Category Archives: Brandon M. Lindsay

Do You Aspire to Write?

Let me state upfront how I feel about the term “aspiring writer”: I like it not.

In other professions, it makes sense to refer to someone new to the field as “aspiring.” When you’re in med school, you’re aspiring to a career in the healthcare industry. When you’re studying for your bar exam, you’re an aspiring lawyer. When you’ve landed your first gig on a TV show, you’re no longer an aspiring actor. You’ve become a full-fledged actor.

Can the same be said of a writer?

There are several terms to delineate newer writers from those who have been around: novice vs. experienced, published vs. unpublished, etc. These are obviously important distinctions to make when determining the stage of a writer’s career. The term aspiring writer is often meant to provide a similar distinction, but from what exactly are we distinguishing it?

The examples I gave above (aspiring doctor, aspiring lawyer) refer to someone who is on the path to their chosen career, but are not there yet. The aspiring doctor is not yet practicing medicine. The aspiring lawyer is not yet lawyering.

But almost all aspiring writers do write.

Before, it might have made sense to say that an aspiring writer was one who has never been professionally published. Such a distinction these days is murky at best. For where do we draw the line? Would we say that bestseller John Locke is “aspiring” to be a real writer simply because he’s never been traditionally published (distribution deals aside)?

More fundamentally, to say that a person is aspiring to be a writer is to imply that they are not really a writer. Someone who has written a dozen books is a writer, even if he’s a lousy one and none of those books was fit to print. Say what you will of the quality of his writing, but he has written; do not take that away from him by saying he is aspiring to be, and thus is not truly, a writer.

You might argue that it’s just a word, and that it doesn’t really matter in the big picture. But the Declaration of Independence, too, is just words, but it is a collection of words that has shaped the course of history. As writers, we well know the power of words, as well we know that the wrong word can ruin the meaning of what we’re trying to say.

I think the term “aspiring writer” really only should be applied to the people who want to write a story someday, but have not yet managed to sit in front of a blank white screen, pummel their keyboards, and give shape to the story in their minds.

I have not yet published a book. I have not yet made a dime writing. I have not yet been showered with awards or praise or royalties. These are things I do aspire to.

But I am a writer, dammit, and I bet you are one, too.

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.

Why You Should Be Writing Short Stories

Some of the best writing advice I have ever received was given to me by an editor at World Fantasy Convention. Simply put, he said I needed to write short stories. His reasoning was that writing short stories will teach you craft better than jumping straight into novels will. Also, it will teach you how to actually finish a story. After slogging through two novels (both still incomplete) and then successfully completing six short stories, I can tell you that his advice certainly worked for me. And each story written was better than the last.

In a recent blog post, Kristine Kathryn Rusch gave similar advice, but for different reasons. She looks at the short form from a business perspective. I’d highly recommend reading her original post, but basically she said that the current market conditions, as well as the ability to reassume complete control of the rights of your story after a short amount of time, lend great potential to making a career of short story writing.

There are other reasons as well. If you write speculative fiction, you probably have plenty of notes, or perhaps even notebooks, of worldbuilding trivia, including some semblance of a history of your world. How many interesting stories can be mined from all this material? Chances are there are a few, and if you’re writing a series, these stories will also help draw new readers to those other works, and vice versa (which is the exact tack I’m taking with my short story collection and subsequent novel). An author whom I think has done a remarkable job with this method is Peter Orullian. Before his book was released, he published a few short stories related to the novel on I’m sure the stories helped generate more interest in the book than there would otherwise have been. It worked for me; I bought the book on release day based on the strength of those stories. Another advantage to writing stories about those events that otherwise exist only in your notes is that it could help flesh them out in your own mind, providing more concrete detail from which to draw for your novel.

I know what some of you are thinking: “I’m a novelist, not a short story writer!” I thought the same thing before. But then I gave it a shot, and now I’m a firm believer in short stories. While not everyone will get much out of writing them, it costs very little in the way of time, and the potential benefits are too great to ignore. Who knows? You might even like it.

Economy of Character

Chair, as subsumed by the concept furnitureThe human brain can only retain so much information; real estate in there is limited. One of the purposes of our minds is to condense that information to a manageable level. This is done through the formation of concepts, the most abstract of which are like skyscrapers on that limited real estate.

When using your mind to create these concepts (i.e. thinking), you are combining two or more objects or concepts (chair and table) into a higher-level concept (furniture). This new concept in effect gives you information about a potentially infinite amount of chair- or table-like objects (that they have the qualities of furniture). This applies to anything else your mind deems worthy of being called furniture.

Why bring this up in a discussion about character?

I primarily write in the fantasy genre, which is known to suffer from a malady called the cast of thousands, which is exactly what it sounds like. In order to achieve the epic scope they desire, some authors create many cultures and lands and people them accordingly. Some of the better writers attempt to alleviate this problem through masterful characterization and differentiation, but the problem remains: the human brain can only retain so much information.

It’s happened to everyone I know (myself included) who reads fantasy, especially the doorstoppers. We come across a character, and the name seems vaguely familiar, but we just cannot remember who that character is. We either figure out who the character is by the context, just ignore him, or treat him as a completely brand new character, history forgotten. None of these is ideal for a writer trying to tell a coherent story with a powerful emotional impact.

One solution to this problem is the very same process that you’ve used your whole life to make sense of the real world: combining lower-level units into higher-level abstractions.

Let’s say you have a character who is a policeman. Then, later on, you decide you also want to include a serial killer in your story. Nearly opposites, to be sure, but what if you combined these characters? A serial killer that is also a cop? Such a character already exists: Dexter, from the popular show of the same name. One of the hallmarks of both the book series and the show is how complex and interesting the main character is.

Of course, it’s easy just to smash two characters together and call it a day. But, like forming real concepts, it has to make sense (or rather, you have to make it make sense, since you are the one creating the character). You would never subsume chainsaw under the concept furniture. Also, the concept needs to have something essential about it that justifies its existence. The concept furniture tells us more about the world than just knowing about tables and chairs. The same must be true of the character. That essential attribute is that character’s identity, which in fiction usually boils down to his motivations, his personality, his beliefs, his psychology, etc.

In the example above, that identifying attribute could be Dexter’s homicidal urges as framed by his strange moral code.

Some of the immediate advantages of doing this should be obvious. First of all, your readers know who all of the characters are. But also, those two characters, who were perhaps a little flat to begin with, become three-dimensional when combined into one (if handled properly). This leads to deeper, more thoughtful fiction. Remember when I said that thought is concept formation? That’s why: the reader actually engages in that process when coming across characters like this.

Of course, this applies to other aspects of fiction as well, such as worldbuilding. So, take pity on your poor, confused readers and please, please economize your characters. Not only will they enjoy your stories more, but you’ll have made them feel smarter by the end, and that is always a good thing.