Friday, April 5, 2013

86 Things I've Said on Twitter, Part 5


We continue the series of things I've said on Twitter. Part 4 is here.

Note: 86 things is a lot, isn't it? Hope you're enjoying the series.

Fancy pieces of paper on your wall will not come sit behind your desk and do your writing for you.

I talk to a lot of people about how they got their start, how they do what they do and how they finish what they create. People come from all walks of life, all different places in their lives and all with their own unique stories. Some go to big universities and earn big fancy degrees. Some don't. And some of the people with degrees look down on the people without degrees, as if it's the degree's job to validate who or what the earner is.

The degree doesn't make you anything. Maybe in debt. Maybe better networked. But the degree is just a thing on the wall, and a benchmark of something you've done. Like the patch I got in my billiards league when I played my first game. Or the little trophy my brother won for winning the science award.

What matters is the work. The writing. The performance of your task and craft. You don't need a big fancy degree to do that. You just need the ability to get your ideas across to others. That's all.

Does the degree make you a professional? If you judge professionalism by the pieces of paper on your wall, then yes. (And by that measure, there are far more unprofessionals than professionals on the planet).

Does the degree make your work better? Not definitively. I've read material from degree-awarded, long-time 'professionals' and hated it. I've read drafts from college dropouts that made me want more.

If you want the degree, go get the degree. If you've been bullied into the degree (as I was), then get it if you want it. But understand that what matters is the work you do, not the papers on your wall or the title after your name.

It's totally okay for writing to be a hobby and not your career. But understand that if you want the career, you gotta do the work.

Writing isn't for everyone. I don't say that to dissuade you, I'm just saying that writing isn't for everyone, the same way that not everyone loves gardening or brewing or watching reality TV shows.

Sometimes that's because you don't have the time, you keep busying yourself (intentionally or otherwise) or because you need more practice and training but don't have the time, money or inclination to get better. So then writing is a hobby. I have hobbies. I play games. I read. I used to collect stamps as a boy.

But my job is editing. Or creating games. Or helping other people create the thing they want to make.

Nothing wrong with having hobbies. But understand that it's hard to transition a hobby into a job. It takes work. It takes discipline. You have to be willing to fail, work harder and get better. You have to be willing to endure really rough times so that you can discover the good times. Hobbies are all good times, because they're on your schedule, at your pace and at your leisure.

Jobs are...work. They're not always on your schedule or at your pace or leisure. Sometimes there's a real jerk standing over your cubicle telling you to come in on Saturday. Sometimes there's a person hundreds of miles away writing you emails about how things are due in HOURS, not weeks. It's out of your control. But this is your job, and ideally, you're getting paid for that job, so you do the work.

The amount of work and your dedication to the work is what distinguishes a hobby from a job. Nothing wrong with either, other than a perception that a career is going to take more of your time than a hobby will.

Game Designers - FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THE CANDY - Don't deem your ideas crappy while the book is still being written.

When you're making something, especially something that other people are supposed to enjoy, you should be happy about making it. You should be excited. Maybe some parts of it excite you more than others, but on the whole, there's a baseline of excitement as the foundation of your efforts.

And then doubt shows up. And doubt is a bastard. Doubt fabricates all these reasons (some of them really wacky) why what you're doing should be more scary than exciting. That you're not good enough. That your idea isn't good enough. That no one will be interested. That you're wasting your time. Whatever.

What you're forgetting in this exchange is that so long as you're still writing and creating the thing, ANY AND EVERY part of it can be changed, can be made more exciting. Sure, that may require you asking for help, or looking at examples and coming up with new ideas, but nothing is set in stone until you hand the created thing off to the publisher or distributor or whoever makes those final certifications.

When a thing is still being made it isn't crappy and it isn't genius. It's only "in development". And the act of developing a thing is what should excite you.

Don't pass judgment on a thing in development. Here's an example -- you're making a loaf of bread. You mix the dough, you get it in the pan, you put the pan in the oven. It starts baking. Is it a bad loaf of bread? No, it's just dough. It's not bread yet. You won't know if it's bad until you get it out of the oven.

The same is true for your idea. Don't deem the dough bad. Let it get out of the oven first.

Want to do a dream sequence in a book? Keep it organized and preferably short. Dreams aren't where the plot advances.

Unless you're writing Inception or the third Nightmare on Elm Street or that weird Stephen King movie about aliens and the army, dreams aren't the spot for plot advancement. Why? Because dreams are supposed to happen when the character is asleep. And when a character is asleep, the outside world (where the problem is supposed to be affecting things) isn't being dealt with. (Okay, yes, if the whole book takes place in a dreamscape, why do I need to know people are asleep?)

Too often, dreams are where characters have "A-ha!" moments where they figure out who the killer is or figure out how to solve the riddle of the tomb or defuse the bomb. Next time, please give me some wine with that cheese.

Dreams work best when they're lateral moves - when they show us more depth and develop what we already know. Just like our dreams give us insight into who and what we are (last night's dream involved screaming children being loaded into the Ghostbusters vehicle and lobotomized, what does that say about me?), so too should they give the reader more connection to the character.

Keep them short. If that means you need to have more dreams to describe your idea, that's okay. But a dream that goes on and on doesn't accomplish what you think it does, other than confuse or bore the reader.

Keep them organized. Just because your dream involves floating opera singers, sex acts, your fourth grade teacher yelling at you for clapping wrong (seriously, that's a thing that happened to me) and a purple sky doesn't mean you need to convey that information in a weird way to demonstrate how "trippy" things are.

Seriously.

If your whole story is a flashback, maybe you should just tell me the story without the bookended present scenes.

Flashbacks are a good way to give us more information without moving time forward. They're a cheat, but a helpful cheat. Like the money code in the Sims.

The problem is that if most of your story is told in a flashback, you can chop off the parts where the flashback starts (I remember...) and where the flash back ends (And that's the story of...) and just tell the story in the past tense.

I love The Young Indiana Jones Adventures. When I first saw them on TV, they had these bookends, scenes where old Indy would talk to people about a time he remembered, then it would segue into the episode. And at the end of the hour, old Indy would come back and say "That's the story". It made for a nice TV episode.

Years later when I watched them a second time, I watched without the bookends. They're still great TV, because the focus wasn't on the bookends, but rather on the story within the flashback.

And without the bookends, it's not a flashback, it's just a story. Which is still awesome.

Chapters/sections in a book are supposed to handle two tasks - add one thing to what you already know and move you forward.

Everything in a story has a role to play. Characters are the do-ers of action. The plot is the problem they face. And chapters are how the action is divided up, both for narrative construction purposes, and for pacing. Chapters also have a job to do, to move you to the next chapter and give you more information to take with you once you get there.

A chapter that doesn't give you new information, of some kind, is a chapter that can be cut out of a manuscript. Why? Because without new information, nothing's changed since the last chapter.

Now maybe the chapter gives you new information but doesn't encourage you to go forward, that can happen. That means the chapter is boring (or it's the end of the book). If it's the end of the book, good job, hope it was satisfying. If it's not the end however, then you have to make the reader want to keep reading. Keep them hungry for what happens next, so that they turn the page all the way until the end.

The key to that is making decisions. Decide what the character is going to do. Decide how big the bang is going to be. Decide if this is the scene where someone gets shot. Make decisions, take action. Tell good stories.

Your job as a writer is to write, not edit-every-sentence-ten-seconds-after-you-write-it. That's an editor's job. LET THEM DO THEIR JOB.

I am an editor. My job, what I receive money to do, is make things better. Fix errors, explain mistakes, break bad habits. Presumably someone (a writer) hires me to help them.

The writer's job in this relationship is to write (or have written) something I can help them with. If you, writer, change every sentence moments after you write it (I don't mean that you don't fix spelling, I mean that you write a good sentence, start doubting it, then erase it to write a new replacement sentence), when do I get to do my job? You know, the one you're paying me for?

If this writer-editor relationship is going to work the way it should for best results, we need a division of labor. You write whatever you write, I edit it to make it the best it can be, together we produce awesome things.

But you have to let me do my job. I know what I'm doing. Really. Trust me to help you. Trust my skills to help your work.

In talking directly to your audience, you shouldn't have to say "Take note" or "Pay attention - unless you think you suck at focusing.

Sometimes the writer creates something where they talk to the audience. Maybe it's an aside. Maybe it's an intro. Maybe it's just the way the narrative works. And if the audience knows that they're being spoken to (using "you" is a pretty good indicator), then there isn't really a need to say "Take note" or "Pay attention" to whatever you're talking about...because they're already paying attention. Because they're reading.

Don't assume they're not paying attention. That's kind of rude and says more about you than it does them (that you make assumptions about who reads your work and how well those people pay attention to things that allegedly interest them, for starters).

Also, if you're using language that gives attention-paying directions, are you saying that as much for yourself as you are for them?

Don't hate your audience. Trust them to be paying attention. Trim out those instructions. Just tell the story.

The "traditional" method of publishing hinges on two questions - 1) Can you follow directions? 2) How patient are you?

My friend Chuck Wendig wrote this awesome article this week (hang on, I'll pick up that name I dropped) about self-publishing versus traditional publishing. It's good, you should read it.

So there are many ways to skin the "I'm going to get published" cat. Traditional publishing is one way to go, but it's not without its pitfalls and things-to-be-aware-of.

Part of the process for traditional publication involves query letters and draft submission. And the method by which you deliver the manuscript and query varies from recipient to recipient. But everyone has guidelines that dictate how they want to get your material. When you don't follow those guidelines, your work doesn't get read, no matter how great it may be. Not following directions dooms your work to the scrap heap.

Likewise, traditional publishing is not a race car. My other friend Cheri Laser (I miss her) and I spoke of this often - that there was a lot of hurry-up-and-wait, with weeks and months going by between progress made on a book.

I'm not saying that self-publishing is naturally faster, I'm just saying that traditional publishing can sometimes take a while. Maybe weeks. Maybe months. Maybe longer. Every situation is different, so I can't flat out give you specifics. Be patient, you'll get the results you want.

Or not, then you'll just have to find another route to get published.

Seriously you don't always need a prologue. Just get to the good bits of the story.

I see this a lot in fantasy. People love prologues. Sometimes they're scenes that didn't have a place in the book, but the author really loved writing it. Sometimes it's this big setup section, that explains what happened bajillions of years prior to when the story is going to happen.

Prologues can be great. They can condense information down and paint a timeline and a context for the story we're about to be a part of. But they can also be nightmarishly plodding, ill-conceived and be more masturbatory than productive.

They work sparingly. Sort of like that weird wrench you keep in the toolbox. You use it maybe once a season or only when you buy a new grill.

When they work, they're awesome. When they don't, I'd sooner scrub my eyes with broken glass, lime juice and sandpaper.

What I came to this book for is the story. Give it to me. Not because I'm in a rush or because I'm busy, but because that's what I sat down and want to read. If it really helps my enjoyment of the story to know that three millennia ago a sandstorm ravaged the city of Ab-al-kuz'zad, then great, I expect to see the ruined city in the book somewhere. If you're just writing things to write them, I'm going to either skip it, feel pissed off that I read it, or editorially cut it.

Books can only take you so far. Seminars can only take you so far. A lot of this journey is you writing. Regularly. 

I love the people who come to my seminars. I get people who come exclusively to conferences just to hear me speak, which is incredibly flattering. I get people from all over the place to sit and take notes and ask questions, and that makes me feel great.

I love the people who read my blog (well, most of you anyway), and hopefully, you read these posts and get something out of it and go forth into your writing better armed for success. (Or maybe you're just keeping tabs on me, whatever).

But the point of all this information, the point of all the lists on twitter, all the blog posts, all the seminars and workshops and Q&As I give is so that you, whoever you are, wherever you are on your path to whatever writing creation you're on, actually go write the thing.

See, the point isn't just to hear me talk, or hear my voice when you read my words, or just read my words while other tabs load in your browser. The goal is to have you write a thing, have you make something awesome that wasn't there before you started and be excited about it. If I played a hand in that process, fantastic, I'd love to hear all about it, but I'm totally not just doing this so that people tell me how great I am.

Be the awesome writer you're going to be, whether that's a hobby or a career, or just this thing you tried once after that relationship ended and you didn't feel like getting back into dating or because your kids encouraged you or because you wanted to show your ex that you can accomplish what you set out to do and you'll be damned if you let their bullshit words echo in your head for a minute longer (I may have said too much there).

Write and write regularly. Get on a schedule. Give yourself some structure. Train yourself. Discover that discipline in you to do a thing, make a thing and see it through until the end.

Happy writing.

Part 6 (!!) of this series will be out on Monday.