I came across this topic Friday while reading some of the writing blogs I follow. What started as a single blog post seems to have become sort of a mini-MEME. It started over at the Creative Penn. Joanna Penn blogged about what she wishes she’d known before writing her first book. Then Alexis Grant, at Aspiring Author, picked up the theme and blogged about what she wished she’d known. Her post has a slightly different spin than Ms. Penn’s because Ms. Grant is writing her memoirs instead of a novel. The next to take up the issue was J. Timothy King at be the story.
As I followed the links, I started me thinking — Kate, quit snickering. I KNOW it’s dangerous when I think. But what can I say? It happens sometimes. — Anyway, I started thinking about what I wished I’d known before writing my first novel.
As a point of clarification, I don’t mean any of those so-called books I’ve written that have been forever banished under my bed or in the far corner of my closet. Nor does it mean any of those that became the fodder for bonfires before Sarah started threatening to hurt me if I didn’t quit playing with fire. I’m still not sure if she meant burning those pages I most certainly would not want someone finding and reading if anything ever happened to me or just telling her I’d done so. Hmmm. Maybe it’s the latter and I can finish burning the rest of those pages….
Oh, sorry, back to the point. What I wished I’d known before writing my first novel, in this case, Nocturnal Origins:
- How important it is to have a core group of readers who will tell you the truth about your baby and be supportive at the same time. Critique groups are wonderful, as are first readers. But so often they tend to simply say the book is good or bad without specifics. I’ve been fortunate enough to have several people, writers all, who have taken the time to mentor me and help me through the process, pointing out where I needed to change or fix something, without ever making me feel like I was an idiot for wanting to be a writer.
- It can be as hard, sometimes even harder, to find an agent than it is a publisher. The corallary to this is that you don’t have to have an agent to find a pubisher. It just takes more research and hard work.
- Research is not limited to what you need to make your novel believable. It also extends to where you are going to try to sell the book, marketing trends, etc. In other words, a writer has to be much more than a writer.
- Don’t expect to hear from everyone you send a query/pages to. This is especially true with agents. More and more of them now say in their guidelines that they only respond if they are interested. I should probably understand that but, well, I don’t. In this day and age of email, it doesn’t take much to send a form rejection if you don’t like something or if you feel it isn’t right for your agency.
- How hard it is to turn loose of your baby and send it off. It’s like sending your child off to that first day of school. You’ve lived with the novel for weeks or months — or more — and now you’re sending it off into the world without you.
- You have to have a thick skin. No matter how much you prepare yourself for that first rejection — or the tenth or the one hundredth — it’s never easy to hear that someone doesn’t love your novel as much as you do. If you take the rejection too close to heart, it becomes harder and harder to write. Me, well, I think all those rejections make a nice conversation peice, especially when applied to the walls like wall paper ;-p
- Patience truly is a virtue in this business. It takes time to research for a book. Time to write it. Time to edit it and, most of all, time to hear back after you’ve sent it off.
So, to steal from Ms. Penn, as a writer, what do you wish you’d known before starting your first writing project?
I first noticed it many years ago when we started to get American soaps such as Dallas and Dysentery. British soaps are about poor people and usually have a suite of hopeless characters leading fairly miserable lives. American soaps are filled with rich, glamorous characters who may not be any happier but are certainly dominant individuals of one sort or another. Another characteristic of British soaps is that the pathos often transforms into humour.
The latter observation also applies to comedy. American comedy tends to feature beautiful people living fulfilling lives. British comedy is only a whisker removed from tragedy. A comparison between ‘Friends’ and ‘Coupling’ is instructive. Superficially, these are similar. The story is about six friends, three men and three women, and how they end up as couples. However, the two series are completely different beneath the surface. Coupling is a single beginning and end story spread over less than fifty episodes. Coupling is about adult relationships and is often extremely raw. The episode about men and pornography is especially hilarious, winning awards. Coupling doesn’t end completely happily in that two of the couples end up together because they have been dumped and no one else will have them. Another example is ‘Men Behaving Badly’. This was bought by American TV, recast and re-scripted until it would have been better entitled ‘Pretty Boys Being a Little Bit Naughty’.
This brings me to a further point. Americans like their entertainment fiction to have a happy ending. The British like to wallow in a bit of angst where in the last chapter the heroine dies of consumption and the hero is killed by friendly fire.
I am not the first person to observe that an American glass is half full but a British one is half empty.
To quote an Englisg catphrase: it’s being so cheerful ‘as keeps us going.
I recently came across a bit of a tangle that was a little hard to resolve. A nice reader pointed out there were errors in tense in one section of my work. Try as I might, I could not see these. Then a friend of mine with a more literary background helped me out. His take was that the source of the comment was a certain sentence construction I sometimes use – specifically he said “-you tend to use a present tense verb modified by a prior past tense clause”.
For example: Teag turned and galloped down the hill, issuing orders to his men as he went.
Now the source of confusion (if I have got this right) as that the second part of this sentence is in present progressive (present continuous) tense – events happening now – whereas the first part is in past tense.
So is the use of this sort of sentence valid or not? My smart literary friend says there is really nothing wrong with it, although other close friends trained in syntax and grammar maintain that this should be changed to either:
Teag turned and galloped down the hill, he issued orders to his men as he went. (Which kind of reads a little strange to me) or
Teag turned and galloped down the hill. He issued orders to his men as he went. (Which feels ‘dead’ compared to the original)
This is really getting into a grammar grey area (well at least for me).
Wondering over the source of this – it must have crept into my subconscious somewhere – I flicked through a few novels on my shelf and found this exact thing used reasonably frequently in text. Right. So somewhere its passed an editor. At least in those books.
Here are some quotes from David Gemmell’s Dark Prince.
“For a moment only Philip’s face softened, his arm rising as if to reach out to his son.”
“Her fingers touched his face, stroking the skin”
Now there is also past continuous tense – or past progressive (imperfect) tense. Can past tense and past continuous be used together, if so do the ‘-ing’ words above fall into the present continuous or past continuous category?
What do people think? Is there a problem leaving it as it is or should these be corrected every time?
>And no, I don’t mean the one Sarah shoved in Cthulhu’s fundamental orifice – assuming Elder Gods actually have such mundane biology. Well, unless it went all the way up so his eyes light up. I guess then he’d really wave those tentacles.
What I’m really talking about is communication. When you strip it down to the barest of basics (no, not that kind, that’s reserved for private showings with a very exclusive audience of one – since my husband doesn’t run screaming from the sight) all writing is trying to communicate something. It might be a mood, an idea, some facts that someone thinks are interesting enough or important enough to write about, or it could be just about anything. For the likes of PTerry, it’s often a whole bunch of them all at once.
Me, I count myself lucky to get one or maybe two things across cleanly in a story.
On the fiction side of the fence, the main thing we’re communicating is a story. Something that shows interesting stuff happening and people you can empathize with trying to deal with it and often making it worse before they can get hold of it and have their happily ever after. Words, no matter how much we love them (and hold them and pet them and…) are just tools.
If you don’t use the tools right, or you don’t use the right tools, you don’t communicate at all, or what you communicate doesn’t bear any resemblance to what you thought was happening. Not that this doesn’t happen even with the best of us, especially when we let Mr Smug Bastard in the back of our subconscious take over and pour the words out, but then we have to go back and adjust, and tweak, and sometimes give Mr Smug Bastard a damn good smack because he’s led us up the garden path and committed plot diversion in the begonias.
The short version? If people don’t get it you did it wrong. Period. If most of the people who read it get it, you can mostly not worry about the ones who don’t. You can’t please everyone, and there are some people who’d complain no matter what.
I’m naturally a play-with-words type. I’m writing this with minimal revision, and my normal rather… ahem… colorful way of putting things is showing through. To get to the point where I could write good fiction, I had to strip that back to the bones and have nothing but the story. No description, no nothing. Then I had to learn what details I could put in. It wasn’t easy. Normally I don’t just mix my metaphors, I shove them in the blender and ramp the power up as high as it will go. We won’t go into what I do to poor, unsuspecting similes (no, Dave, NOT simians!)
In the situation Sarah wrote about yesterday, Robert wasn’t communicating with his classmates because he assumed they shared his knowledge base. They weren’t communicating with him, because they had no idea where he is, figuratively speaking. This is something I’m terrified of, because that blank look that means whatever I was saying flew past without touching a single brain cell also means I failed.
I failed to use my tools – words – to put my message in a form the people who had to understand it could use.
I’ve had the rather painful experience of having to learn to recognize that “um… you left me behind after three words” look and backtrack and rephrase. It doesn’t help that I make honking great intuitive leaps of logic that leave people who don’t think in weird sideways lurches scratching their heads – and I can’t explain how I got there. I just know it’s right, and it’s easy, really, because if it was difficult I couldn’t possibly do that. (Yes, you can all stop laughing now. I know now I’m crazy enough to go in the nuthouse and just controlled enough to stay out of the grasp of the nice men waiting to fit me for one of those lovely jackets with the super-long sleeves.)
So, if the audience – the readers, the players, the classmates – give you that blank look, you backtrack and try something different. Or you back off and go with the majority (especially if it involves grades) because sometimes the communication lines aren’t up to the job. You can’t make jokes about the cloaca of Elder Gods to someone who’s never heard of Cthulhu. They don’t have the tools to understand you and by the time you’ve explained about squid-headed beings whose mere presence drives men mad, the joke is gone.
The flip side of this, of course, is seeing the lightbulb go on behind the eyes when your readers/listeners/classmates catch on. Even without speculating on how the lightbulb got there, I can safely say it’s one of the most rewarding aspects of the craft.
What are some of your lightbulb moments? When you saw it go on, or when your very own lightbulb lit up? My favorite has to be when – and this happens in damn near every story I write – I finally catch on to what Mr Smug Bastard in my subconscious is up to.
My older son is starting college this year. The college has what can only be described as a “filler class” called “freshman seminar” destined to teach the kids study habits and to help them make friends. They push it pretty hard and it looked like I’d hold it against him if he didn’t take it, so he’s taking it – the modality on game design. (There are others on things like the Odyssey but he thought if he was going to pay for an extra class he wanted to do something he had some interest in and hadn’t studied on his own — as he did with the Odyssey.)
The class is all group work – the making friends thing – and his group was assigned to write a computer game involving Cthulhu, a light bulb and no shooting. Now, being the most low-brow in this family, I immediately suggested a game in which the player tries to shove a lightbulb up Cthulhu’s cloaca (really, do you know what supernatural encephalopods have? Neither do I.) When the player succeeds, Cthulhu goes “whooooo hoo hooo” and lights up, tentacles and all.
Robert looked at me like I was crazy. I realized he’d taken quite a different path – dragging his poor group mates with him – when I found him translating words into Cthulhu’s language on line and freaking out because he couldn’t find the word for electrician.
Last night he came home and described their game and his annoyance with his group. The game, in its final form… Well, to begin with, the player is Cthulhu. Cthulhu’s realm is being invaded by electricians installing lightbulbs. Cthulhu responds by throwing necronomicons on them. When he hits them it means they read it and become cultists, whom he can then direct to remove the lightbulbs. Robert’s group thought this project was “too ambitious.” Robert said “But it wasn’t. It was compiling by the end of class.” So I had to translate. “They mean it’s too complicated, Robert.” “They mean they have no idea of the fictional underpinnings behind Cthulhu” (in fact only the teaching assistants who assigned it and Robert knew what Cthulhu was) “and that it makes no sense to them.” Since the game is voted on by the class, this is a consideration.
I realized then Robert was a victim of the two things Rowena and I discussed. He was making it too complex for the audience, and he was a writer raised in a family of writers.
I confess that my poor, much tried agent’s favorite comment to the stuff of mine she thinks I need to change or shelve is “Too much.” And ninety nine percent of the time, she’s right. I have a bad tendency to overthink it, throw in everything but the kitchen sink. You see, I’ve read this stuff since I was eight or so, and to me it seems natural. But unless the reader has the exact same background I have – and the exact same hangups – it won’t be to them.
Does anyone else struggle with this? Do you think the field, as a whole, suffers from it? (I confess I often see this in short stories.) How does one manage to have Cthulhu, his light bulb and the necronomicon – metaphorically speaking – without losing the intended audience?
Maybe there’s a reason the necronomicon is supposed to send cultists mad…
You know you’re a writer:
When you recall your childhood and adolescent by the books you were reading and the authors you discovered.
When life altering events happen and you catch yourself thinking, I must remember how this feels so I can capture it for my book.
When you read and can’t switch off your internal editor unless it is a really good book.
When you go back and re-read that really good book to work out why you couldn’t switch off your internal editor.
When you catch yourself rewriting the endings of books and movies.
When you toss a book aside because you think you can do better.
When you keep writing, even though the industry is crazy and perfectly good books get rejected.
When your children leave a note for you, not on the kitchen table but on your keyboard, because they know your life revolves around your computer and your latest manuscript.
That last one is what made me think how integral writing is to my life and how this affects my family. When my 6 children were younger and still at school, things would happen and the events would turn up later in one of my children’s books with the names changed to protect the innocent and not so innocent. Now, when the kids tell me things, they say ‘And you can use that in one of your books.’
When did you know you were a writer?