Sunday, February 21, 2010

Dear Ryan (part three)

Dear Ryan

I know this letter is a little overdue - my apologies.

We were talking about writing. One thing I’ve found gets recommended an awful lot by professional writerly types is the process of setting your completed work aside and then coming back to it after an interval, so you can examine it with fresh eyes. This sounds like a damn fine idea to me, but I seldom get to practise it because deadlines are so tight. I don’t finish a manuscript and then put it in a drawer for six months to mature. Oh, the luxury!

If you’re not riding the runaway express down Deadline Canyon, then this process is probably something you should take the opportunity of benefitting from. Put stuff to one side, and go and do something else for a while (another piece of writing). Then come back and see how well you like the original piece. Re-familiarise yourself with it. One thing's for sure, things won’t seem too precious to change anymore. You’ll be right in there with the red pen or the delete key.

The rules of writing are actually very simple. The first rule of writing is, you write your own rules. It doesn’t work the same way for any two people, no matter how many points of commonality you can find between them, but in terms of general guidance for someone just starting out, I think these tips are suitable and adjustable enough:

1. Write when it suits you. You might be a morning person, you might be a middle of the night person, you might have a day job and HAVE to work in the evenings. Do it to suit you while you’re getting to know it. When you’re married to it, then it can run your life.

2. Write as much as you like. Do not sit down to write and order yourself to write five hundred words (or whatever). You’ll quickly discover how much you can manage in a sitting. It might be a few hundred words, or ten thousand. If it’s ten thousand, you’re a freak, but we’ll move past that. Just make sure you write regularly. That’s more important than a high per-session word count. It’s not like mileage.

3. Write about what you like. Ah, now we enter the realms of the truly fuzzy, but stay with me. Some people recommend you run with your imagination and see where it takes you. Others say the best writers write about what they know. Both are valid philosophies. I reckon... well, I reckon that (unless you’re a very hard-nosed, commercially-minded sonuvagun, in which case these modest proposals are probably of little use to you) you should try to write the stories that would entertain you, the stories you would want to read. That might take you into your imagination, or it might take you to the things you know. Crikey, it might take you to both. My own basic yardstick is: if I don’t want to read it, who the hell else is going to? And how can you inject really stirring excitement into something that’s leaving you cold?

4. Write how you like. More fuzziness, but this is something worth considering. A lot of authors suggest that you keep writing, that every day when you come back to your work you just sit down and plough back in, without going back and reading over. The idea is that you keep plugging away until you’ve got a rough-cut manuscript, and THEN you start the process of reading back and revising. This is a very good idea, and you should do it if you can. I can’t. I’m a bugger for reading back on a regular basis (probably because I know my end reading time is often limited). I think there’s a strong case to be made for a writer finding nourishment and inspiration in his ongoing work that will allow him to advance it. These are simply two schools of thought. Try both and see which suits you.

When you’ve got something halfway done, a big chunk of something, or a first draft, the fun begins. You’ve got to read it yourself, re-read it, ACTUALLY read it rather than looking over it and imagining you see what you think you put there. Read it out loud if it helps, to find out if it’s got a dramatic rhythm and flow. Work back into it and add the things you feel you’ve missed, the connective tissue. Take out the stuff that’s extraneous. Be ruthless about this. Things will seem precious to you, especially if they’re still fresh. Do not be weak. As a rule of thumb, if you’re not sure whether or not a word should be cut, cut it.

(By the way, I’m assuming that, by this stage, you’ve committed your work to keyboard, even if you wrote your first draft or draft-notes in longhand. The editing process is a great deal less long-winded if you can make several (if necessary) copies of a MS file to try out edits and cuts. Always keep a file copy of your original draft so you can go back to it as a last resort if there’s some kind of editing disaster, and always keep a copy of your current or finished draft (I label mine ‘master’ with the date). In other words, keep a sample of the original ore, and a sample of the refined product. If you want to keep interesting variations produced along the way during the refining process, fine, but make sure you date-label them clearly or you’ll get very confused. This paragraph is the most confusing one in this letter - the only one you’ll have to read twice - so if a discussion of multiple drafts is confusing, imagine what managing them is going to be like.)

Once you’ve got that relatively tidy first draft, it’s probably time to show it to someone else. If you intend to write professionally, you’ve got to let people read your work sometime, and the first ones are probably going to have to be family and friends, which is going to be weird, because they know you. Get over this.

Much more importantly, get this idea front and centre: what they say when they’ve read it is going to help you. It is. It’s really valuable. You ought to pay them for it.

The chances are, you’ll either get polite feedback because people don’t know what to say or don’t want to hurt your feelings, or you’ll get some practical comments from people trying to help you. Both will seem like insults. They really will. You cannot imagine how annoying they will feel. Do not get annoyed. The people who have given you practical advice are simply telling you that there was something about the reading experience that they didn’t enjoy. Funnily enough, the people who just gave you polite feedback are essentially doing the same thing. They’re just not bold enough to suggest a change.

Now we can make allowances for genre and story type - grandma’s probably not going to be a huge fan of brutal combat SF, for example, so that colours things slightly. But the simple truth is that you want to write, and if you want to write, you need to write for OTHER PEOPLE. Using your own enthusiasms as a yardstick in the creative phase is a very sound idea (see above), and if people like what you like, that’s great. But if they have criticisms or comments, listen to them. Don’t get the hump. Don’t tell them they’re wrong, or they don’t understand. Listen to them. This is free test audience advice, so take it and be grateful. Consider what it is about your stories that people like, and which elements they dislike. If you’ve had time to let your manuscript mature, these things may have become obvious to you too.

One of the reasons you’ll get cross about ‘negative’ comments is that a novel or even a novella is a huge chunk of work. It will have probably taken you months to write, and acting on someone’s remarks could represent months more revision work, not a quick afternoon of fixes.

Sorry, that’s the way it is. If you want to write, this is one of the simple facts that you need to accept from the start or disembark the writing bus. Glaciers move slowly. Supertankers do not turn on a dime. Writing takes time. Sometimes you will despise it, because it will seem like the worst up-hill slog ever. Jokes aside, learning some stress-busting relaxation techniques (meditation, yoga, breathing exercises etc) might help, because it’s a long haul. Remember what I said in the previous letter about marathons?

Well, I’ve said plenty. If you, Ryan, or anyone else has any specific questions on this topic, or want me to expand on anything, this is the place to ask. I can’t pretend I’m going to be any more useful than I’ve already not been.

I’ll just add a couple of things in conclusion here. One is to remark upon the comment Dju made after one of the earlier letters, when he said that sometimes chasing and collecting ideas is of itself a wonderful thing. Couldn’t agree more. Jeffrey Dobberpuhl quoted the great Harlon Ellison saying something I couldn’t agree LESS with, except from the standpoint of a professional writer, but I really appreciated Jeff’s novice-friendly reading of the advice.

And as a last word, you should all check out Alan Moore’s Five Tips for Would-be Comic Writers, which appeared in his book 'On Writing' and apply to all writers, I believe. You can find it here.

Good luck and happy writing.



Anonymous said...


Now I'm off to actually read the post :)


Phillip said...

Some DAMN fine advice there Mr. Abnett!

Some of it I had already discovered by my lonesome but most of it was a case of "oh I say, that's very clever"

It's odd but I've never been offended by critique. I've begged for it on bended knee from people I respect, authors, friends in publishing and good friends who know what they like. Without exception I was given useful feedback that went back into the story. I have a powerful perfectionist streak and I never like what I do, I just reach a stage where I can live with it.

I have to tell you that I've taken great comfort from a lot of what you've said about the time consuming nature of the process and the necessity of going with the flow (I'm paraphrasing a little). It IS a slog but a profoundly worthwhile one as I've noted here:"

Do have a look if you want, you may want to bring a sandwich though :)

Anyhoo, thanks again for the advice and inspiration. Keep it coming.

Xhalax said...

After reading all of these letters and sage words of advice, I must admit that I wonder if you have to have a good sense of self and character to be a writer too.

What I mean is that...I don't think I'd have the strength of character to throw myself out into the public domain to be judged upon something I've done. Much like you said Mr. Abnett....people are judging months of long, hard work and people aren't always thrilled with that you've poured your heart and soul into.

I'd never be able to take the criticism....constructive criticism I could handle as it's meant to help and make you better at what you're doing...but being a fan, I've seen some rather teeth gritting things....and I may have thought some myself, though I'm usually too cowardly to say them. And I don't think I'd be able to handle it. And as much as I'd say I'm my own worst critic....I guess I just want the world to be kinder.

Needless to say....I suspect I'll forever be nothing more than a reader and a fan.

Anonymous said...

I'm inclined to agree with Xhalax. I'm finding it tough to be critical of my own work largely because I have the 'well I wrote it and I'm no ' which is where I think it comes to the 'put it in a drawer' thing.

Sage words as ever, Mr. A, and thank you (and Ryan) for the posts. Certainly helping keep me on track.

I will admit the pay-off feeling of completing a narrative with the message you wanted is something terrific.

Xhalax said...

See Tim...I don't read things that I've written (and I mean anything I've written) simply because I know that it's drivel so don't want to have to offend my eyes reading it again.

I always feel a little sorry for the whole of the rest of the world that happens across it.

Kane's Dad said...

I've gained more from these 'Dear Ryan' letters than I did from a full 12 weeks of a creative writing course. What with this and BL Live I'm all fired up again.
I think I'm gonna resurrect a ghost story I started a while back, a Gaunt's ghost story. I hope you dont mind Mr Abnett, I'll be respectful. I just have an affinity with one of them and have a story in my head that just will not go away.

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sredni vashtar said...

Dan-- re: #4, I do it that way too. In fact, I'm a veritable bugger for second-guessing and editing myself as I'm writing... and if I'm not careful, it can actually throw me off my train-of-fiction for that day altogether.

I sometimes wonder how much time I really save by doing that-- and whether or not I'd spend the same amount of time re-writing and fine-tuning a finished draft anyway...

Xhalax-- I can't speak for character (not for myself, anyways), but you do need a thick hide, yeah. The first important thing you learn through critique is that your writing is not precious, and you are not a beautiful and unique writerly snowflake. At least, I can't imagine anyone who hasn't learned that ever getting anywhere as a professional writer.

For example, my first creative writing tutor would continually scrawl huge, red RUBBISHes through entire paragraphs (sometimes entire pages) of my manuscripts. And that wasn't just me: most of the other students found themselves even more roughly handled. A lot of them took it personally and assumed the guy was simply an asshole, and quite a few were reduced to tears more than once. I think he just knew the lesson I've cited above is one that aspiring writers need to learn and take to heart as soon as possible-- because if they don't, or can't, they're simply never going to be writers.

Just my two items of basic denominational currency by nation (delete as applicable).

Anonymous said...

Double eagle 2?

Gaunt Ghosts 13?

Anonymous said...

Sorry to interupt - i saw somewhere on the twitter info about the book "Salvation Reach" - whats that?

And than it would be released?

Xhalax said...

Sredni - I understand and that's the exact reason why I could never be a writer. If I was deconstructed, I'm end up staying like that and quitting with me heart and will in tatters.

It doesn't help that I'm I flake either....and no, not the snow or chocolately kind either.

Shadowheim said...

I can't agree more with you. And unfortunately Dan, the "walk away" approach to story writing really is the best thing you can do for it. Put it down, come back a month or so later, the new perspective and fresh eye makes you heartless, and prompts you to tear your own story to pieces; it comes out all the better for it though. I wondered as I read it how your very own stories would have turned out had you taken that approach - most likely they would have all been pant-wettingly awesome! (Even more so, I mean! :P ) Unfortunately, as you yourself mentioned, you are kinda constrained by them damn deadlines.

And yes, criticism is a harsh thing, or a blessing, depending on which way it is construed - to me, it is a blessing. I wrote for a BL competition once, and handed my story to my father, who in turn handed it to a sci-fi enthusiast. He then returned to me my story, and this blokes criticism, and having using that, I improved the story tenfold. That truly was a blessing...I had a sci-fi fan that I didn't know review my story, a luxury I'd sorely miss were I ever to make it as a professional.

Good article, and thanks for taking the time to write it, Dan.


JMcL63 said...

I gave up trying to write fiction years ago, at which point I'd never got past the point of not being able to see the flaws in my work because I was so proud of actually having finished a story in the first place. I knew there had to be flaws, I just couldn't figure out how to spot them.

A friend of mine gave me some advice- kill your babies; ie. do away with your favourite bits, on principle. Writing this, I appreciate the wisdom of that advice. This'd force you to try to do better than your best bits, and to figure out what it is you're trying to improve; that way you should gain a sense of what your weaknesses are. Or so I imagine.

Beyond that, I would suggest that if you're only going to read just one book about writing in your life, read Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print by Lawrence Block. I reckon you really could read that book, follow Block's advice, and end up a much better writer than you were when you started. Hope this helps.
John ;)

frieslander said...

I had the opposite problem to JMcL63, in which I would get to an end point, and just hate everything. Wondering how such good ideas in me 'ead, could become such drivel on paper. Well screen at any rate. Maybe, sooner or later, I'll be in a position to try again.
For now, I'll read. Of to Prospero.

Anonymous said...

The multiple-draft approach to writing is extremely helpful when trying to craft a superb story. One thing that has helped me out with this is using online word processors like Google Docs or Zoho Writer. These have a revision system that keeps track of every change made to the document, so looking back to recover past ideas is a snap.

Rob said...

All solid advice Dan, I do the "dated drafts" thing myself and it's very helpful. Recently I've been reading Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing, which has some good advice, but it's less about nuts and bolts and engine grease as it is about amping you up to go out and get some ink on your fingers. Also found a book on revision that's helped a great deal.

Harsh criticism is sometimes best- I once handed a playwriting instructor a 45 page script, and the next week he handed three pages back. "This is the good part," he said. "Now go rewrite the rest."

He was right, of course. The script was much better for it afterward.

Scotty said...

Excellent advice.

I must admit to being one of those people like your good self that constantly re-reads what I have previously written, but luckily no deadlines for me, so hopefully this will benefit me in the long run.

The only problem I have is one of a constant self doubt, asking myself the questions, am I good enough? Would other people actually want to read the stuff I have written? Basically this has prevented me from actually allowing anyone else from reading any of my writing.

I wonder if you have any tips on how to get over it, or should I basically just man up and hand some stuff over. Strangely enough I am not worried about criticism, I do, like some kind of weirdo, thrive on it. My biggest problem I have is the people who will like it, as you said, just because they don't want to upset you. I feel this would be very unhelpful, possibly even instilling the thought that I have written something very good when it may have been absolute dross.

Anyway, if you have any tips/wisdom you could impart, it would be very appreciated.

sredni vashtar said...

Scotty: since everyone else appears to have moved on from this discussion-- basically just man up and hand some stuff over, yeah :P

if at all possible, hand it over to people whom you're fairly sure would not otherwise be hugely interested in the subject matter / genre you're writing (for example, if you're writing 40k tie-in, ask someone who's never played 40k, or who isn't familiar with BL publications). that way, you're likely to get purer criticism of your actual WRITING. a casual reader's perspective on setting, characterisation etc. is probably more useful to your craft of writing, whereas hardcore enthusiasts tend to bring all sorts of subtler expectations to their reading (which are good, but can distract you from the basics when you're starting out).

(i mean, by all means hand it out to said enthusiasts as well, because ultimately the more reviews you can process, the better... just avoid relying exclusively on genre/subgenre readers for critique, is what i'm saying).

Scotty said...

Cheers matey, appreciate the feedback.