Taking Advice

Everybody has an opinion. Oftentimes, a person’s opinions and ideas about a given subject will contradict those of other people. Writing is no exception.

Take any topic within writing, ask a bunch of writers what they think about it, and the answers you’ll receive will be all over the board. It doesn’t matter if the topic is agents, dialogue tags, or the best hours of the day to write–opinions on such things will vary widely. But does this mean there is no one right answer to the question you’re asking?

At first, it might be easy to think so. After all, what these authors are doing obviously works well for them. But there’s the rub: what they’re doing works well in their situation.

Now, I’m not advocating the position that there are no universal truths in the world or in writing, which I would argue is a philosophically invalid and practically worthless position. What I am advocating is the notion that these universal truths only apply within a given context.

For example, let’s say you’re trying to design a book cover for your Tolkienesque epic fantasy novel. You might think, “Well, book covers that have tramp-stamped female characters on motorcycles holding shotguns are selling like mad. I’ll think I’ll jump on that bandwagon.” Doing so would absolutely ruin your book and everyone who read it would hate it. Why? Because books with that kind of cover only sell well in the context of urban fantasy novels, not epic fantasy novels.

The reason context is so important is because our careers, our writing styles, and our stories, could potentially manifest themselves in a vast number of ways, some of which could be very unlike others who have written in our respective genre. While a particular method for getting published or selling books might have worked for one person, that same method applied by someone with very different personal qualities or writing strengths could crash and burn.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have anything to learn from those who have come before us. It does mean that we have to know ourselves, our situations, and our writing, and that we have to know how to apply the things we’ve learned in a way that benefits us. While our writing and our careers may look nothing like someone like Stephen King’s, there is still much we can learn from him (if you haven’t already, read his book On Writing).

So if I were to give you one piece of writing advice that is universal, it would be this: do what is appropriate for your story, and do what is appropriate for your career.

Gatekeepers: Do We Need Them?

I recently came across an online discussion between a couple of friends of mine and an established science fiction writer. The conversation lasted several days and became a little heated at times-at least, so it appeared to me. What were they talking about? Okay, seriously, I’ll give you exactly one guess.

You don’t need one, you say? Not surprising, seeing as the publishing world seems entirely preoccupied these days with one subject and one subject only.

Indeed, the discussion revolved around the debate between self-publishing and traditional publishing. Let me state clearly that I am not trying to present a comprehensive argument on that subject through this blog post. I would prefer to focus in on one aspect of this debate, which is gatekeepers, and whether or not we have a need for them.

What do I mean by gatekeepers? Let me explain. In the traditional publishing model, writers send their work to agents and publishers, who in turn evaluate the suitability of said manuscripts and judge whether or not they are viable for publication. This, in essence, is gatekeeping. Not everyone can get their books published, because there is a system in place to filter out the books that are worthwhile from the mountains of books which are not. In the publishing world, this mountain of dreck is known as “slush.”

But all of that seems to be changing, and self-publishers are increasingly of the opinion that gatekeepers of any stripe are obsolete. In the modern world of ebooks, in which the Amazon juggernaut will allow anyone to publish anything, regardless of quality or questions of legality (a post for another day, to be sure), there is no one manning the gate. In this cutthroat world, the burden of literary filtration is more and more being placed on the backs of readers.

This is, of course, both a blessing and a curse. The reading market now has more freedom to choose-and more freedom must be a good thing, no? Some readers are well-suited for this brand of freedom, though I would suggest they are a minority. Instead of going to the bookstore and choosing one of the several dozen titles on the bookrack in front of them, readers now must select from literally thousands of books, and they must be increasingly wary and educated about how they go about this process of selection.

There are great resources available to help readers make informed, wise decisions-again, a blog post for another time. But my question is this: should this responsibility fall to the reader at all, and does the average reader want it?

I, for one, would like someone to man the gate. My opinion is influenced by the fact that I am currently in the middle of filtering my way through a massive slushpile of my own. Part of my job this summer is to go through the ten huge boxes of books piled up in my living room, distilling them into a shortlist of ten viable manuscripts (pictured above). It’s hard work, and doing it right requires weeks of intense labor and concentration.

Do I think the average reader values the notion of having someone take on the slushpile for them? Yes. Yes, I do, though I don’t know what form such gatekeeping may take in the future.

Discuss amongst yourselves.

Creative Discipline

Creative discipline – that’s an oxymoron for every writer! Creativity conjures images of free flowing thoughts; unfettered imagination spilling effortlessly onto pages and pages. The brilliance of remembered grade school grammar coupled with the adult’s ability to focus childhood imagination – that is every writer’s ability. Turn the tap on when you need it. Shut it off when life interferes. Always the stories will get written.

Or so my family and friends think.

Creativity requires time, space and yes, discipline. My writing got its kick start when I went back to university in my thirties for a degree in Food Science. That coupled with the first degree in English, I can spot an error in any recipe or food safety plan for slaughtering chickens! But, it was those nasty chemistry classes with all their formulas, all those reactions, which gave me the big Aha! and allowed me to write.

Observe. Note. Analyse. Explain. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Isn’t that what most articles on writing ask us to do? What is the character’s reaction to a given situation or action? If they act, what is everyone else’s reaction? What is the character’s ensuing reaction? Like in chemistry class, writers ask the question, What happens when I mix this with that? Explosions? That’s a good thing. A fizzle? Need better chemistry.

What if? is the magical question that blows worlds apart, creating compelling scenarios, challenging protagonists and readers to explore beyond their comfort zones. What if I as a writer don’t answer the phone or check emails regularly? What if I ignore the house work? Put off the laundry? Make a quick something instead of a feast for dinner? Just as for my protagonist, What If? also throws me out of my comfort zone. Yet, I’ve discovered that when I play by What If’s rules, I don’t starve. The laundry eventually gets done. People rarely need an immediate response. And, most importantly, my characters and worlds flourish because my discipline affords them the time to.

So yes, I’ve discovered that creativity needs discipline to flourish. Disciplined blocks of time and discipline to brainstorm What If? Turn the creative tap on and let it stay on. Otherwise, thoughts get lost, diluted or stale. Thoughts need discipline to be created and to appear on the page.

Now when you’re revising or editing, that’s a different discipline and a different blog!

Just remember, we write because words are our air, the page our playground, and our imagination feeds our spirit.

Why We Should Read Drivel

We’ve talked before about the important of quality writing. David Farland has done many fabulous posts in his Daily Kick e-blog on the importance of quality over quantity.

So when we pick up that book that makes our skin crawl, every fiber of our writing soul screaming in agony, why should we read on? I mean, we don’t ever want to write like that! We’ve all heard before, read the slush so you know the difference between good and bad work, but what are we trying to really learn? Won’t we end up subconsciously assimilating the writing style?

Not if we pay attention.

I recently read a YA book by an author with a fascinating concept that promised an interesting, innovative journey. The writing was okay, but….not really. At least in my opinion.

Why I valued the reading experience:

  1. I took notice of specific constructs, dialogue, and plot jumps that made the book uncomfortable for me to read so I could make sure I’m not writing my own works in the ways I was silently disparaging.
  2. I searched for the elements of the book that made it appealing to the editor, publisher (well-known top six), and fans. Those elements were good enough to catch people’s attention.
  3. I analyzed what audience the book was targeted for, why it worked as well as it did, and what I could learn from their relative success. Quite a bit, actually.

Will I read the sequel? Not on your life. Will I read anything else written by that author? Not likely. But I’ve learned a lot about my own writing, my goals, the hold some publishers still have in book selling, and the importance of good advertising, especially with a middle-grade/teen audience.