Archive for 'starting out'

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Monday, February 20th, 2012 by Carrie Vaughn
Two Writing Questions I Never Know How to Answer

Over the last week I’ve gotten a couple of questions that I always have a hard time answering.  In fact, these are two of the most common questions I get, which makes not knowing how to answer them pretty laughable.  You’d think I’d have developed a canned response, or at least something short and useful I can say that delivers the information the questioner is looking for.  But every time someone asks them, I hem and haw, because the questions always startle me a bit, no matter how often I hear them.  My answers seem to require explanation.  Since I know you’re super curious, here are the questions:

How long do you spend writing each day?

I have a hard time answering this because it varies wildly, and I don’t always know what people mean by “write.”  I’m afraid they have this picture of me sitting down, putting my hands on the keyboard, and typing for x-number of hours straight, then getting up, leaving the desk, and having dinner and watching TV like a person with a standard office job.  When of course it isn’t like that at all.  I may only spend an hour or two a day actually writing — and that’s spread out over five hours, with bouts of research, thinking, making tea, walking the dog, and so on in between.  But that doesn’t count the moment when I’m at the stove making dinner and the brilliant denouement for the current novel suddenly hits me and I have to go write it down right then, or the time I spend reading a book and thinking about how a certain authors plots thrillers, or the research I do and the notes I take, some of which will make it in the book and some of which won’t, but I won’t know which part is which until I’m done writing.  Or the time I spend daydreaming scenes.

The pat, easy answer for “How long do you write?” is “All the time.”  But I know that isn’t what’s being asked, usually.  And I have to admit I hesitate saying, “Just an hour or two,” because I fear that makes the job seem easier than it really is.  So my answer, which ought to be a simple number, ends up being a long, rambling explanation, as above.

I want to write a book.  How do I start?

Hooboy.  This one.  So many people have a book in them.  Books are ubiquitous, they’re such a good way to share stories and deliver information, why shouldn’t just about everyone have a book in them?  But what if you want to write a book — and you’re not a writer?  I suspect that many people who ask this question are not really writers, because if they were they wouldn’t need to ask.

I don’t know how to answer this question because I never had to figure out how to start.  I just wrote.  I did it for school, I did it for fun, and when I realized I wanted to write for a living, I just did more of it.  I read a ton of books, so I knew how it worked.  It wasn’t a mystical thing, it was just getting words on the page and seeing how they turned out.  I wrote because I enjoyed it, because I had these amazing stories playing out in my mind and writing was the simplest way to get them out and do something with them.

When someone asks, “How do I start?”, I often wonder what the thing is that’s keeping them from putting words on the page.  I usually tell them to start by keeping a journal, so they can practice putting down those words without the mental block of having to write a novel or a book, which must seem like a vast challenge to the uninitiated.  If they’re meant to write, once they start they won’t be able to stop.  Secretly, though, I think, If they were meant to write, they’d be doing it already.

Seems uncharitable, but there it is.

Saturday, February 27th, 2010 by Sasha White

What is it about the tease that’s so hot?
You know what I’m talking about. That tingle you get between your thighs when someone exciting catches your eye, or when you catch his. The lingering looks, the hair toss, the silent communication. That time when your blood heats up and your body awakens as you feel the magic of “what if?”
It’s almost … intoxicating.
I used to flirt a lot. Men used to flirt with me. Then I got married. I haven’t gained weight or let myself go, but somehow, I’ve changed. I know it, and they know it. I think it’s because the chase is over. The magic of flirting, the heightened awareness that arcs between two people, the building of anticipation… it’s gone.
And I don’t know exactly when, or how, it disappeared.
The sad thing is, it also seems to have disappeared between my husband and me.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love my husband. Grant is still very attractive in every way, and leaving him has never occurred to me. I’d never cheat on him, either.
Yet, I can’t deny that a certain restlessness has been building in me for some time.

That was the beginning of my story WATCH ME in the Kink anthology, and today I want to talk about beginnings.

For me, starting a new story can be either the easiest thing in the world, or the hardest. There really is no in-between.

When it’s easy, it’s usually something personal that has randomly occurred to me, and then as I write it a characters voice is born, and from that a story is born. Like the start of WATCH ME. The thoughts about flirting and the energy and anticipation came to me because I’d been working behind the bar that night, and I’d had a few hot guys as customers. They were way young for me, but they’d been huge flirts, and I flirted back because it felt good. I love to flirt, even when I know it’s not going to go anywhere, and those thoughts started the above opening, and by the time I was done I had a character. When I started writing it, I had no character, no story in mind, 5 minutes later I had a character (Married woman Bethany) and a story, (she missed flirting with her husband). That beginning was easy, and it fit.

Then there are the times that I think about a story, an idea, or a character, for a while. I toss different ways to start around in my mind, and soon it seems like the more I think about it, the harder it becomes to actually start the story. When that happens I tend to have several (I’m talking a dozen or so) false starts to the story before I actually find one I like.

Beginnings are important for both readers and writers. They are often the hook that draws a reader in and makes them want to read more. And for most writers they set the tone of the whole book.

I know some writers can just start, and not care that the beginning isn’t ‘just right’ because they know they’ll go back to fix it in another stage of thier process, but for me, that doesn’t work. I just can’t get into writing a story when I don’t know how it starts. And as frustrating as those false starts can be, I’ve found a way to make them work for me. They often end up in other parts of the books because they always have information in them that I think is important. It just might not be the right place to start the story.

Whatever works for you, works for you. Don’t let anyone else tell you that you’re doing it wrong just because you don’t do it the same way they do. And don’t worry if, like me, different beginning tactics work for different stories. All that matters is that in the end, your beginning works for you, and your story.

I do wonder though, how important readers really feel the opening of a story is. I know myself, as a reader, if I’m not at least intrigued by the first page, I won’t bother going further. What about you?

Monday, February 22nd, 2010 by Carrie Vaughn
In the Beginning…

I’m about 18,000 words into writing a new novel (the ninth Kitty novel, for those keeping score).  After all the revising and copyediting and tedious post-production work I’ve been doing for the last two months, it’s so great to be delving into a new project.  This is about my favorite part of the whole process.  I can keep throwing ideas into the stew to see what happens to them.  I haven’t yet arrived at the “this book is kicking my ass” stage, when I have to start trying to tie those ideas together.  (That’ll come at about 35,000 words.)  I’m meeting new characters, setting a new stage, finding that new direction that will set this book apart from all the others.  I’m researching — not for details, but for ideas.  What would happen if I included this idea?  This bit of folklore?  Could I use that later?  Would it complicate the plot?  Yeah?  Awesome!  I’m making lists, drawing maps, writing my outline, trying out choice bits of dialog.  I don’t have to worry yet about where it’s all going — I’m gunning the engine, the car is picking up speed on a downhill slope, the wind is in my hair, and it’s exciting.

You know what’s really encouraging?  I’ve been writing full-time for three years.  Four, if you don’t count the year of sporadic temping I did as a transition.  The book I’m writing now will be my eleventh published novel, if all goes as planned.  The sixteenth novel I’ve written total.  And I’m still so excited.  I still love this.  I still wake up some days amazed that I get to do this.

Now, stay tuned until next month, when I write a post complaining about the “this book is kicking my ass” stage.  Or the month after that, when I write a post complaining about deadlines.

But until then:  Onward ho!

Monday, January 25th, 2010 by Carrie Vaughn
Aim High

“Aim high.  You may still miss the target, but at least you won’t shoot your foot off.”

— Miles Vorkosigan.

John Scalzi has coined this term — Aspiring Writer Stockholm Syndrome — which I love.  Stockholm Syndrome describes a process by which kidnapping victims come to sympathize with and defend their kidnappers/abusers.  It’s said to come about through the victim’s perceived dependence on the abuser for their very life.

Scalzi used the term to describe why many aspiring writers seem so willing to put up with the worst kind of crap.  Giving their work away for free, falling for scams, and so on.  All in a belief that that’s “just how it’s done.”  That they have to do those things in order to work their way up in the industry.

I don’t want to rehash the huge discussion of fiction magazine pay rates that led up to and followed Scalzi addressing this.  But I’d like to discuss one issue that came out of all this, because it’s a publishing myth I’ve been combating for years.

The argument was presented that new writers — especially trying to break into the short story market — needed to have some kind of publishing credits before they could be taken seriously by more prestigious, higher-paying markets.  This is often presented as a catch-22:  you can’t get published without an agent, but you can’t land an agent until you’ve been published!  You need publishing credits in order to get published, but how are you supposed to get publishing credits until you’ve been published!  And so on.

Lies.  Damned lies.  All of it.  You don’t need publishing credits, you don’t need a foot in the door or a secret handshake.  You just need a good manuscript that someone in the right place wants to buy.

We all know writers who broke in without having a single credit to their name.  All of us could make a list.  I know writers who published their first science fiction short stories in Asimov’s Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction — two of the most prestigious markets in the field.  And the noob writer will say, “Yes, sure there are some examples, but they’re so rare!”

Yes, they’re rare.  Because it takes a huge amount of work and patience to break in at the top.  But if you want a career as a writer, please consider breaking in at the top.  If that’s where you want to be, that’s where you shoot for.  Don’t settle for less, thinking you need to work your way up.

The solution to getting publishing credits for some writers is to give their stories away for free to virtually unknown publications.  But publishing credits are like agents — a bad one is worse than not having one at all.  If you list twenty short story credits on your cover letter, but the editor of the high-paying magazine you send your next new story to hasn’t heard of any of them, they’re not going to be encouraged.  In fact, they may even think, “Here’s someone who settled.”  Compare this to what they might think about a clean manuscript with no publishing credits listed:  “Ah, this could be anything.  Maybe I’ll discover the next big name!”  Also consider:  if you’re being rewarded by sales to no-paying or low-paying markets, how hard are you really going to work to make your writing better?

The reason it took me ten years to sell a short story is that I only sent my work to professional, paying markets.  It took me that long to learn to write well enough to sell to those markets.  I didn’t want to screw around in the bush leagues.  I wanted to be a pro.  It wasn’t enough for me to see my name in print.  I wanted my work to be read.  That’s an important criteria to consider when looking for markets to send your work to — does anyone actually read this market?  Beside the editor and other contributors?

Friday, September 11th, 2009 by LViehl
Ask Not

I know it’s theme week again here at Genreality because I’m struggling to put together this post. This is the fifth sixth seventh draft I’ve written, and if I don’t nail it this time, I think I’m going to have to resort to sock puppets or card tricks.

What is it about themes that kills my desire to write? I’d love to know. Sasha has to be tired of seeing all these different drafts pop up on the Posts board. I have to quit behaving like I’m going to break out in hives every time I try to do a group activity. I can play nicely with others. As long as they don’t try to tell me what to do. Or hand me a bunch of rules. Or say I can’t do it my way–

Okay, okay. I’m going to do it this time. I swear.

At what moment did writing for you turn from being just a hobby to play around in to something you took seriously enough to create a salable novel, and a resulting career?

I think it’s the question. And that word: hobby. Like Sasha, writing was never my hobby. For the last thirty-five years in varying degrees it’s been a dream, an obsession, an addiction, a compulsion, a life-changing, soul-wrenching test of strength and endurance and patience. It’s also proven to be remarkably effective psychotherapy, a travel agent that charged nothing for the most amazing guilt-free trips I’ve ever taken, and the exercise yard that permitted me to bring my demons and run them around until they were utterly exhausted. Toss in a couple of kitchen sinks, a cryptograph machine and a large mountain range of obstacles, and you get the general idea of what it means to me.

But a hobby? God, no. Hobbies are nice, fun things you do when you have a little time on your hands and you want to play. Not this.

Then there was the moment in question, the day I made the decision to seriously pursue publication. It was November 7th, 1989. I can retype the fifteen hundred words I wrote to describe what happened to me on that day, but I don’t want to. It was pretty awful. So was that draft. It made me sniffle, remembering. I don’t want to make you cry. Let’s skip that part.

That leaves us with what convinced me (which isn’t actually part of the question, but it’s implied by the phrasing.) Nothing did. Everyone and everything, including the odds, were against it. In retrospect I didn’t have a single damn good reason to pursue a professional writing career. Except the one that ties in with that awful day story, and then I have to get into that nightmare again, and we really don’t want to go there unless everyone brings a box of tissues, their favorite wubby and maybe some chocolate-covered Valium.

I need about four hundred more words to make this a proper post. Let’s see. I could tell you some funny anecdotes about my family and what they thought of my brilliant idea to become a professional writer. Only I tried a draft of that, too and it turned out not so funny. In fact, I think I’m going to call a few of my family members tonight and remind them of some of the snotty things they said to me when I really could have used their support.

Or I could drop a few jewels o’ wisdom, like that stupid one about how when a door closes a window opens, or that we have to accept the things that we cannot change. You know, any decent collection of self-help quotations will give you all you need in that department. You don’t need to hear that nonsense from me. I don’t believe it anymore, why should you?

So, want to see a picture of the spider nesting in my oak tree? Her web is really cool:

I’m going to try to duplicate the web on the next crazy quilt I work on. Spiders and their webs are traditional embellishments for crazy quilts, dating back to Victorian times, when . . . okay, yes, I’m trying to distract you from that question by making this about quilting. But you have to admit, it’s more interesting and far less stressful that having me sob all over you, right?

The truth is that I don’t like looking back in this particular direction. Too much heartbreak and hardship and harrowing moments happened at the beginning of this voyage. I honestly think surviving it was mostly dumb luck and blind determination. I was never a proud captain sailing some beautiful writing ship into the sunset. I was more like the clueless idiot on a leaky raft who rowed and bailed, rowed and bailed. I didn’t know any better. And instead of getting better as time went by, it got worse. I prefer not to think about that too much. It makes me want to quit doing this, and you can’t let anything get between you and the work, not even bad memories.

Also, certain things have to be experienced firsthand before they can be wholly understood and respected, and I think pursuing publication is one of them. It’s different for all of us, too — I know a few writers who have had joyful, lucrative, memorable careers from day one. And then there are writers who have thicker skins or simply don’t let it get to them. I wish I’d met a few more of those back in the day.

Other writers’ delightful anecdotes and success stories don’t make me envious. They give me hope. I only wish it could be like that for every writer.

The question that inspired this rendition of theme week is a good one, and I apologize for not producing much of an answer. As much as I think it’s a good thing to share experiences with other writers, the answer isn’t something I can give you like a writing method or a motivational insight. This one I think you have to find out for yourself.

Monday, September 7th, 2009 by Carrie Vaughn
Theme Week: Or, This is what happens when you praise a small child for her Black Stallion fanfic

This week’s theme answers the following question:

At what moment did writing for you turn from being just a hobby to play around in to something you took seriously enough to create a salable novel, and a resulting career?

Hooo, boy.  This has a complicated answer.  Well, simple and complicated.  The simple answer:  I always knew.  I never just played around with writing.  I sent out my first story to a pro magazine when I was 16.  But, as most things are, the truth is more complicated.  Let me give you a timeline:

Second Grade:  We had an assignment:  write a story.  I’m not sure what the other kids did, but I turned in four pages (of that cheap beige grade school paper, but still) of a thing called “Sally the Horse” that was something of a feminist retelling of The Black Stallion, which I had just read, and which had no girls in it.  It needed girls.  Apparently, the teacher, Mrs. Garnett, was very impressed.  She was in the habit of giving kids M&M’s as rewards.  Get a perfect score on a spelling test?  Have an M&M. (I’m not sure she could get away with this now.)  I got a whole handful of M&M’s for “Sally the Horse.”  The class was scandalized.  So early on, I got a message:  write well = get paid.  (Hey, I was 8, that whole handful of M&M’s was a fortune.)

Second Grade on:  I was blessed with teachers who gave lots of creative writing assignments.  I loved every single one.

Eighth Grade English:  I got the best creative writing assignment ever.  The teacher (Miss Stufft this time) hadn’t finished describing the assignment and I was already plotting and scheming and figuring out what I was going to do.  I came up for air long enough to realize that everyone else in the class was complaining:  “Oh man, this is so hard, why do we have to do this, waaaaaaaaaah!”  And I’m thinking, What do you mean this is hard?  Would you rather be diagramming sentences? (I think I was one of the last generation to have to diagram sentences.)  I had a huge epiphany:  Not everyone likes to write.  But I like to write.  Writing is something I can do that other people can’t.  I embraced writing with a white-hot passion that burns to this day.

Eighth Grade through the end of college:  I entered every writing contest I could.  I won two big ones, a statewide thingy for high school students ($25 gift certificate for the Tattered Cover, woot!), and the Military Lifestyle Magazine Fiction Contest in 1994 ($700.  I used it to buy a saddle and bridle for the horse I had just accidentally bought.  Long story.)  It was just enough validation to encourage me to send my work out to magazines, to try to become a “real” pro writer.

As a scrawny geeky kid who had trouble making friends and was no good at sports (I wish someone had told me I would get good at sports later, after I stopped growing and being all awkward.), writing was a refuge.  I walked into bookstores and realized that writing was also a business.  People got paid for it.  Maybe I could, too.  I was probably fifteen when I started telling people I wanted to be a writer.

By the end of college, I hadn’t found a career.  There was nothing I wanted to do but write fiction.  So, I had to figure out how to make a living at it.  (Answer:  Write novels, publish them with major publishers, wash rinse repeat.)  It would be about 11 years before I quit working any kind of day job.  But the goal was always there:  make a living at it, because I had no passion for anything else.

Friday, August 21st, 2009 by LViehl
Great Expectations

This weekend I’m meeting with an acquaintance who intends to write a book, and who is looking for insight, information, and advice on how to go about this. I’ve had a couple dozen meetings like this since I turned pro, and each time I do I try to think positive: this time the writer will listen to me and what I have to say. This time I won’t be giving advice to a brick wall.

I also know that chances are very good that at some point during the evening, my companion is going to build that wall between us, and I’ll end up talking to the brick.

The first question is (inevitably) an idea pitch. Who better to ask about the idea for a first book than someone who has sold forty-three of them in ten years? And so I will listen to what amounts to a bad knock-off of some outrageously successful bestseller, an angsty memoir, or a muddled and entangled heap of Far Too Many Way Cool Things that will only become a coherent novel by divine intervention.

This is not the time when one gives a brutally honest opinion. What sounds like terrible fanfic to me is the blazing like an inferno in this writer’s heart. I will nod and be polite and keep my smartass observations to myself . . . for the time being.

Once the writer has made the pitch, then it’s either a how-to Q&A and/or a grilling about the money. Very few people actually know how to go about the nuts and bolts of writing a novel, and when they’ve got a hot idea, that’s what they think about all the time. They do not go to the library and check out books on how to write. They don’t plot or plan. At best they sit down at the keyboard and just start writing until they’re exhausted, and then they edit whatever they have written for a week or a month or a year until they work up the nerve to call me for the meeting.

No one seems to have any idea how much money the average professional writer in the U.S. makes. They never believe me when I tell them it’s about six thousand dollars. What about that girl who wrote Twilight? they demand. She made fifty million last year! And my idea for my book is far superior to hers.

This is when brutal honesty is a good idea, and I usually pull out a royalty statement to show them exactly how much money a successful author like me makes (alas, not millions.) I explain percentages, royalties, agent commissions, taxes and overhead. By the time I’m finished the faint of heart (about 50%) have already changed their minds about a career in publishing.

But denial isn’t just a river in Egypt, so every other writer I meet with will insist they will be different (and hey, who am I to argue with that? They just might be the next Stephenie.) So we agree to set aside talking about the money, and move on to the clandestine part of the conversation, aka what’s the secret handshake?

The assumption: I made the Times list, so of course I know all the secret handshakes. Hell, I probably invented a few. So what do I know that I can tell them to do that will whisk them off to fame, fortune, and a top twenty bestseller?

They never want to hear that answer, but I give it to them anyway: write the best damn book you can. If the readers love it, they will catapult you to Bookstore Stardom, right up there with Ms. Meyer. Assuming you can sell the book to a publisher, get the right amount of publicity and distribution, hit the market at exactly the right moment and deliver the most exciting book of the year while competing with two hundred thousand other writers who are trying to do the exact same thing.

At this point they think I’m making fun of them, or holding out on them, or both. They usually observe how stingy I am to keep all the lovely insider info I have to myself. Or they insist I can trust them with the truth, as if I need to be coerced into spilling the beans. Occasionally I’ve been tempted to make up a secret handshake simply to keep them busy, something like “Write only during the nights of a full moon” or “Have your manuscript blessed by a priest on a high holy day, and then say a rosary every night until the offers start pouring in.” But that’s cold, and cruel, especially because a few of them will actually believe it and do it.

Instead, I go back to their idea, and carefully analyze it. If it’s a knock-off, I ask them why they love Tolkien or Heinlein or whoever so much, and then start guiding them away from the knock-off and into the strange and often frightening territory of coming up with their own ideas. Love Middle Earth? What other kind of alternative allegorical reality would you like to create? Jazzed by Starship Troopers? What sort of fantastic future do you envision, or would you like to live in?

Sometimes they don’t resist the guidance, and let their imaginations run with a fresh idea, and by the time we’re done mapping it out they’ve forgotten all about Lord of the Wings or Super Dooper Sunshine Troopers or whatever knock-off they were thinking of writing. Other times they stick to their original idea like a bur on a cashmere sock, and there is no persuading them away from it.

I think the thorniest of idea thickets to navigate through are the angsty memoir ideas. No one wants to hear that all they suffered through their extended, painful divorce is not going to set the publishing world on fire. It’s like saying “Your pain just doesn’t count, pal.” Coaxing them to see their life differently is also practically impossible; people carry their life wounds around like emotional security blankets made of horse-hair; no matter hot, prickly or uncomfortable they make them feel, they are precious to them. Most will never let them go, so to suggest to them that they aren’t worth writing about is the same as kicking them in the teeth of their soul.

But no matter what they want to write, I will talk to them, and try to enlighten, inform and guide as much as I can. I do believe anyone can be a writer, and if a little encouragement and guidance from me can help add a bright new voice to the next generation of writers, I’m happy to offer it. To date thirty-eight writers whom I’ve helped with guidance, advice and/or encouragement in some way or another have made it into print. Three of them have written books that have hit the Times. I keep a special shelf of all their novels in my book room, and every time I wonder if these meetings are worth it, I look at that shelf and smile.

Now if I can just convince this one that we all don’t make fifty million dollars a year . . .

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