James Van Pelt

Writing Words Fantastical and Otherwise

Sunday Writing: Every “Rule” has Exceptions

marqueeOne of the many fascinating aspects of English and writing is that anything that sounds like a rule has exceptions.  The only real rule in writing is this: IT HAS TO WORK.  If it works, it’s good.  I’ve written stories in the past just to show that a “rule” can be broken.  My latest story at Daily Science Fiction does exactly that.  It’s called “Writing Advice.”

So, a lot of the standard wisdom writing teachers hand out is challengable, if you know what you are doing.

–    Write what you know.  This is intuitively wrong, or at least poorly stated.  I prefer “Don’t write what you don’t know,” because that implies you can find out stuff (and should).  Too vigorously applied, “write what you know,” produces a lot of belly button gazing.  At the college that means I get a ton of dorm stories, filled with drinking and teen angst.  Maybe an even better way to phrase this might be, “Write what you can imagine, and imagine with gusto (and detail).”  At least for science fiction and fantasy writers.

–   Don’t shift point of view.   In general, this is good advice.  A writer who slips around willy nilly with point of view just confuses the heck out of the reader.  I responded to a story the other day that dipped into the cat’s point of view for a sentence, and then, catastrophically, into a house plant on the fireplace mantle for another sentence.  The better advice, at least to stronger writers, is Control point of view.  If you know what you are doing, a story that shifts point of view can be the only way to tell the story, if it works.

–   Show, don’t tell.  This rule is what I had in mind when I started this post because yesterday I said the weakest way to reveal character is by the narrator directly telling the readers what the character is.  What I had in mind was the writer who puts something like this down on the page: “Leslie was witty and clever,” and then Leslie never does a single witty or clever thing.  That’s telling without confirming showing.  But some of the most memorable characters in fiction are revealed partly through the narrator directly telling the readers what the character is like.

For example, here is one of the most famous character introductions in all of English literature:

Oh!  But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!  Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.  The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.  A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin.  He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dogdays; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge.  No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him.  No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty.  Foul weather didn’t know where to have him.  The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect.  They often “came down” handsomely, and Scrooge never did.

I think that nice bit of telling works, don’t you?  All right, it’s a bit of a cheat as an example, because there is some effective showing in there too, but the mode is mostly telling.  Look at how much milage Dickens gets out of mixing showing and telling.  Remember, too, that the very first time we see Scrooge in the story, his character is revealed through dialogue:

“A merry Christmas, uncle!  God save you!” cried a cheerful voice.  It was the voice of Scrooge’s nephew, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.

“Bah!” said Scrooge, “Humbug!”

So, for me, the better advice is “Show, don’t tell, unless you earn the right to tell by doing a lot of showing.”  It doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as easily as the first piece of advice, but it seems closer to the truth.

Sunday Writing: Creating Believable High School Characters

86

The FMHS class of 1986 held their 30th reunion this weekend.  That’s my wife’s graduating class.  We perused the photos and videos that the class posted on their FB website.  The don’t look that old.  I can still see the teenagers in them.

Almost ten years ago, I wrote this article about characterization using the high school classes I was teaching as my examples.  Since I’ll be starting a new school year in another month, I think I’ll do the exercise again.  Has anything changed that I can notice?  How different are they from the class of ’86?


Creating characters must be hard because I read so many unconvincing, thin or cliched characters in fiction.  How high school characters are portrayed often bothers me because so many people default to a handful of stereotypes.  Since I teach high school and really, really, really respect high schoolers as people, it’s particularly upsetting to see them boiled down into predetermined niches.

We administered the ACT test to all of our juniors today.  I proctored for two hours, which involved walking back and forth among the desks for the whole time, I took notes on what I saw.

If you’re interested, here’s raw data from Fruita Monument High School in western Colorado, a predominantly white student body that draws about 2/3 of the kids from upper-middle class suburban neighborhoods and 1/3 from rural ranches and farms.  We have 1,200 students in three grades.

Twenty-one students took the test in the room I proctored, 17 girls and 4 boys, an imbalance caused by the randomness of assigning kids to rooms alphabetically.

–   14 carried cell phones (they couldn’t have cell phones on them during the test, so we had to collect them.  Some of the kids remembered this and didn’t bring a cell phone–clearly I have to buy a cell phone for my 11th grade son!)
–   3 wore hats
–   1 wore a school sweatshirt
–   1 wore a university sweatshirt
–   1 wore a Tigger sweatshirt
–   9 sweatshirts total–none of them were dressed in a style we normally call “preppy”
–   2 Hispanic students, no Black or Asian ones
–   1 facial piercing (a small diamond stud on the side of a nose)
–   2 unnatural hair colors
–   2 wore glasses (lots of contacts?)
–   1 male with an earring
–   6 females with hair below their shoulder blades
–   4 in shorts.  The rest in long pants, mostly jeans.  It’s been a cold spring.

They were all cooperative, quiet and industrious.  Once again, the luck of the draw.  I taught a sophomore class here a couple of years ago that was phenomenally bad.  I took three of the worst out to work on a paper with them alone while my student teacher tried to handle the rest.  The three I had were supposed to be working on a paper about influential people in their lives.  They all wanted to write about their probation officers.

The teacher who teaches in the room I was proctoring in today had the kids do an “I” poster for an assignment.  The kids are supposed to make a collage of who they are.  It reminded me a little of the writing assignment in The Breakfast Club, where the kids who were serving a Saturday detention were supposed to do an essay on who they thought they were.  I broke the posters down into categories:

–   2 pictured guns, one in a hunting context, and the other in a redneck context (to use a stereotype; the poster was hunting rifles and pickups)
–   4 agriculturally centered (livestock, John Deere machinery, etc.)
–   6 sports
–   10 fashion
–   7 music
–   1 overtly religious
–   5 travel
–   6 hunting
–   3 environmental
–   1 sort of disturbing one, that included the phrase, “Every killer lives next door to someone”

So, where am I going with this?  First, when a writer wants to write about high school, he/she has to decide first which high school.  FMHS is like the proverbial elephant being described by a bunch of blind men.  Who your character is determines the high school in the story.  For some individuals, high school is scary.  For others it is fun.  For many, they don’t have much of an opinion about it one way or another.

Here’s something to think about: the very best high schools in America have some kids who are deeply disturbed, lost to drugs, victims (or dealers) of violence, potential psychopaths or profoundly unhappy.  The very worst high schools in America have some kids who are academically excellent, love their classes, are kind to their friends, have good relationships with their parents, and are moving forward into fulfilling and happy lives.

I guess what I’m arguing against here is simplification and stereotypes.  High school students are not simplified versions of adults.  They are not driven by only a single motivation (any more than some adults are driven by a single motivation).  They are complicated, contradictory, fully faceted human beings, capable of cruelty, tenderness, cowardice, bravery and every other emotion you can think of.  They can be clear visioned or confused (sometimes several times in the same day, just like you or me).  Their hurts and their passions are as deep and profound to them as they are to people in their thirties.

If you want to be honest in your portrayal of them, keep in mind that every individual is . . . well . . . individual.

Selling a Small Press Book

pandoracampaigneYesterday, Patrick Swenson asked me how my Goodread’s ad that I started in October for PANDORA’S GUN was doing. I hadn’t tried any kind of advertising campaign for any of my books before, so this was new territory for me. The Goodreads program was pretty simple. They gave me a template for the ad which I designed (it took five minutes–most of that time was deciding how to word the text to go along with the book cover) . Then I chose how much money to put into the ad buy. What I’m buying is Goodreads placing the ad on the side of pages that Goodreads users who have indicated an interest in books like PANDORA’S GUN could see. I’m charged fifty cents when someone clicks on the ad. As of this morning, the ad has been displayed 413,675 times, and I’ve spent $57.50 of my budget.

So, what to make of that? Has the ad resulted in $57.50 of sales so far? I have no way of telling. It certainly has not translated into hundreds of books being sold.

Would I have stronger results with a Facebook or Amazon ad? Do online ads work at all? Would I just do better by compiling a newsletter list (which often feels spammy to me)? These are questions I don’t have answers for.

My feeling is that in the small press world, the only things that truly sells books is word of mouth. In online terms, that would be people reading a book, liking it, and then sharing it with their online friends. If some of those friends also share the book, then you get the equivalent of a sustainable reaction. Lots of people are talking about the book and getting other people to read it.

Right behind word of mouth are reviews. Not just reviews in PW or Locus, but also on Amazon, Goodreads, B&N, etc. A well-planned signing can move books too, but in small batches.

The next tier of actions I could take: book marks, custom pens, flyers, tee-shirts, etc. strike me as a waste of money (although fun to do).

Unfortunately, word of mouth and the reviews are mostly beyond the author’s control. Author’s can’t make people talk about their books, and they can’t control the reviews.

So, to answer Patrick’s question, I don’t know how the ad buy at Goodreads is doing or whether it was worth it. All I can say is that I controlled buying the ad. Once the book was out, it was one of the few things I could control, and that felt good.

MY WORLD CON SCHEDULE – 2016

MAC_II_Robot__40154.1452620897.1280.1280-871x871What Ever Happened to Young Adult Science Fiction?

Sunday 10:00 – 11:00, 2502A (Kansas City Convention Center)

At one time, YA Science Fiction was a hot field, but in more recent years the Young Adult field has been more filled with dystopian and fantasy fiction.  What ever happened to YA SF?  Is there room for it or are kids just not interested in science fiction?

Mr. Jeffrey Cook, Sage Blackwood, Fonda Lee, Ms. Jane Ann McLachlan M.A. (M), James Van Pelt

Balancing the Creative Life

Saturday 15:00 – 16:00, 2503B (Kansas City Convention Center)

Finding balance is a trick nowadays. How do you keep a day job, AND read AND go to galleries AND network AND absorb enough of the world to keep your brain well fed inspired and energized enough to create? Panelists discuss what keeps them going and engaged in their work and life.

Kelly Robson, Joelle Presby, Mark W. Tiedemann, James Van Pelt (M), Deirdre Murphy

Latchkey Kids in Fiction

Friday 10:00 – 11:00, 2206 (Kansas City Convention Center)

Parents are often missing (or at least sidelined) from today’s young adult fiction. With the emergence of these latchkey kids who come home to empty houses and who have very little (if any) parental supervision, what message is this sending to today’s readers? What purpose do these absentee parents play in the larger story? Sure, it ratchets up the tension, but why is it such a common theme? Moreover, what resources are available to these latchkey kids and what dangers should they keep in mind when operating without a parent?

Greg van Eekhout, Tina Connolly (M), James Van Pelt, Tamora Pierce, Sarah Beth Durst

Magazine Group Reading: Analog

Friday 12:00 – 13:00, 2202 Readings (Kansas City Convention Center)

Our Magazine Group Reading Series continues with a special group reading that features authors from Analog.

Trevor Quachri (M), James Van Pelt, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, Ken Liu, Stanley Schmidt, Mr. Alec Nevala-Lee

Notes

In an effort to highlight live author readings, we are trying something new at WorldCon. These special group readings are designed to maximize exposure for all of the readers involved as well as for the magazine itself. Each group reading is 50 minutes long (max) and includes 5 readers who each receive approx 5 minutes to read a portion of a story that was published by the magazine. Ideally, the introduction and readings should take 30-35 minutes max, which leaves time for a short Q&A session at the end. This format worked really well at Boskone this year and generated nice sized audiences that were very engaged with the reading.

Ready, Steady, Flash!

Thursday 17:00 – 18:00, 2502A (Kansas City Convention Center)

Four authors are each given five minutes in order to write stories based on a theme given by the audience, who then vote for their favourite.

Deirdre Murphy, Vivian Trask, James Van Pelt, Chris Phillips (M), Mr. John Wiswell

Sunday Writing: Practice and Theory of First Sentences

beginningIn May I wrote about story beginnings, but that’s a bigger topic than what I wanted to focus on today: the first sentence.

I’ve been working on a unified field theory for fiction, which is an impossible task. In every way the impossibility is clear when I take on the theory and practice of first sentences. A first sentence has so many possibilities! It’s supposed to hook the reader, of course (or at least not drive the reader away), but it also can introduce one or more of the following: conflict, character, setting, background, or action. It can start the story in the middle, in media res, or it can start at the end, the beginning, or way before the beginning. In a flashback story, the first sentence could start way after the end.

For me, the first sentence has to do three things: hook the reader, set the tone, and set up the end. Here’s one of my own favorite first sentences.  It’s from “Shark Attack: a Love Story”

“Willard was day dreaming about Elsa when the shark caught Benford, the new mail boy, directly in front of Willard’s desk.”
I liked this one because I got the two most important elements in the story within it: Willard’s attraction to Elsa, and the problem with the sharks. It seems like a good hook to me, it went a long way toward establishing the story’s tone, and it connected to the end, since the resolution of the story deals with both the sharks and Elsa.

But the problem with beginning sentences is that there’s an infinite number of ways to start!  Consider a story like a chess game.  In chess there are 20 possible opening moves, each one affecting how the game may go.  In a story, though, there are as many opening moves as there are words in the dictionary (isn’t it sad, then, how many stories start with “the”).

So, since there are so many ways to start, and any one of them could be the first sentence to a successful story, what should be considered when evaluating the sentence?

When I’m teaching story writing, I’ll often have the students put their draft’s first sentence on the board.  I’ll have them do two things: they have to identify what approach the sentence took (conflict, character, setting, background, or action), and then decide which sentence made them want to read more the most.  All the exercise really does is make them aware that their first sentence is a choice.  I’m constantly amazed by inexperienced writers’ inabilty to see the malleability of their own writing.  It’s like they are trapped by their styles!

I end up giving students three pieces of advice about first sentences (and that’s all I’ve got for them–there’s too much involved for me to go beyond these suggestions):

  • Remember that you can change your first sentence.
  • Make sure that the beginning sentence sets up the end of the story in some way.
  • Don’t worry about the first sentence when you are writing the rough draft.  Way too much agony can be generated while staring at a blank page, waiting for the perfect first sentence.

Here’s some first sentences I liked from literature.  I’m not sure, though, if these are great sentences on their own, or they’re great because they are the first puzzle piece in the intricate construction of a story I really like.  I have this same problem when I discuss the practice and theory of story titles.  Is the title great on its own, or is it great because the story that followed it made it great?

  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”  Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
  • “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.”  Edgar Allan Poe, “Fall of the House of Usher”
  • “There were fireworks the first night, things that you should be afraid of perhaps, for they might remind you of other more horrible things, but these were beautiful, rockets that ascended into the ancient soft air of Mexico and shook the stars apart in blue and white fragments.”  Ray Bradbury, “The Fox and the Forest”
  • “After the guy was dead and the smell of his burning flesh was off the air, we all went back down to the beach.”  Stephen King, “Night Surf.”
  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”  George Orwell, 1984

I see that three of these sentences begin with a pronoun and a linking verb, a style I discourage in class, and, yet, there they are, in my list of good opening sentences.  I guess that confirms another truism of mine, there are no unbreakable rules (if it works).

Maybe the problem with first sentences is that we put WAY too much emphasis on them.  They are too small of a piece of the puzzle that is the story to make or break it.  Maybe a better entry for today would have been about first paragraphs or first pages, but, well, I wrote this instead *g*.

Resources for first sentences:

The Write Club: First Sentences
100 Best First Lines from Novels

Thoughts on first sentences?  How do you know you’ve written a good one?  Does your first draft first sentence make it to the final draft?  How do you evaluate your opening sentence?

Sunday Writing: Making the Abstract Concrete

tell tale heartMost everyone who has been responding to my posts seems well beyond beginner status as writers, but I’ve found that going back to the basics has always been good for me.  For example, two of the best books I have on writing are ones that were written for rank beginners, but I keep revisiting them.  Maybe it’s because I’m slow and simple, or maybe because reviewing the basics keeps me anchored.  I figure if my basics are solid, my experimental flights of fancy may have a better chance of working.

Here are two great books that would be good for newbies that I still find helpful today:

What a Writer Needs, by Ralph Fletcher, which is this really, really down to earth discussion of teaching writing that only uses elementary school kids’ writing for examples.

Poetry in the Making, by Ted Hughes, which is the book version of a series of lessons he gave for the BBC Schools Broadcasting Department for the program, “Listening and Writing.”

So, with the proviso that this is basic, here’s a lesson that I get considerable mileage from.

MAKING THE ABSTRACT CONCRETE

One of the qualities we have identified that a good writer has is the ability to be specific.  That means that good writers will avoid the use of unsupported generalities or abstractions and try to make those generalities specific and the abstractions concrete.

For example, time is an abstraction.  You can’t see, hear, taste, touch or smell it.  It is an abstract idea.  The author Ray Bradbury recognized this problem in his short story, “Night Meeting,” which is about the nature of time, so he made the abstraction concrete for the reader with this description (I’ve taken his prose passage and recast it as a poem so you can see the parts better):
There was the smell of Time in the air tonight.
He smiled and turned the fancy in his mind.
There was a thought.
What did Time smell like?
Like dust and clocks and people.
And if you wondered what Time sounded like
it sounded like water running in a dark cave
and voices crying
and dirt dripping down
upon hollow box lids, and rain.
And, going further, what did Time look like?
Time looked like snow dropping silently into a black room
or it looked like a silent film
in an ancient theater,
one hundred billion faces falling like those New Year balloons,
down and down into nothing.
That was how Time smell and looked and sounded.
And tonight–Tomas shoved a hand
into the wind outside the truck–
tonight you could almost touch Time.

To make the abstraction concrete, Bradbury made “appeals to the senses.”  He gave examples of what he meant when he talked about time.  He was specific.

This idea that abstractions should be made concrete play out in numerous ways in fiction, but mostly, I think, they are most important when we’re trying to communicate moods or feelings.  Saying that a character is afraid, for example, or that a setting is threatening attempts to evoke the abstraction by naming it, but no reader is ever scared by the word “afraid” or made nervous by the word “threatening.”  What we should be trying to do as we write is to provide enough concrete details and evocative metaphorical descriptions to make the reader conclude that the character is “afraid,” or that the scene is a “threatening” one.

A pretty good editing pass on a manuscript you think is complete is to look for words that are abstractions.  They can work in dialogue sometimes, or when they are paired with concrete appeals, but they shouldn’t be doing the heavy lifting by themselves.  Remember that readers hardly ever go to fiction to be told stuff.  They read because they want to feel and experience.  If that wasn’t true then someone telling us that the rollercoaster they went on was terrifying would be all we would ever need, and we’d never try a rollercoaster ourselves.

For me, one of the first stories that actually evoked terror and suspense in my young soul was Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart.”  I have no idea how that story appears in elementary school fiction anthologies, but it did (along with “The Black Cat,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and “Masque of the Red Death).

When I reread “The Tell Tale Heart” today, I see how Poe works hard to make his abstractions concrete.  I write better when I remember the lessons he demonstrated.

Today’s Writing Prompt

Using Bradbury as a model, take four of the following abstractions and make them concrete.  Do not use single word examples, like “Death is a grave.”  Expand your examples.

Friendship
Grief
Freedom
Fear
Democracy
Slavery
Hope
Love
Death
Humor
Compassion
Pity
Revenge
Capitalism
Joy
Triumph
Failure
Compromise

Sunday Writing: Best Writing Tips

wordfireDenver Comic Con was this weekend. I heard that 120,000 people attended on Saturday, making the convention the fifth largest comic con in America (the world?). Since the biggest convention I’d ever been to before was a WorldCon, with maybe 8,000 or so people, you can understand that Denver’s event was overwhelming. You know how babies can sometimes be over stimulated? I suffered the adult equivalent.

On Sunday, I sat on three panels. Authors and literature are a smaller part of a comic con than it is at WorldCon, but a small part of 120,000 is still a lot of people. The panels were in big rooms and a lot of people came to them, even the late afternoon one on Sunday when many people were heading home.

The panel I enjoyed the most was the one I moderated: “The Best Writing Advice I Ever Heard.”

For the record, here is the best writing advice tips I shared:

The first came from Connie Willis. She signed a book for me once, and I asked her to put her top three writing tips in. The one that stuck with me most was “Remember what you liked about science fiction in the first place.”

The second tip came from George Scithers on one of my early rejections, where he said, “I hope while you were waiting to hear from me on this one that you were working on your next.”

I don’t know where the third came from, and it’s less a writing tip and more a career one about envy. The tip was “Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.”

The panelists and I shared a bunch of other tips too. I tried to moderate to encourage brevity so we could get more content out and limit the long anecdotes panelists can sometimes be famous for. The questions from the audience in the last fifteen minutes provoked more interesting advice. I think the audience didn’t waste their time.

As I mentioned, the convention was overwhelming. I’ve heard it said that the science fiction community is greying, and that we’re losing our audience. From what I saw at this event, I’d disagree. Yes, many of the people came because of their interest in comics, movies, anime and television, but it was all about science fiction and fantasy. I saw a lot of people buying books. The Wordfire Press display was consistently mobbed (I think Kevin Anderson is doing a marvelous job of selling books and generating enthusiasm, not just for Wordfire titles, but for all books).

I don’t think a big convention like this is for everyone, but I’m glad I went.

Sunday Writing: Improving Your Writing When You are Stuck

The_Stand_UncutMost of us have times when we don’t know what to write next.  It could be in the middle of a project or in between them, but no matter what we do, we’re stalled.  So what can we do to work on our writing when we can’t write?  Reading, of course, is one answer, and you certainly should be doing that, but here’s a more active exercise: try copying some of the writing you admire.

Here’s how to do the exercise: find a passage someone else wrote that you think is really well done.  Now, copy it.  Don’t make a single change.  Be very aware that you get the comma, periods and paragraph breaks right.  What you are doing is trying to internalize a successful writing rhythm.

How this works is that you will start to get a feel for how the writer you like goes about being who they are.  Here’s a bit from The Stand by Stephen King:

Stu, who only understood that they were all in a hell of a pinch, turned Hap’s voice down to a meaningless drone and watched the Chevy pitch and yaw its way on up the road. The way it was going Stu didn’t think it was going to make it much further.  It crossed the white line and its left hand tires spumed up dust from the left shoulder.  Now it lurched back, held its own lane briefly, then nearly pitched off into the ditch.  Then, as if the driver had picked out the big lighted Texaco station sign as a beacon, it arrowed toward the tarmac like a projectile whose velocity is very nearly spent.

If I was going to use King’s The Stand for my copying exercise, I would keep copying for another thousand words or so, but even typing this little section, I notice that he didn’t put a comma after “The way it was going” that I would have put in, and that he used “going” twice in that sentence, so maybe my obsession with removing repeated words isn’t quite as critical as I think.  I like his verbs too: crossed, spumed, lurched, pitched, arrowed.

If I copy a passage from another author, like Ray Bradbury, I get a totally different feel:

There were fireworks the very first night, things that you should be afraid of perhaps, for they might remind you of other more horrible things, but these were beautiful, rockets that ascended into the ancient soft air of Mexico and shook the stars apart in blue and white fragments.  Everything was good and sweet, the air was that blend of the dead and the living, of the rains and the dusts, of the incense from the church, and the brass smell of the tuba on the bandstand which pulsed out vast rhythms of ‘La Paloma.

Ray_Bradbury_-_I_Sing_the_Body_Electric_-_book_coverBradbury likes the long sentence here, and I notice his tendency to pair and to list, so the air is “ancient soft,” the fragments were “blue and white,” everything was “good and sweet,” while the air also blended the “dead and the living,” and “rains and the dusts.”  His second sentence (did you notice he did this in only two sentences, while King’s passage that was only a tad longer took five sentences?) is mostly a list of connected noun phrases.

Bradbury’s rhythm is different from King, and copying him teaches me different lessons.

Some writer’s rhythms stay in my head longer than others.  H.P. Lovecraft, for example, is hard to shake, as is Bradbury, and the point of the exercise isn’t to make my writing become their writing, but by doing this I can feel what they were up to for a few minutes so that I can incorporate what I like best from them into my own toolbox.  How I blend my influences becomes my voice, but I don’t think I can go too far wrong if I find myself channeling, just a little bit, the echoes of Bradbury, Le Guin, Bronte, King, Steinbeck, Hemingway or Poe.

Try it.  Copy somewhere between 200 to 1,000 words.  Tell me what you notice.

Sunday Writing: The Importance of Voice or Style

wordle 2One of my students wrote a paper on how to improve writing, and he focused on voice and style.  He sent me a set of questions.  Here were my answers:

  • Being a writer, what does it mean to have your own writing style?
  • Because I write for publication,my own style is very important.  Someone once said that all that is necessary to write successful fiction is to have an appealing, narrative voice.  I don’t know that I believe that completely, but I do know there are writers whose style is very pleasing to me.  So, I think a writer’s “style” or “voice” is vital.
  • How can a beginning writer wishing to add their own voice or style to their work go about doing so?
  • I’m afraid there’s no quick path to developing your own style other than writing a lot.  Writers go through stages.  For a while they will be imitative: they’ll try to sound like the writers they admire.  They might not even be aware they are doing it.  (More on imitation as a way to work on style later)  Then, slowly, they’ll break away from that and begin to sound more and more like themselves.  You have to write a lot and be conscious of what sort of choices you are making in how you write what you write about.
  • Is it important for people to have their own writing style?
  • For most people (the ones who aren’t writing for publication), writing for clarity and completeness are probably more important than developing their style.  Many, many, many college papers that are perfectly adequate in communicating what the writer means are fairly styleless, which just means that they sound like each other.  If you had to work on clarity or style, work on clarity first.
  • Are there any writing exercises that are helpful in trying to develop writing style or voice?
  • Once again, the main advice is to write a lot, write so much that writing becomes second nature to the progress of your thoughts.  However, I think that a conscious attention to the style of the writers you admire, and looking at the style of the writers they admire, can start you down the road to being more aware of your own style.  This goes along with the standard advice to all new writers, which is to read a lot.  Another exercise you can try is as an exercise to purposefully try to imitate a variety of styles (a piece written like Edgar Allan Poe, and then one like Jane Austen, and then one like Ursula Le Guin).  It’s not that you want to sound like those writers, but by imitating you will become much more aware of the variety of word choices and rhythms that are available to you.  Somewhere in all of that work, your own style will begin to percolate out.
  • How can there be such a wide variety of writing styles when we all use the same basic language?
  • It’s simple math.  There are thousands of words that can be arranged in billions of combinations.  It’s only natural that some people would arrange those words in patterns that are identifiably their pattern and not someone else’s.
  • To sum it all up if you could give one piece of advice regarding writing style, what would it be?
  • We’re back to the write a lot starting point.  No matter what else you do, eventually, your style will come out of a long period of time that you spend writing.  Of course, you already have a style.  Your style may be the deadening cadence of the traditional student essay, or it may be something that is already peculiarly your own, but the more you write, the more your style (and control of style–you can write in different styles, after all) will develop.

A writer friend of mine suggested that the best advice he would give would be to read a bunch.  I think that’s important too, but I believe there’s a more nuanced way of looking at the impact of reading on style because reading doesn’t seem to have a one to one cause and effect relationship to writing. For example, almost all of my creative writing students had been exposed to hundreds and hundreds of stories in their lives. Some of them were deeply read and loved story, but their own stories had no drama, were oddly organized, lacked character, and in general read like they’d never seen a story before.

On a smaller scale, I’ve noticed that bad spellers are bad spellers, no matter how much they read; and the vast majority of students write sentences based on linking verbs, or passive sentences, or convoluted sentences, no matter how many elegant, well-worded sentences they’d read up to that point.

So, clearly, reading and reading a lot is just a part of the answer.

Gwendolyn Clare told me, “I think it has less to do with the quantity of reading and/or writing, and more to do with making a conscious effort to think analytically about the writing process. It’s possible to watch a lot of TV without ever learning anything about scriptwriting or acting, because you are consuming it passively. Likewise, I think it’s possible to go through the motions of reading and writing without learning much, because it’s the act of critical thinking (which may or may not accompany the process of reading/writing) that’s important.”

I absolutely agree.

Sunday Writing: First Sale

martian chroniclesSometime when I was a little kid, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I’d always been a reader. The Tom Swift stories, Tom Corbett: Space Cadet, A Wrinkle in Time, The Princess of Mars, Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, and the other usual suspects. Anything with a spaceship on the binding in the library, that’s what I read.

I didn’t want to be a writer at first. I loved reading books. But books have a gazillion pages! In 4th grade it took me a weekend to write a one-page report for my social studies class. Nobody that I knew could write a book. In fact, the most science fictional idea in my life was that a person could compose an entire book.

Then I read The Martian Chronicles. Some of those stories made me laugh. A lot made me cry. They all thrilled me. And they were short! I couldn’t write The Door Into Summer, but maybe, just maybe, I could stick with it long enough to write a story the length of “Night Meeting” or “The Silent Towns.”

I remember looking through the science fiction books in the library to see where they would shelve my version of The Martian Chronicles when I finished it. I put my finger between Jack Vance and A.E. Van Vogt to show the space where my book would fit.

I might have been nine or ten.

Fast forward almost twenty years. I still read a lot, but writing stayed on the back burner. It was never out of my mind, existing in that sphere where other unpursued dreams resided, like getting in shape for a marathon or learning guitar. It wasn’t until my first marriage fell apart that I really started writing and submitting work. Nothing like misery to drive a young man to the typewriter! I stayed alone in my office, didn’t come to bed until late at night, thinking deeply about stuff other than my life. Perfect.

The problem with sending work out for publication, though, was that nobody wanted it. I started submitting for real in 1983 or so, when I was twenty-nine. I photo-copied the relevant pages from The Writers Digest Writers’ Market. Also, I hung out at the big comic store in Denver that sold all the genre fiction magazines so I could see what was happening currently. Lots of great magazines that don’t exist anymore. My favorite was Twilight Zone Magazine.

In the meantime, rejections piled up. For a while, I taped them to the wall in my bathroom until I found I didn’t want to go into that bathroom anymore. One of my first rejections came from the great George Scithers at Amazing Stories. He said, “I hope while you were waiting to hear from us on this story that you were working on your next.”

For five years I collected rejections. Most were impersonal. No one gave me a hint that I was getting close, and I didn’t even feel close. Published stories started to read to me as something magical. How did the writers do it? I returned to Bradbury’s stories. They were perfect! How did he write “The Veldt” or “Ylla” or “I Sing the Body Electric”? The barrier between the quality of what I was doing and what “real” writers did seemed insurmountable. And writers as people began to feel mythical to me. Even when I met a couple, they didn’t quite seem human. I met Ed Bryant, the multiple award-winning science fiction author, and his personality was bigger than life. Then I met Joanne Greenberg, the author of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. I was so rattled that the first thing I said to her was, “I thought you were dead.”

The idea of being a “writer” consumed me, not because I thought they lead glamorous lifestyles (Ed Bryant looked tired, and Joanne Greenberg resembled a PTA mom), but because I wanted my words to do what their words did. I wanted words that got out of their own way and moved readers the way Ed Bryant’s and Joanne Greenberg’s words moved me.

I wanted strangers to validate my literary existence through reading a story I sent to them uninvited and deciding that they liked it enough, and that their readers would like it enough, that they would send me money for it.

I wanted a first sale.

In 1987 or so, four years after I started my real push to publication, I read an article in Writer’s Digest that I think was supposed to be funny. The author said she had heard somewhere that you weren’t really a writer until you’d collected 100 rejections. I don’t know how many I had at that point, but I must have been approaching the century mark. The author said she’d sent her first story out, and it was immediately rejected. She was so proud: one down, ninety-nine to go. The problem was, she sold her second story. Surely, she thought, this was a bump in the road on her quest for 100 rejections, but the third and fourth stories sold too. At the article’s end, she wailed about how she’d never get to be a writer because her stories kept selling.

I hated her. I’ll bet Writer’s Digest lost a few subscriptions from that issue.

At conventions I have sat in auditoriums with hundreds of people just like me, listening to published writers at the front of the room talk about their careers. Like me, most everyone else in the room was unpublished. The yearning was palpable.

Gordon Van Gelder, the long-time editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction told me once that when he finished a week-long gig as an instructor at a writing workshop, he attended an end-of-session party with the wanna-be writers. He said at one point they surrounded him, all chatting, all being polite, but he could feel the subtext beating like a whale’s heart in the room. “Choose me! Choose me!” was its rhythm.

In 1988 I went to U.C. Davis to start a master’s degree in Creative Writing. We had a sort of publishing club that met once a week to talk about selling our work. The ticket into the meeting was a manuscript in an envelope, stamped and addressed to a market. We talked about publishing, pored over writers’ guidelines and commiserated over our rejections.

Finally, in 1990, I took a phone call in my tiny, Davis apartment. The guy on the other end didn’t introduce himself but started talking about a story I’d written earlier. It took a couple of minutes for me to realize it was the editor of After Hours, a tiny horror magazine. He wanted to buy a short story of mine called “No Small Change.”

I’d made my first sale.

I’d like to be able to tell you that this first sale changed my life in a way I could feel, that my writing afterwards became more subtly imbued with the essence of publishability. I’d like to say that I became more confident and bolder, that my next blank page became less intimidating.

Sadly, none of this happened.

But I can tell you that I was smiling when I hung up the phone with that publisher, and that on some level I’ve been smiling ever since. In most ways, a first sale changed nothing at all.

And it changed everything. My first sale was awesome.

If you’re a writer who hasn’t sold anything yet, you have my best wishes. Somewhere out there in your future an editor will pluck your manuscript from the slush and love it. If you’re a published writer, then you have your own first sale story. I hope yours means as much to you as mine means to me.

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