Writing Advice: The Next Level (Saturday, February 16, 2013)
Writer Nick Mamatas says, “By the time someone finds their way to a panel at an SF con, stuff like ‘Don’t quit your day job’ and ‘Read widely’ and ‘You have to finish a story before you submit it’ is no longer necessary. There is certainly a need for higher-level advice. I had a student recently who had never heard of Freytag’s triangle.” So let’s elevate the answers, people — and the questions.
Jeanne Cavelos (M), Elizabeth Bear, Beth Meacham, David Anthony Durham
Cavelos opens with a question to the panel: What are some pieces of advice you would give to a new professional writer just starting out?
Bear quotes a fellow editor: “I read a really great story the other day, but it fell apart at the end. It made me sad.” Says this quote points out two things. Firstly that endings are really key, you can’t just leave your story without a solid conclusion, regardless of how great the ideas and characters are. Secondly, the editor is your advocate, not a gatekeeper. They are looking for good work and the want to publish you. You need to give them a good reason why.
Durham remembers that as a young writer, he was a pretty arrogant artiste, focused disproportionately on the literary as opposed to the story. He says he had an attitude of “they should read this for their own good.” This led to problems, doesn’t recommend for getting you anywhere in the field. Also emphasizes that plot is essential. As a young writer he was all about the literary fads of character and mood, but something has to happen. As a writer, you should be looking at your characters and asking yourself, can I *do* that, is it something that is actionable.
Bear agrees and admonishes new writers to simplify their prose, make it clear and sensible. Don’t use obfuscating words like obfuscate.
Cavelos observes that a lot of new writers seem to struggle with structure. Suggests a quick practical way that can do a lot of good is to think of the story in three stages. Protagonist needs a goal, always motivating everything. Then put this in a three-part structure: there should be two turning points before the climax. The turning point means that, due to some conflict or challenge, the protagonist has to change his/her goal or approach to the goal in some meaningful and emotionally significant way.
Cavelos continues into style, comments that it is under-appreciated by new writers. Should be aware that style has meaning. Long sentences increase emotional content, we are trapped and flowing with the sentence. Short sentences deliver punch and impact.
Durham says you must read widely, even the genres you don’t write.
Bear talks about the bane of her existence when she was a slush pile reader: “the curse of the Page 2 (or Chapter 2) flashback.” Start with the first interesting moment and NO EARLIER (and certainly no later).
Cavelos goes back to what Durham said about plot. It’s such a let down to have great situations and ideas, but no plot. Raise the stakes! The worst form of this is when writers don’t want to harm their characters. Bear continues with this thread and says you should get your characters into a corner that YOU don’t know how to get them out of. Then either stop, figure it out, or kill them. A lot of times you find that a story finally works when something has to break irrevocably.
Meacham finally gets a word in edgewise and comments on the importance of reading/writing nonfiction. She suggests that writing nonfiction, even blogging, is a great way to build the core skill of writing good exposition. She says the world in which the story is set is itself a character — treat it as such.
Bear talks about what makes worlds realistic: “The real world is inconsistent, but it’s inconsistent for a reason.” She gives the example of how Russian dashboard cameras were able to catch incredible video of a recent huge meteorite streaking across the sky. On the surface, there is no reason for why a bunch of Russian drivers randomly have dashboard cams. But it seems that there is a lot of crime and the police often are complicit, so citizens need their own evidence… so there is a reason for it.
[So basically, acknowledge that people’s behavior often doesn’t make sense, or make decisions that an outside perspective would consider rational. Compare this to J. Rios’s comments on what makes mythology credible in the panel Mythology in Science Fiction.]
Durham admonishes writers that readers can often lose track of the main story if you are distracting them with too many shiny things. Remember that side and back stories should be in there only to inform the main story. If the tangent is really that interesting, write that story instead.
Cavelos says that the questions editors leave on your manuscript are likely to be the questions your readers will have. Maybe you want them asking those questions, maybe not. But they are there to help you.
Bear says something that is hard for writers to do is remember that words and both malleable and expendable. Treat them as such. Learn to let go when you have to. Sometimes structural problems mean you just need to start over with the same premise and pieces. Also, confusion is not the same thing as ambiguity. And don’t preach.
Audience member asks what the panel’s opinion is on workshops. Meacham says that they tend to homogenize the talent that shows up, but concedes that it’s always useful to receive informed criticism. Durham recalls that writers in a workshop often have such a diversity of genre that it’s hard to find a common base of what we are trying to say in our stories and why. Bear is very negative on workshops, saying they can break people, often unfairly. Cavelos (who runs the Odyssey Writing Workshops) counters that they provide opportunities to diversify your writing, build a network, and can also be very empowering.
Audience member asks about their writing process. Answers are so all over the place that I won’t even bother writing them. There is no consistent process. Find one by writing.