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Writing: So You Want to Write Fiction, Eh?

Here are the things I think a person who wants to write fiction (professionally) ought to do, and I will guarantee you right now that the list will be missing things I don't know about, but anyway:

1. Read a lot, in many categories. Read the award-winning and bestselling books (which are not always the same books) in your genre of choice, and also the ones in other genres, and the books your favorite author recommends, and non-fiction, and humor columns, and Savage Love. Read lots of short stories, too, especially if you want to write short stories. "Year's Best" anthologies and single-author collections each have their merits. Read your genre's magazines--this will teach you lots of things, especially what kinds of stories each one publishes. Remember to read the page that tells you the names of the editors and contributors, so that you begin to get a clue about who does what in the industry.

2. Also read lots of books about writing, especially the ones by and recommended by authors you like. This is a separate step because it's very important.

3. But don't spend too much of each day reading. Don't forget to actually write. More about that later.

4. Also remember to get out of your house and have a life. No life = nothing to write about.

5. Learn how to generate and develop ideas that contain conflict, options for the characters, and multiple possibilities for resolution. I recommend two books for this learning process, and they are: From Idea to Story in 90 Seconds by Ken Rand, and What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.

6. Don't ask published writers where they get their ideas. They don't like that. Most of them will either tell you that ideas are everywhere, or that they get them from an idea service in Schenectady.

7. Go to conventions where writers will be, though, and attend panels about writing until you've heard all of the topics at least twice and you know exactly what all of the authors will say. You'll eventually get to be on a panel, when you're published, so please don't be that person in the audience who rambles for five minutes at a time about their own pet writing project. You're there to listen and learn.

8. Definitely go to the parties at the convention. I will soon post a whole separate thing about the social skills you'll need for this. The party process has nothing *and* everything to do with writing, and the sooner you embrace that, the better off you will be in a cosmic, all-encompassing sense beyond my power to explain.

9. Speaking of things you should embrace sooner rather than later, there is the matter of writing fiction every day. You really have to, within the boundaries of human imperfection--there will be days off, but try to keep them to a reasonable minimum. Writing other things can contribute to your ability to write good sentences, but writing some fiction every day is better, and it keeps your head in the game. I like having a minimum word count to write daily; 1,000 words a day has already made changes in what I understand about what I'm doing, and it also leads to about a short story a week (rough*) which I can then edit into shape, and that's 50 stories a year, baby! It's best to get that done as early in the day as possible, because you can then either bask in your accomplishment and play Sims 2 guilt-free, or you can write more. Either way is a win, as far as I'm concerned. It really helps if you have the idea-generation thing under control (see step 5), and a baby-name book for quick character-naming.

* A rough draft can be the most crappy writing ever perpetrated by a human being, and in fact, it helps me to get started on my daily writing if I give myself permission to flail at the keyboard like a drunken monkey, if necessary. Some people will argue about whether it's better to make the first draft as clean as possible to save time, and I argue that it is not, for me. That slows things down, takes out the vitality and spontaneity of my writing, and doesn't leave me with as much to work with later, when I have more objectivity about the story. Editing is a great and glorious process. Embrace revision! (Some of us are lucky enough to experience multiple revisions... ;)

10. Don't ever let me hear the words "real life got in the way" coming out of your mouth as your excuse not to write. WRITING IS REAL LIFE. And if you're serious about being a fiction writer, you won't diminish it by implying that writing is not part of real life. Sometimes you can't write, and that's okay. It's just not a matter of other things being more real than writing.

11. Um, let's see... What have I forgotten so far? Oh, yeah. Have a plan. What kind of stories and/or novels do you want to write? How prolific do you want to be? Are you more interested in prestige, or more interested in money (and of course you understand that you can be *interested* in money without being guaranteed to *get* money (or prestige, for that matter))? What magazines would you love to have your work in? Are you planning to always have a day job with benefits, or are you aiming for the riskier life of the full-time writer? How much progress do you hope to make in the next five years? That sort of thing. Important. Write it down, and figure out the steps it will take to approximate it. You won't be able to control whether or not it happens exactly that way. Accept that.

12. Set up your life so that you're always seeing reminders about writing, and finding new things to learn about in your craft. Read the Livejournals of professional writers. Peruse my friendslist to find bunches of 'em. ETA: A commenter wisely pointed out that this is to be done after your writing for the day, not before.

13. Have a work ethic. Persistence, determination, and the willingness to accept rejections and keep on submitting are your three best friends. You won't know if you're any good at the beginning. Be a practicer. Recognize that, just as one cannot become a world-class violin player at the first lesson--regardless of how much one enjoys and appreciates violin music--so one cannot become a professional-level writer without years of work and passion for it.

14. Writing the middle of a novel is always awful, and you have to push through that and learn from it. I haven't done this yet. I intend to, when I get to the part of my plan where I start to write a novel.

15. ETA: Commenters have mentioned critiquing other people's work, and having them critique yours. Yes and yes. Find and join a writing group, take writing classes, and attend workshops if you can. Be sure to look into lots of options for those and find the best ones, places where you will get useful advice on your chosen genre and you will be neither shredded by nasty insecure people nor hand-held by people who are dishonest to protect your feelings. Try to find secure people who are committed writers, grouped roughly around your ability level--some better writers than you, some worse (some self-assessment required, results may vary). Make adjustments if you find yourself in a group that isn't helpful, but not until you've given the group an honest chance to be helpful. Sometimes you need kinds of help that you didn't know you needed.

Okay? So that's what I know. It's what I've gathered from dozens of other writers, and I think I'm getting somewhere with it!

What do you think of this list? What have I left out? What are your tips?

Comments

( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
ex_maehymn
Mar. 25th, 2008 05:27 pm (UTC)
dude, thanks for the fabulous advice! i am currently right now applying it to art and music.

thanks. i need to give myself permission to flail around in Reason and in Photoshop like a drunken monkey more often. my rough drafts need to stop being exercises in failed perfection!

ciao!
bzdchris
Mar. 25th, 2008 05:45 pm (UTC)
Great post! I hope you'll answer #11 for us sometime soon, re: yourself and your writing.

Two things:

I read that Joyce Carol Oates, a disgustinly prolific writer, writes longhand on legal paper every day, recopying what she wrote the day before and making revisions at the same time. It's her discipline. I don't know if this is applies, and it sounds really tedious, but oh well, she's a successful professional writer.

The other is that Stephen King once said that writing for him was not optional, that he had to write every day in order to get those things out of him and there was no other outlet. If he didn't write, he'd go mad. Considering his writing, some would say he's already gone mad but I liked the way it wasn't optional for him, that he HAD to write every day.
suibhne_geilt
Mar. 25th, 2008 05:46 pm (UTC)
I would say critique others' writing. The act of picking through a piece of somebody else's fiction to find out what works for you and what doesn't, and of making yourself articulate those impressions in concrete terms, will build your editorial eye for your own material. It will also help you understand why things in fiction do or don't work.
sea_gaagii
Mar. 25th, 2008 11:38 pm (UTC)
Great List
This is a great list, where did you get the idea for it :-)

I spend far too much time on number 1 and at the same time not enough time on number 1.

I don't know why, but I am resisting 2. I think if I write more first, I will appreciate 2, but I hate being told how to do something before I do it (yes - I don't read instruction manuals). However I fully expect to read the manual at some point and having tried it myself, have a much better understanding of what is being spoken about.

5. Is excellent advice that I haven't thought of (perhaps I should do 2). I spend a lot of time understanding my characters and how they should react to the chain of events. It never occurred to me to think about other possibilities, strange.

9. The rough draft portion. Not sure why I never apply this to writing, I always want the story with all questions (that I can think of) answered before I start. The only way I can produce a spec at work is to do a half-assed job, being sure all the key ideas are there. Then I pretend some other idiot wrote it, I go back and fix it for him.

13. Work Ethic, damn I am a lazy bum. Thanks for the kick in the pants!

webfarmer
Mar. 26th, 2008 02:28 am (UTC)
Lotsa good stuff there, Ms. Nayad.

Goal assessment, planning and execution is the key to getting anything done in an efficient manner. That's not to say that the random and spontaneous has no place in the process but it must be harnessed to the greater good at some point.

The balance between reading and doing for newbies is important. It's one I have problems with at times and not just when it comes to writing. Analysis paralysis hits far too often. Falling in love with the research as if it's the end in itself.
terrymcgarry
Mar. 26th, 2008 05:38 pm (UTC)
Wonderful post, and I especially love your Number 10: important point, and well said.

I'd add to Number 1 that it's helpful to read the classic works in your preferred genre. Many writers do just fine being inspired by and emulating and being influenced by the work of their contemporaries, but I've known an awful lot of people who started out writing sf/f with no familiarity whatsoever with the seminal works of the field, and to me that seems problematic. I've read fantasy and science fiction my entire life, and my grounding in the field was part and parcel of my impulse to write in it, but when I set out to write a fantasy novel, after years of writing and publishing f/sf/h/etc. short stories, I made a targeted effort to fill in the gaps in my fantasy reading. I read biographies of fantasy writers to find out who inspired and influenced them and went and found the books I hadn't read and read as many as I could. (As an example, I'd never read any William Morris, one of the biggest fattest roots of the "who influenced whom" tree.) Some of the books delighted me and some weren't to my taste, but in every case the effort rewarded me, and I've never stopped reading to fill in those gaps. A used copy of Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword sits beside me as I type this, the next on that list. For short fiction, I'd recommend reading not just the award winners, but best-of collections of the classic short-fiction writers, and anthologies like Dozois's The Good Old Stuff.

Also, even though you've touched on this in Number 3: Beware the traps that Number 12 can lead to. It's very easy to spend so much time reading about writing and talking about writing that you wind up doing very little writing. Write first, then read and comment on other writers' Livejournals and blogs and message boards if you have time.

And I've gotten immeasurable benefits from workshopping. It doesn't work for everybody, and the ins and outs and pitfalls of workshopping are a vast and complex topic of their own, but reading other people's stories and being forced to analyze what works for you and what doesn't and articulate it in a way that's helpful to someone else is really helpful in improving the analytic skills you bring to bear on your own work, in addition to the benefit you get from hearing what works for other people and what doesn't work in your stories, and learning when to implement their suggestions and when to stick to your guns. When you're going over revision notes from your editor on your first novel, you may find that you need to be able to explain and defend your narrative choices. Workshopping helps you build the skills to do that.

Dunno if any of this'll be helpful to you, but it has been to me, and there it is. :)
markteppo
Mar. 26th, 2008 07:12 pm (UTC)
A corollary to (1). Examine your own reading habits over the last year. If your reading hasn't been falling into any of these categories, stop. But assess the allure of reading what you have been reading. It has been doing something for you, so figure that out. I used to read Clive Cussler until I couldn't take it any more. When I went back and looked, it was because the pacing made it very difficult to stop reading. The last one I read was simply to watch and deconstruct his pacing.

A corollary to (13) that references (3) and others. Some days you just don't feel like writing. It took me a while to give myself permission to not write on those days, because I would discover that, more often than not, my output on those days would summarily trashed on the next day. So, those days are reading days, and the only way they qualify as "writing" is that I'm not reading for pleasure, but I'm reading to learn how to be a better writer.

Which leads to a point about (10): all things lead to being a better writer. If you need an excuse to get out of something in real life, then "this isn't helping me be a better writer" is perfectly valid. For the first few weeks, your friends may not understand why you're blowing off the bitch session at the bar on Friday so that you can go home and write, but eventually you'll realize that you don't care that they don't understand. They are, after all, not writers. :)

Hey, you. We've got linkage now.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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