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Posts published in “Technique”

GROW, Every Day

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So I read a lot and write a lot and occasionally edit what I write and even more rarely, something gets sent to an editor and turned into a publication. But this seems slow, for always there are more thoughts that I have in my head than I seem to have time to put onto a page and share.

Also I seem to get stuck in ruts. Actually I like ruts - I’m in one now, eating near my house and bank and pet food store at a restaurant with really good iced tea - but only ruts that are good for getting things done, like ruts in a well-trodden road.

When ruts leave you spinning your wheels in the mud, it’s time for a change. This can be as simple as engaging the locking hubs on your stuck all-wheel drive truck to get out of the mud, but you have to know that those locks are there to engage them. (True story).

So in order to grow, you need to learn. But if you learn, and you don’t tell anyone, then when you die, what you learn is gone. Fortunately, at the dawn of history humans learned how to speak to the dead, if only the dead are first willing to share, through their stories.

I don’t recommend waiting until you’re dead to tell your story. (Most people find that disturbing). Instead, it’s better to organize your thoughts - to reflect on what happened, what you’ve learned, and to package it the lesson with its context so it’s easy to share, like knowledge in a little case.

But I don’t do that all that well. I read for entertainment, and I occasionally write things down, but I rarely reflect, and I even more rarely share. But in my attempt to grow, I’ve read some things that made me think, and it made me want to find a way to make me share.

I like to LEARN, of course, usually some technical material related to writing or my job, and I’m now consciously reading books to GROW, like Art Matters by Neil Gaiman or It’s Not How Good You Are but How Good You Want To Be by Paul Arden. But I don’t take time to ORGANIZE those thoughts, nor do I seem to take time to SHARE them. That made me think.

I already take time to LEARN and GROW. I’ve already decided I need to take more time to ORGANIZE my thoughts, to be a better scientist. Can I also take some time to SHARE? Maybe I can put all those together into, like, an acronym! And that acronym will help me do it!

Okay, then, let’s go: LEARN-GROW-ORGANIZE-SHARE. LGOS!

Well.

That’s a terrible acronym.

Alright, alright, if first you don’t succeed, go home and rethink your life. Or something like that, like rethink your acronym. LEARN and GROW need to come before ORGANIZE and SHARE, but G is a better thing to start a word with, as GL or GR is a more common start than LG.

And I’m doing it to GROW. So perhaps it could be GROW LEARN, or GROW READ, naturally followed by ORGANIZE. That gets us GRO, which followed by S for SHARE is one letter short of GROSS; but what if instead we got to the point, and said what we have to do: WRITE.

So, here’s what I recommend to you (well, actually, to me): take some time every day to

  • GROW yourself by
  • READing to learn,
  • ORGANIZing your thoughts, and share them by
  • WRITING

GROW-READ-ORGANIZE-WRITE: GROW. Why, that’s nicely recursive: GROW to GROW! Since it is recursive, let me try this GROW thing out with this very GROW thought.

There.

How did it go?

-Anthony

How to be a Better Writer

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A notebook in a bookstore coffeehouse, with coffe.

About four years ago, one of my colleagues at work found out I was a writer and asked, "So, tell me Anthony, how can I be a better writer?"

I don't claim any special wisdom in this department, but I do claim two things: first, that I have opinions about the matter, and second, that I wrote a long email to my friend about it, an email which I thought I'd posted on my blog. Unfortunately, after an extensive search, I wasn't able to find the post.

Now, I could attempt to clean this email up prior to posting it here, but I'm afraid that if I do that, I'll just end up going several years without posting it.

SO! Here's that email, largely unedited, on "How to be a better writer!"

Sorry it took so long to respond to your question about how to be a better writer - I thought I wrote an article on this on my blog, or perhaps in an email to a friend, but if so, I couldn't find it. Then I tried to write a long response, but that turned into something book length. So let me give you the short version.

  • First, just write! That's the best thing anyone can do to become a better writer. Ten thousand hours of practice can build mastery in almost any skill, so the first thing you can do to help yourself is to write regularly - preferably, about whatever comes to mind, so you're not trying to practice when you're on the spot.
  • Try morning pages. The best tool I know to help people get into the habit of writing is to write morning pages - writing, each day, ideally when you get up, three pages in a notebook. Write bla bla bla if you have to - you'll get bored of it quickly, and will write what comes to mind.
  • Take a creativity course. The book The Artist's Way is one of the most famous of these, and it's what inspires me to suggest morning pages. Actually, I've never finished this course - I always get so energized just trying it that I get sucked off into my own projects. Try one that works for you.
  • Read more than you write. You can't consciously choose the words that come out as you write them; they come from your subconscious. So it's important to feed your subconscious with a lot of interesting material to help you generate a lot of interesting material of your own.
  • Read great writing of the type you want to create. What you enjoy reading most might not be the writing you want to emulate most, so hunt down the great writers of the type of writing you're aiming for, read them, and try to figure out what you like about them - and what makes them tick.
  • Read great books on writing. The first two I always recommend to people are Ayn Rand's (yes, that Ayn Rand) The Art of Fiction and The Art of Nonfiction. More than any book I've ever read, the Art of Fiction boils down what makes good fiction writing. John Gardner's On Being a Novelist is another great, but there are so many of these it's hard to pick one.
  • Read great books on style. The two I recommend to people the most are The Elements of Style by Strunk and White and Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon. Strunk and White is the classic, and Building Great Sentences is its antidote. If you have to pick one, pick Building Great Sentences - hands down.
  • Do writing exercises. There are many, many of these - The Artist's Way has some, at Barnes and Noble you can find dozens of books like 500 Writing Prompts or Creativity Bootcamp that have others; the important thing is to try different writing styles on.
  • Try timed challenges. Write to the End (writetotheend.com) tries 20 minute writing challenges; Shut Up and Write ( meetup.com/shutupandwritesfo ) tries (I think) an hour; National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo.org) tries 50,000 words in a month. These cure you of the notion you need to wait for your muse.
  • Join a writing group. Not a critique group - those are dangerous until you get more confidence in and acceptance of your own writing (and a thicker skin). I already mentioned Write to the End and Shut Up and Write, but there are many more (even some at Google, such as the Creative Writing Lunch).
  • Take on writing projects. Write novels, write stories, write essays, write memoirs, write documentation, write songs, write plays, write poetry, write haiku, write impenetrable postmodern explorations of what it means for something to be writing - but take on a writing project that has a beginning, middle, and end ...
  • Finish what you write! This is so important I wanted to write this earlier, but the problem is, it depends on what you're writing for. If you just want to improve your skill, reading Strunk and White might do it - but if you want your writing to go further, you need to finish what you write.
  • Don't edit while you write! Some people do this very well, but most people have two modes: producing text, and refining text. Unless you're very confident in your ability to not rework the first paragraph of something forever, make sure you first finish, then edit. But before you do that ...
  • Let your manuscripts cool off. It's hard to have perspective right after you've finished something. At least sleep on it, if you have time; ideally, come back to a story after a week or two and see if what you wrote before still makes sense to you and does what you wanted it to. In the meantime ...
  • Work on something else. Start something new. Creating a new work has an almost magical way of solving problems you have in the work you have cooling on the back burner. Your skills improve, you're not invested in your old ideas, and you come back with a fresh start.
  • Revise your work! Give your manuscript at least a once over. I guarantee, it's not perfect. The books Self Editing for Fiction Writers or The Elements of Editing can help you with this task. It's worth working on something a bit until you can't see anything obviously wrong to it.
  • Share your work with a friendly audience. You're not ready for a critique group yet; they're often way too harsh. What you want are three friendly reviewers: a coach to help with your skills, a critic to help find flaws, and a cheerleader to praise goodness - and if the cheerleader complains, listen very closely to them.
  • Revise your work again before sending it out. Listen to your friendly critics. Revise your work. Make it the best it can be. Then you're ready to send it out - to a critique group if you have to and if you have one, but ideally, to where you want the work received or published.
  • Keep your work circulating until sold. This may not apply to bloggers, writers of memoirs, and internal communications, but if you've got something you want to send to an external audience, send it to as many places as you can. Some great books went to dozens of publishers before getting accepted.
  • Don't argue with your critics. Whether it's a friend, a critique group, or an editor, they're not critiquing you to hurt your feelings. Listen carefully, and perhaps if there's some small misconception, feel free to clear it up, but ask yourself - why wasn't your story so clear that they got it the first time?
  • Solve the problems your critics raise, but don't feel compelled to use their solutions. Humans are great at confabulating fake reasons for the feelings they have. Don't feel the need to use every suggestion your critics raise - but if two or more have problems at the same spot, listen closely.
  • Learn from your genre. Whether it's writing a thesis, writing documentation, or writing science fiction stories, there are documents out there on the pitfalls of the genre and the techniques from success, from How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation to the Evil Overlord List.
  • Learn from the style guide. If you're aimed at a particular market, whether it's a science fiction magazine accepting William Shunn's document format, or a book publisher who wants the Chicago Manual of Style, or it's the American Psychological Association, read the style book. With a grain of salt, of course.
  • Learn from publication. Once something is published, take a look at the published work. I can guarantee you, you'll find something about it you'd do differently now, whether it's a typo or a new way to phrase things. Think carefully about this difference and what it can teach you.
  • Find a great critique group. By this point, you've been exposed to enough information to have your own opinions and to make up your own mind - and that's the right time to engage a whole bunch of other opinionated, thoughtful people to get their ideas of how to improve your work.
  • Find a great workshop. These are harder to get into, but put you in touch with great writers of your particular genre or style and can really take you to the next level, if that's what you want.
  • Find a great program - or embark on a great project. If you really want to be a writer, some people suggest a MFA program or other longer-term, intensive course. I simply prefer to take on little projects like 21 book urban fantasy series; these force you to learn some of the same things. :-D
Well, that's about it for the short version. As I said ... the long version's probably a book. :-) I hope this helps! Please feel free to ask me more questions!
And there you have it. I hope that's not a repeat!
-the Centaur

Back to Dragon Con!

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Hail, fellow adventurers! If you want to experience our world the way Jeremiah Willstone and her friends first experienced it, there’s no better way than to come to Dragon Con in Atlanta! I’ve been going to Dragon Con longer than almost any con - certainly longer than any still-running con - and after enough time here they put me on panels! And here they are:

  • Practical Time Travel for the Storyteller
    Sat 05:30 pm / Athens - Sheraton
    Panelists: Darin M. Bush, Michael J. Martinez, S.M. Stirling, Anthony Francis, Jack Campbell
    This panel discusses the real science behind time travel, as well as how these scientific theories can place both challenging and rewarding demands on the stories we tell. Time dilation, the grandfather paradox, and more will be explained as we discuss the stories that reference these theories.
  • Partners: Collaborating on Your Novel
    Sun 11:30 am / Embassy CD - Hyatt
    Panelists: Nancy Knight, Janny Wurts, Anthony Francis, Clay and Susan Griffith, Gordon Andrews, Ilona Andrews
    When writers collaborate, the results can be great--or horrible. How do you insure that your collaboration turns out well?
  • Plotting or Plodding?
    Sun 02:30 pm / Embassy CD - Hyatt
    Panelists: Janny Wurts, Anthony Francis, Lee Martindale, Richard Kadrey, Laura Anne Gilman, Melissa F Olson
    It's the story, stupid! Everybody loves a great story. This panel discusses how to create that unforgettable story roiling within you.
  • Magic Practitioners in Urban Fantasy: Witches and Warlocks
    Mon 10:00 am / Chastain 1-2 - Westin
    Panelists: Jeanne P Adams, David B. Coe, Linda Robertson, Kevin O. McLaughlin, Anthony Francis, Melissa F Olson
    Witches and warlocks in the genre range from being an accepted part of their communities to the most feared. Our panel of authors will discuss the characteristics of those in their works.
  • Write a Damn Good Book
    Mon 11:30 am / Embassy CD - Hyatt
    Panelists: Bill Fawcett, Peter David, E.K. Johnston, Diana Peterfreund, Anthony Francis

    Writers worry about all sorts of things, but the first thing to worry about is writing a great book. Here's how.

Other fun things at the con are the Parade, the Masquerade, performances by the Atlanta Radio Theater Company, and, of course, The Cruxshadows. So come on down and hang out with 80,000 fans of fantasy and science fiction! Some of them may become your new best friends.

-The Centaur

Guest Post on Speculative Chic!

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What makes you hang on the edge of your seat? I call that a favorite, and I talk about some of my current faves over at the Speculative Chic blog!

[embed]http://speculativechic.com/2017/12/18/my-favorite-things-with-anthony-francis/[/embed]

Go check it out!

 

 

How to Get Published, in Ninety Words

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Hoisted from Facebook:

Q. How should I start looking into getting published?
A. T
he most important thing is writing. The next most important thing is finishing. The next next most important thing is researching markets and sending things out. If you are doing all that, there are two other great force multipliers: not waiting to start your next piece while the previous ones are out, and networking - going where other authors are: cons, writing conferences, writing workshops. If you are doing all that, get yourself an agent - it is the next big multiplier.

And that's it, in 95 words! Paraphrasing Robert Heinlein, to get published, you've got to write, you've got to finish what you write, you've got to send out what you write until it gets sold. But if you really want to get published, you can't wait on that first piece to succeed; you need to go ahead and start the next one. And you can't rely on your own ability to find opportunities and markets; you've got to find other writers and editors to help you find the right home for your work. And if you're doing all that, you're on the path to having interesting enough work to attract an agent, so you might as well start looking.

-the Centaur

The Way to Succeed at Nano is to Put Nano First

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Hey gang, now that I've succeeded at National Novel Writing Month nineteen times, I thought I'd take a little time out to tell you that my secret to National Novel Writing Month success is to put Nano first.

Now, that seems obvious - almost, like, too obvious to be advice - but I want to put it into perspective by first asking you a few questions.

  1. Do you care about finishing what you write?
    If you don't, don't worry about the above advice. Write what you want, how you want it, when you want it. Again, this seems obvious, but I want to make sure you understand whether this advice applies to you. I started to write "Do you care about writing success?" but then I realized everyone has their own definition of writing success, whether they realize it or not. A beloved friend, Jan, just died, and I will never again hear her read her stories at our local writing group - and you're never likely to read them, as she was more into having fun writing than she ever was about getting her stories published. She was a success at writing without ever needing publication, or even necessarily to to finish everything she wrote. We'll miss you, Jan, but we'll never worry about whether you were having fun: that was obvious.
  2. Do you care about completing Nanowrimo?
    Again, I almost wrote "Do you care about succeeding at Nano" as I did in the title of this essay, but every word is a victory in National Novel Writing Month. It doesn't really matter whether you wrote one word or a hundred thousand if Nano helped you write it. But, again, if you don't care whether you hit that magic 50K, then don't worry about the advice in this article.
  3. Do you care more about finishing Nanowrimo than doing the comfortable things that you've always done?
    This is the most important part. Some people need to wait for their muse. Some need to plan ahead. Some need to do other things that seem so important to them. Maybe they are. But given my writing style, those things don't seem so important to me, and given my obsessive-compulsive personality, I'm not going to take on a challenge unless I intend to finish it. But maybe that's not you: you need your outline or your muse or your whatever in your life to make writing possible. That's OK! I know great writers like that. They don't generally take on Nanowrimo, that's all, as Nanowrimo doesn't work for them.

If you think it will work for you - if you want to finish what you write, and you want to take on the Nanowrimo challenge to write 50,000 words and you want to finish it, and you are willing to do things differently in order to make that success happen - then here's the secret:

Put completing National Novel Writing Month first.

Well, okay, yes, you gotta breathe, and you gotta eat, and don't get fired - however. There are a lot of things that creative people do, and if you want to succeed at National Novel Writing Month, you may need to change them. For example:

  • Turn off your Internet. Frequently when writing, I hit a speedbump, go look something up, and dig into Wikipedia or TV Tropes or (no joke) find myself reading the city planning documents of a harbor community in Newfoundland to carefully craft some details that will only appear in a paragraph or two of a whole novel. That's my process, and it's produced a number of well-received novels of which I'm proud. During National Novel Writing Month, however, I frequently turn off the Internet on my laptop until I've gotten my magic 1,666 words per day.
  • Put off your Blogging. I like to blog, but it seems I don't do a lot of it. The reason for this is that I've started doing Nano-like challenges three times per year - Camp Nano in April and July, plus Nano in November - and the rest of the time I focus on finishing manuscripts, editing them, or publishing other people's manuscripts. I have dozens upon dozens of notes for blogposts written on scraps, stored in Scrivener files, even half-finished in Ecto; but during Nano, I put Nano first.
  • Research after you Write. So many times this month, a pile like the below was on my table, awaiting my perusal, only to be put back into the bookbag or tote bag after I finish my writing. There's a problem in deep learning I'm trying to crack, and some mathematics I need to know to do it, and research for the Cinnamon Frost puzzle books; but I know from experience I can take my whole lunch break or even afternoon diving into mathematics or programming or research. During Nano,  I put the writing first. That forces me to go out into space in the story, even if sometimes I need reference when I edit the text.

  • Take Time off to Write. I am always an antisocial loner, having to force myself to go to lunch with my coworkers (rarely) or to dinner with my friends (equally rarely) or my writing peeps (less rarely, since I can excuse it to my brain as writing related). This isn't because I don't like the people that I like, but because I want to finish my books before I die. (I have a lot of books planned). During Nano, I'm even more jealous of my schedule, taking lunch breaks to write, sometimes bailing on group writing sessions to be alone, and, the big one, taking off Thanksgiving week to write. This year, for Night of Writing Dangerously, I got a hotel room, holed up in San Francisco after the Night, and wrote like mad. I almost finished BOT NET during this writing jag, and ended up finishing six days early because I took this time.
  • Reject your Comforting Illusions. This last one is the most dangerous advice which may not work for you or even apply to you, and it can be the hardest, but it is this: put getting the 1,666 words a day ahead of your imagination that you need to wait for your muse, or plot your story, or be in the mood, or anything else. Write crap if you have to. It counts (1 word). Write bla bla bla if you have to. It counts (3 words). 1,662 words to go. Feel that this isn't working for you? Write "Nanowrimo isn't working for me!" (5 words) or, even better, "National Novel Writing Month is not working for me!" (9 words). Feel this is a cheat and a sham? Write that down! (I guarantee explaining your feelings will get you  more than 9 words). Even better, write down what's wrong with your story and why you can't write any further and what you wish you were writing. That explanation in text will count as words ... and, more importantly, will probably start turning into text. Put another way, feel free to work out your frustrations and even to outline in your manuscript. It will become true words on the next pass ... and will put you ever closer to the end of your story. Once you have a path from beginning to end, believe me, you can revise it into a story that you will truly love.

So, that's it: if you want to succeed at Nano, put Nano first. Turn off your Internet, tune back your blogging, put off your research, and take time off to write. Most importantly, throw off your comforting illusions, feel free to outline or even to vent in your manuscript, knowing that each word you write isn't just getting you closer to success at Nanowrimo, it's getting you closer to having a beginning-to-end path through your story ... which you can then revise into a finished product.

And that's how I succeed at Nano. Try it. It could work for you too.

-the Centaur

My Daily Dragon Interview in Two Words: “Just Write!”

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So at Dragon Con I had a reading this year. Yeah, looks like this is the last year I get to bring all my books - too many, to heavy! I read the two flash fiction pieces in Jagged Fragments, "If Looks Could Kill" and "The Secret of the T-Rex's Arms", as well as reading the first chapter of Jeremiah Willstone and the Clockwork Time Machine, a bit of my and Jim Davies' essay on the psychology of Star Trek's artificial intelligences, and even a bit of my very first published story, "Sibling Rivalry". I also gave the presentation I was supposed to give at the SAM Talks before I realized I was double booked; that was "Risk Getting Worse".

But that wasn't recorded, so, oh dang, you'll have to either go to my Amazon page to get my books, or wait until we get "Risk Getting Worse" recorded. But my interview with Nancy Northcott for the Daily Dragon, "Robots, Computers, and Magic", however, IS online, so I can share it with you all. Even more so, I want to share what I think is the most important part of my interview:

DD: Do you have any one bit of advice for aspiring writers?

AF: Write. Just write. Don’t worry about perfection, or getting published, or even about pleasing anyone else: just write. Write to the end of what you start, and only then worry about what to do with it. In fact, don’t even worry about finishing everything—don’t be afraid to try anything. Artists know they need to fill a sketchbook before sitting down to create a masterwork, but writers sometimes get trapped trying to polish their first inspiration into a final product.

Don’t get trapped on the first hill! Whip out your notebook and write. Write morning pages. Write diary at the end of the day. Write a thousand starts to stories, and if one takes flight, run with it with all the abandon you have in you. Accept all writing, especially your own. Just write. Write.

That's it. To read more, check out the interview here, or see all my Daily Dragon mentions at Dragon Con here, or check out my interviewer Nancy Northcott's site here. Onward!

-the Centaur

 

 

Applied Plotonium at Clockwork Alchemy

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Boosting the signal ... I'll be joining my friend David Colby's panel APPLIED PLOTONIUM at 10am on Sunday at Clockwork Alchemy:

Applied Plotonium
Monterey - Sunday 10:00 AM

Applied Plotonium is a discussion and series of examples of worlds that are, in general, 100% scientifically accurate save for a SINGLE element of applied plotonium - a single element or feature that is downright fantastical. Eagerly explores extrapolation ending in exposition!
Presenter: David Colby

Moderator: Roger Que
Panelists: Anthony Francis, Michael Tierney

David Colby is the author of the hard science fiction young adult novel DEBRIS DREAMS (think "The Hunger Games meets Gravity") and proposed the panel to explore his love of making the science in science fiction not suck.

In addition to David and me, we've also shanghaied, er, convinced two of our  mutual friends to join in: writer and chemist Michael Tierney from the Treehouse Writers will join as a panelist, and the writer and computer scientist Roger Que from Write to the End will serve as our moderator.

Drop in - you'll enjoy yourself!

-the Centaur