Advice To The Litlorn

(Since the beginnings of this website, there have been numerous suggestions and requests that it should include a section of advice for aspiring or beginning writers, or those still not quite certain that they know it all. However, I've always been dubious about that sort of thing; what works for one person might be disastrous for another. All I can offer, then, is a few scattered tips and observations, gathered over a quarter-century or so of writing for an alleged living, and set down in no particular order.)

***

Never write yourself dry. When you knock off for the evening - or whenever you quit - always leave yourself a little; know what you're going to do next, and how you're going to do it. Then when you return to work you can start right up, and in this way you will never develop writer's block. (Except for getting started on a new one. There, I don't know the answer either.)

*

Don't worry too much about originality. People have been telling stories for thousands of years; it's very unlikely that you - or anybody else - will come up with a totally new one. What is important is to tell it well. Of course you want to avoid the trite and the overfamiliar (though to be sure this is what most publishers prefer, but forget them for now, we're talking about what you want to do) but don't get too jammed up about it.

After all, what could be more familiar and even formulaic than the story of a couple of young lovers torn apart by family opposition? Or a father who breaks his daughter's heart because he thinks her ungrateful? And yet from these we have two of our greatest masterpieces: Leader of the Pack and She'll Have Fun Fun Fun Till Her Daddy Takes Her T-Bird Away.

*

Never believe a man who says he's never played this game before, or a married woman who says her husband's cool about it, or a publisher who says it's not spelled out in the contract but it's understood.

*
Aspiring writers always seem to want to start off with a novel. I don't know why this is, but it is usually a mistake; most people will do better in the short form. Stories are tougher to write, more demanding in terms of style and technique, and therefore good training - the novel is more forgiving, and lets you get away with sloppiness and bad habits.

It's also generally easier for a beginning writer to get a short story published (though the markets have dried up frighteningly in recent years) and there's more room for original work, since magazine editors are as a rule more willing to take chances. I started off with the novel, and only started doing stories much later on (see the bibliography page), but I'll always wish I'd gone at it the other way around.

(All this refers strictly to writing speculative fiction; things are a bit different in the other genres - there is almost no market for Western short stories, for example - and I don't know anything about the so-called mainstream. Except that apparently if you write something that makes no sense whatever, about characters whom no one could possibly give a damn about, you might have a good shot at getting it into the New Yorker.)

*

No, I won't look at your unpublished story/novel/poem/play/graffito/whatever. I'm sure it's very good and I'm sure you're a very nice person, but no. Every time I've made an exception, bad things have happened. So I stopped making exceptions. Don't ask. Please.

*

The commonly-heard "write what you know about" is good or bad advice depending on how you interpret it. "Write only about what you know from personal experience" is obvious nonsense; very few mystery writers have ever killed anyone, and even fewer science fiction writers have ever been employed as astronauts. (There may be some horror and fantasy writers who have made pacts with Satanic powers; it would explain much. But I digress.)

On the other hand, if you turn the line around to mean, "Find out what you need to know to write about your chosen topic" - or, more succintly, "Do your homework, damn it" - then this is not merely good advice but should be so obvious as not to need saying. Should be, but apparently isn't, at least for a lot of people.

Some time ago I started reading a story that began with a scene on the Bataan Death March - in 1943! Good God...how much effort would it have required to pick up a book, or use an internet search system, and find out that the Death March took place in 1942? There's simply no excuse for that sort of laziness, and yet I see it all the time.

*

When assigning a name to a major character in a novel, consider that you are going to be typing it a lot of times. You might even experiment to find out whether your tentative choice is readily typeable. I once named a character Devereaux and wound up killing him several chapters before I'd intended to, just because I got tired of typing his name.

*

Don't be afraid to use the simple words, and to repeat them. For example, "said" is a perfectly good word and there is nothing wrong with using it, and using it again and again, when writing dialogue; yet a lot of aspiring writers, and even some experienced ones, get nervous and substitute various fancy verbs, or tack on superfluous adverbs. The result is no improvement and is likely to be distracting and even silly - what you might call the Tom Swifty Effect.

Yet I have had editors complain about "too many 'saids'" and want to change them. Which just goes to show that editors, like everyone else, don't necessarily know what they're doing.

*

It's surprisingly easy to get on food stamps in most states.

*

There is an old saying, often given as Sage Advice to aspiring writers: "You ain't gonna get rich, you ain't gonna get famous, and you ain't gonna get laid." #1 is almost certainly true. (It is very nearly statistically impossible even to make a minimum-wage living doing this.) But if you are willing to settle for reasonable and modest goals on #2, you can do pretty well on #3. Particularly at conventions.

*

***

LIT STUFF INDEX

HOME PAGE