Ah, the life of an author. Drinking champagne, eating caviar, traveling to exotic locations where we write under the shade of a great tree while watching the lapping waves of the cobalt blue Mediterranean as they tease the sandy shore.
Or not. Well, we’ll get there some day I hope. Probably not. 🙂
There’s a ton of advice out there for you, the writer, to learn from so that you can try and achieve your idyllic goals. There are books by famous authors like Stephen King and Ursula K. Le Guin, and less famous authors like Phineas T. Foghorn and Chantreuse Willowwood. There are blogs and websites gallor, not to mention numerous twitter feeds and podcasts to follow. On top of all the advice about how to write, you’ll get advice on your works in progress, critiques of your finished drafts, guidance on writing queries letters and synopsis.
The problem is, how do you separate the wheat from the chaff?
Take for instance all the advice on self-publishing. With SHADOW OF A DOUBT out to what I feel is the last round of agent queries available to it (I don’t think I’ve missed many agencies at this point), I’m considering the possibility of self-publishing. So I joined the Reddit self-publishing group and began going through their Wiki. Wiki’s can always be valuable. They share important rules and information about a group, as well as useful links.
I started clicking on the links they’re promoting as valuable insight into the self-publishing industry. One author, a self-published guru I assumed from the way it was presented, has written many blog posts about the benefits of the self-published route over the traditional route of agents and publishing houses. And yes, there’s actually some pretty good advice there. The problem is, there’s enough bad advice to make me cock my head and go “say fucking what?”
Take for instance the following assertion to convince folks to self-publish (and I paraphrase because I don’t need the hassle of an army of little bots droning on about how wrong I am): Ebook sales now exceed real book sales.
Interesting! Enlightening! Validating! And… totally not true. In fact, real book sales controlled almost 2/3rds of the marketplace as of last October, 2017, (see: this article on CNN Money for the stats) and they’d been on the rise for a while as people turned back to physical tomes. That doesn’t mean he’s wrong about other things, but painting a rosy picture to support your view doesn’t help make your case and makes you come off as a bit of a douche. You’re lying to folks to convince them your path is valid, and that implies either that you’re A) feeling the lack of your own validation from your failure to get a traditional publishing deal; B) not paying attention to what’s going on in the real market. And if you’re not paying attention to the market, how valid are your lessons going to be?
Again, I say that as a person having read their blog and finding myself agreeing with them on many points. But the number of times this blogger gets into “traditional publishing is going to use you and spit you out” (but in nicer terms) really puts me off. There’s validity to both paths, no one is better than the other. I’ve chosen a dual path myself, trying the traditional route (and will continue to try it as I finish more novels) while considering the self-publishing route as a backup.
Other advice I’ve found is incredibly earnest and thoughtful, and ultimately not very helpful. Show don’t tell! Except tell when it’s needed of course, which is particularly true in SFF. Don’t use too much dialogue! Except well-done dialogue is incredibly useful for developing and revealing character. Kill your darlings! Except darlings that are story appropriate and work towards the goal of a scene should never be killed, its really just those darlings which aren’t useful towards the goals of the story you should remove (but save for a rainy day).
Critiques are another type of advice, and let me tell you, those little bastards can sting. But even with critiques, there’s good advice and bad advice. For example:
GOOD: This secondary character, the priest, doesn’t really work for me. I felt he showed up at a convenient time to help the protagonist solve a goal, but had no real purpose. It seemed he was added to help you get past a point you were stuck at.
BAD: This priest is bad. WTF is this shit? Never do this, it’s terrible, and a writer should always do something like xyz. This is really fucking lame shit.
One piece of advice is specific, and couched in a “this is my feeling and others may not agree” phrasing that maintains professionalism while still getting to the core of the problem. The other piece of advice is totally useless, insulting, and douchey. The words “always” and “never” should be avoided in critiques. And yes, I got a little critique like that recently on a query letter I’ve been working on. I could see the writer had some actual good advice, advice that I took, but their phrasing left much to be desired and I called them out on it. They got, well… pretty fucking defensive. It seems they are great at giving shitty critiques, and shitty at taking polite ones in return. I even carefully couched my reply in a lot of terms like “I feel that,” and “It seemed to me.” Following my own damned advice! (Here’s more advice for you: read the following web page if you want to learn how to give good critiques: http://critters.org/c/diplomacy.ht)
You’re going to get advice over pantsing (writing off the cuff with no real plan but to discover the story as you progress forward) and plotting (creating outlines). Ignore all this advice! Ignore it, burn it with fire, fire the ashes into the sun, and then Soran the fuck out of that star.
I’m a panster. And yes, I’m aware of some of the weaknesses of that style of writing. Endings can be difficult and wandering, and sometimes a story goes off track and enters the null zone of “what the fuck am I writing now, this makes no sense, I’ve got a cucumber having an argument with a Llama on some frozen moon, all regarding which yogurt is better.” I’ve also finished three novels, dozens of short stories, and am working on a fourth novel now. Instead of spending time on the front end writing a long outline, I spend time on the front end writing a “start” to a story and seeing where it goes. Sometimes that’s the “true” start of the whole thing, like with my novel SUMMER, sometimes it’s a jumping off point as I hone those ideas into something better and start over fresh, like the current novel I’m working on. But chunks of the original work will generally become part of the final product.
Outliners prefer to know the journey before they detail it. That’s fine, it’s a valid and useful method. To some degree, I’m envious of them, they already know the destination and how to get there. But I’ve tried outlining, and it won’t work for me. After one chapter, I’m no longer following that outline as new ideas ricochet around my brain, and I’ve wasted time and effort. I’d rather do it a different way. Try BOTH methods and use the one that works best for you. You may outline a little and discover the rest. You may write a detailed, fifty page outline with multiple levels of bullet points, different font colors for every major transition, and little hearts and flowers to signify the journey of the romantic subplot through the overall narrative arc, and put it all on index cards carefully affixed to a huge blank wall in your space with two-sided tape so you can move it all around and make sure the whole thing works before you ever type a single word of your actual story. Sounds exhausting to me, but above all else, YOU DO YOU.
Books give you LOTS of advice. I’ve read plenty of them, from the inspiring “On Writing” by Stephen King, to the grammatical useful “Sin and Syntax,” by Constance Hale. More recently I read “Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules,” by Steven James. I found the advice in this last book to be… okay. I mean, he was speaking to me as a pantser when he talked about discovering the story and throwing out outlines. But I hated the way that was presented, as if outlining was bad and you must only ever try to mine the story. Sorry, Steve, but outlining really does work for folks, and they write excellent novels. There is no “must” in this truth, only the method that works best for you. (Note: overall it was a very good book, though I didn’t always agree with all his conclusions, or all his recommendations). Never, always… these have no place in advice. As a novice writer, when you hear those words, it should raise warning signs for you.
Spend time on twitter and follow authors, editors and agents. You’ll see lots of advice coming through your feed. Over time, you’ll get savvy at knowing which folks have the best advice and which folks are just regurgitating something they heard in a Writing 101 online workshop. Eventually you’ll have honed in on the people who can help you, whose ideas and suggestions work for your style of writing (which, I’m sorry to say, you have to discover on your own; there’s literally no template you can follow to success, you’ll have to discover it as you go along). I’ve been following John Adamus (https://twitter.com/awesome_john) for a long time now, ever since the newly minted ebook company he has partnered in, Parvus Press, came close to publishing one of the earlier versions of SHADOW OF A DOUBT. Over these couple of years I’ve found his advice pretty damned useful, though as always I’m careful to take what works for me and apply it, and ignore the rest. Recently I had the chance to work with him directly on my query letter, and good baby jesus, did he ever fucking improve the shit out of it. It went from being a “meh” query letter to one that hit all the right notes perfectly. It still may not sell the novel, but it really served to help me hone that particular skill.
Advice is everywhere. Like the news, it’ll fill your life if you let it. Learn how to judge advice on its merits and apply it to your life, and learn especially how to toss the fuck out any advice that won’t help you or isn’t relevant to you. Including THIS advice. Once you’ve mastered this skill, maybe you can tell me how nice that damned beach is.