In four years of college, I learned a few things about writing. In the years following college, I learned everything else.
What I learned in college
First of all, only one of my professors actually wrote outside of academia. He was a poet. The thing that struck me most about him was how he had no front teeth and wore sweatpants to class. But the first night, he showed up and memorized the names of 30 students. He came into the Barnes and Noble where I was working years later and remembered my name. Asked me how the writing was going. I’ll never forget that.
In my creative writing courses, I learned that a bunch of kids can sit around and pat each other on the back for whatever crap they churn out. Their teacher can grade them, encourage them to submit to literary magazines, and steeple their fingers, look thoughtful, and really have no fucking idea what they are talking about.
But in college, we built a community of writers in that class that encouraged each other to write. That was a good thing to take away from it.
What else I learned
I decided I wanted to be a writer in college when an art class revealed how much my drawing skills sucked (I wanted to be an illustrator like Michael Whelan or Ted Nasmith). I was self-taught, but art does require talent. Then I started playing music with some friends from high school. We had a garage band. We made an album. It was then that I realized that being a professional drummer does require some talent. So, I started working on a book.
Turns out, I actually had some talent for that. Writing does require talent. I was blessed with a big brain, a bigger mouth, and a masochistic quality I didn’t know about myself that the word “No” just makes me try harder. From an editor, that is. No means no, kids. Remember that. From an editor it means “Fix your goddamned grammar, do more than a second draft, and try harder next time.”
In spite of not being very well-read, I did know my way around a story, and I loved descriptive language. (I was a shit English major, having only read about 10% of the assigned work and never having taken notes throughout my academic career–I was a B+ student).
When the book was finished, I expected instant fame and success. To be honest, I had two drafts down on the manuscript, but I had entire reams that were rubberbanded together that I would ship off to a publisher or editor once in awhile. I did actually get back a signed rejection letter a few times. Little did I know back then, but that was actually a good sign.
I decided to start writing short stories.
I thought this would be easier than writing novels. Did I mention I was young and stupid?
Short stories are like the crucible of testing your worth as a writer. They test your true talent, which isn’t dazzling people with dialog or description or poetry. The true talents of being a writer are as follows:
- Resilience: You will be told “no.” Your college prof might have blown smoke up your ass, but in reality, you are competing with some amazing writers. Most of you won’t ever be published. If you can’t take “no” then stop writing, stop submitting your writing, and just be a reader. Because you will be told NO.
- Perseverance: Being told No is the best thing you can hear, because it gives you room to improve. It also should spur you on to say “fuck you!” and keep your butt in your chair and your fingers on the keys where they belong, writing more stuff. By the way, that is the other piece of perseverance. No matter how bored you get, how lonely you are, or how you would rather be binge-watching Ozark, you have to keep writing.
- Memory: Sure writers read a lot. But they also remember. Snippets of dialog overheard at diners, family reunions, sunsets and long deep kisses, all the sensory memories get put back onto the page. Otherwise, none of that research means anything. If you can’t remember, carry a notepad around with you and write shit down.
- Adaptation: The story you are writing has probably been written by someone else. They were better, smarter, and more connected too. So adapt. Adapt to shifting markets. Adapt to new trends. Learn how to catch a wave and ride it in. Keep tabs on trends and try not to be the guy who writes what is popular now, because that trend already started dying two years ago when the big deal ms started going through the publishing houses.
- Stepping outside of yourself: Your work needs to marinate, grow, evolve, whatever. But you are biased. Read it critically. If you can’t, sucker somebody else to read it and allow them to be brutal. Don’t take it personally.
- Knowing when to shut up: Not only when knowing when to stop your story, but also within your community of writers. I have seen careers torpedoed when someone expressed their opinions on gun control, abortion, socialism, gay marriage, feminism, and any other socio-political movement out there. Unless you are a political writer, keep your writer persona OUT of politics.
- Procrastination/Inspiration: Take those moments when the muse strikes (for example, I have written two blog posts on the subject of writing in about an hour). But get over the procrastination that is keeping you from writing $10 a pop articles about clamps. One is fun. The other will let you buy fish and chips on your upcoming trip to London. TODAY is the day you need to get started on your novel. Not “tomorrow.” Jeez, haven’t you ever seen Annie?
- Writing books and short stories is as different as running marathons and the 100 meter. Both involve vaguely the same activity. But the two are vastly different. Practice BOTH of them if you can.
- Buy a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and read that shit. If I had done that, I could have saved my dad thousands of dollars in tuition for my English major.
- True talent is knowing how to stick all of these together.
- Iron sharpens iron. Bad writing that is encouraged will result in more bad writing. I’m looking at you Season 8 of Game of Thrones!
Knowing your shit when it comes to writing that sells
On the internet forums, I got a Masters/PhD course in creative writing from some of the greatest minds in the SF/F genre. I’m going to name drop. Gardner Dozois was one of them. He was extremely generous in what he shared. He was good friends with Isaac Asimov, George RR Martin, Gene Wolfe, Connie Willis, etc. etc. effing etc. He wasn’t the only one on those forums who had info to share either.
A bunch of us would just pester the hell out of them as to what worked and what didn’t. Some of this I learned from hundreds of rejections too. After a while, you just get it. Here’s some gems I wish my creative writing teacher in college would have known.
- Show, don’t tell: Unless you need to tell. Then tell. It’s okay.
- Start as close to the action as possible: Nobody needs a bunch of backstory to enjoy a story. All of that can be whittled away with a good enough description or turn of phrase
- Create likable characters: this is called Pathos. The reader needs to identify with characters in order to become invested in them.
- Muddy characters: Nobody likes a Mary Sue. Give your characters some grit as well as vulnerabilities.
- Hooks to catch their interest: How many damned John Joseph Adams rejection letters I got with the dreaded “Alas, this didn’t catch my interest” was due to a lack of a decent hook.
- Pacing to hold your readers’ interest: See the JJA rejection letter above.
- Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end: Start strong/Finish strong. The middle should be good too.
- Connections: Treat everyone with respect. Don’t make enemies. One day, the person you helped out might become an editor and say, “Hey, I know somebody who writes this stuff!” and they might invite you to contribute to an anthology. At the very least, they won’t blackball you for calling them a bad word online.
- Also, the writer is NOT the same as the stuff they write: I have a lot of writer friends who I know only as friends who share the same obsession and I am impressed by their character, not their works. I guess that is why they are friends and I’m not necessarily a fan. They also pick their nose in traffic and cheat at Monopoly.
- Just dumb luck: A lot of people out there can’t write their way out of a paper bag. But they have three book deals, seven figure advances, and sold their soul to HBO for a series. It happens. Just be grateful if it happens to you, and try not to be an asshole about it. Luck is a one shot deal, but putting in the work is real.
- TAKE ALL ADVICE WITH A GRAIN OF SALT
But try to keep the words of W. Somerset Maugham in mind:
“There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”