>Watching Yourself Go By


Lately I’ve run into two or three beginner writers who have EARNESTLY informed me they’re writing what they’d like to read. They don’t care what anyone thinks. They’re writing for themselves first and foremost.

Children, I’m here to tell you that unless you’re one of those sad people standing in public parks, talking to themselves, you are NOT writing for yourself first and foremost.
Oh, I confess I’ve been through this, once at least. Completely beaten, feeling like no one would buy my stories, I decided I would write “just for myself.” I think this lasted a whole week – in my defense I was very ill at the time – and the result is one of the most formless, boring and unreadable pieces of tripe I’ve ever written.

Why should that be, you say. Well, for one, because if you need to write down stories to tell them to yourself, we need to talk. Most of us managed to tell ourselves stories in our heads long before we learned to write and read. But there is more beyond that. You are in full possession of the story from beginning to end. So even if you try to “tell the story” with a certain shape and structure, it doesn’t matter. You know at the beginning what the end is. Yes, even if you pretend you don’t. It’s kind of like trying to play chess with yourself. You always know which side you’re favoring.

The sad, unacknowledged fact is that we – the lone, ink-stained wretches in our little corner, are as much performers as the most stage-hungry actor, the most attention-craving politician. We write – at least if we’re not (yet) utterly psychotic – to be read. We can sit in our corner and say “Well, I didn’t WANT to be a bestseller, anyway” but that’s no more than the sniffling ego-defense after our darling isn’t loved as it deserves. Or “I don’t care if the market is stoooopid, I will write little green man sex, because that’s what I’d REALLY like to read. More people would like to read it, if someone would just publish it!”

So, what am I saying? Am I saying you should write to market?

Well, yes and no. If you write to market you have to be incredibly savvy. You have to be as savvy as financiers investing in futures. You can’t be sure the way you’re betting is the right way and to make things worse – in publishing – the signals you’re getting are distorted. By the time you see a big infestation of purple vampire porno at your local book store, these books were accepted 2 to 3 years ago, the houses are flooded with purply porno and the editors are screaming “no more.”

Not saying it’s not possible to see the way the market is going to jump. Eric Flint tells me he did, and I see no reason to doubt him, so did Jacqueline Carey. The caveat here is that they didn’t aim wholesale at something that’s selling well. Instead, they took what’s selling well apart and looked at trends. Say, looking at Twilight you could say “the market is rife for young women with weak family structures who fall in love with masterly men who are in some way alien or magical and who can vouchsafe the women special status or power.” Or you can go one better, and take that trend apart further. Read, say, all the bestsellers in your intended field over the last ten years and take the trend apart. “Protagonist, between ten and twenty; broken family or great loss; set in small town……” Etc. (I’m pfa here.)

NO, I’m NOT telling you that you SHOULD do that. I don’t think I could. It’s sort of a painting by numbers, and painting – embroidering, cooking, and I don’t see why not writing – by numbers causes me to get bored, which causes my brain to shut down and next thing you know I’m asleep and drooling on the keyboard. Note I’m not claiming this as any form of moral superiority. Heck, my dears, if I COULD do it, I would. I’m quite smart enough to see this sort of thing in the market, and if I COULD do it, I could be not only a bestseller but very, very wealthy. And though I don’t write to be wealthy, a little wealth and respect would give me loads of times to write the other stuff I’d like to write.

But I’m not talking about theme, really. Or the sort of elements that could constitute writing to market or not. Oh, theme is part of it. I wrote eight books no one will EVER buy, simply because I violated rule number one (below.) BUT writing a theme people want to see is not the same as writing to market, according to latest bestsellers. And it certainly is not writing things you have no interest in, or force yourself to write, for the sake of “market.”No, it’s more basic than that – it’s more in how you introduce your book. How you put each sentence in, with the idea of what the person on the other side is getting. You might know your character is a nun, for instance, but if you start the book with her putting on bright red stiletto heels and never explain it, but just think this makes her a “complex” and “multifaceted” character, don’t come crying to me when your reader doesn’t get it.

The point here is that you know more about your world and characters than ever goes on the page, so if you are putting things down, you are not seeing them for the first time. You have no idea if this is “the kind of book I want to read” or not. It’s entirely possible coming at a stranger’s book with the same character putting on red heels, you’d read to see if it was explained, and when it wasn’t, you’d throw sister Charity Jewel and her red heels against the wall.

You can no more read your books as if they were a stranger’s than you can stand at the window and watch yourself walk by.

So, what can you do? Besides developing a few unstinting readers, as honest with criticism as with praise, when deserved. You can heed the rules of the Sarah.

1 – Thou shall know the boundaries.What does this mean? Well, you will become aware of what is considered “normal” in your culture, and you’ll not violate it without just cause. You’ll become aware of what’s normal sex, say, as portrayed in books. And normal violence. And normal science. And normal… Am I suggesting here you confine yourself to the median? No. I could no more confine myself to the median than I could develop wings and fly. HOWEVER you have to be aware of the uttermost boundaries of what you can do and still be read by a large number of your intended readers. This can be difficult if you read very widely as I do. What’s acceptable in main stream, in sex, politics, science or violence is completely different than what is acceptable in science fiction, and again in mystery and in different subgenres of mystery. (For instance, if you have a torture-murder in a cozy, it BEST be off screen and even the body not shown in full horror.)Mostly, because in every culture these are hot points, this boils down to 1 a) though shalt not push the ew in sex without just cause. Thou shalt be aware of penalties if thou dost. b) thou shalt not push the ew in violence and thou shalt know when thou dost, and why.I’m not saying sometimes you shouldn’t for shock or horror, or for whatever reason. The ew factor is a very powerful emotion. Just don’t invoke it till book goes against wall, and DO NOT think you’ll escape paying for it. The penalty might be people thinking you’re pervy or your being known as the lady who wrote sex with a dragon. OR it might be losing half of your potential readers. Or, as in the case of my first – written – series, it might be never getting published at all. Proceed with caution.

2 – Thou shalt, right off the gate, let these people know who where and when they’re dealing with. Also, if possible, which genre and subgenre. This is very important, very subtle, and has to be done at the same time as hooking the reader.Say I start a story by describing a man being mean to someone. This is my main character, and you’re supposed to think he’s kind and loving. By the time you get to the scene where he’s kind and loving, your reader will think he’s insane. Ditto for your world. If you’re in the future, show us the spaceship or the robot BEFORE the oxcarts everyone is driving because of environmental regulations. Just pay attention to the picture you’re forming in the readers’ mind. Place your clues and cues intentionally, not devil-may-care. This is hardest and most important in the beginning, but you should keep half a mind at it throughout the story.

3 – Thou shalt foreshadow.Yeah, yeah, I know. But… but… but… the big twist when your character goes insane and kills his former friend is supposed to be a shock, a surprise, a totally mind-blowing denouement.Right. And in real life it does happen that way – or not. Read the biographies of any serial killer, and you’ll see TONS of ignored warnings. When the worst happens, people are going “but he was such a nice man” even as they DON’T believe it. It’s partly to reassure themselves they say those things. Depending on the level of surprise you want, your foreshadowing can be more or less open. If less, though, be ready for people to tell you it “came out of nowhere” and again, you’ll lose readers.Look, books are not reality. Books are orderly. Reality is… not. If you want a story to make sense, you read a book. That means the story MUST make sense, and that you must expect the “reveal” even when you don’t and will be “really suprised”.

4- Thou shalt make sense.That means that if you got bored with your plot, and you want half of your characters to die crushed by rocks, you won’t do it. Or if you do it, you’ll go back and reforeshadow. You won’t create a whole mountain range of loose rocks you never talked about, just to kill your characters as they doubtlessly deserve. Ditto, your reserved character won’t become chatty. Your chaste character won’t become slutty. AND NO ONE WILL HAVE SUDDEN MADNESS AS A MOTIVATION FOR ANYTHING. Yes, that last one is a sore point. Not only does everyone who enters contests I judge think this is the ultimate in cleverness (It’s not.) BUT I’ve read more than a few professional mysteries that have this most unsatisfying of reasons as a motivation. Okay, I’m only a reader – even if LOUD – but let me tell you right now, if you do that, not only have you lost me as a reader, but I’ll make merciless fun of your plot EVERYWHERE. Unless you foreshadow the madness and the reason to go insane. To do otherwise always seems to me to be a shrinking in the face of evil, a childish belief no one would do evil unless they’re insane. You KNOW that’s not true. So why are you trying to treat readers like children?

5 – Thou shalt not have thy characters laugh or cry alone.I don’t care how much you love your characters, and how brilliant their jokes, sad their distress is. You will give your reader a reason to care. You will make sure the joke, the in-comment, the insanely funny bit of something is immediately obvious to your reader, even if you have to lay the ground work for ten chapters. Ditto for the crying, the loss, etc.Two of the MOST infuriating readings I EVER attended were the one where the woman was reading five characters of whom we’d never heard having a conversation full of in-jokes. This is where you’re going “say what?” “They who?” In the middle of laughing madly, she paused to tell us “helpful” things like “see, this is funny because he’s really a redhead.” Since it was the beginning of the book, she had no explained this to the readers either. The effect was of being held on the outside of a group that’s laughing and you don’t know at what. The other was a woman reading the story of someone attending her own funeral, and crying as she described how sad all the family members were. Since we knew neither the main pov character nor the people crying over her – nor, it must be added, the writer who was crying buckets while reading – the whole effect was of wanting to go away so these people could grieve in peace.

So, what other rules would you suggest? What gives you the most trouble in terms of thinking everyone should get it and being baffled when they don’t? How do you feel about sex with purple aliens? Have you now or will you ever write sex with dragons? Do you know if your ew-factor is average for your culture or too high or too low? Do you often skim over scenes of unimaginable violence in bestselling books, or do you find the violence too tame?


  1. >I've read everything Ringo has written, so I guess my ew factor is pretty high.A rule I would suggest might be "Thou Shalt make certain something integral to your overall storyline advances said storyline." Not sure if that's really how I'd word it. However, the rule stems from a current NYT bestseller who has a habit (especially lately) of writing entire books featuring her insanely popular characters in which nothing of substance happens in the book. The characters are all exactly the same at the end of the book as they were at the beginning. I hate that. Then there was the Robin Hobb book that every chapter seemed to be building to this awesome climax… and at the end of the book the only thing that had happend, in the ENTIRE book, was that the character got fat. I still foam at the mouth thinking about that waste of space.

  2. >I neither watch, nor read, horror. When an SF novel turns into Horror, I stop reading.I don't mind a well done sex scene, but I really hate stupid female characters who sleep with the Wrong Guy, whether on or off the page.And my least favorite trick is the Character who "spares" the other Character from all the information he or she needs to _not_ get into all sorts of danger. I wouldn't mind nearly as much if the author would just be honest and show that Character as a real control freak, or lacking respect for the other character, or a total Poof who imagines himself a Hero. And then kill him. Gruesomely. Honest, I won't even toss the book, just this once.

  3. >Rules, umm. . . (6) Thou Shalt Not make the names unpronounceable.Correlary: Thou shouldn't have amused yourself with an unimportant polity by inventing an awkward naming convention. Because your Muse will decide it's the perfect place to have a murder mystery, and you are stuck with the naming conventions, not to mention all the other silly things you just had to write down, yeah, you can go back and change it all, it's not published. But that leaves great gaping holes in your murder mystery plot . . .

  4. >matapam,If you substitute "murder mystery" with "science fiction epic" you will have just described David Weber's own opinion of the naming conventions he chose for the Hell's Gate and Safehold series.

  5. >Um. Maybe I'm odd, but… if the sex isn't advancing the plot, it's boring. If it is, it's part of the story. Ditto violence, and just about everything else. Given that I have a very high setting for ick, that means I have to run EVERYTHING I write past someone a bit more normal. Especially since, if it does advance the plot, I might finish writing a segment feeling like I need to scrub inside and out, but I rarely ick myself out.

  6. >Chris,YES on making things integral to the overall storyline. Though I'd like to point out I used to cut with an unsparing blade. I almost tore out the "three guys in a car" scene in DOITD because it didn't do enough work. Of course, as Evmick pointed out, it's logical, believable, "let down after battle" It's also the beginning of bonding for the two main male characters. But at the time I didn't see that and in fact didn't see it till a year or so after. So, be careful of cutting too deeply

  7. >matapam,Uh… well… uh… you didn't like Dipped Stripped and Dead? (runs.) Though in that case it's more a case of the characters not telling each other anything because they're not operating in the same (mental) universe.Names — don't get me started on names. Anne McCaffrey almost lost me on the fricking apostrophes.Do you guys know how hard it is if you're ESL to deal with weird/hard to pronounce names? Or remember them? Add one or more characters with names I can confuse — and for most of my childhood I thought John Denver and Bob Dylan had the same name which gives you my "range" of can confuse — and I become hopelessly lost.

  8. >Kate,Violence can be gripping in its own accord. It pulls out/elicits strong replies from the Monkey regions of our brains. The problem, though, is that it's really hard to judge when you've gone too far. For it to be "violence porn" it needs to be at the level of "want to get away but can't." You then stick with character because hurt/comfort comes into play. Do it well enough and reintroduce escalating violence often enough and you have an unputable-down book. (Anita Blake, first three books and a lot of the others.)The sex thing is more fine-tuned. For one I can't write it without a clear power relationship. Because without it's serving a secondary function of some sort, it's just boring to me — unfortunately this means I can write enslavement, but not healthy reciprocity; S & M but not regular sex; rape but not consensual. It has nothing to do with my RL preferences, but it's the only stuff I can write. And I choose not to, partly because I CAN do it, but it does not INTEREST me to do much of it and partly because I don't really want to become known as the "kinky lady." So I don't write sex. Which er… limits my market, I suppose.People do, however, IMHO use sex/violence in lieu of compelling plot.

  9. >Your Heroine had a financial motive. She wasn't nobly trying to protect the cop from the horrors of the cold cruel world by keeping him ignorant.Mind you, I did growl about "Just admit you drove off with the table, you idiot!" a couple of times.Or do you mean marrying the wrong guy? Umm, that was before the book started, so it doesn't count. Umm, better example, would be Dave's Kate in 'Save the Dragons' Bad enough in a Love Interest. That degree of pure stupidity in the Main Character . . . Ha! Are there coconuts on Flinders Island? Ha, I say, totally ignoring that both my sisters really were that stupid. ::Shudder:: My first three brothers-in-law… I think this might come under excessive stereotyping, slavish devotion to reality, or possibly my own tastes.

  10. >Sarah in real life horrible things do happen to good people for no reason. And in real life we never know what happened to someone who went missing. This is all really frustrating.Which is why we read genre fiction.If we wanted to be bored, angst ridden and frustrated we'd read literary fiction. Oops, did I say that?Foreshadow, give motivation, plant clues. All good advice.

  11. >Pam,Sigh. I almost married the wrong guy.I don't think Dyce is dumb, but my editor seems to think so, and wish to inform the world in the blurb. Go figure.

  12. >I don't think anything can match a boy crazy young woman for shear suicidal stupidity. Other than maybe the male equivalent.But that doesn't mean I like seeing an otherwise intelligent character acting like that. I'm the wrong gender to judge whether a reasonably mature man would find such a girl attractive. Men, after all, do tend to marry younger women. So I do consider this a _fictional_ preference of _mine_.

  13. >Just pondering… can we turn Number 5 into a positive commandment? Something like "Thou shalt involve the reader so that when the main character laughs or cries, the reader joins in." Just my day for hobgoblins of small minds, I think…

  14. >Mike,The problem with that is that it ends up not telling people what they're doing wrong. And this is a rule that's violated in the ACTIVE. Doing something, not avoiding doing something. Involving a reader is hard, so if you can't be sure you're doing that, just don't show them laughing and crying. 🙂

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