The Better Angels of our Writing

When I wrote about the devils of workshops, one of you asked me to do the angels of workshops. These indubitably exist, and you can find them when you ask someone a question and they say “so and so said.” In fact, you can identify mine as Kris Rusch, Dean Smith, Kevin J. Anderson, Dave Freer, Terry Pratchett – all of whom, though we were never at a workshop as such, passed on crucial knowledge and either taught me something I’d never have learned on my own, or lifted me over a hump I’d never have seen over.

In fact, as you progress, and the more you write as a writer, the more you’ll find out that you are finding your “angels” outside workshops.

Not that people in workshops/writers’ groups don’t help. They can help immensely. It’s just that ideally your writers’ group/workshop will be one of peers. Their help will be gradual, as you each feel for the next wrung of the ladder together. It’s a group effort and by the end you won’t know who helped whom, and precisely where.

So, instead of telling you typical “angels” I’m going to tell you the stories of my angels. Because in a way, devils fall in categories, but angels are there when you need them. And then I’ll give you some principles for – as you progress – how you can be an “angel” to others, in effect paying it forward.

First off, I was amused yesterday, while reading back in my blog archives to find a blast from the past post, by running across a post I didn’t remember writing it about my being “the writer of no future.”

I didn’t run it, because the part on top referred to another post, at which one of the commenters seemed incapable of processing I wasn’t JUST an indie writer, and kept calling me “a self proclaimed author” – something that with twenty some books on shelves, from traditional publishers, makes me smile, though not a happy smile.

But the rest of the post was apparently based in an incident in which some author was running around (probably still is) saying she was on a panel with me and I bragged I sold the very first novel I wrote on proposal and that they asked me for more.

Since I’ve been frank about my history here, I suspect you know neither of those is true.

The first novel I sold, though sold on proposal, was the ninth I finished. I have since sold.. four I wrote before, the other four being fairly maimed, though one might eventually become a series.

Anyway – I sort of figured where she got that idea, because I MUST have said “my first novel sold on proposal” – but I MEANT my “first published” novel.

However, my way was tougher and longer than most people. I started writing in 85 and it was 93 before I sold my first short story, 94 before it came out.

My natural stupidity had a bit to do with that. (Yes, I know I’ve said I’m high IQ. That just means I can be HIGH levels of dumb. As in, you have to be smart to invent a way to be that dumb.) But so did my adapting to a new culture; my changing languages; the hormones in infertility treatment (I’ve found these last two years that hormonal turmoil – thank heavens I’m getting past it! – can make it impossible for me to write fiction); three moves, etc.

However a part of the delay is that I didn’t know ANYONE who wrote. I remember the first writer I met, while I was working retail at a mall. I was also the first would-be writer HE met. People at the store (and his partner) for a while thought we were having an affair. We kept trading techniques and pointing out things we’d discovered, and… (He was the person who first told me you don’t send submissions to the magazine’s corporate address. Who knew? He also told me about Writer’s Market.)

You see in those days, when there was no internet, it was almost impossible to find out the “natural” progression to becoming a writer. And there was ALMOST as much bad advice, which was always easier to find than good advice, just like now.

So, for instance, I spent years sending my short stories with “30” at the end, because some book told me that was how professionals signaled the end. (Which was true. For newspapers. Decades before.)

But I had no contacts, and I didn’t know what else to do. There were a lot of bad steps.

Weirdly, starting a group of all newbies HELPED. You’d think we’d just share ignorance – and we did, a lot – but if one of us figured out something, everyone knew it: from “how to introduce a character” to “how to submit a short.”

I won’t note every one of those bits of help I got, because I don’t remember. I’ll just point out the sort of thing that is most helpful in that type of group.

However, at some point I heard of Kris and Dean’s workshops and Rebecca Lickiss and I attended one of the first week-long ones.

Let me just say that from that workshop I got the ability to write and trust my writing, so I no longer took six months over a short story and kill it dead before I sent it out. Other things they taught me are too numerous to explain, and it includes introducing me to indie publishing at a time it saved my sanity.

Kevin J. Anderson, met at a local writers’ conference (Where we convinced a hapless photographer that we believed the camera would steal our souls. When he played along with it, I knew we’d be friends) when I had a novel out, and he had five or six million, treated me as a colleague. This alone was a massive ego boost for the shrinking violet newby. Since then he’s been a source of advice and comfort, including the first time my career crashed hard (2003) spending countless hours with me on the phone explaining the realities of publishing and how it wasn’t my fault, but it would be my decision if I walked away instead of trying again.

Dave Freer, in turn, massively improved my writing by pointing out I wasn’t foreshadowing. At all. I was doing a jack in box all the time, with every turn of plotting.

I was talking to a friend today and told her I think the reason there isn’t a GOOD book on plotting is that plotting is highly individual. It can’t be taught, only learned. I can’t teach you to plot the Sarah A. Hoyt way, and if I try, I’ll break your journey to plotting your own way. Plotting, like good cooking, is highly personal, and what you can make work and be good is not what I can make work and be good.

All this is true, but foreshadowing can make your plotting seem rock solid, and its absence will always make it seem amateur. So, learn the art. Dave Freer and Larry Correia are masters. Study them.

Terry Pratchett, giving a talk in our area, talked about figuring out why his character was named Tiffany just before the climax of Wee Free Men. Until then I’d been forcing myself to outline everything. Finding out PTerry was a pantser freed me to pantse as well. (It’s not his fault if sometimes the pants end up around my ankles in public, mind.)

I know I’m forgetting other people, pro and not, who intervened at a crucial time and helped me more than they’d probably know. I’m not forgetting that first group, in which I learned all the first steps. But those angels were mutual angels of small favors. Which is what we all can consciously be.

So… Here are “How to be an angel suggestions””

  • Start from humility. Remember that not everyone will write like you, not just in results, but in approach. Not everyone has the same background. Not everyone has the same tastes. If J. K. Rowling had come to our little beginner’s group, clutching Harry Potter, I’d have said “Enid Blyton and the tired old magic school thing? Please! Go more original.” (Or rather I wouldn’t have said it, but I’d have thought it.) And yet, as a reader, even I enjoyed the book, if not startlingly original. So, when critiquing try to remember to critique not from the “this is what I’d write” but from the “how does it work for what it is?” Mind you, starting with “I normally don’t read this” is appropriate and will give warning if you truly, absolutely miss the cues. (Like, for instance, Romance can’t be realistic, or it’s not romance and there’s ways to signal attraction that aren’t true to life but are conventions.) And then do the best you can.
  • Start with praise – this is hackneyed and lord knows in a beginner group you sometimes find yourself thinking of saying something like “your printed lines are very straight.” Or “you can set margins like nobody’s business.” Don’t. Consciously read for something to praise. Even the most wretched piece of dreck has something in it that can be praised, even if it’s just the power of the idea.
  • If someone is a complete mess, concentrate on the one thing they are closest to being a pro in, and try to push them to pro on that, then the next thing. For instance, with me, someone would have started (did start) with characters. Then plot.
  • Unless grammar makes it impossible to understand the manuscript don’t harp on it. OTOH giving someone a good course on grammar on DVD or Strunk and White or something, is not bad. You can offer to tutor someone (if they’re that bad, or you’re that sure of your grammar) but don’t for the love of heaven, harp on every single out of place comma. For one, each publishing house/editor has his/her own style manual.
  • Don’t pass on received wisdom as holy writ. I don’t care if you were taught by Stephen King himself. Oh, you can pass on stuff like “you can write faster” but not stuff like “novels must be a minimum of 100k words.” Genres, times, people all can change the importance/accuracy of these aphorisms. Someone telling me my first novel had to be 100k words resulted in my cramming 600k words into 100k. Okay, I might never have figured out it was a series, anyway, but that stopped it cold.
  • Never tell someone they have to work the way you do. I’ve known plotters, pantsers, detail plotters, top of head plotters – all of their work is great. (Well from some of them.) Do not try to make them fit YOUR mold.
  • Give precise critiques. Don’t say “your verbs are too vague” say “moved? Why not walked or leapt?”
  • Be nice, kind, and try not to give people vicious critiques, not even as revenge. If someone upsets you a lot, just say you couldn’t read their stuff, or something. Not only is nothing gained by in-group wars, but some people might take your p*ssy revenge critique as true, and try to change their writing because of it, and that would be the worst.

Most importantly, remember that no matter where you are, you’re still learning. Yes, it becomes harder to find people who can help you, but I guarantee there are still things you could improve on.

Don’t accept everything everyone tells you – but don’t reject everything everyone tells you, either. Sometimes, in an unexpected place, like while listening to the publicity-tour talk of your favorite author, or reading a mystery where someone quotes Tennyson, something will click and you’ll go “ooooh. You mean I can do that?”

And that’s when you found an angel, for a moment.

8 Comments

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8 responses to “The Better Angels of our Writing

  1. mobiuswolf

    C4 finding out stuff I didn’t know Ididn’t know.

  2. Thanks again for your encouragement. I intend to share your suggestions with my own critique group. You’ve shown me ways in which I can do better in how I critique, and I appreciate it.

  3. And my better angels include you, Sarah, Dave Freer, Darwin Garrison… and similarly, without the encouragement from you all, I’d never have published. I’m glad I listened, and now I try to pass it on when new writers ask me questions 🙂

  4. A good read. I’m on a substantial online writing community, and the amount of contradictory advice (ranging from ‘never, ever break a writing rule’ to ‘never ever follow a writing rule’ and topical variations on those extremes) there have been a handful of ‘angels’ encouraging folk to understand what’s behind each argument and take what works. It is good to know there are more of that bent out there.

    • I know what you mean. I am in a similar group, and I usually just tell people, “This is what I have heard, this is what I think works, and my advice is worth exactly what you paid for it. Use it or ignore it as you like.”

      Because our hostess is right. What works for author A will not always work for author B, even to following or breaking the basic rules of english grammar. Humility is the order of the day.

      • The golden rule of writing: do what works for you. (the correlary being to keep trying all sorts of things because you never know what new bit will work for you. )

  5. Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter

    However a part of the delay is that I didn’t know ANYONE who wrote.

    Amen. This makes a huge difference. I got tons of help from Shirley Meier. Later Janet Morris and John Manning helped me a lot.

    Rest in Peace John, we miss you (for those who don’t know, John passed away yesterday morning).

    Having someone to talk to who doesn’t think you are insane because of all of your imaginary friends is a huge bonus.

    Wayne