Ten Short Bits of Advice

Toby Frost

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The writing group I attend recently tried to collect bits of advice from its members. Here is what I came up with.

Don't take these as absolutes: they're what works for me, and I think that they're generally true, but there will be exceptions. Feel free to disagree: perhaps it's a little presumptuous to put them up, but I thought it might be of use.

1) Finish a first draft before embarking on any serious editing, even if it is very rough. You may find that the end of the story/article throws a new light on the earlier parts.

2) Don’t “Write what you know”. Write what you can convincingly depict. You might be able to write convincingly about a mission to Mars, but not a divorce.

3) Always know why you’re putting something into a piece of work. Never put anything in solely on the grounds that it’s fun/cool. What effect will it have on readers and the overall story?

4) Each character of any major significant needs to be an individual. They may start out as a caricature or fulfilling a function (lost child, mercenary, politician etc) but need to end up as people in their own right once the story "zooms in" on them.

5) Don’t waste time writing needless background that won’t appear in the story, or doing research that you strongly suspect to be irrelevant. If in doubt, do the research whilst you are writing. This is a particular problem with science fiction and fantasy, but happens everywhere.

6) Get good (honest) criticism, especially from people who read within the same rough area as you are writing. Join a good writing group.

7) It is important to be able to take criticism, but also to decide when not to take criticism. There will often be someone who wished you had written an entirely different story.

8) Approach finding a publisher in the same way as you would approach getting a job. Professionalism takes over from fun here.

9) Keep writing and reading. You won’t improve without practice or knowledge.

10) Persevere.
 

thaddeus6th

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I think these are a good set of tips.

That said, I disagreed with this:
"Never put anything in solely on the grounds that it’s fun/cool."

I think that can make something valid in itself, if it's part of a comedy.
 

Brian G Turner

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A great set of tips, Toby - think it'll be hard for most people not to agree on most of these. :)

The first draft issue is something I've noticed come up alot - people worrying about their first chapter, and is it right, long before they've even finished that first draft.

Also, "write what you know" I find is something where you can take similar and apply it for like. For example, if writing about a journey to Mars, observe what happens on the next long journey you take - how uncomfortable you become, all the things you need to plan, all the things that go wrong, how the unexpected to upset plans, etc etc. An attention to your own real life detail I find can translate well into something physically very different, so long as it's a similar concept.
 

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Really, good list. Number 1 is particularly apposite to me right now, as the end of November and NaNoWriMo draws near. I've never managed to write a story longer than 10K before, due to my obsessive need to edit as I go along (I, Brian on the money, again). But the NaNoWriMo challenge (much to my own surprise) has pushed me to sit down and just bang out that first draft. Broke 42K last night and well on target to hit the 50K limit before the end of the month (yes, I am feeling chuffed with myself).
 

Boneman

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Encapsulates pretty much what we all need, thanks Toby. Number 6 can be difficult, as too often, people in groups can become friends and don't want to 'hurt' another friend, so may pull back on criticising, when the honest approach is the only way.
 

Toby Frost

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Thanks everyone. Most have been said elsewhere, I'm sure...

A couple of points:

Re Number 2, Brian has summed up something I've been trying to express for ages. In fiction, especially but not only SFF, the writer is often describing experiences that he's not had, and so the best way to do it is by using altered versions of real experiences: the emotions involved in waiting for a space flight might be quite similar to those involved in waiting for a train. However, some experiences don't carry across, and it's important to know when this happens. Being kicked in the head by a man is probably quite similar to being kicked in the head by an elf, but not similar to being sexually assaulted by an elf.

Number 3 is really "Don't write Mary Sues" but also including objects, places and anything else that the author thinks is too amazing to leave out. Obsessive descriptions of military hardware or how tough/attractive the lead character is are good examples. In short, don't bang on about things. This is tricky, because in the novel I'm currently reading, the author has such a wacky imagination that I'm keen to see what he comes up with next. I suppose it's a matter of balance.
 

Toby Frost

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More random "Deep Thoughts" from my self-aggrandising pen:

To my mind, many "ultimate warrior" stories are unconvincing because they get fixated with individual infantry and don't take into account of the entirety of (asymmetric) warfare. I like the made-up word "Sparteros" for this. You may be the toughest soldiers in human history (allegedly), you may live off ground glass and belch fireballs, but how will that help you if some enterprising pilot drops a bomb on your head? Or, to use a real-life example, what use is your tank unit when someone has immobilised the train that's transporting them? An enemy who never surrenders can be lured into a trap from which he will refuse to retreat. An army that has never been defeated will probably get lazy and arrogant. All these things sound dramatic on paper, but are less useful in real life.

Secondly, I'm wary of attempting to do mysticism in SFF. Putting the Ancient Riddle of Zhar into your story is a risky thing to do, as it either awes your readers or puts them off (even worse if the riddle is easy to solve!). This counts double for poetry. If you insert your poems into a novel, be prepared for readers not to swoon (especially if they don't rhyme!). I remember a set of fantasy novels from my childhood (not Tolkien, who overdid the poems but could at least write them fairly well) frequently had pages of the stuff. I skipped them. It's easy for it to sound like the cod-wisdom a Yoda-type guy would come out with.

Which isn't to say that these are entirely wrong ideas - nothing is. But they can misfire...
 
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Brian G Turner

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I've read a few books by Rory Miller, a corrections training officer whose written a few books on violence (not least one for writers). One big point he makes is how much people in law enforcement and the services that he knows hate the idea of the lone great warrior. The problem is that these people are trained to work in teams, and someone who acts the tough guy to go it alone is a danger to both himself and his team mates.

On the point of mysticism - my personal gripe is that too much modern fantasy is based on Role Playing Magic. Facing an insurmountable problem? Then Fireball it!

I've read up a lot on magic in our world over the years and I would love to see more fantasy use this for inspiration - witchcraft and sympathetic magic systems for example, that work in the eyes of the user but do not necessarily have an objective effect (in every period proceeding the modern scientific era, cause and effect could be far more casual - and I still see this mindset in the modern day - superstition, horoscopes, lucky charms, and unrelated causes ascribed to affects).

This is present in early classic fantasy to some degree - Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea stories and Fritz Lieber's Fafhrd stories - also, Gandalf's magic in Lord of the Rings is very subtle. But I want to see more of it on modern fantasy - more magic systems based on traditional folk systems and less Role Playing fireworks.

And poems and songs? Best to leave mentioned they are sung, rather than write poetry IMO. :)
 

Toby Frost

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Sorry not to have replied earlier, Brian. Yes, you're right - there's often an idea that magic is a sort of alternative science - do X and Y, and you create a fireball, which doesn't really feel very magical at all. I like the idea of magic that may not have an obvious or guaranteed effect. What I'd call religious or rital magic - heavy duty Catholicism or Voodoo spring to mind, although there are surely others - seem to be largely preparatory in nature, as you receive blessings, call upon saints for help, ceremonially rid yourself of sin and so on.

I'm also quite interested in alchemy as a concept in fantasy. Not only could you make magical drugs, steroids and so on, but there's the whole mysticism of it, which I've not really seen explored.
 

Toby Frost

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Another bit of advice that I don't think I've seen elsewhere - there are some decisions that only the writer can take.

Anything relating to the basic premise of the novel really is up to the writer. I'm not sure that, unless the concept is downright stupid - which may well mean "insultingly crass" rather than "a bit silly" - it's an area where anyone else can really help much beyond asking "Well, can you write that? Is that what you want to write?"

Say you have a story in which an ambassador's husband dies in a fire. She throws herself into negotiating a peace treaty with militaristic aliens, but becomes convinced that her opposite number in the alien delegation is actually her dead husband reincarnated. Is this a bad idea? Not inherently. It might be pretty hard to pull off but, done well, it could be terrific. The thing is, I don't know because I can't tell whether the writer is up to it.

Perhaps the answer is to try to figure out the elements that you will need to write well for the story to work. In the example above, we have: an alien race; protocols by which communication with these aliens occurs; how Earth is organised in the future; a female lead character; possibly, different ideas about reincarnation; and - and this is the big one - bereavement. If you can do all of those credibly, chances are that the story will be pretty good. It might still be pretty good if you can do some of those credibly and make the others passable.

So I'm never sure what to say when someone asks "I've got this idea about dragons made of cheese. Is it any good?" The best response I can think of is: "Well, can you make it any good?"
 

Brian G Turner

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So I'm never sure what to say when someone asks "I've got this idea about dragons made of cheese. Is it any good?" The best response I can think of is: "Well, can you make it any good?"
I came to writing thinking that a story is all about high concepts and idea, characters, and plot.

I've since learned that it's none of these things.

It's all about the storytelling, nothing else.

The most mundane act can become an act of high drama through storytelling. Conflict, tension, drama, can occur in any situation.

I think this is why so many aspiring writers struggling so much. If they are anything like me, that is. :) They'll be more familiar with films and computer games than novels in their genre - and have a great idea or two. And have no concept of storytelling.

It's learning how to become competent with storytelling that's really difficult.

Any idea can work. But not until you learn how to tell the story.

2c.
 

HareBrain

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It's all about the storytelling, nothing else.
Hanif Kureishi seems to agree:

"A lot of my students just can't tell a story. They can write sentences but they don't know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It's a difficult thing to do and it's a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don't think you can," said Kureishi, according to the Independent, which sponsors the festival.

"A lot of them [students] don't really understand," said Kureishi. "It's the story that really helps you. They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: '**** the prose, no one's going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.'"
(I happen to think the prose matters as well, however, because most characters/plots/twists we've all seen many times before, and innovative prose is one way in which an otherwise unremarkable story can stand out and seem refreshing.)
 

Rafellin

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Good guidelines, that man. :)

1) Definitely.

2) Definitely. Plus 'what you know' may be incredibly tedious for 99% of readers.

3) Disagree. In moderation, include that scenario/incident/snappy comeback.

4) Agree, but beware having too many people with deep backgrounds/personalities. Balance complexity in and across all aspects: you will lose readers when the mental book-keeping gets too much.

5) Oh, hell yes.

6) Essential, but can't comment on the writing group aspect (yet).

7) Essential - but so very, very difficult learning when to ignore critique.

8) Agree from a theoretical view, having no experience. But it's part of a business. Therefore scatty enthusiasm and poor preparation will get you nowhere.

9) Essential.

10) Possibly the most important thing. After you have established, to your satisfaction, - and done so from independent comment - that what you create is not hogwash; never stop.
 
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Toby Frost

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I think this is why so many aspiring writers struggling so much. If they are anything like me, that is. They'll be more familiar with films and computer games than novels in their genre - and have a great idea or two. And have no concept of storytelling.
Actually, that's a really good point. The way you tell a story in a film or game is often very different. To depict grief, a character in a game only has to roar at the skies, promise vengeance in a growly voice and get back on with the killing. That won't work in a novel, even a daft novel about things blowing up. The stuff that impresses on a screen just isn't the same, and you need a level of extra depth.

Also, in terms of ideas, films and games usually lag a long way behind books. The Matrix, for instance, reads on paper like the sort of thing Phillip K Dick was doing back in the early 70s, except a bit simpler.
 

Toby Frost

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Here is an upgraded version of the earlier list, plus and minus a few things. I can't promise that this is everything you need - by a very long way - or that there is anything like the required amount of detail here, but hopefully they'll be of use.

1. Decide what you are going to write about. It helps if you can explain this pretty simply: “The adventures of a woman agent sent to help the French Resistance”, or “Five people on a space station become involved in a plot to kill the Martian ambassador”. Sometimes, what seems to be one plot grows into another: “The death of her husband leads the heroine to fulfil her dream of being a world-class painter.” That plot is about the heroine becoming a great painter, not about the death of the husband, although the heroine certainly won’t think so at the start of the book. Ask yourself, seriously, whether this is something about which you want to write 70,000 words. Will you get tired of it halfway through?

2. Decide what sort of story this is. The example about the woman agent helping the Resistance could be a romance with moments of danger, or a full-on action story. The action might be quite light in tone, or desperate and savage. Don’t change halfway through unless you are really good, and even then, you’ll be taking a big risk.

3. What are the important parts of the story, its real moments of change for the people in it? The Resistance may hear about the victory at El Alamein, but it might not mean much to them at all. The harvest failing might be entirely different, though. At what points does the story really change? “Nobody takes Joan seriously until she uses her training to kill a sentry with one blow of the hand.” “Joan realises that Louis is an informant and, despite her feelings for him, exposes him”. That sort of thing.

4. Start with something exciting. None of this “Joan Smith was 23, short, brown-haired, and her Spanish mother had given her a dark complexion”. Start with her doing something: parachuting out of a plane, telling the master spy that she wants to become a secret agent, bribing an informant etc. I like the parachute option. The door opens, and when Joan steps through, she’s in the novel. Bang. You can fill in the details later. Your reader does not have to know everything. It’s often an advantage to leave them with some questions, to make them read on.

5. The same goes with background. Say Joan is about to jump out of the plane. She will not be thinking (or talking, probably) about the Russian Front, the trauma of her mother dying when she was eight, the events of the past year or much besides her mission and making damn sure that her parachute is working. You wouldn’t, would you? Don’t try to smuggle in back-story by having her think about things that the author wants to tell the readers, unless it’s relevant for her to do so at that exact time.

6. Structure. Almost everything in a novel should be an exciting event or leading up to an exciting event. Exciting events are things that matter to the characters and to the outcome of the story. A wedding takes place. Character A realises that he is in love with Character B. A truck breaking down might not be very exciting, but it will be if it’s carrying a consignment of rifles and it packs up in front of an enemy checkpoint. Classically, things are bad at the start of the story, but the characters make progress. About 2/3 to ¾ of the way through, things go wrong, but the characters fight back (only sometimes in a literal way) and the ending resolves the story, usually happily. I don’t think you have to follow this, but it’s a good idea to keep some good, exciting stuff towards the end. Remember, conflict – whether violence, disagreement or yearning for change – is the fuel of the story.

7. Plot. Almost the same thing as structure. Don’t worry if your plot is not incredibly original. It’s what happens along the way – the way that it’s told –that makes the difference. Point Blank, The Crow and Robocop all have very similar basic plots. It doesn’t make them much like each other, though, or equally good.

8. Back-story. Many writers are too worried about this, or are too keen to cram in as much of their carefully-crafted world as they can, to the detriment of the story. “Will they stop reading if I don’t tell them the details of the war in which the Anglo-Martian treaty was signed?” No, but they might stop if the story pauses to go on about things that happened way before the book begins. Sometimes, you can get away with bits of back story, like this: “Joan knew that Pierre was not the only one. Across the whole country, the Militia were making people disappear. In every village she had heard a horror story of some atrocity committed in the name of the New France”. So now we know, assuming that Joan is reliable, that the Militia are evil and powerful. Do we need to know the date when the Militia was established, or the details of how it works? Not unless they impinge on Joan. Otherwise, it’s a secret police force, and the reader will assume that it works like other secret police forces, and that Joan is entitled to thin down its membership.

9. Dialogue. People speak as they are: they need to sound like the sort of person they are meant to be. An intelligent peasant, who is naturally bright but poorly educated, may understand concepts but be bad at expressing them, or have a simple vocabulary. A deceitful minister might sound friendly and clear, but his actions will contrast with his words. Anyone who has seen arguments about social justice on the internet will know that certain topics have their own jargon to the point of being incomprehensible. In our example, the plan that the Maquisards hatch to kill the general might be very complex, but expressed in simple language: “Marie distracts the guards, Pierre opens the signal box and changes the points. Joan sets the charges, then drives to…” Many older books allow characters to make rhetorical speeches off the cuff. Basically, don’t do this unless the characters are very eloquent people, because it looks stilted to a modern eye. Please don’t use dialogue to cram in back-story. “Isn’t it a shame that everyone persecutes us because we are Protestants?” “Yes, if only they understood that Protestantism arises from the growth of the merchant classes two hundred years ago in central Europe, combined with…”

10. Research. You need to sound as if you know what you’re talking about. Know enough to make your world work, but don’t be obvious in showing it. Show what comes up in the course of the story. Where does the ammo go in a Sten gun? Any Resistance fighter knows this. The good ones know that you have to check the workings, because they were made cheaply and sometimes broke. Similarly, would characters in a Regency romance talk about a place in Bath being three blocks or three streets away? In non-realistic situations, everything will need to fit together properly. If every village has its own wizard, do the peasants get diseases anymore? And if not, what happens about the rise in population? Don’t do anything that jars the reader from the story. Remember: good detail, suitably applied, is what makes a setting feel 3D.

11. Endings. An ending ought to satisfy the reader, but that doesn’t mean that it needs to be happy or to answer every question. Endings usually involve the resolution of some sort of conflict, whether in speech or in action. Some books (The Island of Doctor Moreau, say) have the high point of the action and the high point of the dialogue/ideas in different places. Others (High-Rise, say) have an ending that follows the concept and the story inexorably to its conclusion. The conclusion might not be a surprise, but it does round the novel off.

12. Attitude. I have heard some writers talk as if producing a novel is a magical journey in which the “characters lead me” or somesuch. I’ve also heard writers who make writing sound as mechanical as the production of sausages. Neither is right. Writing isn’t pulling levers on a conveyor belt or dropping acid and describing the results. You need inspiration and discipline, the ability to invent things and the skill to control them. And you need to keep writing, keep learning and keep practising. You never get perfect, but you do get better.
 
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Toby Frost

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A further point about Science Fiction and Fantasy: lose the epic stuff, or at least acknowledge that it's secondary at best. Ultimately, every novel is about individual people and what they do, which means that you have to zoom down convincingly to the level of individual characters and portray them as people rather than functions.

I wonder sometimes if computer games in particular, and films and wargames to a lesser extent, have a bad influence on writers of SFF. A game can get away with 5 million soldiers charging at 10 million monsters, and this feels impressive on screen - but in a novel, these are just words and numbers. In a novel, the death of one person is often far more moving than the death of a thousand, which is not a natural thought when you are used to vast spacecraft, hordes of monsters, exploding planets and so on. In fact, I would argue that the very definition of "epic" in a novel is different to that in any other media. One man's experiences become epic when we inhabit his mind deeply enough. Take The Road or The Long Goodbye. There's something epic in those: not because of scale of conflict, but because of the size of the ideas being raised in them. And idea-raising is something that novels do extremely well.

There's also the point that a lot of fantasy realms and galactic empires are awfully similar. I always wonder who reads the detailed histories of yet-another semi-Tolkien setting or Confederation of United Planets. It's going to be almost exactly the same as every other one, so what's the point? It's the differences from what's predictable that make them interesting. Dry potted histories are, to my mind, a waste of time unless they really impinge upon what's happening right now.
 

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Re; El Alamein;

I can't even remember author or title now, but it was one of a series of kids' books - fictional characters were placed in real time periods, and the results were presented as a diary.

The one I thumbed through during a quiet afternoon was set in the Blitz (her stories of air-raids and telegrams delivered to neighbours concerning the deaths of their sons may seem far-fetched, but she could be your Grandma), and the first thing I noticed was that there was no entry for September 15th - the day when the Luftwaffe suffered such crippling losses that Hitler cancelled the invasion of Britain.

Then the penny dropped - we know that now, but to someone living in London in 1940, it would've been just another day. She might notice later that the daylight raids had petered out, but with the night bombings continuing for every night but one until the bomber units were withdrawn to build up their strength for Barbarossa, it may well have seemed that the nightmare would never end, and the five long years until the Allied victory would be unimaginable.

Sometimes, the people living through History are unaware of it, or it just doesn't seem relevant.
 

Toby Frost

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I totally agree. I'm currently trying to write a story about, in part, a child in a castle. The problem is that everything that interests the character is really trivial, and the main events of the story don't really matter to her! It's not easy, this writing business...
 
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