Sunday, June 19, 2011

Writing Advice

I’ve shied away from writing posts on how to write even though I am aware that a sizable section of my audience is likely aspiring writers and might appreciate some insight or at least validation. The reason I’ve avoided such topics is that I don’t know how to write. Let me clarify—I’ve never “learned” how to write in any structured sense.

I never had any formal education beyond the one Creative Writing class in my sophomore year of high school, where I and two of my friends terrorized our teacher by turning Mother Goose rhymes into gritty urban satires. This sort of cutting edge inventiveness might succeed in later life, but doesn’t play well in suburban classrooms. In that same class I did achieve my first serious notoriety. The assignment was to write a short story (two pages) about a photograph of a flower. I penned a story about a boy sent topside from the bunker where the last of humanity was trying to survive a nuclear holocaust. His job was to search for signs of life, but the boy was of a generation born in the bunker. When he stumbled on the flower he plucked and discarded it thinking: how could anything so fragile hope to survive in such a world as theirs. The teacher read the story in front of the class, and when the teacher revealed that I wrote it, the best writer in our class--a girl by the name of Megan--was unable to control herself and said in utter shock, “A boy wrote that?”

Beyond this, I have had no formal training. I only attended a little over a year of college at an art school, where they did not even teach English much less writing. I never read a book on how to write, or attended a seminar. And not only had I not visited a writing group until after I was published, I never talked to another writer—not even a remotely aspiring one. I had spent a decade earnestly trying to learn to write in a total vacuum.

It was not until I signed with Catt,  my first agent, who had agreed to represent The Crown Conspiracy, that I began to discover how much I didn’t know. She politely mentioned a problem with my point of view and sweetly indicated that there were a couple of places where I was telling and not showing. I had never even heard of these terms before. For those of you who aren’t in the business of writing, these are some of the first things a writer learns if he/she is attending workshops or classes. It turned out I was trying to do calculus without even knowing what addition and subtraction was.

Later, about the time Avempartha was being published, my wife got me into a seminar at George Washington University. It was headed by Mary Morrissy, the award winning Irish author of Mother of Pearl.  On occasion, after class a few of us would join her at one of the tiny Georgetown pubs and chat while we watched people pass by the window. Upon learning that I was already published Mary asked why I was in the class. I replied that I was there because I never learned to write in any formal way. To this she replied, “That’s probably why you’re successful.”

So you see from my experience I don’t see I have all that much to offer. Besides the concept of giving advice on how to go about writing strikes me as a bit arrogant, pretentious, and fairly stupid as no two writers, or approaches, are alike, nor should they be. There is an infinite number of reader’s preferences and as such there should be an equal amount of literary variety to service them. Probably the best advice I can give a writer, is not to listen to anyone’s advice. There are many books I would have deemed unpublishable, or incapable of gaining an audience, which have won the Pulitzer or reaped fortunes for the author. I’m certain I am not alone in my ignorance of what will and won’t be successful. Advice-givers can only speak about their opinions, about what they feel works best, and this might only work for them. Granted there are some universally accepted rules, but even those can be successfully broken.

On the other hand, I am frequently asked for advice about writing. I could tell everyone what I just told you and leave it at that, but this strikes me as a miserably screw-it-forward attitude. It isn’t so much that I don’t want to offer suggestions, it is merely that I have no idea if my currency of thought will have value for anyone else, and I’d hate to derail anyone on the track to greatness by indicating that what they are doing is wrong and having them listen to me.

On my third hand, everyone has to start somewhere, and fearing that a writer will be ruined by listening to my advice is in itself awfully arrogant. It suggests that people aren’t capable of thinking for themselves and determining on their own, the merit of another’s advice.

My wife is a great substantive editor. She has a logical, detail-oriented, engineering type mind. She also has a strong personality and isn’t afraid of debating a character, or plot point even with the guy who invented the world and all the people in it. I can imagine Robin critiquing God on platypuses. “Seriously? You’re going to put this in? You don’t think it’s a little…I don’t know…stupid? Com’on a mammal that lays eggs? That’s inconsistent with everything else you created. I know you love it, but come on. It’s bizarre—an egg-laying, venomous, duck-billed, beaver-tailed, otter-footed mammal? There’s no way that stays in.”

After Robin rips my book apart, I sit down and determine whether to accept her advice or not. In the end it is always my decision. (The other thing that makes Robin a great editor, is that she accepts it when I reject her ideas without asking for a divorce.)

The best I can do then is offer what I’ve learned and you can decide for yourself if you think it’s useful. In so doing, there is the chance I might provide someone with that missing piece they’ve been needing. As such--and this has been quite the preamble--I will begin offering what wisdom I have on how to write novels in a series of posts that I will try and write once a week. We’ll see how that goes.

In the meantime, here is the first bit of advice that plays into the bit about Robin helping me with my books. When you receive advice on a manuscript, don’t make a decision. Initially all critiques are grating. No matter how nicely delivered, hearing criticism is painful. Most people become defensive. They want to stand up for themselves and explain why it has to be that way, and what the reader clearly missed. I’ve learned that if you get defensive with people giving you honest critiques, you won’t get them anymore. So controlling that reflex is important.

The other thing I found is to wait. I’ve gotten into long running debates with Robin about parts of my books. I argue with her over my work (something I only do with her, because I know she’s capable of standing up to it) I even get angry, though I try to hide it. I defend my stance and have often won the arguments. Then the next day I sit down at my computer. When I’m alone with my thoughts and no one can see, I reevaluate. The anger is gone, the embarrassment, and pride are all someplace else, and it is just me alone with the decision. Most of the time I realize she was right and I quietly make the change.

Robin will then be proof reading the passage and stop. “Hey, I thought you weren’t going to change this?”

“Change what?”

“What do you mean, what? We argued over this for hours. The neighbors almost called the cops. Why’d you change it?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, it’s always been that way.”

I might have gotten away with it if she hadn’t saved the previous copies on her computer.

So getting honest advice is a rare gift. Being able to determine whether to accept it or not is priceless. And getting away with making it look like it was your own idea all along, just doesn’t work.

Stay tuned for more writing tips and if you have any specific questions, things you don’t understand, things that you have problems with, or are just curious about, let me know. I may not know the answers, but I lie real well.


  1. I came across this today:

    The Groupon Guide to: Writing Fiction

    Instead of being based on real-life events, many of today's best-selling books are composed of what are conventionally known as “lies,” although the publishing industry prefers the handy euphemism "fiction." Because they are entirely made up, writing fictional books is extremely easy—just follow this handy guide:

    Use at least three characters:

    Protagonist: The hero. In all books written thus far, the protagonist has been a sullen teenager, a swashbuckling duck, or car that can transform into a smaller car.
    Anti-gonist: The bad guy. Always the protagonist's twin father.
    Love Interest: Either a person or bag of gold that must be rescued by the protagonist.

    Choose a type of conflict

    Man vs. Man: A man fights another man
    Man vs. Himself: A man fights his clone
    Man vs. Nature: A man fights some angry clouds
    Nature vs. Nature: Two angry clouds fight each other

    Finish with a twist:

    It was Earth all along! Or conversely, it was space all along.
    All the characters were ghosts! And the characters that seemed like ghosts were actually mummies.
    It wasn't a book at all, but a helpful exercise VHS! That's why it was so fun to read!

  2. I think you're getting into some advanced writing techniques here.

  3. Oh, can't stop laughing!
    What a great thing to have your books' best editor right there in your own house!
    Possibly uncomfortable from time to time, but undeniably great.

  4. Reading the back of your Theft of Swords Volume 1, where you're interviewed and you talk about how you got back into writing because of Harry Potter; its made me want to write again. It's been a long time since I've allowed my creative mind to flow out onto paper again, but I wanted to thank you.

    Look forward to reading the rest of your blogs!

  5. I can completely relate with this advice! My husband and I both write and we are each others editors (for the moment). It's wonderful and we are lucky to have such easy access to honest critique. We are also in the same magical writing group, which is hard to find...not the group, but the magical part. Love your books by the way...exactly the writing style I crave!

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