myself. This comes down to my hearing the words as I write, so I place the comma where I would pause a sentence if I were speaking it. This is actually a BAD way to write, as I find myself removing commas when I reread the work in question. Others will write a sentence that should pause at some point but doesn't which leads to a slightly breathless feeling at the end of it if your reader is actually still reading the thing. (See what I mean?)

Another aspect of commas is using them in a list. Some say that it replaces an “and” in a sentence, as in “John, Mary and Joseph stepped out” replaces “John and Mary and Joseph stepped out”. Others use what is called the Oxford comma, which would place a comma after “Mary” in the first version. This is a matter of style, and you should find out the publisher's position on it. If the publisher has no official position on it, then your only worry is consistency, because switching back and forth between them will be noticed. Most American publishers tend to use the Chicago Manual of Style as their “bible” for punctuation and grammar. It would be money well spent if you buy a copy.

5) Semicolons

There are three main uses for semicolons: to connect two clauses that have equal weight, to separate items in a list that contains commas, and when using a comma to separate would lead to confusion. A), B), and C) are examples of each of these.

A) Proofreading a document will help catch errors; this should never be done when you’re tired.

B) The meeting will be in Dallas, Texas on April 26, 2008; in Boulder, Colorado on May 1, 2008; and in Los Angeles on May 15, 2008.

C) The inventory request was for 3-ring binders, cellophane tape, and ballpoint pens; but toner, legal pads, and pencils were sent in their place.

6) Colons

Colons are used in five places: to announce a list (such as this one); to announce an important clause that needs a stronger break than a semicolon; in a quotation of a biblical verse such as John 3:1; marking subdivisions of time such as 6:30 a.m.; and to separate a title and subtitle such as Harpo Speaks: the Autobiography of Harpo Marx.

7) Dashes

The most common usage of the dash is to hyphenate a word. The other two most common usages are to be inclusive in a list, such as saying “October 13-19," which tells the reader that the writer is referring to every single day from October 13 through October 19; and to be a slightly more informal version of a colon when announcing a list or important clause.

There is one further usage, which is to make what is known as a parenthetic comment. This is usually author intrusion into the work in question, such as the times it has been done above. In something informal--such as this work--using the parenthetic comment isn't a bad thing. When it's used in a work of fiction to give information that should have been given already, a writer reveals his inexperience. It would be like saying: “John jumped on his motorcycle (which he'd learned to ride the previous summer) and rode away." The writer should have let us know in another way that John had learned to ride the motorcycle. That sort of sentence tends to mark the writer as an amateur. (Using them to make comments to the readers DEFINITELY marks the writer as an amateur.)

8) Perspective or "Point of View"

This is a mistake that beginning writers always seem to make. It sounds easy to avoid, but it can be surprisingly hard to write with consistant perspective (or "point of view").

When you write, you must decide on the point of view. Is it simply from a single character’s perspective? Does the reader only see what the character sees, and never learns anything that the character doesn’t remember?

There is nothing wrong with using multiple people’s perspectives. Many excellent books do this. Tom Clancy does this in all of his books. Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is another example. Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen does this as well.

All of the books above share a trait, however: the perspective changes are clearly marked. The reader can always tell when the point of view has switched to a new person. It is when you fail to mark these shifts that problems come in. I have read amateur works where the writer shifted to the thoughts of four separate people in one scene. A scene should focus on one character, and only his or her innermost thoughts should be available to the reader in that scene. If the innermost thoughts of a different character are needed, then a new scene should be written. Perhaps the same incident as seen by another person would do well, if it is vital that the reader get those deepest thoughts. Publishers watch for this sort of mistake, however, and doing it in a scene is a sure-fire way to kill your chances at getting published if you've managed to get them to read past your first hundred words.

* * * * *

John strode into the room confidently, smiling as he saw his girlfriend Lisa sitting on the couch. From the small ticking noises she made, it was obvious to him that she was knitting, which she only did when very nervous.

It’s probably the fight I just had with David that has her worried. I’d better ease her mind.

He walked over and gently touched her shoulder, murmuring “Hey,” as he touched her, hoping to avoid startling her.

She was obviously startled despite that, as her knitting shot skyward and she spun, her mind racing at the possibilities--why was someone touching her? Her eyes filled with happy tears as she realised that it was her John, and not David who had caught her attention.

He grinned widely. “Sorry about that,” he said, walking around the couch and pulling her into a hug.

* * * * *

The example above is heavy-handed. I wanted it clear that the first three paragraphs and the last one are from John’s perspective. We even see his thoughts. The problem is in the fourth paragraph, where the perspective suddenly shifts to Lisa. If we are seeing everything from John’s point of view, it can be jarring to suddenly see another character’s thoughts.

That snippet with John and Lisa might not seem bad to you. A publisher, though, is going to look at that and realise that you don't have a solid grasp on writing because of that unexpected perspective change. The scene might not be confusing to you, but if you don't train yourself to write a single scene from a single point of view, then you will never get published by more than a vanity press. I have heard this directly from published authors who have worked closely with their publishers.

This article is certainly not the entirety of the subject. There are punctuation mistakes I have not gone into, various grammar mistakes that need to be avoided, and a slew of other things that will kill your chances to be published. But these are the ones that cause the most trouble, in my opinion. Pay heed to these points and you will improve your chances.

* * *
Keith McComb is the author of several short stories.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

On Approaching Agents

Mike French has an excellent blog called "The View from Here" that includes book reviews, interviews and a lot of other good stuff. He's done a three-part interview with Helen Corner of Cornerstone Books. Her advice is quite useful for anyone who wants to look for an agent.

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Short Story Market - Don't Quit Your Day Job!

by Jim Bernheimer

Many writers, including yours truly, who are trying to break into the writing business start by writing short stories and shopping them around.

It’s a recipe for heartbreak, usually in 5000 words or less.

First off, many will think it’s easy. Those illusions are usually shattered fairly quickly. It’s still a story. Your work must be coherent, tight, entertaining, and complete. All of this must be done under the ever-present constraints of word count. You don’t have three chapters to introduce the character and explain why he or she has issues with authority. You get a paragraph or two at the most to inform the reader that your character is a rebel without a cause.

Once you’ve finished, go back and read every line. In a novel, you’d ask if this scene really fits into the overall story and serves a purpose. Considering your short story might be shorter in length than a scene in the novel, every sentence must be relevant to what you are doing. If it isn’t, cut it or replace it with something that is.

Okay, so now you’ve got a story written. Now what? It’s time to find someone who really wants to rip it to pieces, but will still tell you if they were entertained or not. Most of us budding writers have other writers as friends. Initially, send it to them and have them mark it up. Prepare yourself for the idea that they might actually not like it, because they might not or, heaven forbid, they might have a completely different idea of how to execute your story.

I would also advise that you need to be able to separate your friendships from what your friends could possibly say about your story. Remember, you asked them to look it over!

Once they’ve given it back to you, let it stew for a couple of days before you really do anything conceptual with it. Go ahead and fix those grammar and punctuation issues, but I recommend not jumping into rewrites for at least a day or two. After all, it’s going to eventually leave your hands and sit in someone’s slush pile, so a bit of patience on your part is in order even at this early stage.

Once you get around to any rewrites, go solicit someone else’s opinion. I find my writing works best if I show it to different types of people. With some, I just want to know if they like the story or the concepts and get their opinion of whether or not the story will entertain. With others, I want to know what they think of my mechanics and if the story “reads” well.

Not only does each sentence in a short story need to be relevant, but each sentence needs to be in the right spot. Read every paragraph on its own and dissect the paragraph. Is it as tight as you can possibly get it? Do the sentences in each paragraph keep the flow in the story? Here’s where you need to make certain that you are telling the story chronologically and not doing poor timekeeping.

My greatest personal sins against the written language are tense changes and a nasty tendency to slip into passive voice. Always review your work for passive voice. Replace any "passive" verbs with "active" ones and your writing will come alive!

Always check your work for passive voice and then have someone else double check if for you. It’s that important, when there is so little space to tell your story.

So now you have a tightly written, coherent short story that stays in tense and tells a story chronologically in a manner that the reader will follow. Now, make certain that it’s still a good read. Go back to the first group of people who read it and make sure they still like it with all the changes.

If the story is still entertaining, what do you do next? Prepare for rejection. It’s just that simple. It’s a buyers’ market in the wacky world of short fiction. Everyone’s hungry to make a name. Assume that every other story that is competing against yours in a contest you found on or for space in a magazine or anthology is as good as, if not better than yours. Your story might be a diamond in the rough, but if the editor has a thing for rubies or emeralds, then you get another rejection letter to add to your collection.

Remember, there’s no “real” money in it either. Pro rates are considered 3 to 5 cents per word. So, that short story might net you a whopping $250. That’s not a huge payoff for all the sweat you’ve put into it, but like everyone else trying to make their own name out there, it’s not about the money, but the exposure. Just remind yourself of that fact every now and again. The editors and judges for these contests get to sit back and choose from a slew of hungry writers churning out their best work and most days, your best might not be what they’re looking for.

I submitted a story titled “A Sharp Mind” for Apex Digest’s Halloween contest. It’s a great story (trust me), but it didn’t even make their short list to go to the final judges. In his blog, Editor Jason Sizemore talked about how he broke down the 152 entries.

“16 were eliminated for exceeding the word count. Assume they are dead serious about the rules of their contest. Don’t think they’re going to give you a free ride if you’re not going to follow the format. In submissions, each publisher puts out their format. Most follow the popular Shunn manuscript format, but if they list deviations, then assume they are just as serious about that.

“The next ten were eliminated for typos in the first paragraph. Quite frankly, that’s inexcusable with the widespread availability of spell checkers. That’s 26 potential masterpieces that haven’t even been read beyond the first paragraph because the author was careless and didn’t follow the rules, manuscript format, or were just plain sloppy. That’s 17% of the competition down. Now all I had to worry about is the other 83%.”

Think about it. People like Mr. Sizemore spend their days and nights reading stories. He has no investment in your story or mine. It’s our job to spark some interest in him. This brought him to the next cut, where he read the first 100 words of each story and cut 24 more.

You’ve only got a few thousand words to tell a story. What makes it worse is you’ve only got a few paragraphs to sell the editor on that story. Your start needs to be compelling and grab their attention, because we’re now getting into the realm of the subjective. My story was about a zombie apocalypse. It’s quite possible that he may have rolled his eyes and gone, “Not another zombie story! That’s the fifth one today!” and cut it right then. If not, well, it went on to finish somewhere between 13 and 102. Out of the 12 that were shortlisted, there’s only a first and second place. For the other 10, it’s just like the great Howard Jones used to say, “You can look at the menu, but you just can’t eat.” I didn’t even get into the restaurant this time – maybe next time…

Did I mention that you need to be able to handle rejection already? It’s worth repeating. You need thick skin because you’re going to get pounded often – better get used to it.

Best of luck in your writings,

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

One Way to Fight Writer's Block

By Jim Bernheimer

Every writer has his or her own way of fighting the dreaded writer’s block. Some ways might work for you, or they might not. Here’s the method I subscribe to. As always, your mileage may vary.

The first big thing has to be forcing yourself in front of the keyboard. Go ahead! Just sit right down. Sure, the screen in front of you looks empty now, but you can fill it up.

Say you’re stuck on your fantasy story and all your humans and elves are sitting around bored at the keep waiting for you to produce the mother of all battles where they will lay down their lives. Well, if you can’t think of anything productive to write, how about taking your characters and imagining their reactions if they are watching the big screen version of the Lord of the Rings? Would your elf maidens say that Liv Tyler “is so leading that human on?” Would your barbarians prefer Starship Troopers the book to Starship Troopers the movie?

Alternatively, try writing a brief blurb on two of your characters interacting. Not about the epic battle, but about mundane everyday things. It might not seem useful until you realize that it’s getting you into the heads of your characters. It’s the difference between writing a character and really portraying the character. When writing the character, try to think with that personality. You’re not a space colonist on Vega 3, but your character is. What makes that person or thing tick? What can they see in front of them that gives them a sense of irony or dry humor? Just having a sampling of your character’s thought process in front of you can help you identify with them on a new level and perhaps open up some avenues for introspective thought. Take this rough scene I had from Dead Eye (coming soon from WHS Publications – All Rights Reserved). There’s nothing terribly important in it, but the conversation between them allows me to reach further into their characters and give them more of a past.

* * *

Four hours later, Jenny and I were back on the road, headed north. With some luck there would be a check in the mail from Roanoke County in the next week. I also had Candace’s number, if I was “ever down in this neck of the woods again” and still not dating her cousin.

Mentally, I was picturing the scene when mom asked me what I did today, “Drove four hours, dug up a dead body, and drove back, so not much. How was your day?” when Jenny started in on Candace. “So, did Candy ask you out?”

“Is that important?”

“Unless you’d like to walk, yes, it is.”

“Not really, but she gave me her number.”

My driver looked momentarily angry. “You wouldn’t really go out with her, would you? She may call herself Candace now, but all the boys used to call her ‘Candy’ because she was ‘widely available.’ If you know what I mean.”

“I know what you mean, but I probably wouldn’t go out with her anyway. She lives over four hours away. I still can’t drive until my vision is good enough to get my license back.”

“Suppose she lived closer?”

“Why are we having this discussion?”

“I’m just curious what kind of girl interests you, Ross.”

A word of caution, it’s never a good sign, when a girl calls you by your last name. “I didn’t really get a vibe from her, so probably not even if she lived closer.”


That lie seemed to satisfy Jenny and she put her claws away. She seemed rather pleased with herself after that. Truth be told, I wouldn’t have minded going out with Officer Murphy. I hadn’t been on a real date since I returned from the war. The last real girlfriend I’d had was back in Texas and if we were matching reputations, I’d wager that Candace would have come out better than Heather. She and Don Hodges’ wife, Karen, used to dance at some piss-hole club near Fort Hood and yeah, there’s a reason mothers warn their little boys to never date a stripper, though there are far more reasons why the boys never listen…

* * *

One of the things that I prize above all else is realism. In an outline of the chapter, this would appear as, “Mike and Jenny talk on the way back.” The more real situations you can inject into your story, the easier it is for the reader to suspend their disbelief. You can overcome your audience’s innate doubts about the story by giving them something real to latch onto. Even if the scene is looked at and ultimately sacrificed to the altar of word count, it’s still something that you as the author can dig into and use to identify with your characters.

Best of luck with your writing,

Jim Bernheimer is the coauthor of the forthcoming Dead Eye series from WHS Publications.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

To Outline or Not to Outline, that is the Question . . .

A short treatise on writing strategies by Matthew Schocke

I’ve read a lot of biographical blurbs, listened to a lot of interviews, and attended a few workshops held by professional writers. I’ve also communicated with a number of unpublished writers. While there are a lot of common elements in how they approach their vocation, one thing that seems to vary the widest involves the degree of pre-structuring they do with their storytelling.

At one end of the spectrum you have writers who develop meticulous outlines, plotting out everything in extraordinary detail before they commit the first word to paper. Many times they become stalled out before they even begin.

At the other end, we have writers who pretty much make it up as they go along, angling for maximum spontaneity and hoping they don’t paint themselves into a corner. They can’t really tell you what kind of story they are writing until it’s done and they read it for themselves.

Granted, both of these extremes are just that – extremes. Most people have work habits that fit comfortably between the two. Furthermore, you can’t really claim that either way is more suitable for doing good work. There are too many examples of both types succeeding and failing to make it that simple. The trick is to figure out which way works best for you.

I’m going to cover some "best practices" used by myself and others, but no one has a handle on the absolute best way to do things. Try some out and see what works for you.

An easy parallel can be drawn between outlining and public speaking. Some speakers will approach the podium with their entire speech in hand, written out word for word. Others will, at most, have an index card with their major speaking points listed. Most professional speakers will work with minimal, or no notes, so as to sound as natural and conversational in their delivery as possible. On the other hand, if not having the full speech written out makes you so flustered you can’t speak, then a conversational delivery is the least of your worries.

One exercise to see where you might stand is to simply sit at your keyboard and try to ad-lib a conversation between two of your characters. If you can spout witty, or at least usable, dialogue on command, then it may not be quite as crucial for you to have every scene outlined ahead of time. The same thing can be tried with an action scene, though in my experience those can be a bit harder to do on the fly. If you found both of those exercises stressful, like you were being put on the spot, then a thorough outline will probably save you a lot of stress and effort.

An outline doesn’t have to be supremely elaborate either. It can be as simple as a theme, a list of plot points and a character directory – the bare bones that you weave your story around. You may find however, as you list the crucial sequence of events, that you are already working out how everything fits together, leading to greater and greater detail as you fit the pieces together.

The more I write, the more I find myself refining the way in which I develop each story. For the bigger projects, I’ll actually have the outline attached to the end of my manuscript for easy consultation. Mainly this takes the form of a list of major events in chronological order, though the detail in which they are described is extremely variable. As each point is covered in the story, I delete it from the slowly-shortening outline. I could do this with a separate document, but flipping between them is more of a distraction – your mileage may vary.

Like most people, inspiration doesn’t always strike me in a convenient or timely fashion. The first novel I wrote is a prime example of this. The first section was pretty well hashed out in 1990. I got a great new idea for the end (which completely changed the entire tone of the story) in 1994. The middle section wasn’t really completed until 2003. While I was still writing in a linear, first to last fashion, the climax of the story had already been thoroughly worked out in my head. The last twenty thousand words were written in little more than a day – to my vast relief.

What does this mean for me? I’ll often be struck with an idea of how to do a particular scene I have planned, well before I’ve reached that point in the actual writing. That’s where the remaining outline comes in handy. I type up a quick summary of the scene, or whatever aspects of it I got an idea for, and then insert it into the appropriate section of the outline. That way it is preserved for when I do get to that point in the story. If I try to just remember it, not only would I risk the details being lost, but worrying about forgetting it would detract from my focus on the current scene.

Having this partially-fleshed outline also makes foreshadowing easier for me to set up. The more you can make your readers go back and say “I should have seen that coming”, the better. And if you are like me, you will always come up with new complications and plot twists as you write the actual story. Sometimes these will be worth altering your outline to incorporate. Sometimes they should best be saved for another story. But I try to write everything down as it comes to me so I don’t lose it.

That seems to be a common theme in many of my writing practices. As my father would say “Don’t keep a dog and bark for yourself.” If you work on a computer, then use it to take some of the burden off of your own brain. That’s why I record any ideas that occur to me that aren’t going to be incorporated into the current scene – so I can stop thinking about them. Free up as much as you can of your short term memory and other mental resources so you can fully focus on the current scene. Anything that makes it easier to breathe life into your characters, anything that enhances the actual creative process, anything that makes it easier for you to get the words down, that is my definition of a "best practice."

Matthew Schocke is the author of the forthcoming The Deal and The Journey in the World of Dreams series.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Writing Descriptions of Characters

by Lynda Sappington.

In one of the writing forums I'm on, a poster mentioned a problem she was having describing a character. Several suggestions were offered, including my own favorite (and the one I use on a regular basis for certain people in my novels): "Cast" your characters with actors or other public figures who resemble what you have in mind for your character, and it will be easier to describe them. If they're actors and you're familiar with their body of work, you'll even be able to picture them in various situations, which could be very helpful.

Despite having a "real" person in mind as your "model" (and stay away from family and close friends as models so you won't have to worry about offending them if your character does something they might not appreciate!), you may still have trouble coming up with good words to describe them. In that case, it could be useful to get a group of friends or fellow writers who are familiar with this person to offer their own descriptions. Not only could this be helpful to you, but it could be a lot of fun. (Whimsical me, I can see this as a party game, LOL!)

Imagine, if you will, Brad Pitt. How would you describe him? Boyishly handsome? What, beyond "sometimes blond, definitely blue-eyed, dimpled and cute" could you say about him? Imagine Clint Eastwood (not as the cute young "Rowdy Yates" on "Rawhide" on TV, but as the man he is today). You might describe him as "craggy" and "squinty-eyed" if you were writing a western. How would you describe his face if you were writing a romance about older folks? "Weathered," maybe? If you were writing a western starring Clint Eastwood, you might describe him as "rangy" or "rawboned," both of which bring to my mind the image of someone who's tall and thin. If the story was a western and he was someone who'd been through hard times, you might use a horseman's analogy: "He looked like he'd been rode hard and put up wet" (which is something you don't want to do to a horse, BTW).

Descriptions of characters can be very difficult to manage, or they can be fun. I prefer to use fun methods whenever possible (writing's hard work a lot of the time, so finding the "fun" in it is definitely something I prefer!). Don't spend all your time with your nose in a thesaurus and your butt in the computer chair. Go out in the real world (a mall, perhaps) and start writing character sketches of the people you see passing by. Or get your friends to toss out descriptive terms for actors you're all familiar with: Michael Douglas, both when he was young ("Romancing the Stone") and now; Catherine Zeta-Jones; Angelina Jolie; Angela Lansbury; Harrison Ford (both from "Star Wars" and now); Daniel Radcliffe (from the first Harry Potter film and now, perhaps including "December Boys" and "Equus"); Jodie Foster, Michael Jackson, Christian Bale, both as child stars and now. Have fun with this exercise and do it often, and your character's descriptions should become easier to write.

Lynda Sappington is the author of Star Sons 1: Dawn of the Two coming soon from WHS Publishing.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

So You Think You Can Write

by Anne Walsh

You’re right, you can. Anyone over the age of eight can write. Writing well, though, that’s a whole 'nother kettle of fish, a whole different ball game, a whole . . . you get the idea.

I’d tend to describe myself as an advanced journeyman writer. I’m not an apprentice anymore, but I’m not worthy of being called a master yet. I served my apprenticeship writing worshipful stories based on my favorite books and movies, in which the heroes usually fell madly in love with women who had enormous power and a surprising lack of self-confidence. Fortunately, the act of writing the stories and the impressed reaction from the people I dared to show them to increased my self-confidence tremendously, and my heroines became far less annoying from that point on.

My journeyman work, still in progress, consists of stories set in two or three different fantasy universes. One of these, a world called Trycanta, grew faster than its compatriots, in the process giving rise to what I think will be my masterpiece, in the original sense of the word—the work by which the journeyman proves to her peers, and to the world, that she has passed her final tests and can truly be considered a master of her craft. This is my novel, Dangerous Truths, currently in pieces on my hard drive (though I recently came to a conclusion about one of the main characters that I think will speed revisions tremendously).

One more point before I get to the advice part: If you just like to play with words every so often, or you’ve toyed with the idea of writing a novel because it sounds like fun, that’s wonderful. You have my admiration and my encouragement. However, my experience has been more from the “mustwritenownownow” side, and my advice is tailored more towards that group.

With all this in mind, read on!

1. Read. Read, read, read. Read everything you can get your hands on, every genre you’ve ever wanted to try, and even a few you’re not sure about. You might surprise yourself. When you find an author you like, read more of his work. Read people who have collaborated with him. Read people who mention him as inspiration, or whom he mentions as such.

2. Obviously, enjoy what you read, but think about it as well. What makes this book so enjoyable for you? The well-drawn, rounded, believable characters? The strong plot which carries the story along swiftly? The music of the language itself, whether it be a rock song or a classical symphony or a hymn? All these are desirable in writing, but which is the most important to you?

3. Write. Write, write, write. Write about anything and everything. Describe your dog so well that someone on the other side of the world would be able to draw a picture of her. Turn your day into an action movie, a romantic comedy, a Shakespearean tragedy. No matter if you think it’s horrible, if you will never show it to anyone, if you put it all on a flash drive marked “DESTROY ME”, write something every day.

4. Listen to people talk. Dialogue and description must work side by side in a story, and properly handled, dialogue can both advance your plot and round out your characters. So pay attention to the speech around you. Have three different people—a child, a friend, and an older person—tell you about the same thing or event, and notice the differences in their vocabulary, their pacing, the structures of their sentences. Tune in on the way men talk to women and vice versa, and then on the way men talk to men or women to women.

5. Get some critics you can trust, and be prepared for pain. It hurts to have someone tell you you’re not perfect, even when you’re expecting it and you know they don’t mean you real harm. You’ll be mad, you’ll feel betrayed, and that’s normal—but do your ranting and raving in private. When you’ve cooled off, look again at the criticism. Is it valid? If it is, what can you do about it? Good criticism can do more for your writing than anything except practice, if you let it.

6. Always think of your audience. Who will read this? Your cat, Ted? Your mother and aunt? Your teacher and classmates? Your little cousin and her rambunctious ten-year-old friends? Even if you had the same outline in front of you, you’d write very differently for each of those groups. Think about the audience you intend to read your work in the same way. What will they expect? Should you fulfill those expectations? If not, what will you give them that’s better?

7. And finally, enjoy yourself. Yes, writing is work, and very hard work at times. There are days when getting a chapter finished feels to me like giving birth, and taking out a word like having a tooth pulled. But by and large, I love to write. When my fingers are on the keyboard, my mind is somewhere else, somewhere that exists only to me—and I can bring it to other people, help them to see what I see, or a close approximation of it. By writing, by creating, I confirm to myself that I am made in the image of God the Creator. (My incredibly profound apologies to any atheists, agnostics, polytheists, or people of undecided spirituality who may have been offended by the preceding sentence. I suggest you never read my work.)

So do I think I can write?

I certainly think I can try.

Yoda, eat your heart out.

Anne Walsh is the author of Dangerous Truths and related stories.