Pencil Dan Perez, Writer & Editor

Writing Advice

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Here are some thoughts and suggestions about writing, and becoming a writer.

My first and foremost advice to people thinking about a fiction writing career is: take two aspirin, lie down and wait until the feeling passes. This advice is offered only half in jest, which means it's also half serious. There are many, many easier ways to make money. In fact, if money is the main reason you're getting into writing, you're making a drastic mistake.

Writing is an extraordinarily difficult career choice, although romantic myths about how easy it is are common. People learn to put sentences and paragraphs together in grade school and they mistakenly think they've already picked up all the skills it takes to be a writer. That's analogous to someone who knows how to make a sandwich thinking he's got all the skills necessary to become a professional chef. But you can hardly toss a canape at a cocktail party without hitting someone who's planning to write the Great American Novel one of these days (when she finds the time, or when he gets the right inspiration, yada, yada, yada).

Becoming a pro fiction writer is a lot like becoming a Jedi Knight: it takes the highest commitment. It's also essential to have what's known as "the writer's temperament." You have to be willing to to tough out the five to seven year (or sometimes even longer) unpaid apprenticeship. You have to develop a thick skin, because all you'll get for your efforts early on, most likely, is rejection slips. Finally, you have to have a pretty strong measure of ego and self-confidence to believe that you're up to the task of entertaining other people and to come to grips with the realization that you're competing for shelf space with ALL of the following:

Plus, the current publishing climate is extremely inhospitable to new writers. It used to be that you could start small and slowly build a readership book by book. Now, in the ongoing "you're only as good as your last book's sales" climate of publishing, you have to practically write a bestseller right out of the gate. You have to make your first book the very, very best it can be (and there's still a whopping good chance it won't sell). There's no room for excuses. You're either Top Gun right out of the gate, or you're a washout. Unfair? You won't get any argument from me. But it's also the reality, and you'd better be ready for it.

And it doesn't get any easier after you're published. Each book you write is expected to perform better than the previous book. If you accidentally write a dud (or even a pretty good book that doesn't outsell your last book), you may well be looking for another publisher. A lot of established, award-winning novelists are running scared these days, thanks to the overwhelming beancounter mentality that dominates publishing.

How tough is it? Let's use me as an example: I've written three books, a sword and sorcery novel (not so good), a horror suspense novel (better, but still some problems) and a science fiction novel which I think is pretty darned good for what it is (space opera adventure). Writing those three novels and getting up to the skill level of the science fiction book took something on the order of seven years. My writer's group, which consisted of pro writers, loved it and they were sure it'd be my first published book, as was my agent (a respectable New York agent with a well-known agency). It collected some rejections when it went out, but we were all still confident. But months passed and the rejections began to pile up. Confidence and excitement gave way to dismay and apprehension. The tenor of the rejections began to be clear: publishers thought the book was pretty well written, but they just didn't think it would sell like hotcakes right out of the gate. Pretty soon, we were down to just a few publishers. More time passed, and those publishers added their rejections to the pile, pretty much condemning this book I had poured so much work and hope into to gather dust on my closet shelf. Which it's still doing now. I let a friend who is a published fantasy author read it a while back. She loved it. Too bad she's not an editor.

So what's the moral of this little tale? I labored for years, strove hard to do everything right, lucked into a good agent (the strength of my writing had something to do with this, too), had a good writer's group and wrote a good novel. And it STILL didn't sell. To say that I was a bit discouraged by all this is to understate things rather extremely.

And now for the bottom line: what's the money like? The average first-novel advance nowadays is $5000 (or even less). You've probably heard about those million-dollar advances for first books, but those are exceedingly rare. And it's rare for a first novel to "earn out" (make the advance money back and start paying royalties), so if it took you a year to write that book, you'll have been paid about $96 a week to write it (or about $2.50 an hour, full-time). Now admittedly, the money can improve, and sometimes it can improve pretty dramatically if your books start selling well. But you'd be prudent not to count on that. If you make $10,000 on your next book, you'll be earning the current minimum wage for your writing.

Still interested in a writing career? I admire your courage, and I'll offer what help I can. Read on.

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Read, read and read some more

It seems like common sense, but it also needs to be said: one of the most fundamental things you need to do if you're going to learn to be a writer is study good examples of prose, or, to put it simply: read a lot. Read all kinds of fiction, not just the kind you want to write. Read the classics to find out why that fiction has endured. Read some of your favorite books with a critical eye: try to figure out how your favorite authors do what they do. How do they handle characterization? Description? Dialogue? Conflict? Once you figure out an author's bag of tricks you can borrow some of those techniques to make your own fiction better.

Also, I'd recommend hunting down some good "how-to" books on writing. At the very least, you need to learn proper manuscript format, and there's a lot of valuable advice on technique available as well. As there are a ton of bad writing books out there, too, here's a helpful list of books.

Learn proper manuscript format

When you present your manuscript to an editor in the correct format, you're already ahead of the game, because that's what all the pro writers do. The format is listed in any number of books, but the basics are:

Learn manuscript submission etiquette

Editors are almost always overworked and underpaid, but they usually manage to be nice people in spite of that. Don't get on an editor's bad side, as it can adversely affect your chances of selling him or her a story (coincidentally enough). The following suggestions will help you stay on an editor's good side.

Learn the tools of the trade

Again, it would seem like common sense, but a writer must have a good grasp of the English language. Get some books on grammar and usage and study them. Learn what makes a sentence weak and what makes it strong. Writers are in the communication business, and you must communicate clearly and vigorously. Absolutely do not rely on your computer's "grammar checker." They're made primarily for nonfiction-based business writing (memos, letters, etc.) and will do you little or no good as a fiction writer. Bite the bullet, get the books (THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE is an excellent start) and read them.

If you're a lousy speller, you can still make it as a writer. Spellchecker programs are pretty good (although their big weakness is homonyms (words that sound alike such as "there" and "their"). Run your manuscripts through a spellchecker, and then have someone who is a decent speller proofread them, if possible.

Practice makes perfect

Try to develop a regular writing routine. Try to write every day, if possible. Can't find the time? Hey, neither can I. But pro writers make the time. For some useful suggestions, read my article on developing discipline. Writing is like many other art forms in that the more you practice, the better you'll get. And more than likely, you're probably going to have to write a number of stories (or a book or two) before your stuff gets good enough to be published. A harsh fact, but then if you want to become a doctor you have to go through medical school, internship and a residency. The writer's apprenticeship must be served, like any other.

Know what a story is, and isn't

This is tricky territory, but it must be addressed. A story has a definite structure, and most readers expect that structure to be there. Here is a basic example of story structure, based on the one distilled by writer and editor Algis Budrys:

NOTE: When writing about an anti-hero, replace steps 4 and 5 with "Protagonist keeps getting closer and closer to victory;" and step 6 with "Protagonist goes down in flames." Validation for the anti-hero may be a triumph of spirit, as with Randle Patrick McMurphy in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST.

This seven-point structure doesn't mention setting, but that's assumed to be part of the character's situation.

Conflict, perhaps one of fiction's most important qualities, springs from the character's inability to solve his problem. Conflict also springs up between characters with different outlooks, goals and temperaments ("Your actions are not logical, Dr. McCoy." "I'm a doctor, not a computer, Spock!").

You'd be surprised how often the seven-point structure applies to stories, from classics like HAMLET all the way up to the movie DIE HARD.

 Compare the seven-point structure above with Dean R. Koontz's Plot Pattern:

This pattern is a bit simplistic, Koontz admits, but the motif of a character facing seemingly insurmountable trials and odds -- learning, growing and changing in the process -- is at the core of most good fiction. It's what makes a story, book or movie exciting and compelling. Of course, many experienced writers depart from these distilled patterns in favor of more complex, ambitious story structures. But the key word there is experienced. As the saying goes, you must learn the rules before you begin to break them.

Summing up

Now would be a good time to introduce you to Robert A. Heinlein's rules for writers (excerpted from his essay "On the Writing of Speculative Fiction"). If you can follow these rules consistently, you stand a good chance of making it as a writer. The trick is, of course, following them consistently.

Get connected

The award-winning writer Barry B. Longyear once said that beginning writers need to be "knowledge vampires." What he meant was that as new writer you have to seek out and absorb every bit of useful information about writing that is humanly possible. How exactly do you do that? My recommendation is to get connected to other writers, editors and professionals in the writing business. If you write science fiction, fantasy and/or horror, you should subscribe to the magazines Locus and Science Fiction Chronicle (both of which can be found in any decent-sized bookstore or library). Both magazines cover the field, and feature news and information you need as a beginning writer. You'll find out who the editors, agents and publishers in the field are. You'll find out about major annual writer's conventions like World Fantasy Con and Worldcon, at which you can meet other writers, editors and agents (and attend useful seminars). You'll find out about Clarion, an annual, highly-regarded science fiction writing course. You'll find out about late-breaking news in the field that is usually already a year old when it finally makes it into Writer's Market.

If you're reading this web page, you're already online, which is a very important plus for new writers. There's an abundance of information about writing (some of it good, some of it less so) on the Web, and there are Usenet newsgroups like rec.arts.sf.written, where writers and editors hang out. Many writers, editors and agents can be found on online services like AOL and Compuserve. Point your newsreader to news.greyware.com to check out sfrt.bolthole, a place where writers and editors are beginning to gather.

Join professional writer's organizations. Membership in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) and/or Horror Writers Association (HWA) is invaluable to a new writer. Both these organizations offer a variety of services and connections for writers, including market reports, handbooks and newsletters with useful articles and information. They're also a great way to get connected with other writers, as well as editors and agents.

Find out about local writer's workshops--not necessarily the seminars where you pay (many of these are conducted by people with little or no experience as working, published writers)--but the type where aspiring writers in your area get together to read and critique each others' work. I've written an article on this subject, and you can read about it here.

A note about book doctors: a book doctor is anyone who offers to edit your stories or books for a fee, in order to make them more salable. They generally call themselves "editorial services," "author's services," or some other respectable-sounding title, but what they do is take your money (usually a goodly amount, too) and edit your manuscript. Will they make it salable? I'm inclined to doubt it. If these people could write salable prose themselves, then why aren't the writing it and selling it themselves, instead of "editing" other people's prose? And if they can't write salable prose themselves, then how on Earth could they reasonably expect to edit someone else's work up to salability?

And the fees book doctors charge are usually exorbitant. I've heard of one that charges $15 per page. That may not sound like a lot, but if you had one edit a 30-page story, the fee would be $450, which is as much or more than the story would likely earn even if it did sell after the book doctor's editing. That same book doctor's fee for a 300 page novel would be $4500, which is nearly as much as the typical advance for most first novels.

I don't trust book doctors, and neither should you. If you feel driven to spend money on improving your writing, buy some good books on the subject and teach yourself.

Think you might need a literary agent? Check out my advice on agents.

The bottom line is this: there's a ton of good, practical information and resources for the new writer out there, so you should be taking advantage of as much of it as possible.

That's pretty much it. I'll probably add more writing advice as time and inclination permits. I hope some of this has been helpful. Good luck!

P.S. -- I thought I'd share my all-time favorite quote about writing. It's from screenwriter and director Lawrence Kasdan, who's written movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Body Heat:

"Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life."

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Copyright 1997 by Dan Perez. All rights reserved.

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