This week we’re talking about the best and worst writing advice we’ve ever received. When it comes to the best, it’s hard to narrow it down. There’s advice I return to book after book, like “get in late; get out early” and “editors and critique partners are almost always right when they point out a problem, but that doesn’t mean they’re right about how to fix it.” Then there’s advice that comes to me when I need it, that’s brilliant and world-changing for that particular time in my life or that particular book, like “it’s about the career, not about this one book”, or “when you keep a secret from a reader, make sure you have a darn good reason.” Sometimes they’re things I knew already and had somehow managed to forget (like that secret thing). Sometimes they’re things I had never heard before but I really needed to. For instance, last year, I read “if you don’t risk being garish, you risk being bland” — which opened up a whole new thought process for me. I’d just come off writing a very austere book, and I was jumping into something completely different in tone, and I needed to hear that it was okay to go hog wild and revel in the lush weirdness, rather than rein it in.
So what’s the best writing advice I’ve ever received? Whatever resonates for the situation I’m in.
As for the worst… well. I think the worst writing advice is the kind that becomes a cliche, where people don’t really think about what they’re saying before they say it. I’ve yet to read a good article about “show vs. tell” for example. I tend to think of that kind of thing as a “I know it when I see it” — when you try to distill it to examples, all you end up doing is making it look like “showing” takes longer (when in actuality, you can pull it off in no time flat if you have the right instance). Lotsofgoodadvicegoesbad, so much in fact, that I wrote a whole series several years ago about the subject on my blog. If people start giving you lots of “rules” — lots of “you MUST do this, you CAN’T do that” then you can guarantee that you’re in the realm of bad advice.
(Maybe the best writing advice I’ve ever gotten is actually, “It’s all in the execution,” as that’s the antidote to any advice-gone-bad.)
Years ago, soon after I got a job working for a newspaper in my hometown of Tampa, Florida, I found myself at a cocktail party of a family friend. A few months earlier, I had moved from New York City, where I’d been working two jobs (answering phones at an insurance company, and stocking at Pottery Barn), to Florida, where I’d gotten the aforementioned newspaper job. I was twenty-three years old. Anyway, I found myself trapped in one of those random conversations with a middle-aged gentleman, who took it upon himself to inform the young thing he was talking to that if she really wanted to be a writer, she should move to New York. (He was not, it should be noted, a writer himself.)
“That would be difficult,” I said, “since my writing job is here.”
Writers live in New York, he insisted. That’s where all the opportunities are.
“When I lived in New York,” I replied, “I answered phones for a living. Here, I write for a living.”
I would never be successful unless I went to New York. Writers don’t live in Florida.
The conversation went downhill from there.
I never did move back to New York. I stayed in Florida, I traveled through Australia and New Zealand, and I wrote four books and a novella. I moved to Washington, D.C., where I wrote a book based on an idea I got while still in Florida, then sold it and became a full-time writer. I’m still in D.C., seven years and nine sold novels later. I visit New York from time to time, but I have no desire to move there. In fact, I often think I’d be better off in an even smaller town than D.C. A writer’s money is the same wherever she goes, and it would go a lot farther someplace like Oklahoma or rural Massachusetts, where some of the most successful writers I know live.
I know writers who live in New York and love it. That town is not for me, and fortunately, it doesn’t need to be. The worst writing advice is the one that says “have to.” There are many roads through this forest. I’ve yet to see a rule that hasn’t been successfully broken.
HelenKay’s post from yesterday hit home for me. 2012 has already, a little more than three months in, been a tough one for me. Sicknesses, inconsistent childcare, and a variety of home/life issues have conspired to make it nearly impossible for me to work on anything like a regular schedule. According to the schedule I laid out for myself at the beginning of the year, by this time I was supposed to have written two short stories, be finishing up the final round of edits for my latest manuscript (which I was supposed to have finished in January) and be well on my way with a new one. Instead, I’ve written two short stories and am in the middle of rewrites for my manuscript, which didn’t get finished until March.
This also happened in 2010. I was pregnant, and very sick, and unable to finish my manuscript. Thus the book that was originally scheduled for a 2011 fall release is going to be out this June. I established my writing habits at a much different time in my life, when I was single and childless, and could easily put all other aspects of my life on hold while I hunkered down over my keyboard. HelenKay’s depiction of unwashed hair and sweats is an accurate one for a writer on deadline, but it’s one that applies to this harried mother of a toddler on a normal day right now. I can’t ignore her for days (or even minutes) on end while I try to work. And it’s not just a matter of feeding/dressing/changing/rocking/reading books, either. There’s an emotional energy component. I know a writer with kids who used to argue “I’m not a faucet. I can’t just turn on and off.” Just because I have fifteen minutes to myself doesn’t mean I’ll be able to concentrate for that time.
Or does it? I used to swear by the power of what I could get done in fifteen minutes. Back when I had a day job, it would be “write on the subway, write during lunch hour, write on the subway, write while dinner was in the oven…” I wrote six books that way, fifteen stolen minutes at a time. Am I just getting older, or is it something else?
During times like these, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s the latter. Even back in the day, when I wasn’t writing, I didn’t have a lot of other concerns. My brain space was still very much in the world of my book. But now, even as I type this blog entry, I’m thinking about whether I need to go grocery shopping or if my daughter is still too young for an Easter basket. This morning, I spent twenty minutes trying to arrange childcare for next Tuesday. While driving to and from daycare, instead of thinking about my book, I was singing songs and trying to distract my daughter from the apparently all-important fact that she’d dropped her hairband in between the car seats.
Clearly, I’m losing “mental” time that I didn’t used to account for during my “fifteen minutes.” I know, I know, welcome to motherhood. I also know life will get easier as my daughter gets a bit older and can deal with her own darn hairbands. But this is my job — I can’t put it on hold. If anyone has some tips for how to get my head in the game, even while reading “If You Give A Mouse a Cookie” for the thirteenth time that day, I’m all ears.
I’m working on revising my latest novel at the moment (ninth published, thirteenth written). One thing I’ve noticed, as I’ve matured as a writer, is how much better I’ve gotten at revising. I’m much more willing now than I was when I first started writing to view absolutely nothing as set in stone. Plot, characters, subplots, scenes — everything is up on the chopping block when it comes to making my story the best that it can be.
This has had the added benefit of allowing me to be much more free in my first drafts. I feel like I can throw everything — including the kitchen sink — in my first drafts now, knowing that I’ll be able to excise it later if need be.
Some writers are like this from the very beginning of their career — they innately understand the rules like “kill your darlings” and “writing is revising” and “you can’t fix a blank page.” My path to this has been a little more serpentine, and I find I still struggle with it. I’m one of those writers who would far prefer to “get it right the first time” because even though I’m getting better, I still find it difficult to reconstruct my draft and then sew the pieces back up, Frankenstein style. I look at published novels of mine and I can still see the seams, even if no one else can. The original draft still lies underneath, a palimpset only I can see, in say, a line of dialogue that had a special resonance with a cut scene or a character description chosen to contrast with a character who no longer exists.
But I know these are things only I see, and that the total good of the changes I’ve made far outweigh any imagined loss. The other thing I’ve noticed is that the more I embrace no-holds-barred revisions, the less I’m bothered by anything that remains. Maybe I’m just getting better at realizing that first drafts are written on sand, not stone. Maybe, as I get older, my memory is failing me.
Whatever it is, I’m certainly noticing this time around that nothing is sacred. The old me would have looked on in horror at the things I’ve changed in the last few days, while the new me shrugs and moves on to the next chapter.
What do you think? Are you one of those writers who embraces revisions, or, like me, did you have to learn to love it?
Today’s blog post comes from a question in my email box:
A asks (edited some for identity’s sake):
I am a budding writer myself, and attempting to complete my first novel.
I know that you have written very tense and bloody battle scenes, and I am now stuck writing the great final battle in my book. Do you have any advice for me?
First of all, congratulations on closing in on completion of your first novel. That’s an amazing achievement and you should be really proud of yourself. I wish you the best of luck as you finish it, edit it, and begin your path to publication.
Okay, on to the advice portion of our show. Yes, I actually do have some advice for writing battle sequences. (I know, right? I’m in such a weird Jane Austen headspace right now, what with trying to promote my new novel, that I almost forgot I’ve totally written multiple books about bloodthirsty unicorns and crossbows and claymores! The closest my latest heroine gets to a deadly weapon is when she hands a servant a pair of garden shears.)
Off we go.
1) Read a lot of action scenes. Read action scenes in your favorite books. Read action scenes you really liked in books that weren’t otherwise your favorite. Read the ones that were most clear to you, the most compelling, the most riveting. Read them even if they have absolutely nothing in common with your battle scene.
2) Study them and analyze what worked for you and why. Then steal the crap out of those techniques.
When I was writing Rampant, I did this. I thought about the action sequences that I remembered most vividly from books. Here are two of my favorites:
Any Quidditch match in the early Harry Potter books.
Any hunting scene in Jean M Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear book and sequels.
Now the latter makes a lot of sense for Rampant. After all, those scenes tend to be about humans hunting large ungulates. But it’s also more than that. As I analyzed what I loved so much about these scenes, and why they stuck with me years after I’d first read them, I realized that they almost always focused on Ayla’s decisions and feelings during the hunts. Ayla gets high off hunting. She truly, truly loves it. There is violence and terror, but there’s also a very strong sense of urgency. If she doesn’t succeed, it’s highly likely that she and/or her companions might starve to death. (I especially like the scenes where she learns to hunt alone in Valley of the Horses.)
Astrid is in a similar situation — not hunting for food, but also really, truly needing to kill the animal she’s hunting, or risk dying herself. As Auel did with Ayla, I made sure to focus the sequences on Astrid — her feelings, her place, her motivation, and her urgency. I’m not a huge sports fan, but I love to watch a game when I’m cheering for a team or a player. When I write my battle scenes, I’m want my readers cheering hard for my protagonists and, through that, to follow along.
Okay, so, Harry Potter. I know some people love sports fiction, but I was never a big fan. If games were described in books, I usually skimmed. Until I met Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling described Quidditch in the most fascinating way possible. I remember way too much about all the minute details and movements and points scored in every Quidditch game in the series. For some reasons, those scenes always held me riveted (even if, as I wrote about in my recent essay, I found the game to be a flawed sport in general) When I went back and reread those scenes, I was drawn right back in. (In a way I wasn’t necessarily with Rowling’s battle scenes or even the challenges at the Triwizard tournament.) What was it about the Quidditch matches?
Quidditch has nothing to do with hunting unicorns, obviously, but one thing I noticed as I analyzed it is that Rowling was exquisitely clear about who and where her players were, and what they wanted and were doing — even in the 3-D world that was the Quidditch pitch.
You could see the whole field and you could see how the action of some Beater down below was going to affect a circling Seeker elsewhere in the game. It was brilliant. So that — as disparate as it was from unicorn hunting — was also something I could use to make my writing stronger. You might find there are submarine fights or Orc invasions or Ender Wiggins Battle School matches or whatever else that really pushed your action scene buttons as a reader. Take that. Study it. Steal the methods and make them your own.
When you do, you may find your big points to hit are somewhat different than mine. From what I did above, I got:
1) Focus on character emotion, goals, conflicts, and motivation. Yes, seeing hte big picture is grand, but battles can’t all be crane shots.
2) Make sure the reader knows where things are and how they connect. You don’t want them to get lost in the action.
Additionally, I advise:
3) Use your senses. One thing you might learn from all this “stealing from your favorites” stuff is that when characters are involved in action, they go all primitive. Their senses all heighten — they see things, hear things, smell things, notice things.What would people notice in your battle sequences? Where are they? What time of day? What’s the weather like? What’s the state of the ground, of the air, of the people? What does it smell like? What does your clothing or your weapon feel like in your hand? What can you hear, before the battle, during the battle? Ask yourself those questions, even if they don’t make it onto the page. Your writing will be more vivid if you know.
4) Make sure injuries and losses are real. I hope you’ve never been shot or trampled or burnt or bludgeoned before, but try to think about exactly what those sensations are like. I was very concerned in Rampant that my characters weren’t getting Hollywood wounds — you know, the ones where they were shot in the shoulder, but didn’t even need to pause for a breath. When the girls were injured, they were injured. Sometimes down for the count. And old injuries would bother them, too. They had magic on their side, of course, but there were plenty of ways they could get hurt where the magic couldn’t save them. (And when the unicorns knew that, they could concentrate on those methods.) When people get hurt, ti’s not G rated.
5) Have a plan. I know this is anathema to many writers, but I think when you’re planning out a battle sequence, some choreography is going to go a long way, even if it’s just knowing what are the big points you’re going to hit — who dies, or how, or who wins, or what finally turns the tide for the victors, or etc. Get an idea of where you’re going before you get in there and the fur/arrows/nanotech weaponry starts to fly.
Good luck! I’m off to see The Hunger Games — which, if it’s anything like the books, is going to have some amazing action sequences!
This is theme week at Genreality, and we’re supposed to be talking about our reading habits.
I currently do not have a reading habit. Starting when my baby was born, seventeen months ago, I can count the number of new novels I’ve read on fingers and toes. Now I’m mostly counting piggies.
For the first few months of my baby’s life, I read primarily books on baby care. Baby sleep books, baby health books, baby supply books, baby development books. When it came to fiction, it was all about re-reading my old “comfort” novels — my favorite books that I’d wrap around me like a blanket to keep me warm during 2 a.m. feedings. I also had friends vetting my reading material, since I knew that reading anything but the most heartwarming, escapist material was only going to exacerbate those baby blues.
(An example: Mockingjay was published around the time my baby was born. My friends told me to steer clear. I ended up reading it the following year.)
In fact, I read very few new voices, which is probably a drawback given the explosion of debut novelists in my genre in the last year. You have no idea how many new releases from 2010 are still sitting, unread, on my bookshelf.
These days, the majority of books I read are printed on cardboard and have fuzzy inserts and fold down flaps. Having said that, however, I find I’m learning a lot from the books my baby loves. When you have only 50 words to tell a story in a picture book, each one better do a phenomenal job. I can recite to you most of the Sandra Boynton oeuvre. She’s a flipping genius, and I’d put Moo, Baa, La La La up there as one of the great works of English literature. I haven’t had so much in depth discussion about minute word choice in literature since my college days.
(Example debate with my husband: “in Dear Zoo, they say the snake is ‘too scary.’ I don’t approve of teaching our daughter that snakes are scary. They should have put ‘slithery’ or something. Discuss.”)
You want pathos? Try Boynton’s But Not the Hippopotamus. Adventure? Harry the Dirty Dog. Coming of Age? The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Love? I Love You, Through and Through. Horror?
I defy you to find a scarier moment than Goodnight Moon‘s bizarre insertion of a blank page accompanied by “Goodnight, nobody.” It gives me chills EVERY SINGLE TIME I READ IT. Who, or what, is this invisible “nobody” who has somehow sneaked into the poor baby bunny’s room under the watchful eye of the old lady rabbit? “Nobody” was decidedly NOT THERE during the earlier cataloging of all the actual things in the baby’s room.
“Um, goodnight, terrifying invisible bogey man. Oh, and goodnight, moon and mush and mittens, too.”
(Goodnight Nobody is TOTALLY the title of my first horror novel, btw.)
Also, do not get me started on The Runaway Bunny‘s mother’s stalker tendencies. Between his mother’s shapeshifting helicopter-parent ways and the mysterious “nobody” who haunts his bedroom, that poor bunny is really going to need bunny therapy one day.
After a few months of our dinner conversations revolving around the proper pronunciation of the sound lighting makes in Mr Brown Can Moo, Can You?, my husband rebelled and bought an omnibus of George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series. He just caught up to everyone else today. I read two new books this month.
And the baby has memorized Hand Hand Fingers Thumb. She likes “reading” it to herself now, complete with hand motions. One day, she’ll be able to read for real, and maybe we’ll have family reading nights. Hey, a girl can dream, and a family of happy bookworms is a fantasy come true.
One of the most common questions I have been getting about my upcoming novel is: “Is it a standalone?”
The answer, of course, is yes, being that it’s a retelling of a Jane Austen novel, and the woman wasn’t known for writing sequels (oh, no — we do that FOR her, these days), but the question speaks to the power of the series trend. It seems like every book these days is a series, or a trilogy, or a saga, or a who-knows-what-they’re-calling-it-this-time.
I recently went to a large, multi-book author signing — four of the five authors (all four who were on tour) were writing trilogies. Next week, I’m going to a signing of two more authors who are writing series. A quick perusal of the recent sales in my genre on Publisher’s Marketplace reveals listing after listing of “a sequel to” “first in a trilogy” “the next two books in the series” and so on.
And the big sellers in the field are almost all series. Last week’s NYT bestseller list for children’s chapter books had 3/10 listings were from YA series, and the children’s paperback list featured 5/10 books from series — and these numbers are artificially lowered, given that any series with three entries gets shunted into the stiff competition of the “children’s series list” (which, like the children’s list in general, was an invention of the Harry Potter era), where the average length of time a series has spent gracing that list is a hefty 142 weeks. (You can probably guess the majority of names that show up on that list, since they’re all household ones.)
Now this is mostly due to the fact that fantasy novels make up the bulk of those books (and those sales) and fantasy has always been a very series-driven genre, in adult or children. But even contemporary is getting in on the act. Most of the big romances these days, whether fantasy/paranormal, historical, or contemporary, are part of a “series” based around bands of brothers, or comrades, or denizens of a picturesque small town.
There are lots of benefits to writing as series — if your readers love one book, they’ll likely come back for more of the same. You can build much more depth of character, world, or setting if you have three or four or ten books to do it in. But there are also drawbacks, If your series fails to capture a sufficient readership, you are faced with one of two daunting prospects: hitching your cart to a falling star and seeing diminishing returns as you pursue the series, or abandoning it, which angers the readers you do have.
I, myself, in my short career, have solely published series books. My first series was four books. My second series is (so far) two. Before I was published, I wrote four standalone novels that were never published.
So why, given the current, massively popular trend toward series, especially in my particular genre (YA “dystopian”), am I bucking the trend and writing a standalone?
The simplest answer is because that’s what the story demanded. As I said way back up there at the top, this book is a retelling of Persuasion, and Persuasion was not part of a series. To stretch the story or pervert it in some way to fit the trend would not have been in keeping with the story I wanted to tell. (And, let’s be honest: how many times have you been reading one of these series and wondered if they really need all these books to tell the story?)
So here I am, with my little standalone. So far, the response to the realization that it is a standalone has been quite positive. I think there’s a bit of series fatigue going on out there (especially, in YA, the three year slog of will-they-or-won’t-they for every romantic pairing), so maybe having a one-off will be refreshing. We’ll see what happens in June.
Last year, while struggling with a story that wouldn’t behave, I went out drinking had a professional meetup with a few writer friends. I complained to one of them about the story I was writing, and about how, contrary to my usual “happily ever afters” this particular tale was threatening to go (and I quote) “all Dogville on me.”
His response? “Awesome! No one will see it coming!”
That was not the advice I’d been looking for. No no no, I explained, I can’t write a story with that kind of ending. That’s not what I do. That’s not my brand. My girls always get their guys, my bad guys always get their just deserts, the proper world order is established…
His response? “Thppppbbbt.”
And then he asked me, what was the worst that could happen? If I went ahead and ignored the internal editor who was insisting that I only wrote a certain type of story, what might happen?
Well, I could lose fans, I could dilute my brand, I could destroy the trust of my readers who expect happy endings…
But wait. Do they? Do they expect happy endings? After all, I’m not writing romance novels, where the happily ever after rule is an inviolate contract. In my last book, I left my brain-damaged heroine on the run with a backpack filled with stolen drugs. (And most of the emails I get on that book want to know if I’m going to leave her like that.)
But the problem there is not so much one of an unhappy endings as an unfinished one. I designed that book to be the second in a trilogy, so it reads, properly, as unfinished. A sad or shocking finish is a different situation entirely.
My friend’s argument was that readers are bothered far more by stories that aren’t true to themselves than by stories that don’t meet the reader’s preconceived expectation of what they should be. But I can point to reviews that say the opposite, like the occasional response I get to my story “Errant” which appeared in an anthology marketed to a YA paranormal romance audience but containing very little in the way of romantic love.
Well, said my friend, haters gonna hate. And what was I complaining about? The story still hit the Locus Best of list.
True. Besides, that book was called Kiss Me Deadly, and “Errant” contained both kisses and death. So there.
And what was the worst that could happen, if I followed the dark path to its darker conclusion? What was that elusive quality that drew readers to my books, the ones the marketing experts tell me is “my brand?” Was it triumph, or was it something more akin to justice? Was it really happy endings, or was it the heroine asserting her power over the forces arrayed against her?
What’s more important? The happy ending, or the right ending?
I love the 80s movie Pretty in Pink, and every time my husband puts on Otis Redding, I am reminded of Jon Cryer’s Duckie dancing around to “Try a Little Tenderness”. As I’ve gotten older, the ending of that film has disappointed me more and more. From a mature perspective, the story of cool, hip, artistic Andie going off with bland, rich Blaine was less a Cinderella ending and more of Greek tragedy when compared with the swoonworthy nerd-cool of Duckie.
Apparently, in the original ending, Andie did see the light when it came to Duckie. Test audiences booed, and the ending was re-shot so she ran off with Blaine, while Duckie got to flirt a little bit with a pre-Buffy Kristy Swanson.
Sorry, test audiences who want textbook romances instead of true love stories. Sorry, John Hughes and whatever it is you were trying to say about how it’s okay to cross class lines or whatever.) This isn’t about class lines and it isn’t about how the story is structured in such a way as to be read as a Cinderella romance (complete with a last minute dress for the ball). It’s about how Duckie is cool and Blaine was a pathetic and bland loser. If you wanted to talk about how class doesn’t matter, you should have made Blaine have something going for him other than his car.
And, as a storyteller, I can also say that Andie choosing Duckie is choosing who SHE truly is. Does anyone think for a moment that as son as Blaine got her in that car he said anything other than “what in the world is that shapeless sack you’re wearing?” Andie, as written, ended up a frustrated society wife. Sad, really. Tragic.
What do you think? Is it worth it to shake up a reader’s expectation if it’s right for the story? Do readers deserve to have their expectations shaken up regardless? Duckie or Blaine? And what do you think became of Andie? (I think she came to her senses as soon as she got bored.)