Three Things I Wish New Writers Knew

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
Well, it’s Friday again. I don’t have a lot of time today–a short story came back with revisions I’ve got to eyeball and the new Watcher novel is heating up. So, I’m going to give you three things I wish new writers knew.

When I say “new writer” I don’t necessarily mean teenager/young person. I mean someone new to writing every day, someone just starting out. John Scalzi did his 10 Things Teenage Writers Should Know, which I by and large agree with. (And I won’t lie, I always get a slight sense of gratification reading where he says one should write every day.) But the “new” writer is not necessarily, well, young.

I am not sure whether it’s better to come to writing while you’re young and you think you know everything, or when you’re older and you’ve had the sh!t kicked out of you a few times and you think you know How Life Works, which is just about the same mental reflex. (Though vastly more useful.) There’s something to be said for pure exuberant youth, and there’s something to be said for the calluses of experience on the bum of maturity. (Or something.) But whether you’re young or old, there’s things I think every new writer could benefit from.

* Accept that your stuff is going to suck. Everyone’s stuff sucks when they first start out no matter how old they are. Just because you’re verbally fast or fluent doesn’t mean you’ll be fast and fluent on the page; you will not be automatically fresh and iconoclastic when you’re young any more than you will be automatically experienced as an old hack when you’re older. Every writer starts out sucking. It’s our gods-given gift.

With young folk starting out writing, I see a lot of, “I’m new and SPECIAL and you just don’t understand!” With older writers, I see a lot of “How hard can this be? I’ve been a success at other things!” Both are…well, not true. New does not equal better, I understand because I was new and speshul once too. And there is a special circle of professional hell reserved for people who think this job is so easy you can just sit down and squeeze out a novel like squeezing a pimple. It is not simple. This is a complex task, and like any complex task, IT TAKES TIME TO MASTER.

When you’re just starting out learning any complex skill set, you’re going to suck. Relax and take the suck for what it is–a gift. That’s right, it’s a bloody gift. Once you accept that your work will suck at first, you have automatically created the necessary precondition for it getting better. If you refuse to accept that new writing, zero drafts, etc., are going to be an unholy mess, there is no reason for you to think about ways to make anything better and the work will remain in stasis…as an unholy mess. That’s not good if you want to make a living at writing, or even if you want to get published consistently.

* Common sense and business sense are your best friends. They are also surprisingly similar. Yog’s Law and basic common and business sense will help you have a career instead of a boondoggle. With a plethora of author’s weblogs, publisher’s weblogs, and several other sites available to the public online, as well as the Writer’s Market and places like Preditors & Editors, basic business/common sense about writing has never been so accessible. You can learn from other people’s mistakes all over the Internet–and not just about writing either. I can tell you several fandom and internet wanks have made me very wary, providing amusement as well as the lesson of “Jesus Christ, I don’t ever want to be in that position…”

Treat writing like a job with professional consequences and perks, and you will be in demand among editors. Given a choice between a prima donna with incandescent prose and an easy-to-work-with professional with a solid product that is not so incandescent, editors will largely choose the professional even if the story is less of a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Editors are people too, and they like dealing with reasonable people instead of flakes and fruits. Be reasonable, professional, and consistent, and thou shalt reap the rewards tenfold.

I have to note here that the proportion of new writers on the young and old sides of the spectrum who violate this rule is roughly the same. X amount of new young writers implode/never get published because it’s not about the writing, for them–it’s about some kind of weird, twisted emotional jolt or need in another area of their life. X amount of new old writers do the same thing. You learn to spot them a mile away at conventions or critique group meetings.

Don’t be them.

* Read, read, read. I am amazed by new writers who confide in me that they “don’t read” but they expect to produce a readable work. Omnivorous reading provides grist for your artistic mill and a thousand little tiny lessons you just can’t get any other way. Lessons about pacing, voice, word choice, structure, what works and what doesn’t on the page. Reading gives you a range of fine gradations to your basic tools of grammar and structure.

Reading a lot will initially set you on fire with trying to write in someone else’s voice. Books that affect you strongly will have an effect on your own writing. This is a phase every new writer goes through, and there is only one cure: writing and reading more. Get it out of your system before you start submitting. Your editors will thank you, and when they do, that is a good sign.

Don’t worry about your work always sounding like someone else’s. Sooner (if you keep writing on a consistent schedule) or later (if you lay about and don’t write as much) you will discover your own voice naturally, and things you read will no longer affect it as much. The period of imitation is necessary and natural for developing your own creative style. Don’t try to avoid it, and don’t get stuck in it. Just recognize it as a normal phase and enjoy it while it lasts. And when it goes, enjoy finding your own voice.

I could go on and on, but I’ve got actual work to do today. No rest for the weary and wicked, eh? Still, I love this job. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.

Peace out.

The Personal Slush File

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
They lurk on my hard drive like zombies, shambling ghosts of truncated stories. Improperly plotted, unevenly characterized, dribs and drabs of little bits that will never see the light of day. For every story I finish, there are probably ten false starts, or things that didn’t keep my interest, or things I had to put down in order to finish something else.

Okay, more like twenty. Or even thirty.

I used to feel embarrassed over the size of my slush pile before the Selkie admitted she had one just as big. And yes, it’s definitely a slush pile. These are stories that, no matter how much I love them, just don’t cut it. They range from wish-fulfillment fics to weird little fever dreams, odd fantasy ficlets and what I call “character studies”, where I follow a character around through an ordinary day and just get to know them.

This week, between everything (the vomiting six-year-old, the brief hospitalization of a family member, and a ton of work leftover from being out of commission during a bad bout of flu), I’ve been looking at my personal slush file. Because every once in a while you do find a nugget of gold in there–something you can dig up and maybe polish. It might turn into a short story, or even a novel. Unfortunately, you have to sift a LOT of it before you get that gold. (Which is why I call it a slush pile or “the graveyard”.)

And sometimes it’s nice to look through things that won’t get published. On the pages in my slush file, the only person I have to please is myself. Shoddy characterization, plot holes you could drive a Buick through, giddy deus ex machina glibly handing over plot advancement by dropping the magic dingus in? Oh, yeah, I’ve done it. I’ve broken the rules with gleeful abandon here on my hard drive. I am guilty of all a writer’s sins there.

Seriously. It’s bad. It’s like Tinto Brass’s Caligula married to overcaffeinated Bulwer-Lytton and seeing both Pamela and the Bad Hemingway Contest on the side in there, with the Jerry Springer show on the sidelines.

You may think I’m kidding. But really, I’m not. It’s bad.

The personal slush file is also a sandbox where I can try new things. The first stabs at paranormal romance or fantasy I ever made were as a result of digging in that sandbox and trying things out. They’re malformed little stories, rarely longer than 20K before they peter out, but they were invaluable. They gave me the confidence to try more, and they showed me where things weren’t working.

The danger in the slush pile is the danger of never quite finishing anything, or of loving stuff so much that you refuse to take edits or get better. The slush pile is your personal playground, true, but it’s like your bedroom. You don’t have to invite anyone in you don’t want; but you also can’t live your whole life there. (You have to come out and deal with the rest of the world sometime, you know.) When all is said and done, it’s your private place to decorate however you want to. It can help inform the rest of your professional life with joy, but it doesn’t belong out there.

And sometimes it’s the place where you crawl back to when you’re exhausted and just need the blankets and the comfort. Sometimes, when you’re tired and the world is just Not Cooperating, the slush pile is a nice warm place to be. You don’t have to please an editor or a reader, other than your own sweet self, and you can do anything you want there. It’s one of the things that makes this job one of the best in the world, in my humble opinion.

So if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m going to dive back in. I’ve got some bad, horrible, terrible, no-good, very bad Twinkie fiction to write for my sole delectation. It involves this super-spy, you see, and a very nice girl next door who just HAPPENS to be a werewolf on the run from the law…

See you around.

We’ll finish up today with news and a contest!

The news: The latest Jill Kismet book, Redemption Alley, is now available for preorder on Amazon.

And a contest to finish off the second launch week of Deadline Dames! Comment on this post, dear Reader (you can tell me about your own slush pile) and if you comment by midnight on Saturday, January 31, you have a chance to win a $25 Amazon gift certificate. How cool is that? (Winner will be picked randomly, with the help of Random.org.) So get your comment on!

Care And Feeding Of Deadlines

Dame Lilith
Dame Lilith
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the Deadline Dames, Friday Lili edition. We’ve been talking about deadlines this week, and I don’t know that I can possibly add to what the ladies before me have said.

But I’m going to give it the old college try. You knew I would, after all.

I actually (get the rocks and rotten tomatoes ready) like deadlines. They’re comforting. In the first place, a deadline means I’ve sold and promised to deliver a piece of work. This means I get paid, and if I get paid my kids eat. (Sometimes after a year of work and waiting, to be sure. But that’s another blog post.) So the deadline is like a security blanket for me.

That security blanket is along the lines of being in a shark cage, eyeing a Great White and wondering if I’ve cut myself shaving that morning. It’d be a lot worse without the cage, right?

Right?

Right. But I have a deep dark secret I’m going to share with you.

I always “pad” my deadlines. That is, I ask for more time than I think I need. There is no harm in asking, and that way I can arrange the deadlines the way I like them–far enough out that I don’t ever have to turn in a rushed job. I get nervous when I get within a month of a deadline. Really nervous. If I’m not turning things in “early” I start stressing out.

They’re not ever going to ask me to write for them again. I’m close to deadline. I can’t do this. I just can’t. It’s within a month. I know I only have four words more to go but what if they’re the most important four words of the book and I fail and my children starve and the sun goes out and it’s all my FAULT?

You know, the regular kind of worries that go with a creative life. I don’t say they’re rational, I just say they happen.

Part of making this creative life a paying proposition is taking a hard look at what you need to consistently produce. I need that extra little bit of time to fool myself into thinking I’m early, because I do better work when I’m not freaking out. And seriously, when publication schedules are done a year in advance, me asking for a month more than I think I need isn’t a big deal. It’s more like creative insurance. This way I am rarely late.

I also have to have my agent say “no” for me (and TO me) or I’d drown in a pile of deadlines. I want to please, you see. I want to please my editors so badly that sometimes I would agree to things that would work me down to a bare nub of myself, leaving me a burned-out, broken husk.

This is not what I want. The name of my game is consistency, and keeping the engine inside my head well-cared-for so it can continue to turn over and feed my kids. Really, most of my professional writing life turns out to hinge on that one simple priority. As well as getting a few chuckles along the way for my own personal gratification…but that’s another blog post.

This is yet another reason why a good agent is worth so much more than that fifteen percent. The agent’s priority is a business priority. He or she can make those decisions based on solid business sense that a writer may not be able to, because of the emotional connection a writer has to his or her product. Lots of “new” writers make inappropriate business decisions–and pay for them.

I asked my agent once if it mattered that I was asking for more time than I needed to finish a book. “Are you kidding?” she replied. An extra month is no dealbreaker. (An extra year might be. And really, if you’ve gotten to the point where you need that extra year, you’ve most probably got an agent and your agent should be taking care of this for you.)

But Lili, I hear plenty of my Friday readers saying. I’m not even published yet. I don’t have an agent. Why are you bothering talking about this?

Because deadlines are not just for the agented writer. They are also for the writer just starting out who thinks they might want to make a living at this crazy game.

Any time you have a job, you have tasks you need to get done by a certain time. Writing is no different. If you cannot set yourself a deadline and stick to it, you are probably not going to get far in the writing profession.

The editor is not going to come to my house with a brickbat and MAKE me write. The editor might ask for the advance back or just not take my book if I turn out to be an utter flakewad. This is a consequence, and no less dire for it being delayed. The consequence of not learning to set yourself deadlines as a new writer can be never getting published.

Some “writers” are okay with that. I’m not. I mean, hey, if you want to, that’s okay. But it doesn’t work for me. My kids have this need to eat, you see…and so do I. I’ve been trying to break myself of the habit, but no luck so far. I just like food too much. And I get all cranky when I’m hungry. (The first three letters of “diet” are a WARNING. I’m just sayin’.)

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that any creative career requires even more stringent self-motivation and the ability to set oneself harsher deadlines than most other careers. Consistently producing high-quality work (i.e., work people will pay for) in an industry that has such delayed gratification (and paychecks), when the only person it comes down to is you…well, it’s not for the faint of heart. In a writing career, there is no room for the person who wants to depend on Someone Else to provide the pin to stick yourself in the bum with–in other words, to provide motivation to get moving and DO. In the end, every deadline comes down to you, you, and you alone. It’s a hard place to be, rattling that shark cage and watching that monster as it edges closer.

But I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

And now for the contest! The bad news is: I don’t have books to give away right now. The good news? Comment on this entry by midnight PST on Saturday, January 24. A random winner from those comments will get to choose two items from Japhrimel’s Corner. I’ll send you those items for FREE. And really, a coffee mug saying “Oh yes, I CAN kill you twice?” Everyone needs one. So comment away!

The Sports Bra of DOOM

isabisa /Free Photos

G’morning, Readers. It’s Wednesday, the world didn’t end (not that I thought it would, for Chrissake) and if you want to know a little bit more about Hunter’s Prayer, you should check out the Orbit “In Their Own Words” feature.

Now let’s talk about brassieres. I promised you all a Sports Bra of Doom post, and I’m going to deliver. Those in the audience who are delicate or easily offended, leave now. (Translation: if talking about tits offends you, this is SO not the blog post for you.)

More Than You Ever Wanted To Know About Anyone’s Tatas