Ah, October in Florida! The leaves take on a slightly paler shade of green, the insects grow sullen and lethargic, and a Tampa hotel grudgingly opens its doors to Necronomicon, my favorite convention.
I’ve been attending for more than twenty years, first as a punk kid and now as a punk writer.
Here’s my schedule for the coming weekend (October 18th and 19th):
- 11:00 PM Friday | Salon C | Who Is the Best Superhero?
- 10:00 AM Saturday | Salon G | Fantasy in a Modern Setting
- 4:00 PM Saturday | Salon B | Religion in Science Fiction and Fantasy
- 9:00 PM Saturday | Salon G | Plotting Your Novel
I hope to see you there!
It’s funny how in all of my writing classes to date, I’ve spoken about almost every other topic than how to literally sit down and write a story.
That’s probably an artifact of years of being told that we all do it differently and we all have to figure it out ourselves, but I’m starting to wonder if it would have done some good for me if someone had just said, “Look, this is how you do it,” instead of giving me all the pieces without instructions. Then I could have modified the basic process instead of flailing around for one.
So last night, I told my students my basic process for writing. It seems to have a lot in common with the other writers I know, too.
Here’s the process, in case you’re interested.
- You listen to some faint glimmering of interest or fascination: a person, a place, an image, a situation.
You sit down in a quiet place and start writing.
- The number one question that leads to stories for me is, “Wouldn’t it be crazy if ________?”
- The number two question that leads to better stories for me is, “For whom would this situation suck the most?”
- The number one problem I see in student stories, other than failing to evoke any kind of human feeling? Picking an idea too early. The good ones tend to collide in pairs.
If you’re lucky, you might just go through a whole story this way, dancing through a flowered meadow of inspiration all the way to the end.
- For me, this usually means writing by hand: it lets me focus on the one sentence or paragraph right in front of me instead of rushing ahead to all of the others.
- I do tend to write in public because there’s a weird kind of protection you get from strangers. When you write at home, people you care about can interrupt you. When you write at Panera, you can tell someone who interrupts you to fuck off.
- I think it’s important at this stage to just hang out on the page, noodle around, talk to yourself. Maybe you’re experimenting with a voice or a point of view. Often, I think of an awesome first line and follow that as far as it goes. But it should all be low-pressure work.
- Do I outline? I think I probably should so I can focus less on what I’m trying to write than on how to write it well, but I don’t start with one.
- The key is to make as little a deal about it as possible. The attitude you’re going for is, “Well, shit, why wouldn’t I write today?” instead of “IF I DON’T WRITE TODAY, I HAVE BETRAYED MY SELF-IMAGE.”
You get stuck.
- What? It’s happened a few times for me.
- Not often.
You return to writing, sketching in the story with greater and greater detail as you build to a critical mass.
- Which is perfectly okay. You’re supposed to get stuck.
- This is the point that I have to remind myself that I’m not the problem. The problem is the problem, and I need to work that problem. (Thanks, Steven Pressfield, for that gem of advice.) In other words, don’t assume you’re an idiot or a failure immediately.
- (It takes YEARS to discover you’re an idiot and a failure.)
- I usually talk to myself on paper, usually with a heading at the top like, “What the fuck is wrong with this thing?” The bad language helps make it less intimidating, less “literary.”
- On that page, I ask myself questions like, “What is this story about? What happens next? How are readers supposed to feel at the end of it? What’s missing?”
You end up with a story-shaped blob of words.
- Characters, places, and situations almost always seem flat at first. That’s just how they come. They get better when you throw weird details at them.
- The keys here? Getting detailed and getting personal. There really isn’t much substitute for that.
- I’ve discovered that my basic three-act structure is, “What the fuck? Holy shit! Oh…Wow.”
Then you rewrite the story.
- This is what I call the “non-embarrassing draft,” a version of the story that I could show to other people without being utterly humiliated.
- Sometimes, if this draft is good or the writing was hard, I’ll think, “Hot damn! Close enough. Send this off!” and I have to fight that feeling.
Finally, you send the story off somewhere.
- For me, that often means retyping it from handwritten pages.
- I’ve found that rewriting just by nudging words around on a computer screen is the LEAST effective way to rewrite unless I start a whole new document every so often and paste in just the parts that are working. The problem with word processors is that they encourage you to keep words you should probably throw away.
- Some people solicit input from others. If you do, that’s fine…but only follow the advice that excites you with a jolt of recognition. The rest isn’t for you, it’s for them.
- I’ve come to a point where frankly, if the venue can’t be found on awards ballots, newsstands, bookshelves, or in Best Of anthologies, it’s not worth sending to. Yeah, that makes me a snob, but nothing’s more heartbreaking than have a story disappear into the shouting din of obscurity.
- I send stories off less and less these days. I’m depressed and discouraged by the state of the short fiction markets even more so than I used to be — it seems that most magazines exist solely to publish writers instead of being read, and it seems like much of genre publishing is this weird terrarium where writers read other writers who are published by other writers currying favor and connections in an endless recycling. Maybe that’s the way it is in every art mixed with commerce, but I expect more from my fellow geeks.
So yeah. That’s the process in a nutshell. The shocking thing is how often I FORGET that’s my process and get all tangled up in what I’m supposed to be doing.
Next week at this time, I’ll be at Readercon near Boston, a wonderful convention I’ve missed too often lately.
No, I’m not on programming, but I’ll be signing copies of In Search Of and Others at the Lethe Press table in the dealer’s room. Come on by and corner me where I can’t escape!
I’ve been trying to think of ways to write this without making it seem like I’m about to flounce bitterly off the Internet, but yeah, I’m going to flounce bitterly off the Internet.
There are lots of things to blame for my lack of productivity and focus, but I’ve come to realize that the social Internet is the most pernicious and destructive force in my life.
(Well, I realized it long ago, but I’m angry at myself enough now to do something about it.)
- As my go-to escape from boredom, I find it all too easy to “check online” for five minute bursts…often at five minute intervals. This destroys the flow of any actual work I’m doing and allows me to escape the real effort — the often boring and long effort — required to accomplish things that one can hold here in the real world like, say, books. It’s actually worse than television because at least there, it’s a story that goes away in an hour. The Internet story goes on and on.
It’s good to be bored. I need to be bored.
- It is my dream to one day wander the world like the guy in Kung Fu punching every person who ever advised a writer to “self promote” in the face.
At best, it doesn’t work. At worst, you’re odiously selling yourself to your own friends and colleagues in an endless solipsistic circle of masturbatory capitalism: “you buy mine and I’ll buy yours.” I deeply resent living in a society in which we must individually advertise ourselves to feel alive.
More importantly, I’m so sorry to all of you that I let tons of bad advice inspire me to treat you like an “audience” instead of friends.
- Social networking is to friendship like porn is to sex: it’s easier to press the buttons than to do the work. Far more people have “Liked” my book than bought or reviewed it, and I’ll admit I’m as guilty as everyone else of showing my support by tossing a couple of electrons over my shoulder in someone’s direction instead of, you know, acting on something.
I’m sorry about that, too.
- Time was when I used to use stories to express myself instead of passing around other people’s thoughts. I think I need to get back to that.
And hey, it’s possible (even likely) that you have a far healthier relation to the Internet than I do. If so, congratulations. Think of me as the equivalent of an alcoholic whose ADHD won’t let him stop with just one sip of electronic gossip.
So I’m going to be far more scarce online than I have been. Please don’t take it personally.
How will I survive? How will our friendship survive?
If you’re my friend, you have my phone number and e-mail address where we can talk like real human beings. If you’re my professional friend, you have those things too and I can’t wait to see you at conventions. If you’re my fan, all four of you, keep an eye on Amazon and my website for news of my publications and appearances.
The rest of you…I have no fucking idea who you are. I absolutely hope the best for you, but I’m too old to be collecting people like Pokemon cards.
Aren’t we all?
Science fiction alpha male John Scalzi was awesome enough to host In Search Of and Others as today’s Big Idea essay, and I had a lot of fun writing about the joys of being unabashedly wrong.
God knows I have lots of practice.
Stop by the site and take a look!