Writing is a lot like flying a plane.  If no one you know has ever flown a plane, and the entire concept is a little hazy, but you know that birds fly and there must be a way, and therefore you assemble a plane out of duct tape and bale wire.

Needless to say most such contraptions — and novels — never work. That’s because people writing them are writing because they-once-saw-something-like-that and think they can make it work. But that is not the point right now– the point is that there are things and ways to help you make your little novel — or plane — fly. And there are others who will only ensure that any lift you get is temporary, and that you crash and can never rise again.The things that will help you are much the same things that will help if — say — you decide to build a small plane.  (No, not me. Of the many issues I have, wanting to take off at high speed to high altitudes isn’t one of them.)

In this day of internet access there must be about a million youtube videos.  There are books on how to build small planes, or how to write novels. There are step by step instructions by a multitude of people.

You can find your way, with a lot of work, to where you’re flying that novel, and looking down below at all the little people mired in the muck, who would have no idea how to build a plot or present a character.

But there are traps amid the resources.  To be fair, there always were. It’s just that right now the bad advice and bad information is more accessible, just as the good advice and the good information are.

And I can’t hold your hand and tell you “beware the chasm.”  No one can.

For one, there are more sources of information out there than I could keep track of in a month of Sundays and doing nothing else.  For another, information/advice/ instruction that is very bad for me, might be just what you need to get you out of the flat spot.

During one of the longest dry spells of my writing life — over six months — when I was so broken and discouraged that nothing worked to get me writing again, I stumbled on a new agey writing book, all about how writing should be your Zen practice.

Look, my rallying cry (for a lot of things, but also) for writing could be described as “No Woo Woo!”  I’m eminently practical and think that money is the sincerest form of flattery. Normally the idea that you should just write as some sort of spiritual practice, and not for money/results, would have driven me to throwing the advice book against the wall with force.

But right then, in both desperate need of writing (I go a little loopy(er) when I don’t) and defeated and tired of trying, I clutched onto that as a pathway to sanity.  I started writing every day, even if I thought it would have no result. And … well, and I sold my first short story six months later.

So, you know, even you yourself, at different times might benefit from what wouldn’t help you earlier or later.

The one piece of writing advice/author I will unreservedly recommend is Dwight Swain Techniques of the Selling writer.  I can’t vouchsafe for his bookBuilding Story People,because I’ve never used it. Every writer gets one thing for free and in my case, what I get for free is people. But others who have used  it tell me it’s good.

Dwight Swain took me from a talented but hopeless amateur to a professional writer, after reading him and practicing for a few months. He then did the same for husband and son.  So, you know, he’s a good teacher.

He’s also a violation of the first principle I’ll give you to find out whom you should listen to: If you want to know if you should listen to advice on how to write, look at the teacher’s writing.  (Not necessarily his/her career, as there are all sorts of things that go into that, but his/her writing.)

Take for instance son’s middle school English teacher, who — having misunderstood some lesson in college, took minimalism to another level (without even knowing it was a current, I’m sure, and thinking it was a universal rule) and forbid the use of PRONOUNS.  So you know, instead of saying “Michael took his pen” you were supposed to say “Michael took Michael’s pen.” Otherwise you were a bad writer.

I think we can all safely ignore HER advice.  (Whether we should also buy her an I love me jacket is a whole ‘nother question. In her defense, she smoked a lot of weed, so I’m not even sure she could find the real world, with two hands, a map and a seeing eye dog.)

But there’s a lot of other very bad advice around, which can be cured by looking at the writing of those giving the advice. And those who break it.

Take the no-first-person thing.  Anyone who rails against it, I’ve found, is not a patch on Heinlein who used first person by preference.

Yes, there are a lot of beginning writers who write first person very badly, and a lot of beginning writers who think if it’s first person, it’s all about themselves. Or who write themselves even if they don’t mean to.

So? I’m sure there are a lot of badly built planes, but it doesn’t mean someone who learns and studies can’t do it well.

Now, present tense? That means you’re an abomination onto Nugan and– Okay, fine. I hate present tense writing. And it seems to be designed to make the strings of the story more obvious. I will not write it (unless in a very short story) and I will actively avoid it.  BUT I have read at least one novel, beginning to end written in present tense. Which means it’s possible to do it in a way that captures the reader’s attention.

Now I don’t know if my writing would give someone fair warning on why I don’t like present tense, but probably? The fact I can confuse verb tenses even with everything in the past tense is probably fair warning that I don’t like it because I wouldn’t be able to do it without becoming all tangled up.

So, that’s my first advice: read the mentor’s work, before you decide to believe him/her.

Second: Beware of older how to write books that expound on the type of structure, plot or character that will make you successful.  Why? Because those books are ultimately “how to capture an editor’s attention.” If you’re writing indie, remember that what the public likes, versus what the editors like is a big and wide chasm. Not only won’t most of it help you, but it might hinder you.

Third: There are no magic bullets or short cuts.  There is no wording that if used on the third and fifth lines of the novel guarantees it will be a mega bestseller. You’ll still have to learn the basics of how to build your world, your people, and how to present them so other people “get” them.

It doesn’t have to be perfect (thank heavens) but even so, there is no magic bullet that will ensure success.

Fourth: You have to practice.  As an art writing is more akin to playing the piano than–  Well…. No. Writing is akin to playing the piano or painting a beautiful picture.  You have to learn to do it. Step by step.  And some of the product along the way won’t be saleable, or it won’t sell very much. But you have to keep doing it and trust me, please (I was never good at trusting the process, so I’m telling you to trust me, instead) you will get better.  If even I could get better, so can you.

Don’t be discouraged by your airplane of duct tape and wire, you’ll get better.

All of this will take a long time, and a lot of work.  But there is a good chance at the end of it you’ll achieve flight, to some degree.

And when you’re soaring in the wings of a novel? There’s no better feeling.

31 thoughts on “Flying

  1. > “how to capture an editor’s attention.”

    “Please the one who writes the checks.”

    Among other things, that’s the #1 reason for some of the horrific web site designs out there.

      1. Yes, that is a very important distinction. Many editors are jaded and want something “new” (now, of course, what they want is as many demo checkboxes as possible). But many readers just want a good story and compelling characters, regardless of whether the tropes have been done before. They will reward people who give them what they want.

        1. Many editors are jaded and want something “new” (now, of course, what they want is as many demo checkboxes as possible).

          I wonder about the conflict between these two. Yeah, the editors, having seen umpteen bad stories about a farm boy destined to save the world might reject even a good story on this theme because they’re sick of it. But don’t they ever get tired of the umpteen gay couples randomly shoved into a story just to show how open-minded the author is? Apparently not.

          1. Yo. The only gay couples in my stories are there because they showed up in my head and wouldn’t go away. Also I can’t do a thing with them. Also they’re not really gay, being like libertarian or apolitical.

  2. I second the Swain recommendation. He’s awesome. If you’re a big reader, you’ll have a lot of moments of recognizing instantly the truth of what he says.

    1. When things started bogging down a few years ago, and I realized that the story wasn’t going anywhere, I re-read Swain and saw where I was screwing up the story flow. Back I went, revised the heck out of the thing, and a much better story ensued.

    2. Yep. Swain is well worth the time to study, also Bickham.

      I found both through reading Chester’s book, after discovering her from reading Butcher.

      1. Oooh.

        I know you’d mentioned the others before, and did not want to ask, so I did an internet search.

        Someone refers to the school as the Oklahoma school, and traces it back from Swain to Campbell, and Foster-Harris. Campbell is traced to Gallishaw, who apparently also influenced Von Vogt.

        Deborah Chester, at least, is alive, blogging, and teaching.

        I’d been disappointed to learn about Swain’s passing. I’m going to need to look up these other titles, and see if reading the related texts makes Swain click even better for me.

        1. Glad I could be of service. I became interested in Swain after reading Chester. The history is fascinating. Puts the development of teaching fiction writing into context of what it means when we say, we stand on the shoulders of those who became before us.

          1. I went and picked up her Fantasy Fiction Formula. I will wait by my mailbox. Is she the professor who challenged Jim Butcher to write by outline and he did to prove to her it wouldn’t work?

            I read a blog post of Butcher’s once, that I’ve been unable to track down again, where his techniques paralleled Swain’s. Then I saw that Butcher had studied at Oklahoma, and it all started to make sense.

              1. Sarah, I see Laura got here first. I found it useful, when I was at the start of learning to write stories, and it came recommended by Jim Butcher, so hopefully you will too.

  3. Just last night I was going over some stuff I’d written and ended up taking out some pronouns and replacing them with names. 😉 Not ALL though! LOL.

    I think that the single most amazing, break-through, idea that I’ve ever been exposed to was from a professor a few years ago who was teaching a professional writing/editing class (not creative writing!). The idea was old information / new information. Basically repeating yourself. In ALL the times people went on about “transitions” they made no sense to me. But suddenly it was simple.

    If my character is sneaking down a dark alley she doesn’t just step out into the daylight, she steps *out of the alley* into the sunlight. Yes, everyone knew she was in the alley, but go ahead and repeat the information anyway.

    It was like light bulbs.

    Either that or banging your head on a desk because if that’s a transition, why didn’t someone just SAY SO?

  4. Different stories need different things. I’ve read books by an author who has used third person (detached), third person (omniscient), and first person, and each was suited to the story it was in. I’ve even read a story in second person by a different author, and it was one of the few places it could work (POV of cat, so the oddness actually helped.) It would have been annoying over a longer story, though.

  5. — I hate present tense writing. —

    You’re not alone in that. Yet it does have an application, although it’s a dangerous one and should be approached with caution: If you want to make the events in a passage seem more immediate, and more urgent, sometimes writing about them in the present tense will help with that.

    An example is the transcript, for example the transcript of a TV broadcast. Though transcripts are stark and (usually) undecorated by anything but dialogue and terse descriptions of events on the stage, they attain a high degree of immediacy thereby. However, the range of appropriate uses of the technique is narrow.

  6. I’ve had a Stross moment (1) this weekend and I was seriously considering just completely junking Solist at Large, because I was half-terrified that my main character (first person, no less!) was so hideously biased that she was a borderline villain, ephebophile (not a pedophile! Very clear about that!), and unlikable cunt who was massively self-delusional.

    The, I took a deep breath, let my inner muse take a short break, and started to compare Adelaide to some of the characters that I know, especially Stross characters. And, for what it’s worth, she’s not such a massive and unrepentant bitch that Mo is, her and Harry Dresden would snark at each other mercilessly until they were friends, Bob Howard would-after the initial confusion-get along rather well, and she does her damnedest to be as ethical as possible. Nearly killed herself…three, four times?…in the first book alone to protect others.

    I’ll have to look through my copy of Swain again, and next state check print out the pre-EARC for a final check. And read less of the current Stross library.

    (1-Someone senior in the writing field that you had some modicum of respect for in the past, occasionally still gives good advice, but finding that advice through the blather of the Martian Brain Fungus is guaranteed to make you mark on your arms the proper way to slit your wrists with a Sharpie, seriously wonder if you should be doing this at all, and/or start drinking more whiskey.)

  7. I read someone’s first book a couple of weeks ago that had me laughing at the chapter breaks by around chapter five. They all had EXACTLY the same structure and, hence, all ended exactly the same way. Simply removing the chapters and making it all one big, long story would have immensely improved it. The beat (for lack of a better word) was so strong that actually breaking it into chapters seemed excessive. Other than that, it was a perfectly fine novel.

    I’m currently reading a series where I cannot decide if the author is stupid (wall the book) or if the characters are stupid and will be taught a lesson, later. I’ll give it another book to see what happens, but it is very frustrating. (Short version: We’re going to fortify our single planet to hold off a galaxy-sized enemy civilization. Um. Sure. That will totally work.)

  8. I’m almost afraid to read much writing advice … since I blundered into it all sideways and seem to have picked up a lot of techniques instinctively, just telling stories that people might want to find enjoyable. I might get all knotted up, over-thinking things, and killing the muse by inches and second-guessing.
    My late business partner, who had an MA in English, and had read a lot of first novels, and actually, all sorts of novels … remarked on reading my first three – that they seemed incredibly … polished, was the phrase she used. Accomplished – that was another word; almost weirdly so.

  9. The one type of book I’ve never heard a writer praise is a type that enumerates plots by type as if that were useful.

    (Character types, I have heard some writers speak of. One used them to remember to differentiate characters. Another tested if she could identify her characters by the typology and knew she had to make them more complex if she could.)

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