The Fictorians

Get Out of Your Own Head

19 August 2014 | 1 Comment » | frank

Calving HeadI loved to write as a teen-ager. I even completed drafts of two novels by filling hundreds of pages of notebook paper with my cramped, almost illegible handwriting. I was going to be a writer, I just knew it. Then I got to college and got side-tracked into other things, including a computer programming career.

My decision to begin writing again years later came rather abruptly and I dove into the process with great enthusiasm. If I could go back and talk to myself as I pounded away on my first monstrous epic fantasy novel, I would applaud the enthusiasm and the tenacity.

I would also say, “Get out of your head.”

I wrote in a vacuum. It was just me and my imagination and my computer. I labored for what became years on revision after revision, with little input from anyone other than my wife until I completed a novel that could never be published. And still I wrote on.

That process did provide ample opportunity to write hundreds of thousands of words, to develop plot and character, and build the basic foundational skills of crafting sentences and chapters. I improved my writing technique, but I missed out on so much more.

Many aspects of writing are solitary, but not all of them. Sure, I have to sit down and type or take up my voice recorder and dictate. No one can do those things for me.

But the truth I wish I had known earlier was that we are not alone.

It was not until I attended my first professional-level writing seminar after years of writing that I began to see the truth. The knowledge gained there helped dispel long-held misconceptions about what it meant to be a professional writer, not just a hobby artist. The writing group the students formed after the seminar became a source of great support.

Since then I have attended many other seminars and conferences. Every time, I’ve met more great people. As my network has grown, so too has my confidence. At first I was usually on the receiving end of advice and wisdom, but that is slowly transitioning. Now I find myself sharing my own experiences and giving advice to newer authors, most of whom are a lot smarter about getting connected sooner that I did.

Writing may be a solitary art, but being a writer is not.

Maybe Don’t Start With Everest

18 August 2014 | No Comments » | Gregory D. Little

When an experienced writer offers advice, novice writers would do well to listen. So when in 2011 I found myself sitting with a number of other writing hopefuls getting writing advice from Brandon Sanderson at the SLC edition of Superstars Writing Seminar, I was all focus. I listened as Brandon laid out his guidelines for what writers should avoid when writing their first novel. With a growing hollow in my gut I coupled with a kind of hilarity, I realized I had violated every one of them.

You see, about six months prior I had finished my first novel manuscript, An End to Gods. I’ve written a little about it before on this site. I love the book, and while now I see how much work and polish it still needs, I still believe that the bones of the story are strong. But it is a shining testament of everything not to do with a first book. It’s as if I one day decided to take up mountain climbing and turned my naive, untrained eyes to Mount Everest. “That,” Metaphorical Greg said, “looks like a good place to start.”

Brandon advised sticking to a single POV. I had over a dozen. He advised keeping the number of plot lines small. I had at least as many plot lines as POVs. At least. He said one of the greatest pitfalls of new writers is trying to put every idea in their head into one perfect, magical, glorious book and then focusing all their efforts on publishing that book and never moving onto anything else. For that reason, he recommended new writers avoid fixating on writing the story of their heart in their first attempt. Yeah… guilty.

So did I do anything right? Well, I finished! Granted, it took me either seven or eleven years, depending on how you count. But in a way that makes it more impressive. Right?

Past Self, your future self agrees with EVERYTHING Brandon Sanderson said to me/will say to you. Your ambition, while admirable, will delay your serious pursuit of writing by a number of years and lead to immense frustration along the way. You will turn aside from other, easier projects in your need to finish the first, enormous one.

But that ambition will also teach you to learn to write around the time you have and the value of dogged persistence in the face of said immense frustration. It will teach you to be willing to trash hundreds of pages of work on a project and start over when something at a fundamental level isn’t working. And it will make the structure of every novel you write thereafter feel simple by comparison.

So all right, maybe it wasn’t the worst mistake in the world, Past Self. But still, if there’s a parallel universe version of us somewhere out there getting ready to embark on his first serious attempt at novel writing, let’s see if we can convince him to keep it down to like six POVs. You’re right, I don’t think it will work either.

…And That’s Okay!

15 August 2014 | No Comments » | Evan Braun

The first time I put serious thought into publishing my work was the summer of 1995, at the age of twelve. I’d been writing longer than that, but in 1995 I completed work on my first novel. Naturally, I was very proud of it. I’d given it to my English teacher to peruse, and he told me it was promising (it wasn’t; this was a blatant lie, told in the interests of not discouraging me from continuing my burgeoning hobby, which I suppose makes it okay). My family said it was great, as did some family friends who had taken the time to look it over. All lies, all of them. Either that or these people had seriously poor taste in literature. I’d much rather prefer to believe they were all lying to me.

The internet was a relatively new innovation at this time, one to which I did not have access at home. Our family had recently purchased our first home computer—a 386-something-or-other that ran Windows 3.1, if you dared enter that rabbit hole, but most of the time I stayed in the safe, warm embrace of black-screened DOS and its easy-to-navigate list of ten games I played over and over again. These were simpler times, and the internet hadn’t yet punctured them.

The internet had, however, made its first appearance one street over from mine.

Armed with my rave reviews, and the promise of finding answers to my publishing questions on this new-fangled world wide web, I paid an afternoon visit to a friend’s house. My friend’s mom sat down with me in front of the computer and together we ran a search—on Lycos, I think, or maybe AltaVista?—for how I could publish my first novel. I was no noob; I knew things. For example, I’d written a Star Trek novel, and thus I could limit my inquiries to one publisher in particular—Pocket Books, who had an exclusive deal with Paramount to handle the Star Trek novel line.

I’d been promised answers, and answers I got. And they were very discouraging. I learned that Pocket Books would only accept my novel and give it consideration if I had an agent to represent me. Next, we tried searching for information on how to get an agent, but there were no clear-cut answers to be found. Well, at least some things haven’t changed in the intervening twenty years!

My discouragement struck hard and fast because I had a whole slew of questions about how to make it as a bigtime author, and I intrinsically knew that the answers to these questions, as they related to me, could be summed up in two simple phrases: “You’re screwed. Don’t even try.”

I’ve learned a lot since then, and there’s so much advice I would give to my twelve-year-old self that it’s hard to know where to begin. In short, though, I’m not sure I would offer myself specific advice as I would offer reassurance that I wasn’t, in fact, screwed and that I should, in fact, try—and try very hard.

In the wake of my preteen despair, I remember wondering if all the people around me were lying about the quality of my writing. Future Evan goes back in time and says, “Yes, they are… and that’s okay. You’ll get better.”

I remembering wondering if it was going to take much longer for me to become a published author—after all, one of my favourite writers at the time, Gordon Korman, was published when he was twelve. Future Evan goes back in time and says, “Yes, it’s going to take you a very long time, much longer than Gordon Korman… and that’s okay. It’s not a competition.” It’s pretty easy to see now that Korman was just a hell of a lot better than I ever was at the same age. Seriously, that man was put on this earth by demonspawn to torment me.

I remember wondering if I was writing fast enough. It had taken more than a year to write that first novel, and I knew a lot of writers who were churning out books much more quickly. Future Evan goes back in time and says, “No, you’re not fast enough… and that’s okay. You’ll get faster. Probably.” The truth is, I’m still not writing fast enough today, but then again, what is and isn’t fast enough to compete in the present marketplace is an open question. And it’s highly individual.

In closing, I guess the morale of all this is that I’m not sure I would change anything. When it comes to writing, there just isn’t any shortcut. Over time, there are a number of basics you have to figure out for yourself: you have to find ways to write when you don’t want to, and be productive; you have to lean on the advice of successful people who have already achieved what you are aiming for, and disregard most advice from those who are on a different trajectory entirely; and finally, you have to accept that this process is going to take a lot of time.

Seriously, a lot of time. But if you’re persistent and good—yes, you do have to be good—then you’re well on your way. Keep chugging away, Preteen Evan, you’ll get there yet.

The Holy Grail of Creativity

14 August 2014 | No Comments » | fictorians

A guest post by Brian Herbert.

There are many pieces of advice I could give to myself if I were a new writer at the start of my career. From the perspective of decades later and millions of words in print, there is much I could say about the decisions I have made, the paths I have taken, the worlds I have created, and the characters who inhabit them. I could encourage the fledgling writer to be observant and keep a journal, to write every day, and to develop a thick skin, so that he doesn’t give up, even in the face of having his stories rejected repeatedly. I could lengthen this list considerably with tip after tip . . details about how to plot, how to build character files, how to build suspense, and how to market his stories. Structural and practical details, and they would be useful.

But there is an even more important piece of advice, one that I consider to be the most valuable of all.

It has been said that a writer should not write for money, that this should not be his first thought when a piece is created. In this line of reasoning, if he discovers and nurtures his talent, the money is sure to come later. Eventually, he will receive piles of cash; he just needs to write without getting paid much for a while, and the income will come later. This advice is interesting on the surface, but if a new writer really has creative integrity, he will not expect the money to come at all. Such a possibility will not even be in the back of his mind. He will be engaging in the creative process for an entirely different reason.

In writing, as in art, many people copy the work of professionals they admire. Art students sit in museums trying to replicate the works of great masters, seeking to learn their painting techniques. Would-be fantasy writers read Tolkien over and over, and then produce stories that mimic the works of the master. They say they were “inspired” by Tolkien. This happens in other literary genres as well—mystery, adventure, romance, science fiction, mainstream.

Many writers are looking for a handy formula, on which they can hang their own words as a sort of façade—a way of masking the fact that they are not being original, and perhaps that they are not capable of being original. Some musicians do this, and produce works that sound very much like those of others. It happens throughout society, with one product looking very much like another one. Automobile after automobile, house after house, commercial after commercial, book after book, movie after movie.

If something sells, it has countless imitators. But I would tell the new writer that taking this path would be selling his creative soul. If he were to take that route—be it in art, writing, music, or any other art form—he is not truly being himself; he is trying to become someone else. The most important thing a writer of integrity can do is to have the courage and honesty to find himself, and to express that self in words.

Originality is a noble goal.

I’m not saying it’s easy to attain this objective. Corporate publishers want material that is similar to other material they have published “successfully” (i.e. that has made money), and writers naturally fall into that trap. In order to sell their stories they think they must copy, because another writer has made a name for himself that way, and writers are desperate to be successful, and to be paid well. So they replicate the works of others (like taking a recipe and changing an ingredient), and make excuses for doing so. After all, certain ideas are already out there being copied, and writers are getting away with it, so why not jump on the bandwagon? Why not be “inspired” by a writer you admire?

There are many temptations leading the would-be writer onto that course, telling him to do exactly this. If he takes the bait, he rationalizes doing so in any number of ways. People are good at rationalizing, at finding excuses for less-than-noble behavior.

Admittedly, I’m being idealistic, considering the trickiness and laziness of human nature. But I’m talking about human potential here, about a writer’s own personal potential. I would encourage him to try going inward, instead of picking the ideas of others like fruit from a tree. Try going deep inward. Have the courage and the patience to do this, and see what is there. Look for integrity and originality, in the deepest regions of personal consciousness. A person might find a real pearl there, instead of an imitation.

The new writer might ask how this can possibly be accomplished, if he needs to make a living. The bad news is, that for this approach, he might need to keep his day job for awhile, and perhaps for much longer than that. Think of the great artists and writers who never found commercial success in their lifetimes, but stuck to what they believed in anyway. They stayed the course, knowing deep within that they were creating important works, and that one day they would be recognized. This type of writing from deep within, this type of artistic expression, should not be done for money, not in the near term or in the long term. It should be done for an entirely different reason.

It should be done for the holy grail of creativity, in a heroic effort to find the writer’s own originality. It has been said that each of has at least one interesting story to tell, at least one book within each of us. I would also like to think that each human being has at least one original thought.

I’m not going to tell a new writer how to accomplish this inward journey, only that he should make the attempt for his own sake, no matter how arduous it is. After all, if I were to provide detailed instructions on how to attain the holy grail of creativity, it would be a formula, and that’s exactly what we are seeking to avoid.

Brian and Jan HerbertGuest Writer Bio: BRIAN HERBERT is the author of multiple New York Times bestsellers. He has won several literary honors including the New York Times Notable Book Award, and has been nominated for the highest awards in science fiction. In 2003, he published DREAMER OF DUNE, a moving biography of his father Frank Herbert that was a Hugo Award finalist. His acclaimed novels include SIDNEY’S COMET; SUDANNA, SUDANNA; THE RACE FOR GOD; TIMEWEB; THE STOLEN GOSPELS; and MAN OF TWO WORLDS (written with Frank Herbert), in addition to the HELLHOLE Trilogy and thirteen DUNE-series novels co-authored with Kevin J. Anderson. In 2013, Brian published OCEAN, an epic fantasy novel about environmental issues (co-authored with his wife, Jan). Brian’s highly original SF novel, THE LITTLE GREEN BOOK OF CHAIRMAN RAHMA, was published by Tor Books in July 2014.


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