On Writing

While I'm by no means an expert in the world of writing, editing, and publishing, I have picked up a few tips along the way that I believe are solid bits of advice for anyone in this business.  Some of them are well established and often pointed out, and some of them are my own quirky notions I've come up with over the years.  Take them for what they're worth.

Physical fitness is important, even for writers.  You're at your best when your body is functioning as it should.  While I'm on the elliptical machine, I'll put an episode of my favorite sci-fi series on the Kindle, prop it up and watch it as I sweat.  Dr. Who, Firefly, Dollhouse, and many others - whatever your genre - can provide a ton of great cardiovascular health.  Time flies for the workout, and I double that hour of my life immersed in study of the genre.  It's like getting credit for working when you're not working.  Besides, you'll be surprised at what sudden ideas strike you mid-workout, especially if you have a pen and paper handy.

Always keep a notebook and pen/pencil by the bed.  Dreams provide countless story inspiration, and even great epiphanies will fade the next morning if you don't write them down.  I've heard writers say before that the great stories stick, and if you can't remember the idea, it wasn't good enough to begin with.  Problem for me is, some of my greatest ideas came from the tiniest seeds, ideas that would have vanished should I not have written them down.  And I can swear for absolute certainty I've lost volumes of completely wonderful stories because I didn't have a pen and paper available when the muse struck.  So damn the notion that only the great ideas stick.  Write them all down.  You can figure out which ones are truly great later on.

Write anywhere and everywhere.  Akin to keeping that pen and paper always handy is the ability to write wherever you are.  I know most writers - and I'm one of them - like to establish an area for writing.  Whether it's an office, a desk in the corner, a laptop on the bed, or whatever, it helps to maintain writing discipline.  But the problem is, you're not always around your writing place, especially if you travel a lot.  Over the course of my Navy career, I've written in some strange places, everywhere from out to sea on the Indian Ocean to a wooden hooch in the middle of Afghanistan.  I even maintained a writing notebook in basic training that I filled with short stories of science fiction, fantasy and horror.  It wasn't exactly authorized, but it certainly helped keep me sane.

Stick to a pattern of writing.  No matter if you write a page or two at a sitting or prolifically, getting into a rhythm is important for a writer.  Many have said it before, and probably better than I, so I won't belabor the point too much.  I have had a daily writing routine for years, and sticking to it helps me keep my writing goals.  Whether it was after a long hard day of work, back in my bunk on some deployment, or after I've worked out, showered, and surfed through my quota of various industry blogs and websites, I've stuck to that routine.

Travel widely and often.  Easier said than done for most, but the more you travel, the more experiences, insight, and ideas you get for your stories.  And you don't have to travel first class either.  In fact, I'd venture to guess the cheaper you travel, the more interesting your stories will be.  No one wants to hear about that first class touristy cruise you took where you drank and danced every night.  That time you got stuck and lost penniless in a foreign country where you didn't speak the language, and had to hitchhike your way out might provide much more interesting material. I did my travels on Uncle Sam's dime, and boy do I have a million interesting tidbits to add to my stories as a result.

Collect maps, pamphlets and brochures.  Whenever and wherever I travel, I collect them.  I have a giant-ass box full of them, from Six Flags to some obscure attractions in a sleepy little Spanish town.  Many times you'll find things that aren't always on the internet, and this type of information can help tremendously when writing about a place.  A lot of the information you find on brochures and pamphlets is off-the-wall stuff you might not otherwise find out about.  It can even come from things like paper menus, especially if you need a good snapshot of a locale's food.  And it's one of the easier ways to collect research information.  Anytime you're in a hotel or tourist attraction, you'll find a whole rack full of brochures.  I take a stack of whichever ones I think I might need in the future and slip them into the side pocket of my luggage.  It sometimes feels a little like pack rat behavior, but a box of papers in the closet is a small price to pay for writing resources, especially those harder to find elsewhere.

Study foreign languages and cultures.  If you don't know another language, learn one.  I speak, read, and understand a number of different languages, and they're infinitely helpful in my writing.  Along with traveling, studying the cultures and languages of others will allow a different perspective to use in writing the people and cultures of your stories, especially when you're writing science fiction and fantasy.  If you're not well traveled and knowledgeable in other cultures and languages, you'd be absolutely floored at some of the differences.  What may be tradition, common sense, or standard practice in your culture could be horrifying, illegal, taboo, or otherwise unthinkable in another.  And things don't just have different words in other languages, concepts are different.  Some languages have no word for certain concepts, while others have multiple words for the same concept.  Knowing at least one other language will allow you to not only shape cultures and peoples in a fantasy world or alternate universe, it will allow you to form the constructs for any language concepts you need to use.

Be well read, especially in your genre.  Watch movies and television series in your genre.  Learn what is out there, and what established authors have written in it.  If you have no idea what is out there in your genre, you have no idea if your work is an original concept, pertinent to the genre, or even up to the quality standard of the genre.  In other words, you've just jumped into a large body of water, and you have no idea where the edges are, or which edge you're even closer to.  Don't just stick with the current stuff either.  Read the classics, the pioneers of the genre.  If you aren't well read, you'll never know that novel idea you just came up with is really an overdone, well established one that's as old as the hills.

Branch out from your comfort zone.  Broaden your horizons.  Read books and watch movies and shows in other genres.  Not only will you find insight for your own work, but you'll find interesting ways to work outside the box.  Everyone has more interests than just genre fiction.  Use it to expand your own writing strengths.  Besides, there are other things than plot and character in a story.  Much can be gathered from an author's voice, style, and pacing, and those are not limited to a single type of story.

Explore and adventure.  Live like that Dos Equis guy.  Much like traveling to as many foreign and exotic countries you can, and branching out from your comfort zone, adventuring lends spice to one's writing.  At least it does to mine.  Do things.  Experience life.  How the hell can you expect to write about exciting adventures and wild jaunts if you haven't experienced anything?  You really can't.  Go snorkeling or scuba diving, jump out of a perfectly good airplane with a parachute, go spelunking through caves, climb mountains, attend sports events, eat weird food you normally wouldn't, do whatever you want.  Live.  Get out there and experience things, because that's exactly what your characters are doing, and you can't be realistic if you don't know what you're talking about.  If all you do is sit behind a desk and write, then all you're qualified to write is about an author sitting behind a desk writing, and lord knows that's been done to death.

Broaden your scope in understanding your genre.  Understanding the fantasy genre is much more than just being well versed in the genre.  It's understanding history, anthropology, mythology, and theology.  Science fiction is as much science, technology, innovation, sociology, and politics as it is fiction.  History, mythology, law enforcement, and psychology play important roles in horror.  These same principles can be applied to whatever genre you write.  Give yourself a broader understanding of your genre's roots in reality, and you will write better, and with more original thought.

Really understand your characters.  Get into them, really feel them.  Learn all about them.  Learn what makes them tick.  Get downright intimate with them.  More than just understanding their goals and dreams, delve into what really makes them who they are, even aspects about them you never ever write about.  They're more than just a description and a goal that drives the plot, even the villains.  Especially the villains.  Nothing pisses me off more than to see a cardboard villain in a movie, television series, or book.  I get so irritated upon finding out their sole purpose of being is to be a road bump in the hero's quest for greatness that I rarely finish the story.  Why should I?  After all, if the author hasn't gone to enough trouble to create a character I can empathize with, why should I give a shit how the story ends?  Create your villains as heroes.  They've got a life, and interests, and beliefs, and goals, and it's a hell of a lot more than "stop main character from completing quest at all costs".  Make your villains heroes, only with goals that conflict with your main characters, and you probably have a very interesting, well rounded character your reader will love, or at least love to hate.

Get an education.  Go back to school.  Learn new things.  If you have a high school education, go back for an associates or bachelors degree.  If you have that, go for your masters.  Get yourself educated, and even more important, well rounded.  There are a lot of cheap ways to get an education beyond borrowing a ton of money for a high-priced traditional education.  I'm not going to go into details here.  If you're reading this, you're likely an author.  You can do the research yourself.  But do it.  Get yourself educated, because the more you know about the widest range of topics, the better you can write about those topics.

Research thoroughly.  Every writer has to do research.  You can't always get away with writing just what you know because somewhere along the line, your character is going to do something or go somewhere where you don't have any experience.  You're going to be in the dark and forced to do some research.  But don't just research what you need to write about.  Really learn about what you're talking about.  Much like getting an education makes you well rounded, really thoroughly researching a topic allows you to get into the subject the way you need to.  Really get into it, over your head, more than just what you need to write the story.  Why?  How the hell can you expect to create a vivid image of muscles screaming from fatigue when you haven't worked your legs out so goddamn hard you walked like John Wayne for three days afterward?  You can't, so don't even try until you've done it.  And just as important, because there's more to the story than just the facts.  There's passion, back story, your characters' opinions and views, and details.  A story's power is all in the details.  It's all in the little things that really make a scene grab you by the balls.  And if you don't know those details, you can't give your story the grip that it really needs.

Use all the words at your disposal.  But use them correctly.  Use dictionary words, highfalutin' 10-cent words, common everyday words, foreign words, profane words.  Use them all and don't look back.  Each word has a very specific use and meaning.  Synonyms are words that are similar, not exactly alike.  They're different words for a reason.  Use the one you need to use to really get your point across.  And that includes swear words, cuss words, dirty words, whatever you want to call them.  They're there for a reason.  And like every other word, they're not there to be over-used, abused, and strewn about like dirty clothes in a teenager's room.  Words lose impact if they're abused, and that especially holds true for horrible words, like adjectives, and four-letter words like fuck.  Abuse words and they lose potency.  Use them correctly, precisely, and they add potency to your story.

Drown out the distractions.  Learn to avoid surfing the internet and playing around on the various social networks and forums when you really have to write.  Turn off the television.  Find solitude.  For me, this concept was never more obvious than when I was deployed and lost the Internet.  I didn't lose it completely, but except for walking outside in the elements to a separate building and logging onto a communal computer, it was gone.  I no longer had the ability to surf the net with my own computer.  I could no longer look something up at a moment's notice.  And while that severely crippled my ability to do research, it also provided a wonderful absence of distractions.  You can't write well if you are constantly distracted.  This includes not only online distractions, but family, friends, jobs, chores, entertainment, and whatever else takes you out of that writing bubble and inserts itself into your consciousness.

Give yourself a reality check.  Understand your work is probably not nearly as good as you think it is.  In fact, it might just suck.  You're not the next great wordsmith.  I've written for a hell of a long time now, and I've gotten exponentially better.  And it's only as I've gotten better that I really realize how far I still have to go.  Sometimes I sling a sentence and boy does it really talk to you.  In fact, it downright sings.  But far more often I realize I'm flinging words like a monkey flings poo, and I'm really not saying what I really want to say.  Practice makes perfect, but practice with a purpose.  Learn to know and understand what you're doing wrong so that when you write, you address those deficiencies and correct them.  Only then do you have a chance to become really good at it.

Edit and revise your work.  Do it until your fingerprints are worn completely off and your fingers are screaming carpal tunnel bloody murder.  Let it sit for a long, long time, and then go at it again.  I started submitting novels and short stories to agents, publishers and small press back in the 1980's, and back then I churned out some real garbage.  Some steaming piles of word-buggery no one should be forced to read.  Why did I do that?  Because I didn't know any better.  At the time, those stories were finely crafted masterpieces, destined for glory and greatness.  Reading them a few years later brought tears of mirth to my eyes, and not the good kind.  They largely sucked, and I saw it because of the experience I'd gained over those years of letting them sit.  It's advice you'll hear from every agent out there: let that sucker sit and breathe a while before you go back at it.  Step back and let the fury and passion and fire of writing the story give way to the cool, calculated eye of a reader.  You'll see what's wrong with your precious stories, and chances are, you'll know how to fix the problem.

Study your industry.  When I started out in the 1980's, I probably did everything wrong I possibly could.  I've learned the hard way more than once.  But you shouldn't have to do that.  Pour through agents' blogs and agencies' websites.  Read those books by the experts on how to do it right.  Spend hours reading through submission guidelines, industry needs and trends, advice from professionals and experts, and reams of material in your genre(s) of choice.  You can't expect to keep up if you don't know the first thing about the industry.  Take even a few minutes perusing literary agents' blogs and you'll find countless examples of queries gone horribly, horribly wrong because the authors simply had no clue how to go about it properly.  Even if you wish to solely self-publish, read all that stuff anyway, because it'll give you advice you can use for more than just going about it the traditional way.

Get your own publicity.  Get out there.  Get a blog, a Twitter account, Facebook, Google+, writers forums, and whatever else you can do to establish yourself as a presence in the virtual world.  Promote yourself, even before you start actively trying to get published.  In today's age of online this and virtual that, having an online presence really matters.  And even more important, it shows potential literary agents you're willing to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty doing what's necessary to haul your writing from the depths of obscurity.  And chances are, if you're willing to go the extra mile, then so are they.  And that's a good thing.

Don't over-promote.  Many times I've seen authors tweeting and posting over and over with links to their books.  That's all they ever do, and it becomes annoying, to the point where potential readers tune them out and mute, ignore, block, or delete them from their feeds.  While exposure is good, too much of the same thing - without other value-added content - is a turn-off.  No one likes that hawker selling stuff in person by yelling at you when you have other shopping to do, and the same concept applies online.

Get others to promote you.  One of the best - in fact, the very best - method of book publicity is the word of a trusted source.  If some literary agent or bookstore or author recommends something to read, it generates a certain level of interest.  If your best friend recommends it to you, it garners far more interest, because you know that friend's tastes, interests and quality of recommendation.  You have a good idea, based on that friend's reaction to the book, how you are going to like it.  And so it only stands to reason that the larger number of people there are who recommend you to their friends and acquaintances, the more interest you'll generate in your work.