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 March 09, 2009
Writerly advice

Apparently, in addition to the regular readers of my blog (both of them!), people sometimes stumble upon my site and post questions in the comments section. Here is a recent comment that was posted to news about the upcoming anthology, Swordplay (out in paperback in just a few months!):

I'm an aspiring author. I have several pieces I've begun to put together, however, being somewhat of a beginner, I know they aren't as great of quality as they could be. As a professional author, is there any advice you might give to a young novice?

Hi, Laura.

I'm just starting out myself... even though I've been writing in one form or another since high school. It was only a few years ago that I began to take my fiction writing seriously enough to pursue it as a career. There are many others more qualified than I am to help you along your way, but I'm happy to pass along some advice anyway (beyond the "Wear Sunscreen" variety, which is always worth keeping in mind):

  • First, keep practicing. That means, keep writing. If you write a story and it doesn't work as well as you'd like... save the manuscript, open up a new, blank window, and write it again from scratch. Or, open up a new, blank window and write something else. Each time you sit down to write, think about what one thing you're going to work on this time -- for example, voice, character, language, plot, pacing, orchestration, setting, sensorial details, etc.

    The guitarist, the gymnast, the radio announcer, the basketball star all get better by practicing their craft. Each time they practice, they try to address one or two areas where they could stand to improve. Same is true for writing. It's okay if you write crap, just as it's okay for the aspiring concert cellist to practice and it sounds like crap. Keep working it. You'll become pretty decent faster than you might expect.

  • Meet with other writers. You'll find these other writers at cons (conferences and conventions), at readings at your local bookstore, and at workshops and university classes. I posted an article about going to cons on my blog here a couple of years ago. Talking with other writers is a great way to learn more about the field and about how you want to define your place in it. I'd also advise you to regularly touch base with writers both at your current level and beyond it. For that matter, help out those who are coming up behind you. I have benefited from having some great mentors, and it's only fair to likewise offer what support I can to other fellow aspiring writers.

    You'll also find like-minded writers at your local chapter of the Mystery Writers Association or the Romance Writers Association. And while the best place to hang with SF writers is at the cons, some metropolitan areas do have an active writers community you can tap into. In Seattle, for example, there's the Vanguard group and the Clarion West parties and readings held each summer.

  • Attend workshops. It is a bad idea to spend *too much* time and money going to workshops, but attending one or two now and then is a great way to sharpen the proverbial saw and help advance your technique, let alone meeting fellow travellers who will become your support network as you go. Beware: some classes and workshops may drive home the point that there are things you *shouldn't* write. These workshops are poison, and can be very difficult to recover from. (I took a class at college that put me off of certain fiction writing for years.)

    Allow me to recommend, in particular, the Clarion-style workshops (Clarion West in Seattle in particular, but also the Clarion workshop in San Diego and Odyssey in New Hampshire) and the Oregon Coast Writers Workshops. For writers who are not yet sending their work out to editors, I recommend the "Kris and Dean Show" at the Oregon Coast. If, however, you are already sending out your work, or if you've already attended a Clarion-style workshop, then you should seriously consider the "Masters Class" at the Oregon Coast.

  • Form or join a critique group. This is particularly useful for beginning writers. You need to make sure the group is a good fit; that you can learn from the critique without giving too much fuel to the editor in your head who will trash everything you write. My best advice here is to find/assemble a group of people who share your goal of improving your craft and who want also want to share their work with the world. Writers who write for the sake of assembling words on a page are fine, fine people; but, if you want to become a published author, you'll find more useful critique from people who also want to become published authors.

    I know I wrote up a little article about the do's and don'ts of critique groups. I'll have to look for that, and post a link here when I find it.

  • READ! Read anything and everything you can get your hands on, but especially read "the good stuff." I don't mean read literary work. Literary does not necessarily mean good. I mean, read "Year's Best" compilations -- not just in your field, but across genres. Read best sellers... again, across all genres. Are you writing romance? Stephen King still has something to teach you. Mystery? You can still learn from Nora Roberts. Read the classics, but don't shun the contemporaries. Read for pleasure.

    In fact, Laura, here's an exercise that I think you'll find worthwhile. Go out right now and pick up a copy of the Year's Best Crime & Mystery Stories and then write a crime story. Next up: Year's Best Science Fiction. Then, do the same with Year's Best Horror. I don't know what genre(s) you are interested in, but do this exercise. You'll learn something from it, I promise you. I certainly did. (I never wrote historical fiction until the piece I did recently based upon Custer's Last Stand, which is the story I sold to the aforementioned Swordplay.)

  • Cruise writers and editors and agents blogs. Eventually, you'll find yourself returning to certain blogs on a regular basis. Read for insight. Read for inspiration. Read for good word, uh, usings.

  • As you write, so shall ye submit! Once you write it up, send it out there. You are writing in the hopes that someone will want to read it. So, submit your work to editors! They can't buy it if you don't send it to them.

  • You are the worst judge of your work. Your job is to write it, not to decide whether it's any good. Let the editors and your readers decide for themselves.

Thank you, Laura, for allowing me the opportunity to get all didactic. It appeals to the teacher in me. But, all that said, the best advice for aspiring writers is always this:

Keep writing.

Drop by from time to time and let me (us) know how you do, okay?

--Allan

Posted by at 02:27 AM in the following Department(s): Articles , Writing | Comments (2)
 September 01, 2006
The Writer's Con Game

I'd originally written the following artlce for Clarion West's alumni newsletter, The Seventh Week. After I put it together, the editor and I decided it was more a review of the kind of information disseminated during the six week program than it was a presentation of information new to CW grads, so we agreed to cut it from the newsletter. Nonetheless, this is information that writers who are new to the field might find useful, so I present herewith:

The Writer's Con Game -- Getting the Most Out of Attending Conventions

Clarion West and other writers workshops are dedicated to improving the craft of writing speculative fiction, but for the person who wants to sell his or her stories, there's also the matter of learning the business. Just as software engineers, plumbers, and law enforcement officials have trade shows where they can network and learn the business side of their trade, so too writers have conventions.

The mere mention of science fiction conventions conjures up images of men and women dressing up as Klingons and Jedi and -- these days -- students from Hogwarts going to masquerades, playing board games, and arguing over plot points from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But while these conventions (typically referred to as "cons") can have their fan side, they also often have their professional track, as well.

Cons provide a number of ways to ground the writer in the professional community. For newcomers to the field, panel discussions by established authors on subjects like "Things I Wish Some Pro Had Told Me When I Was Starting Out" or established agents on "Electronic Rights and the Future of Book Contracts" are a great way to not only learn something of interest, but also to get to know who the experts, up-and-comers, and old-reliables are in our field. And while not all panelists fit into those categories, the newcomer who pays attention will quickly get a sense of who is in-the-know and who leans to pretending.

While panels are a great way to sample some of the trends in the industry, most writers who attend cons emphasize a more important career building exercise: networking.

"I go to network with other writers," says Irene Radford, the Con Liaison for SFWA, "often from different locations I would not normally get to meet. I get to network with agents and editors."

Jay Lake, winner of the John W. Campbell Award in 2005, agrees. "You're not there to sell or do business, you're there to network -- with your peers, with better established writers, and with editors, agents and reviewers."

While much of this networking takes place at the hotel bars and the pro parties, there is also a unique opportunity offered by many cons known as the kaffeclatch. Many cons will set aside a room with several tables that each feature a prominent professional for fifty-minute (or hour or hour-and-a-half) conversations. Because seating is limited at each table, and because the idea is to allow actual interaction to take place, there are typically sign-up sheets for each scheduled kaffeclatch. One can learn a great deal by sitting down to conversation with a favorite author or editor and ten or so other interested individuals.

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Posted by at 10:00 PM in the following Department(s): Articles , Clarion West Journal , Writing | Comments (0)

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