So the turkeys are out again! Love to see these fellas in the yard. But they're not the only big ungainly birds out there. I've been reading a lot of writing books recently, and some of them have really great advice. True, in each good book there is, usually, at least one stinker.
But most of the good ones build on the two related ideas that "whatever works, works," so you can adapt their advice to your own needs - HOWEVER, "some things usually work better than others," so if you are having trouble, here are some tools you can try.
One thing I draw from this is a refutation of the idea that if an artist achieves their artistic vision then there's nothing wrong with that piece of art. Phooey. It may be great for them that they achieved their vision - heaven knows, I so rarely do that - but what they envision itself may be flawed.
Dwight Swain, who wrote Techniques of the Selling Writer, talks about this in audio courses built on his book. As a novelist, he claims you often don't know how good an idea is until you get a chapter or three into the story, and that if you find your idea doesn't work (or that you don't care about your protagonist), quit.
There's no shame in this. But if you've got the time, talent or treasure, you can sometimes push a bad idea to its logical conclusion without ever questioning the foundation. For example, hiring Samuel Jackson, but directing him to act woodenly as if he's in an old Republic serial (I'm looking at you, George Lucas).
What you focus on as your artistic vision is itself a matter of choice, and achieving your artistic vision does not mean that you'll end up with something that is aesthetically effective. Hey, as always, you're free to do you, but that doesn't mean that the rest of us are going to get what you've got.
So far, so good, on the new strategy of starting off with the projects, rather than the maintenance: I've tweeted, checked in with LinkedIn, worked on some non-fiction books, am blogging, and am about to switch gears to writing my Camp Nano entry, SPIRAL NEEDLE.
Jim taked to me about how prioritizing book-writing was critical for his process. I don't really have to do that for fiction - or, more properly, I have structured my entire life around ensuring I have time set aside for fiction writing, so at this point it is practically free - but non-fiction books are new to me.
But one of his other suggestions baffled me, not because it didn't make sense, but because it made too much sense - except I was already doing it, and it wasn't working. Jim pointed out that most people go through periods of vigilance, slump, and recovery during their day, and that as a morning person he reserved book writing, which required critical thinking, for his early vigilant time. Errands like bill-paying worked well for him in the slump, and he felt most creative in the recovery period in the evening.
Okay, great, I thought, I can use this. Already I can see shifting the order I do things in my day - as a night owl, I start my day off in the slump, recover from that, and then get increasingly and increasingly vigilant the further and further I go into the night. (If I have a project due and no obligations the next day, this can go on for hours and hours before exhaustion starts to outpace execution and productivity finally drops).
So maybe switch errands to earlier in the day, I thought, and productivity in the afternoon. But wait a minute: I'm already using my late nights for my most creative time. Why isn't this working.
What I realized is that I have an irregular schedule. In THEORY my late-night time is my most productive time, but in PRACTICE on some nights I get an hour, on some nights I get two (or five) and on some nights I am already so wiped that I really don't get much done at all.
But I do almost always get something done in the morning, even if it takes me time to get rolling. And for me, catching up on papers or writing notes or catching up on my blog is a mostly mechanical activity: it's not that creative thought isn't required, but it isn't to the level of, say, a novel or a scientific paper, where a hard-won sentence may be the result of a half an hour's search tracking down a key reference or fact, or, worse, an hour's worth of brainstorming alone or meeting with others to decide WHAT to write.
So: I can't count on myself to do a creative "chore" - something that has to be done regularly, like blogging or social media, or something that has to be done incrementally over a long period of time, like collating references or thoughts for a non-fiction book - by putting it in my evening creative block. The evening creative block is too irregular, and needs to be reserved for novels and art anyway.
The fix: blog (et al) in the morning.
Let's see how it goes.
Pictured: tomato and lettuce sandwiches for breakfast, with the leftovers of the tomato as a side dish. At the breakfast table is Christopher Bishop's Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning, also available as a PDF, the latest of a long series of "difficult breakfast table books" which I laboriously read through, a page at a time - sometimes, one page over several days, until I "get" it - to increase my understanding of the world. Past breakfast table books have included Machine Vision, A New Kind of Science, and Probability Theory: the Logic of Science, the first is out of date now, but the latter two are perennial and highly recommended.
Yeah. The microblogging will continue until the posting rate reaches 1/day.
I feel that one problem I have with "daily blogging" is that quick posts are no problem. But if I have a longer idea - but can't finish it in time - I then forget to do a shorter post to make up for it.
And missing a post itself is a problem. What I find when trying to build a regular practice (daily blogging, taking karate twice a week, whatever) is that if you skip one time, even for a "really good reason", then mysteriously the next two or three times you'll HAVE to skip for "unavoidable" reasons.
In this, case in point, I started writing a longer article on debugging software. There was more to it than I expected - I had wanted to make an off-the-cuff comment, and found my thoughts rapidly expanding - and then the next day I was flying, and the next day catching up on work, and the next day owed my part of the annual report to the church board, and so on. And then its DAYS later and boom no posts. I think at this point I am 8 behind in numbered posts, though there were a few un-numbered ones which I would count, except, if I don't, it makes the problem harder, which helps build the discipline I'm trying to build.
SO! Let's get back on that horse then. Update metadata, hit publish.
Pictured: my evening work ritual, 2-3 times a week when I'm not having dinner with my wife, is to go to some place to eat (preferably one with a bar or high top tables, so I can stretch out my bum knee), crack open a book, and read a chunk of a chapter while having a nice meal. Most of my books get read this way.
Well, it's that time of year again ... 65,000 of my closest friends have gotten together in five hotels and two convention halls in Atlanta to celebrate all things science fiction!
My schedule is below. I worked right up to the start of the con, so am just now posting this two days later, but for the benefit of the time travelers in my audience, I'll include the first two panels:
8:30pm - Start Now, Research! - Hyatt Embassy EF How much research is enough? How much is too much? When do you stop doing research and start writing?
7:00pm - The People Who Live in Your Book - Hyatt Embassy EF Characters rise off the page and become people--if they're well-crafted. Discover ways to make this happen in your fiction.
10:00pm - Stories Needed: Get Yourself Invited into an Anthology - Hyatt Embassy EF There's an anthology being published that might just work for a story you have in mind. Or, when you hear about an anthology and KNOW you have a story for it, what do you do? Get some professional help from our pros.
10:00am - Writing About Star Trek - Hilton Galleria 2-3 There are thousands of worlds within Star Trek, and thousands of topics to talk about. Where do we start? Join a panel of published writers to discuss what's worth discussing in Trek books, articles and more
1:00pm - Where Do You Get Your Ideas? - Hyatt Embassy EF This is a question that every writer gets asked by everyone they know. What is the answer to that question?
2:30pm - Predicting the Future - Hyatt Embassy EF Where in the world is fiction headed? Do the old tropes still work? What's fresh and new for the future?
At each panel, I'll be giving away signed copies of the writing inspiration book Your Writing Matters by my friend Keiko O'Leary. This is the latest release from Thinking Ink Press, and we're very proud of it! No matter where you are on your writing journey, I think this book can probably help you, so come on by!
Well, after a long hard month and many ups and downs, I have successfully completed Camp Nanowrimo, one of the three yearly National Novel Writing Month challenges to write 50,000 words of a novel in a month - and this is my 32nd time claiming viiictory!
This was one of the more challenging Nanos for me, as April is our quarterly planning month, and on top of that we decided to switch managers within our team and to switch to semester planning in our org. So that led to a dip in the beginning, where it was hard for me to get my groove.
The blood on the deck continued almost to the end of Camp Nano. This month's project was my third go at JEREMIAH WILLSTONE AND THE FLYING GARDENS OF VENUS, and I found it particularly difficult to get momentum as the story is more complicated than normal, with a new protagonist Puck taking center stage in addition to Jeremiah. You can see the dip compared to past Nanos:
I felt like I was struggling and stumbling with the story, writing and rewriting scenes, trying out different alternates (I count these as words written; editing can come later). However, as I rolled into the end of the month, these struggles started to pay off, as I understood better what was up with Puck, why so many weird things happened around her, and what role they played in the story.
Over the years of doing Nano, I've reached this particular point of the enterprise many times - a point which I sometimes call "going off the rails". This is the point where the story seems to gel, and I think it happens when I go from exploring the logical consequences of a set of characters in a situation - which is where I start almost all of my writing - to creatively injecting things into the story that could not be predicted from its beginnings. These still need to be grounded in the plot and consistent with the characters, but there's a difference between the things you typically expect to happen in a scenario and truly creative innovations which cannot be predicted from the setting alone - what the Mythcreants writing team calls Novelty in their ANTS framework (Attachment, Novelty, Tension and Satisfaction).
Over almost 20 years, I've had this creative spark, this "going off the rails" many, many times, and stories always seem better for it. I have tackled 16 Nanowrimos so far out of 34 monthly challenges (also counting Camp Nano and Script Frenzy) and have successfully completed it 32 times.
Each time for me, it's facing those middling slumps, facing the places where I've fallen out of love with my own story, that ultimately kickstart my creativity into high gear and make me fall in love with my work again.
That happened this time, even though I wanted to give up. I know Nano doesn't work for everyone, so your mileage may vary, but for me, as I've often found in other arenas of my life, you sometimes have to work just a little bit harder than you want to to reach an outcome which is far better than you have any right to expect. That was true with Cinnamon, originally a side character in the first Dakota Frost about whom I have now drafted three novels, and it is turning out to be true here with Puck as well, the Girl Who Could Wish, now turning into a truly interesting twist.
Oh, an excerpt. Let me see if I have some rough draftiness lying around here ...
“It’s an ecosystem,” Puck murmured. “There’s a whole ecosystem in the floatbergs—”
One of the jellyfloats wandered under one of the falls, and screamed, terrifyingly human-like, as it steamed and melted—and then Puck realized what the liquid was: sulfuric acid. This was an upper-atmosphere floatberg, its engineered bacteria designed to harvest sulfuric acid from the air—and as the floatberg disintegrated, the collected sulfuric acid which had not been processed was now spilling out in uncontrolled streams, destroying whatever had inhabited this cavern.
“I’m sorry,” Puck said to her little audience. “I … I think it’s too late.”
One of the bigger parakeys, with a crest, hopped up on her knee.
“Is that a vest?” she said, touching a bit of what looked like cloth. “You … you can’t be intelligent creatures, now can you? How could you start a whole civilization up here? Floatbergs only go back a few hundred years, and they don’t last for more than months, maybe weeks—”
The parakey chieftain, if that’s what it was, cheeped at her.
Puck drew a breath.
“I wish this cave could be saved,” she said carefully. The crowd of parakeys cheeped and beeped, and the chieftain pawed at her and cheeped even louder, like a little screech, and she relented. “Alright, a proper, non-conditional wish this time. I wish this cave would be—”
The bottom dropped out from beneath them.
Poor Puck! She can't seem to cut a break. But at least I know who and what she is now, and how she's related to Jeremiah, and can therefore move forward with this story with confidence.
So, let’s set the stage: I’m a writer, learning to be vegan … and a fan of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal series about an erudite cannibal. Hannibal itself is one of my favorite books: while the world Harris creates is dark and depressing, that world feels compellingly real to me — which leaves me in the unenviable position of having a mental model of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, as played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, leaning over my shoulder and judging me while I’m cooking.
Now, don’t get me wrong – he’s not judging me for my plant-based cooking (I’m not a vegan, but I am married to one, and I’m trying). He’s judging me based on my poor technique, my unrefined tastes, and my willingness to prepare quick meals when I’ve got work to do. But as a writer, I’m fascinated with how Harris created a world so realistic that I’ve built up a mental model of a nonexistent person.
For the rest, please check it out at the Milford blog. Milford is a great writing conference and I recommend it to everyone: I describe more of Milford and my experiences here:
Are you interested in the Milford SF Writer’s Conference? A year ago, I definitely was! I was in the middle of the Taos Toolbox Writer’s Workshop and couldn’t get enough of its “Milford-Style Critique” – a collaborative process in which a dozen or so writers critique each other’s stories in a circle of peers. For each story, every attendee offers 2-3 minutes of commentary (timed) to which the writer listens (quietly), at which point they may respond, followed by open discussion.
Please go check them out! And be nice to people, or one of them might eat you.
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!
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
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.
How did it go?
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!
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.