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>Grave Ruminations

>Hi, I’m Pati Nagle, your alternate Gal Friday. I write mostly fantasy with some science fiction here and there and oh, yeah—historical fiction under my alter ego, P.G. Nagle. It’s an honor to be included in the Mad Genius Club, among such august company. Or should I say October company?

I’m delighted to make my debut on Halloween, as it’s my all-time favorite holiday. Since we’re talking about process here, and in honor of the day, I thought I’d share some pictures from my recent visit to St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 in New Orleans. Take a stroll among the tombs with me while I muse about writing and inspiration.

My love of the fantastic goes back to my childhood, and Halloween has always been a big part of it. As a kid I loved planning my costume every year, dressing up and running around the neighborhood, the whisper of snow in the air, the dark shapes of other kids haunting the streets. All that was far better than the candy.

As an adult I love handing out candy to cute kids, seeing their costumes, carving pumpkins and lighting candles, decorating the house, and just reveling in the change of seasons. I also love the traditions of Dia de los Muertos, which is widely celebrated in the Southwest.

In New Orleans, the same celebrations are held under the name of All Saints’ Day. I’ve been to this fascinating city numerous times, for both writing conferences and research for my novels. This trip was for pleasure but inevitably I did things that can be considered research, including taking a graveyard tour. At the moment I’m not working on a specific project involving a cemetery, but who knows? It’s possible that just walking around a place like this will inspire a story.

That’s a fiction writer’s reality. Always soaking up information, never knowing what will bubble up to the surface later and appear in a novel. This is as much a part of the process as sitting down in front of the computer, at least for me.

As I was going through these photos, even though I took them only a couple of weeks ago, I noticed details that I hadn’t registered during the tour. Like the fact that most of the tombs in the first picture above are marble, and most of the tombs in the second one are brick. Other than that, the photos are similar, kind of a nice matched pair. Maybe these two “streets” could be home to two rival clans of vampires.

See what I mean? Anything could come out of this. My answer to people who ask where I get my ideas is, everywhere.

My camera has been my trusty research tool for as long as I’ve been publishing. I never know what I’m going to wish I had recorded later, so I take lots of pictures whenever I’m someplace interesting. (Whoever invented digital photography, bless you.)

As I was walking through the cemetery, listening to the tour guide, my brain was gathering information on a lot of different levels. The camera is the brain’s auxiliary, capturing far more visual detail than I can remember. Consciously, I was mostly grabbing at impressions. Oo, that looks cool—take a picture. Interesting anecdote—take a picture. And while I’m soaking up images, the brain is asking questions.

Which of these two tombs is the real burial place of Marie Leveau—or does it matter? Was she buried somewhere else altogether? Both of these tombs are visited by hundreds of people a year, who mark the tombs with three “x”s and leave offerings to Madame Leveau, hoping she will grant their wishes. She has become a something of a voodoo goddess. Our guide was skeptical about her being in either tomb.

Is there a way to do DNA testing on the tombs’ contents to prove whether she’s there? Probably not, is the answer to that one. The dessication of remains in these tombs is pretty thorough due to the heat of the tropical climate. (Our guide compared it to baking a turkey in a 120 degree oven for a year.) Even if a useful bit of bone were found, it could belong to any of the family members whose remains are in the tomb. The whole process of storing remains in these cemeteries is fascinating (and, as our guide pointed out, environmentally sound—a very efficient system).

There’s one more thing about excursions. Not only do I collect information on them, but I also soak up atmosphere. Even in the daytime, this cemetery has a distinctive feeling. (Note: it’s locked up at night, and it’s dangerous to visit alone, because of predatory criminals. If you visit, go with a tour. You’ll be safer and get a lot more out of it.)

This is a place of reverence and respect for ancestors, but at the same time a place of decay. Tombs with long lists of names carved in marble stand beside tombs where no markings have survived, and whose occupants are no longer known. Remembrance and the forgotten, side by side.

Note the Mardi Gras beads hanging on the ironwork around these tombs. How does that make you react? Does it seem disrespectful, or is it an uplifting expression of joie de vivre in a place of death?

Who might have put those beads there, and why? What would the tombs’ occupants think of such tribute? Here’s where I start thinking about characters, situations, events. These are the bricks (or marble blocks) from which stories are built.

I ask a lot of questions on research excursions, most of which don’t get answered at the time. All of it is fodder for the writing.

—Pati Nagle

>The Writer of Flesh

>Because writing is par-excellence an occupation of the mind, we tend to forget we don’t write with our minds only. Actually, I tend to forget that I’m more than a mind, floating disembodied through space and toying with pretty ideas.

So I don’t understand why I shouldn’t be able to write while I’m ill. Or why after writing a big action scene I feel like I’ve run a hundred miles. Or why sometimes when I force myself to write while out of it, the scene is “okay but lacks strength.”
The truth is – and now there’s research to this effect – that our bodies and minds are more linked than we wish to believe. Thinking about exercising can build muscle, for instance. (Which might explain my being ravenous after battle scenes.) Someone related a writer’s peculiar breathing patterns to the rhythm of her written sentences (no, I don’t remember whom, it was one of the consumptive Victorians, I think.) You can look at the work of some writers at a time when they were known to be sick and see the difference, even if the illness was “very much of the body” like… stomach issues.
In childhood I loved Giovanni Guareschi’s Don Camillo books – in a different way I still do. I find him one of the most perfect writers of short-shorts ever – and I remember in one of the stories there was a sentence that went something like this “But priests are made of more than soul or spirit. They’re made of flesh. And when the priest made of flesh takes the priest made of soul by the scruff of the neck…” You get the idea.
Unfortunately these last two years my writer of flesh keeps grabbing the rest of me by the scruff of the neck and mostly bringing me to an absolute stop for several days or weeks. I hate it. I end with deadlines blown and feeling like I’m being lazy. I should be able to write even while coughing. I should. But writers are not made only of brain and spirit… they’re made of flesh.
Right now this writer of flesh has a horrible head cold and is trying desperately not to force herself to work.
On the good side, heard from fans that Heart And Soul, the third of my Magical British Empire trilogy with Bantam books is arriving from Amazong and at various local bookstores.
More importantly, yesterday I heard from a good writing friend in whose opinion I put a lot of stock, and he’s enjoying reading it. So… head cold notwithstanding, yay.

>Writing is a lot like singing

>People often ask me how my musical life affected my writing, and the answer is, in truth, they’re practically the same. Writing every day feels very much like practicing music, which also has to be done every day. Building a character on the page is precisely like developing a character in an opera. Constructing plot is, for me, the hardest part of writing, and follows the same outlines as a symphony, with main themes, contrasting themes, creation and release of tension, climaxes, codas, and so forth. And probably the best thing about having been a musician, at least for the sort of fiction I write, is having developed an ear.

I always tell my writing students to read their work aloud, and I do it myself, especially in problematic passages. (Catch that? Another musical word.) Prose should have a rhythm that is both varied and appealing. It should be pared down to precisely the number of words needed to create the image, the affect (also a musical word), and impart the information necessary to move the scene forward or deepen the motivation. It should suit the narrative voice–sometimes strong and active, sometimes contemplative, sometimes poetic. I hope my students listen to their work, and begin to hear when a sentence or a phrase works, and when it doesn’t.

Tangentially, and just to answer in advance another question I often get, I’m not a writer who can listen to music as I work. If I put music on that I like, I’m distracted by it. If there’s music playing that I don’t like–and oh, my, is there a lot of that in the world–then I’m irritated. When I listen to music, I listen to music.

Writing, for me, has been so much like singing. It’s performance, and communication. And way too much fun.

>I can’t get by without my Writing Friends

Rowena here
ROR photo — Margo Lanagan, Me, Richard Harland, Maxine McArthur, Trent Jamieson and Marianne de Pierres (Tansy Rayner Roberts and Dirk Flinthart absent)

Well, Dave’s done it again — tap danced while dealing out dollops of writing wisdom.

Unlike Dave, who did it all alone, I discovered writing friends early in my adventure. Marianne de Pierres (far right) and I met at the first Vision SF & F meeting. At that point I think I’d sold one children’s book and Marianne was recovering from a devastating critique from an appraiser who used a jack-hammer when a scalpel would have done. We had 9 children between us, 6 of them boys under 8. Aaargh!

But we were both passionate about the craft of writing. We attended workshops together, hung out at festivals and went to Cons. And we wrote in every spare moment, meeting at Scallywags (where our two youngest could play) while we critiqued each other’s work. But we wanted to push ourselves further.

In 2001 we established ROR (wRiters on the Rise), a group of writers dedicated to developing their craft. Together with Maxine, Tansy and Margo we circulated manuscripts a month beforehand, read everyone‘s books and wrote a report on them. Then we escaped from our families for a weekend and spent hours dissecting and rebuilding the books. We LOVED it. Only fellow writers could empathise.

Since then we’ve added three males to ROR, to leaven the mix and we’ve met every year or two. On a professional level we’ve had successes and disappointments. On a personal level we’ve supported each other through family illnesses and dramas. When one of us sells a series or wins an award, all of us cheer. The good thing about a diverse group like ROR is that we read and write across quite a few genres. So, when we put a manuscript in for feedback, if one person doesn’t get something and the rest do, then we can assume most people will.

What is really helpful for a writer to have, is a group of friends who love the genre and the craft, and eager to help the writer make their book the best it can possibly be.

Even with the internet, this is a lonely craft. On the whole, we work alone and it’s very hard to be subjective about the manuscript that we might have lavished a year of our lives on. A trusted critique circle is a rare and wonderful thing.

I’ve just booked for a weekend away next March with the ROR team. It means reading 7 manuscripts beforehand and writing reports, but it is worth it for the intellectual stimulation. I can’t wait.

Am madly scrambling to have my next book ready.



>the plantser…

>Dave Freer posting:

I blundered into writing. The bit about fools rushing in: that’s me…. And in retrospect maybe it was a good thing. You see Sarah advised things like seeking out writers and studying writing – well, I did the latter, but only other novels. There was NO money for ‘how to write’ books – we were on the ragged edge of disaster. As for other writers… Let me tell you they’re not thick on the ground in small towns in northern Zululand. Honest. I rattled several bushes and turned over at least three damp rocks. All I found was a slug and a very irate mamba. That was in pre-net days (the net was there I just didn’t have access until after I’d sold my first book)… so it was just me on my tod and a lot of novels – mostly courtesy of second hand book stores and other people’s throw outs.

I had no idea how to write a novel, but I wanted to. (I also had no idea of the obstacles – which can be a good thing too, except I was pretty damn dumb about falling over most of them, unnecessarily.) So I set about looking at the subset I was interested in – Not ‘authors I admire’ but, because I think oddly — first book, good sellers. I looked at murder mysteries, romances, aga-sagas (yes, Maeve Binchy), thrillers, horror… even sf and fantasy. Made notes. Counted words per sentence. Worked out average syllables per word. Up and down peaks (number of pages). Noted character numbers, types, relationships, resolution types etc. Calculated proportions of dialogue. Yes. I am anal and obsessive, now that you mention it.
The one thing I never looked at was plot. All those nice books on plotting, 7 basic plots etc. which had I been in touch with writing books or my peers I would have been influenced by just didn’t come my way. So… as I didn’t know any better, I did my own way. Which, like most things I do is arse-about-face to most people. But it works for me. You see I am neither a plotter nor a pantser. I’m a character plantser, playing a complicated balancing act between situation and character. The end result is my books are usually born out of someone saying ‘you can’t do that!’(whereupon I must. Sorry.) So: I work out how said impossible thing could be done and that forms a core (and often an end) to my book. (“You can’t uplift rats and bats” – their skull capacity is too small – RATS BATS AND VATS. “You can’t be sure of habitable worlds around other stars” – A SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS ) I then write about 5K… introducing my lead characters, setting the scene. Pure pantser. I then sit down and use those characters to derive my plot. I’ve set the scene – (and therefore have some idea of the obstacles – both physical and of character) I probably know the outcome. I now know the character. The point is the plotter has worked out how the character will overcome the obstacles and meet his/her true love and arrive at the end. Join the dots. The pantser waits for the character to tell them how to cope with the obstacle, which they can only do when they get there… which can make a story meander. I sit and game scenarios. Usually in the bath. I even remember to wash sometimes. The result is the obstacles change to fit the character … and sometimes I go back and change the character to fit the obstacle.
The point I am trying to make in my usual circuitous way is no two characters will deal with the same obstacle in the same way. Let us assume a large angry mob crowding a street between our hero and his goal. Benito would go up the side of building and go over them. Marco would attempt to reason with them (and it would then be necessary to put in the mob parents of children he’d helped – modify obstacle) Manfred would simply try brute force and die (hence need to modify obstacle or add force) Erik would pick out the leader of the mob and attempt to draw him into single combat. Cair would throw a thunder flash. Fat Fal would run away shouting ‘there he goes’ and let them run past him. Arial would run up the trousers of the leader and taking strategic hold tell him to take her to where she wants to go. Howard would attempt to reason with them, and die (unless they threatened someone else). Fionn would step into an alley (needs to be an alley) and start a fire, and call them to it. Meb would try to imitate him and set fire to either herself or the entire street, and need rescuing (her talents are wildly out of control). So I will build the story around the character and the obstacles and whatever else they may need….

So… by not knowing how to do this I evolved my own method. It works for me.
And the bathwater gets cold.

>*tap tap* Is this thing working?


Hello, I’m Jennifer Stevenson, and I write sexy funny fantasy-slash-romance novels. You can still get THE BRASS BED, THE VELVET CHAIR, and THE BEARSKIN RUG at bookstores everywhere. TRASH SEX MAGIC, a Small Beer Press book, is still available online. If you scrounge around you might find some of my short stories in science fiction and fantasy anthologies from the late eighties and the nineties.

I wanted to write because my whole family was bookish. From birth I was raised to be a writer. Someday. When they thought I was worthy. I did a lot of writing, mind you, but it took me forever to get around to submitting anything. So rule forty-two is, Submit something.

Well, no, rule forty-two is Write something. Oldest rule in the book.

So I wrote something and after a suitable ice age I submitted it and then I thought, well, it’s Wednesday, it can’t possibly get there until Monday, and then give ’em the rest of the week to open the box and read it, and of course they’ll want revisions, so no point in starting something new if I’m gonna get a revision letter any day now, right? After a year or two I would tire of waiting on the rejections for that manuscript. Rinse and repeat.

All you authors can stop laughing.

I had good intentions. Caution and perfectionism held me back. Lack of confidence led me to save ideas until their whiskers whitened. My dear departed mother used to say, “Do as I say, not as I do,” and I can think of no better advice to share.

So the watchword here will be, Write More.

In the interest of getting some pages done today, I close with some messages from my office walls:

“Dare to be bad.” –Bruce Worthel

“I can fix a bad page, but I can’t fix a blank page.” –Nora Roberts

“Never save bits. Put ’em in. Make a big mess.” –Gene Wolfe

>Location, location, location.


I would like to continue the discussion started by my colleagues on the process of writing. First, I should start by reaffirming that every writer has their own method. The only way to learn to write is to write – and to try to develop your own ‘style’ .

I tend to develop a character first and let them talk to me and tell me their story. Yeah, I know that sounds pretentious or even barmy but it works for me: the plot comes out of the characters rather than the other way round.

Today, though, I would like to focus on something that I think is almost as important – the story location.

My dear old dad was an estate agent. He gave me two important pieces of advice. The first was that I should never borrow money on an endowment mortgage and the second was location, location, location.

American companies have a tendency to buy British TV programmes , not to show, but to relocate to America with a new script and actors. Sometimes this works (for example, how many Americans know that Sanders and Son is actually a British comedy about two London rag and bone men with a horse and cart) but often it doesn’t. Fox bought the 90s hit British urban fantasy drama Ultraviolet, which told the story of the Inquisition’s vampire hunters in London. They changed the location to New York, which meant using American actors and a plot rewrite. Apparently the result was so bad that it has never been screened in public. Ultraviolet was a London story about 1990s Londoners.

Location is a key part of the creative process. It creates the atmosphere for the story. I ask myself what sort of people I would find in this place and how they might interact with my heroes? Why would my POV characters be there? I go to the place, or look up pictures if that isn’t possible. I study the buildings, terrain, climate, vegetation, machines. I try to soak up the colours, the smells, the very taste of the place. I focus on details. That’s where I get ideas for sub plots and twists.

The short story I am currently writing is even named after its primary location.

Location-specific writing works for me. I have no idea whether this technique will work for you, but have a look at the work of Ian Fleming. Go back and read the Bond thrillers and imagine them relocated elsewhere – Casino Royale reset in a Wigan Bingo Hall? – naaagh!


>Out and About

> Laura Resnick

I spent this past weekend in Huntsville, Alabama as a guest of Con*Stellation, an annual regional science fiction/fantasy convention hosted by the North Alabama Science Fiction Association (NASFA).

Over the years, I’ve spoken at sf/f conventions, romance conferences, multi-genre conferences, bookstores and libraries, colleges and universities, writers groups and writing workshops, writers retreats, high schools, readers groups, museums, and civic associations. I’ve done panel discussions, chat-with sessions, formal speeches, informal Q&As, I’ve lectured and taught workshops, I’ve done readings, and performed some MC duties. I’ve done public appearances all over the U.S., in Canada, and also in France and Israel.

Many writers are (go figure) shy, bookish, private people, and learning to do public appearances is an adjustment for them. Others are more gregarious and enjoy meeting readers, as well as seeing their colleagues at conventions and other public venues. I’m very gregarious and my original professional aspiration was in acting, so both aspects of public appearances appeal to me: getting out to meet people and working with an audience. I always learn something from my colleagues and from readers at conventions; I always learn something from doing readings, giving formal workshops, and participating in panel discussions; and I always enjoy meeting readers, who are the people who spend their time and money on books–without readers, I wouldn’t have a profession, after all.

There is an unofficial jungle-drum system among writers about which events are worth our time and what the pros-and-cons of various venues are. In general, “worth our time” means that the venue is book-friendly; there are some conventions, for example, where all the attendees seem to be interested in everything but books (ex. movies, TV shows, video games, comic books, costuming, movie stars, TV stars, etc.), and a novelist winds up completely squandering 2-3 days of writing time and/or her private life by appearing there. There are also conventions that are so disorganized or so clueless that writers who’ve appeared there warn their friends, and word gets out (ex. your workshops or panels are all scheduled to occur before your flight arrives or after your flight leaves; no one ever booked your hotel room; your name appears nowhere in the program book; etc.) And there are v-e-r-y occasional groups that stiff you (ex. the group doesn’t fulfill the fiscal agreements they made with you).

However, writers talk to each other just as much about the terrific venues we’ve attended, the places where we had a wonderful time, the groups that were a hoot to speak to, and the committees that went above-and-beyond the call-of-duty to make us feel welcome and comfortable. And Con*Stellation is certainly one such venue. Before I went there, people who’d been guests there before me, including Gay Haldeman (to whom novelist Joe Haldeman has to privilege of being married), told me what a great group it is and what a good time I would have there. And they were right.

The committee was regularly in touch with me for months before my arrival, making various travel, fiscal, and programming arrangements, and checking on my preferences for scheduling, free time, and food. The whole time I was there, almost everyone connected to the convention took time to introduce themselves to me, make sure I had everything I needed, and ensure that I was having a good time. Upon hearing that I wanted to learn more about a particular game, the committee found a volunteer from the gaming room to teach me a little about it, which information (for a new book project) I found very useful. The committee also made sure I had plans for every meal, so that I wouldn’t ever wind up eating alone if I didn’t want to (which can indeed happen to shy writers in a strange city where they don’t know anyone else at the con). They flew the guests in the day before the con started, to ensure we’d all be there in plenty of time, and then took us site-seeing so we wouldn’t be bored on our own in a strange place. As it happens, Huntsville, Alabama has one of the three Space Centers in the U.S., so there was plenty for us to see before the convention got underway! Huntsville itself is a small, friendly, relaxed city with a large historic district that was left undamaged by the Civil War.

The committee also fed us so much and so often that my clothes were rather snug by the time I left Alabama.

The con was divided evenly among various types of fans and activities, so there were always attendees enjoying every aspect of it: the art show, the dealers room, the anime films, the gaming room, and the writer discussions and readings. This year, the slate was somewhat “family” oriented: My parents, Mike and Carol Resnick, were also guests (and during our first car ride together, NASFA’s treasurer threatened to separate us all; Resnicks can be a tad argumentative), as were writing spouses Diane Duane and Peter Morwood. The artist guest of honor, Bill Holbrook is married also married to a writer, a mystery novelist, though she was unable to attend. As is often the case, the biggest crowd was for Saturday night’s masquerade, where my dad MC’d, and Morwood, Duane, and I read the committee’s (very good) trivia questions to the audience while the judges deliberated. (Chocolate was thrown at audience members who answered the questions correctly.)

I had never been to Alabama before, and apart from my parents, I had never before met anyone who was at this convention. I like going to new places (as well as revisiting places I’ve enjoyed), and I like meeting cool new people (as well as reconnecting with old friends). The hospitality and conviviality I enjoyed among strangers last weekend ensured that next time I see all these people, I will think of them as old friends, and that I will pass on the word to my fellow writers that Con*Stellation is one of the speaking invitations you really want to accept.

Laura Resnick

>Process Server -Sarah Hoyt


My friend Dave Freer started this week talking about process and it seems like an excellent lead to follow.

We writers hang a lot meaning and thought on the process. This would seem particularly strange since each of us seems to have a completely different process which he swears by, and different touchstones he believes essential for the work to turn out “right.”

Of course, in actual fact it is not strange at all. After all, like most primitive cultures, we are at the mercy of dimly-understood forces (in this case editorial and distribution) who make decisions we can’t predict with results we often have trouble rationalizing. If fretting and obsessing about process helps calm our anxieties and keeps us from sacrificing goats to the word processor, so much the better – if for no other reason because most of us live in jurisdictions that take exception to animal sacrifice and because animal blood does terrible things to the flooring of your average suburban home.

So – that said – what is my process? Ah…. in what respect?

Each of us, after all, also has a different thing we call process. In fact, while going through workshops, way back in the stone age when I was unpublished (it was hard to be published in the stone age. All that endless chipping away at stone. And a short story could break your back just lugging around) I was often baffled by the phrase “Trust the process” because I was fairly sure I didn’t have one. (Unless bitching, moaning, and coming downstairs to dramatically announce to my husband that I was done with writing forever at least once per story could count as a process.) Part of this was because I knew very few writers with whom I could discuss how writing happened and therefore I tended to assume that what I did to create fiction was not a process but simply how things were done. Like insular people who’ve never been away from their place of birth, I assumed there were two ways of doing things, my way and the profoundly wrong way.

I’ve since met many writers and come across as many “processes” as there are authors. I can rarely tell from the finished product how an author writes (though I can usually tell on “feel” whether they get “character first” or “plot first.” This is not a value judgement. There are excellent authors in each camp.)

Process being such a multi-splendored thing, I could spend hours describing mine, and would probably no more enlighten you – as Dave Freer put it – than observing shark mating habits will improve your sex life. So, for today, I will confine myself to stating some vague, off the cuff commandments on writing in general. (There are ten. I could thunder a little, if it made you feel better. I refuse, however, to engrave stone tablets. Fresh out of chisel.)

Next week I’ll take on the eternal question, which in writing circles passes for chicken vs. egg – Plotter vs. Pantser – and in two weeks, if my attention spa should last that long, we’ll take on matters of speed in writing. This week, however, you’ll have to content yourself with commandments. Feel free to obey them, laugh at them or burn them in ritual sacrifice to your word processor.

1 – Though Shalt Not Put Thy Faith in Magical Objects.

I think we all heard the story, probably apocryphal, of the writer whose writing was brilliant so long as his desk lamp was turned on while he wrote. As proof of the magic in the object, the lightbulb didn’t go out. Ever. He grew more and more confident in his magic lamp with its magic lightbulb. (No, we have no word on whether he rubbed it. Stop being prurient!) Until he and his wife were involved in an acrimonious divorce when the soon-to-be-ex-Mrs.-Writer told him she changed that lightbulb every two weeks or so to make sure it didn’t die while he was writing. Said – possibly non existent – writer allegedly didn’t write again for years.

2 – Thou Shalt Not Put Thy Faith In Anyone’s Opinion of How You Should Work.

No, I really don’t care if the anyone is your best friend, a bestseller who wrote a book on how to do this, or your agent who has a special formula for writing extraordinary books or all of the above rolled into one shining vision of perfection. Look into my eyes, and believe this if you never believe anything else you hear about how to write: chances are someone else is as completely wrong about how you should write as they would be wrong if they told you what your sexual orientation should be or what would work for you in bed. It is not something someone outside your head is qualified to know. I used sexual orientation for a reason. Like how you write it is composed of myriad impulses, pushes, pulls, moral directives and genetic predispositions, most of which operate at a level you will never be conscious of, even if you try to be. Heck, if you think about it the reason WHY we write is just as mysterious. We all know people as sane or insane as we are who feel absolutely no compulsion to serve the fickle divinities of story. Am I saying you shouldn’t listen to other people’s advice? No. I’m saying you shouldn’t put your FAITH in it. By all means, try waking up early and writing for two hours before breakfast just like that bestselling buddy told you to. It might work for you. But don’t bend yourself out of shape trying to make it work for you. You came into the world with a unique set of sensory/expressive tools and ultimately what will work for you will be a combination of parts of what works for other people and things that don’t work for anyone else. (And before you ask, yes, here speaks sad experience. I spent at least ten years changing my writing habits every time someone told me I was doing it wrong. In the end I learned a lot from it, but most of what I learned was the sentence after “2″.)

3 – One Man’s Bubblegum is Another Man’s Roast.

Okay, go ahead, say “ew” and get it out of your system. Now moving on from that gross image – what I mean is, never believe someone’s opinion of what your chosen genre/subgenre/approach is and what “true literature” should be. I have read any number of how-to books halfway through, then set them down not to pick them up again because the author – who made good points up to then – suddenly informed me that if I wrote science fiction/horror/mystery/fantasy or simply “commercial” fiction, then he wasn’t talking to me, because what I did was NOT art but formulaic dreck. Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but no one is entitled to his own facts. “Literature” might be definable and it might be all that (let’s leave aside the fact that it’s rarely defined the same by the author’s generation and the next ones.) I’ve read literary works – few – universally regarded as such that are indeed a cut above most other writing (Jorge Luis Borges comes to mind.) But I’ve read “genre” fiction that evokes the same awe (Terry Pratchett comes to mind) and which certainly required as strong a combination of inspiration and craft. So next time someone tells you “you shouldn’t be writing that drek, write literature instead” look them straight in the eye and tell them to go roast their own bubble gum. The blank look that follows should be enough for a laugh and you can run away before they recover their wits.

4 – Thou Shalt Not Know It All.

Any writer who came up through a writers’ group – a surprising number comes up in isolation, but I came up with a writers’ group who all started at more or less the same level – knows at least one know-it-all. (Actually, they should be so lucky. They probably know five or six.) The know-it-all is the person who doesn’t need my two injunctions above. They would never trust anyone else about their process because their process is perfect, duh. And they would never read a writing book because they know how to write and every one of their words is sacred. The Earth and the Sky shall pass away before they deviate one iota from their writing habits.
After posting the two rules above I needed to post this one. Be aware that most know-it-alls are unpublished and will remain so. The exceptions are geniuses which are as rare among writers as among any other human population. I said not to trust anyone wholesale and not to devalue your work wholesale. However, I did not say to not learn and to remain clasping your ossified little habits to your breast. Writing is a craft. No one would expect to walk into a basket weaving workshop and be a master basket weaver just because he’s used baskets all his life. Expecting to be a perfect writer because you read is just as insane. If you’re starting out, be aware you have to learn techniques for how to do things better. And if you’re experienced, you’ll have to learn techniques for how to do things better. My favorite writers experiment and change until the very end. I’d bet everyone’s favorite writers do.

5 – Practice Makes Perfect

Only writing will help you discover what works for you and what doesn’t. In the abstract loads of things work for me that I cannot in fact do. (Like get up at four in the morning to write. Should work, but I end up typing on the cat, petting the keyboard and trying to pour coffee into my eye.) This is because I don’t write with my rational brain, but with the lint between my toes or something. Meaning, I can’t control it. (For instance, I’ll be in the middle of a novel and another will ambush me in an alley, and I’ll have to stop and outline it before I write anything else. You think I’d choose to do that? But it works.) So write, write a lot.

6 – Do Not Write for the Drawer

Am I saying that everything you write should be publishable? No. I wrote eight novels before one got accepted (three of THOSE have sold since then, but that doesn’t matter.) Am I saying that you should inflict your beginner attempts, full of thumb marks and blotches on professional editors and agents? Forbid the thought. Those people suffer enough as is. What I’m saying, though, is that in your mind you should be aiming to write for publication. What do I mean by this? Well, during a particularly dark year – I think 93, which goes to show you it’s always darkest before dawn, since I started selling shorts in 94 – I “gave up.” Giving up, for me, doesn’t involve actually not writing, since writing is a compulsion. So I decided I was just going to write “for me.” And then I found I couldn’t. Not after the first two weeks or so. If you can, more power to you, and maybe you should just do that, as then you can’t fail. My issue is that in writing only for me I lacked the discipline of trying to get the story to someone outside my head. Sadly, I found the end result of this didn’t do a thing for me either – despite the fact that I am arguably inside my head. (The gentleman at the back should refrain from comments about being out of one’s mind.)

7- Always look up the ladder.

When picking whom to listen to (though never to believe wholesale) about your process/work, always look up the ladder of success to where you’d like to be. In other words, if you are a bestseller stop twisting yourself into pretzels wondering why that reviewer from Middle School Digest hated your last novel. (Of course, if you are a bestseller and reading this, you’re already breaking that rule. Unless you’re doing it for comic relief.) In this, remember success is relative. I have friends who are not as published as I am but whom I acknowledge as experts on plotting or character or even language. I listen to them on that, if not on the rest.

8 – Thou Wilt Remember The Work On Display

The best learning tools are not how-to-write books, but the fiction works themselves. Remember that we know what works. It’s on display on bookstore shelves. Get them. Read them. Analyze them. Besides, you started in this because you like reading, right?

9 – Thou Shalt Seek Out Other Writers.

And if you’re wondering why you should, since you can’t trust them when they tell you what your process should be, see me after class to discuss snark and when not to use it.
Seriously – seek out other writers because as different as we are from each other and as much as we drive each other absolutely nuts (admittedly a short distance and well paved road for most of us) chances are you have more in common with other writers than with non-writers. There are exceptions to this, but by and large when you want to cry into your beer or rejoice in your success, your writer-buddy is more likely to get it than anyone else. Everyone gets “my novel tanked, I’m out of work.” Ditto everyone gets “My novel just went big, I’m rolling in dough.” Monetary failure and success happen in other professions as well. However, the sheer joy of “I finally finished that chapter that hasn’t moved for a week” can only be grasped by a fellow sufferer. Through thick, thin, hell and high water, it is your writer friends who will hold you together.

10 – Write. Submit. Repeat.

>Navigating the Craft of Writing

>Rowena here.

If I’d known that Dave was going to give a Command Performance every time he posted a blog I wouldn’t have volunteered to go next. He’s a hard act to follow.

On top of this I’ve been trying to upload this post for several hours now but kept getting some obscure error. Then, in the middle of this, we had a severe electrical storm which blew the power for two and a half hours, while I was juggling cooking dinner. I spent the next couple of hours with my four sons aged, 14, 16, 18 and 22, playing cards and scrabble by the candle light. It was fun. The moment the power came back on we all retreated to our rooms to work on our computers. There’s probably some deep philosophical conclusion I can draw from this.

Meanwhile, I firmly believe that Story is King. I see myself as a craftsman. If I stop while I’m reading to think ‘Wow, that’s an evocative turn of phrase’, then the writer has thrown me out of the story. It is like waving a flag and saying ‘Look at me. Aren’t I clever?’ The greatest compliment a reader could one of my books would be ‘I felt like I was really there. I had to keep reading to find out what happened.’

When I wrote my fantasy trilogy, ‘The Last T’En’, I was operating on instinct, plunging from event to event, carried by the power and passion of the story. Since then I’ve become more analytical and understand why something works. If I find an author who makes me forget I’m reading a book, I’ll buy all their books and read them in chronological order to see how they develop as a writer.

The great thing about being an author is that, unlike an elite sportsperson, a writer can improve with age. I hope to still be writing at ninety and discovering new authors!