THANK YOU CHUCKANUTS!

I spent last weekend up in Bellingham, Washington as part of the faculty of the 5th Annual Chuckanut Writers Conference. I’ve written here about the importance and value of conferences to any writer’s continuing education in his or her craft, but indulge me, because I’m about to do it again.

Creative writing is not something anyone will ever perfect. No one, I don’t care how long you’ve been doing it or how many books you’ve sold, knows everything there is to know about writing fiction or non-fiction. It’s just not possible. So that means we’re always learning, always trying new things, always open to new ideas—or at least we damn well should be.

What I love about attending conferences like this isn’t that I get another hour of “everybody listen to me” time—though I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t in it at least a little bit for that. What’s actually lots more useful to me than listening to myself talk is listening to everybody else—faculty and attendees alike.

Having done a couple of one-day seminars at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham and spending a little time there I already knew that this is a remarkably literate town. The rocky center of the community seems to be the independent bookstore Village Books, which is three stories of awesome. Bellingham is a college town with not just the community college but Western Washington University as well—and everybody there seems to be reading all the time. I love it up there.

That spirit infused the conference and brought in some talented people—aspiring authors of all ages.

First, I want to thank Jessica Lohafer and everyone involved in organizing the event, which ran so smoothly it almost seemed as if some supernatural power had been invoked. It was almost impossibly well organized.

After a short orientation on Friday morning, I sat in the audience as Stephanie Kallos, author of the critically acclaimed Sing Them Home and her latest, Language Arts, spoke on the importance of asking questions in “Behind Every Book is a List of Burning Questions.” She was insightful and challenged the writers in attendance to think about the little things that add up to making a character a person.

PhilReading

Then later that afternoon we were asked to do short readings. They brought us up in alphabetical order and so I was first up—a little nerve wracking but in the end I think I had it easiest, since I didn’t have to take the audience on any sharp turns in tone. I read the conclusion from my book Writing Monsters, and I think I got a pretty good response, but since I had to wear my reading glasses, when I looked up at the audience all I saw was an amorphous mass of color. But the amorphous mass of color laughed at my jokes, so I’m calling it a success!

But what was much more of a success was the collection of readings as a whole, from Brian Doyle’s funnier follow-up segue from my reading to his through one of those sharp turns in tone when Steven Galloway read from The Cellist of Sarajevo. I thought two of the poets, the urgently earnest Samuel Green and the fighting his way through nervousness to demand to be heard Robert Lashley gave the afternoon’s bravura performances.

Green

Then a blissfully air conditioned night in the beautiful Fairhaven Village Inn during an unprecedented Western Washington heat wave later and I showed up Saturday morning to sit on the panel “Directions to Where I Live.” Moderated by Nan Macy, I was in the distinguished company of Brenda Miller, Lee Gulyas, and Stephanie Kallos. We spoke to a small but attentive crowd on the subject of literary influences and I found myself making notes during the seminar. I’m learning from my fellow panelists much more than I’m offering to the crowd—after all, there were four of them and only one of me!

My literary influences? In particular Edgar Rice Burroughs and Harlan Ellison and I got a chance to talk briefly about my attraction to the opposite ends of the genre spectrum, from the pulp to the literary, leaving the mainstream more or less unread.

Then fast forward a bit to early afternoon, where I gave an abbreviated and slightly revised version of Writing Scary in the hottest room on the campus—but undaunted by almost debilitating back pain and general sweatiness we pressed on talking about how to use sentence and paragraph length to alter your readers’ breathing to convey anxiety and panic. Everybody seemed to get it and asked smart questions that got me thinking, too.

And I’ve said this before: Live events are best becuase of that in-person interaction—you aren’t just listening to speeches you’re asking questions and actively engaging with the faculty and other attendees.

Larson

Author Erik Larson (The Devil in the White City and the newly released Dead Wake) kept that going in his breakout session “The Dark Country of No Ideas” in which he asked attendees to stand up and pitch their non-fiction works in progress for short but insightful workshopping from both Larson and the other attendees. There are some amazing writers out there, working on some amazing stuff. And Erik Larson knows what he’s talking about.

As things wound down I wandered over to the Village Books table trying to mentally balance my budget. Just because I wanted to buy all of the books and have all of my fellow faculty members sign them didn’t mean I could—at least not in one go—so I had to pick a couple. I bought The Devil in the White City because as an ex-patriot Chicagoan that story has always intrigued me. Erik Larson was kind enough to sign it. I felt particularly compelled to buy Samuel Green’s collection of poems All That Might be Done because I liked his reading and him personally.

I was kicking myself for not bringing my copy of Sing Them Home for Stephanie Kallos to sign, but Language Arts is on my to-buy list, as are books by other faculty members especially Robert Lashley, William Kenower, Steven Galloway, Bryan Doyle, and Elizabeth George.

By the end of the day on Saturday I hated to admit it but my back was telling me it was over, so I had to skip the closing party at Village Books, but I was there in spirit!

Now, go find a writers conference in your area—and I drove two hours to get to Bellingham, so think about the farthest reach of “your area” if you have to—and go there!

It will be both money and time well spent on both useful tips on the craft of writing like my own Writing Scary, or inspiration that will lift you out of the deepest of writer’s blocks.

Thank you Chuckanut Writers Conference. I am energized.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

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IN THE FUTURE, EVERYTHING WILL ALWAYS WORK

. . . or at least that’s what some science fiction authors would have you believe.

The other day, I happened upon the movie Forbidden Planet on TCM. It was just about to start. I wanted to avoid working. A match made in heaven!

I’ve seen this movie a bunch of times—I own the DVD, actually—and I love it. It really is a classic of the genre. In it we see the 200,000-year-old alien technology that is every 1950s engineer’s dream. It’s self-cleaning, self-correcting, self-calibrating, and always perfect. It wasn’t the machines that created the monster from the id, it was user error on the part of Professor Morpheus (spoiler alert . . . sorry, but if you’re reading this blog and haven’t seen Forbidden freakin’ Planet, well . . .)

forbidden-planet-machine

Surely this is what machines of The Future will be like, right? Perfectly always functional for hundreds of thousands of years—for forever.

We actually live in The Future, at least from Forbidden Planet’s writers’ point of view, and so is this true?

Let’s see . . . Right around the same time I was watching this movie my $500 Android smartphone was dying a pitiful death. And this is the old phone that was replaced a couple years ago by a newer $500 Android smartphone my daughter knocked out of my hand on the way to Emerald City Comicon and broke, so rather than pay another $500 to replace it I went back to the old $500 phone. This weekend I bought another new $500 smartphone, this time an iPhone.

A few weeks before that we came down in the morning to a terrible grinding rumble coming from our refrigerator then spent the better part of that Saturday living in denial while touching various jars of stuff and saying, “It’s still cold!” with a pitiful squeak in our voices until I put a little thermometer on the inside of it and it was the same temperature inside as it was outside, which was about 69°F. It was broken. It was about fourteen years old. I found a “cheap” replacement for about $800 that’s a swell deal as long as you’re okay with the loudest ice maker on Earth. For the record, I’m okay with that since the next price level up added $1000. Now the sound of cascading ice cubes rattling around in a plastic box sounds like savings!

About a week before that tragic refrigerator death my wife was leaving for work then came right back in because she thought one of the tires on the Mustang looked “low.” I went out to discover that it was flat. She took the minivan that morning instead—the minivan we had put new tires on a week before.

A couple months before that we were experiencing weird cable TV malfunctions so I went into the little Comcast store in Redmond and a nice young man* sold me on their new Xfinity platform, which is really way, way better in that instead of working one-third of the time it works about two-thirds of the time. Progress!

Wouldn’t all those 1950s science fiction fans be disappointed.

As a fifty-year-old science fiction fan, I know I am—but then tires last a lot longer now than they did in the 50s. Refrigerators probably had about the same life span but the newer ones use a fraction of the electricity. And in the 50s there was no such thing as a smartphone nor a digital cable platform with hundreds of channels, thousand of on-demand TV shows and movies, and DVR that allows me control over time and space the likes of which a 1950s TV viewer could only dream of—at least, y’know, one- to two-thirds of the time.

Lesson for science fiction authors, then:

New technology is awesome and cool and creates whole new universes, and will break down. George Lucas had some fun with the used car unreliability of the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars—this isn’t a fresh idea. But keep this in mind. Cell phones are awesome, except when there’s inexplicably no service. Digital cable is great except for the hopelessly buggy software. And all of this stuff wears out.

The idea that there will be an iPhone in a museum in 200,000 years is pretty difficult to imagine. That it might still be working is . . . well, I like my new iPhone and less than a week in it’s functioning perfectly, so I don’t want to be a dick.

 

—Philip Athans

 

* Holy Jesus on His Cross, I just referred to a guy in his twenties as “a nice young man”! That’s it for me. I am now officially old.

 

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PULP FICTION WORKSHOP

I’ve written more than once here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook of my love for the pulp fiction tradition, especially in the science fiction and fantasy genres. Though there have been some recent events in SF/fantasy fandom that may have temporarily co-opted the term “pulp” in a negative way, the lessons we can all learn from these early practitioners of the genres we love are as varied as they are valuable.

I touched on some of those things in my post What Pulp Can Teach Us, but that really only scratches the surface.

I believe it’s fair to say that both the science fiction and fantasy genres as we know them today were not quite invented in the pulp magazines of the first half of the twentieth century, but this is where they came into their own, where the archetypes and expectations that still define those genres were worked through, experimented with, and ultimately cemented into place.

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As I touched on in the article The Shelf-Life of Sci-Fi Storytelling for Prologue Books, the SF/fantasy pulps were proving grounds, on-the-job training camps, and advance bases for exploration for people who became some of the undisputed giants of the genres, from Edgar Rice Burroughs through Ray Bradbury to Philip K. Dick, it was the pulp magazines that grabbed hold of what was considered a second-rate genre that no “serious” author, let alone any “serious” publication would sully itself with and not only published them but embraced them, encouraged them, provided them a living, and built a community of authors and fans that built the genres more or less from scratch.

I will grant that looking back at the massive history of the pulp magazine tradition, there are some red flags that quickly unfurl. These were products of a (thankfully) lost time, of a segregated America where blatantly racist images of minorities and a systematized degradation of women was commonplace—at least in the lurid cover art.

cooking_up_trouble_02

But as I’ve said before, an author who sets out to write a “pulp” story in our more enlightened times is under no obligation to adopt the retrograde morays of decades past. A new movement, which was discussed in my interview with Pro Se Production’s Tommy Hancock, called New Pulp, is taking what was great about those stories—that storytelling tradition—and filling in the details from a contemporary sensibility.

I have to be honest, my approach to storytelling changed when I first encountered Lester Dent’s Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot. This led to a discussion here of the definition of a formula in the post: Formula vs. Recipe.

What Lester Dent achieved with that document wasn’t to lay out a strict formula that made for a long string of roughly identical stories. Instead, and what continue to be enormously useful to any genre author—writing in any genre—are his reminders along the way. He does use language that makes the “formula” feel purpose-built only for hardboiled crime stories, but it’s easy to read it as I think it really was meant to be: a set of prompts and warnings that can help keep your story on track, keep it entertaining—and no, there’s nothing wrong with entertaining!—character-focused, and vibrant.

pulp-masked-rider-1950-1500

I was so impressed with that document, and so reenergized in my lifelong appreciation for that style of writing that I set up an in-person class called the Pulp Fiction Workshop. In that class we met for a few hours one Saturday and went through Lester Dent’s “formula” in detail, talked about the history of pulp and the wide array of genres (including romance, war stories, fight stories, etc.) it covered. Then everyone went away for a few weeks and wrote a 6000-word short story with Dent’s advice in mind and we met on another Saturday to read those stories and discuss the perils and pitfalls, the pleasures and pains, of writing in the pulp tradition.

It was a fantastic experience.

Now I have a great relationship with the good people at Writer’s Digest, who’ve been running my successful Worldbuilding class (starting up again July 2, by the way!). I brought this idea to them and they loved it.

The first online WDU Pulp Fiction Workshop starts this Thursday—and yes, there is still time to sign up. In that course we’ll do the same thing we did in the in-person course, except we’ll stay in closer touch along the way. We’ll start with a close look at Lester Dent’s formula then start in on writing. Over the next four weeks, everybody writes a 6000-word short story, in any genre, and we’ll look at it in fourths along the way. You can choose to share it with the rest of the students, or just with me, and I’ll provide feedback and additional advice along the way, with each week taking a deeper dive into Lester Dent’s advice—and some advice of my own and from other sources.

And at the end you’ll have a 6000-word short story that I absolutely promise you will be as much fun to write as it is to read.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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WRITING WITHOUT TYPING

From the title you might be thinking, Oh, here’s the post where Phil tells us to write longhand. But no, this is not that post. I don’t write longhand and I don’t think you should write longhand either, unless you want to write in longhand and then you really should, as long as that’s getting you actually writing.

What this post is about are those moments while writing that you aren’t actually touching keys or a pen or whatever it is you use to write with.

To an uneducated observer this could easily appear to be you staring blankly off into space.

To an uneducated observer about an hour ago I would have been wrapping a nickel in a little yellow Post-It.

Then you rub it and rub it until you can see President Jefferson.

Then you rub it and rub it until you can see President Jefferson.

To an educated observer we’re both writing our asses off.

Hunter S. Thompson famously told his editors something along the lines of “It’s all done, I just have to type it up.”

That might be stretching it a bit but what I’m talking about here is thinking. And even though I just said (again) that you should write as fast as you can (for your rough draft) this is not contradictory advice. There is a difference between writing fast, not writing at all, and pausing to think.

For most people, the word “pause” indicates a short period of not doing anything, but far be it from me to define the exact parameters of “short.”

What inspired me to write this today is that I just spent the better part of an hour with the Word file for this ghostwriting project (a novel you’ll never know I had anything to do with) up on my screen while I wrapped a nickel in a little yellow Post-It, listened to a good portion of Marc Maron’s interview with Terry Gross, examined the retro SF art on my desktop in great detail, stood up and walked around in circles in my bedroom pausing once or twice to look out the window at nothing . . . but the whole time my brain was clicking along.

I wrote one sentence, know pretty clearly where I was going, but needed to get that next line and it refused to appear until some of these little moments were used up. Then I went right back at it and will finish this book today.

What I didn’t do is start working on something else. I left Facebook closed, too. I didn’t let my brain get focused on something else. Instead I spent that time trying to see the scene I needed to write play out in my head like a movie.

This is something I do a lot—imagine it actually happening in front of me then try to describe it in words as fast as I can. I don’t always write that way, but it works for me. Sometimes that scene plays out fast, at least in its first iteration. But today it took a little longer.

What I’ve learned to do when that happens is to play it out. As busy as I am with multiple projects, I let myself have that hour, not because I’m lazy but because I just needed it, and I don’t need it all the time—not most of the time, even, at least for that long—but that time is part of it. That’s productive time. That’s writing time.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

 

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OUTLINING WITH NOTE CARDS, PART 2: SEEKING WISDOM

Last week I started writing about how I finally used note cards to start to plot out that novel I’ve been meaning to start writing, and I said:

And I might even go out and see if someone else has some note card outlining wisdom to share, too.

This week I’ve actually Googled it, and this is what I’ve found:

In her article for Writer’s Digest, “Create Structure in Your Fiction Using Index Cards,” Rachel Scheller went back to a terrific example from “The Trouble With Tribbles” writer David Gerrold, who mapped out a very simple strategy that I think would work better for short stories (or one-hour TV episodes) than novels, but this is really worth taking a look at. In particular, she quoted Gerrold as having written:

Some people like to do their outlining on a computer, but the actual physical act of writing scene synopses down on cards and shuffling them around on the kitchen table is still one of the best ways to get a sense of the rhythms of story structure, because it allows you to treat scenes as units.

Though I still won’t discount the computer as a tool that’s just as good for this exercise, one of the things I immediately responded to when I started to work with these note cards is that sense of building something, the tactile quality of assembling this physical thing that will eventually be a story.

Author Holly Lisle wrote a terrific post on the subject: “Notecarding: Plotting Under Pressure.” Here she suggests using note cards to help in some sort of plot emergency, when you don’t have a lot of time to suffer over the plot of your novel and just need to get started fast.

Referring you back to all the times I’ve advised writing as fast as you can, let’s go ahead and add plotting/outlining to that, too. After all, when you begin with the assumption—and you always should—that “no plan survives contact with the enemy,” then your heavily-pondered outline will be just as subject to change as a fast-and-furious outline, but the former is actually more likely to make your writing process more difficult. After all, if you’ve spent a year thinking about the book as a series of scenes in this order, it’ll be lots more difficult for you to take a necessary left turn from the outline you spent a year crafting than the same left turn from an outline you spent a week crafting.

Reading on, Numerologist Phil began to fall into a deep numerological infatuation with Holly Lisle. She breaks down the number of scenes necessary to fill a 100,000 word book using formulae and . . . sigh. She pegs a scene at approximately 2000 words so her planned 100,000-word book will need 50 scenes. She then divides the scenes between the various POV characters . . . one scene, one POV—yes!

Then she creates note cards that are blank except for the name of the POV character, which I think is a great idea. She’s keeping these scenes, and therefore the plot of her book, focused on the characters. It really is always about them—what they do, how they feel, how they interact with each other and the world, etc. Good advice this. Then she says:

With one set of character cards in hand, start writing down one-sentence scene ideas, one per card. Be a little crazy — just write down all the fun things that you can think of that could happen to the character you have in hand, keeping in mind that all scenes require conflict and change.

I added bold for emphasis on that last bit because that last bit should always be emphasized! Then, like David Gerrold, she suggests you start putting them in order. Does this work? How about this? Wait . . . this scene absolutely has to come after this scene, but then how long after? I really like the sense of play that this process evokes—depends on, really. We don’t always hear about opportunities to make crafting an outline fun.

Also working in a way that I’ve worked myself, she advises:

Once the cards are in order and you’ve read through them once or twice to make sure you have them the way you want them, sit down at the computer, type them in using either outline or bullet format.

Copy and paste them into the bottom of your novel document. Now just look at each sentence-scene, write the scene that it describes, and delete it when you’re done with it.

Read the whole post!

It’s too short to quote here without just copying it, so please click through to John August’s “10 Hints for Index Cards.” Though specific to screenplays, this aligns well with what David Gerrold and Holly Lisle were saying in terms of one scene per card so they can be shuffled around.

This is the idea that’s really making me rethink my own cobbled-together-on-the-fly “system.” I want to give this a try now, and in the worst way.

I’ll end with words of wisdom from John August: “Use the cards or the outline as a map, not a Bible.”

 

—Philip Athans

 

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OUTLINING WITH NOTE CARDS, PART 1: A WORK IN PROGRESS FOR MY WORK IN PROGRESS

In an effort to actually make some progress on a fantasy novel I’ve way too often and for way too long described as my “work in progress,” I’ve been experimenting with some outlining ideas I’ve never used before.

A lot of writers—sometimes it seems to be every writer but me—plots out stories using note cards. These used to be and sometimes still are actual physical note cards. In more and more cases they’re virtual note cards, which a lot of the various writing software packages provide. Still gun shy from my attempt to use at least one of those software packages, I went ahead and bought some old fashioned physical 3”x5” note cards then decided to get all fancy and bought a set of colored Sharpies, too, so I could color code stuff in service to my little dollop of OCD.

Weapons in hand, I pulled out my trusty composition book full of more or less random notes on characters, plot points, and assorted pieces of worldbuilding and started thinking about how to actually use those note cards.

Heaven forbid I Google it or anything and maybe find people that might have some good advice on how to best use these cards. Instead I went ahead and “developed” my very own “system.”

For what it’s worth, I’ve always loved creating “systems” for stuff. Getting myself to consistently use those systems . . . that’s another thing.

Anyway, I thought maybe we can go along on this quest together: The Quest for How to Use Note Cards to Outline a Novel.

Looking through my composition books, my notes seemed to easily break down into four categories:

 

Character Arc

Plot Point

Demon

Worldbuilding

 

You have to start with characters—I do, anyway—and I wanted to try to use these cards to map out certain points I wanted my characters to hit, all of these, by the way, starting in very broad strokes.

Plot Points are just that: events in the story. I had several of these in mind, some thought through in some detail, others just very top-level.

I have most of the character names already figured out…until I get a better idea, that is.

I have most of the character names already figured out…until I get a better idea, that is.

 

But as I started getting into it and writing cards I was having trouble divorcing the characters from the plot. After a couple failed attempts I realized:

Don’t separate characters from the plot!

After all, these should never be exclusive elements anyway, right? The plot of a novel is, essentially, all the stuff the characters in the novel actually do. For whatever reason, though, I kept calling these “plot points,” so now I have a bunch of Plot Point cards that really talk about what characters are doing, experiencing, etc. And that’s fine.

Yep, this is my whole “one demon per ten most popular phobias” idea!

Yep, this is my whole “one demon per ten most popular phobias” idea!

The story is about a world overrun by demons and maybe the most thought-through bit so far is a hierarchy of demons that range in relative power. I made a card for each of these types of demon—again, very sketchy, very top-level, knowing that I will work with them and flesh them out from these broad strokes.

Demons are attracted to the smell of blood…

Demons are attracted to the smell of blood…

Then the worldbuilding category includes important aspects of the setting I’m pretty sure I’m going to need to introduce to inform the characters and story. My hero starts off as a simple farmer, who knows a bit more about the world around him—is a bit more “worldly”—than the average peasant, but not much. He will experience the bigger world for the first time along with the readers.

Then I sat down and started writing on the cards—quickly realizing that I needed a new category:

 Setting

 I want this story to include a straight-line path from one part of the world to a distant point, with stops along the way that also increase the danger to my hero. He starts at home, in the (relatively) safest place in the world, going farther and farther from his comfort zone on his way to the most dangerous place in the world.

This one kinda got cut off in the scan. It says: The Ice Caves of Ymoin.

This one kinda got cut off in the scan. It says: The Ice Caves of Ymoin.

That last bit could describe just abut any fantasy story, couldn’t it?

And that’s the thing—at least in this first step—I kept everything very simple: the least amount of text necessary not to really properly outline the whole book, but just to set up signposts to remind me that I need to think about this, I need to get this character from here to there, and to remind me of certain significant moments in the character’s arc, etc., from an almost formulaic standpoint. For instance, I have cards that just say “Jashiv is injured,” then with varying degrees to remind me that I need this guy to suffer along the way. What the nature of these “injuries” are and even if they’re physical or emotional or psychological . . . all that’s to come. I just have cards to remind me to beat him up.

One of the things that surprised me along the way was that as I went I started to realize that the number nine was significant.

I have nine different types of demons.

I have nine separate settings.

Nine divides nicely into three, so now I see my three-act structure: the first three demons/settings are act one, the next three are act two, and the last three demons and settings are act three.

So really what I had was a Rule of Threes.

Then my closet numerologist burst from hiding and mapped out the whole thing as three parts, each consisting of three sets of three chapters each, corresponding to the nine demons/nine settings and mapping to the three act structure and . . .

Okay, getting ahead of myself. But I like this kind of stuff. It starts to make sense to me now. The book is taking a sort of physical shape inside my head.

What I need to remind myself of as I go will be that this three sets of three sets of three thing is a starting point, a jumping-off point, and I absolutely cannot allow the slavish adherence to that structure to force me to write a pointless chapter, keep a boring character, jam in a useless scene, etc.

Likewise, that structure can’t force me to keep out a great new idea—a new scene, a new character, a new angle on something.

This is just how I’m going to start, not how I’m going to finish.

I’ll check back in here as I go and add some more details, and work through some things that seemed to work, and some that didn’t, all the while hoping to keep this relatively spoiler free. After all, eventually I’m going to want you to buy this book!

And I might even go out and see if someone else has some note card outlining wisdom to share, too.

Stay tuned.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

 

 

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WRITE IN ECSTASY, EDIT WITH INTENT

In a recent posts I’ve offered some advice that seemed pretty strict: banning a few words, sending you out in search of passive voice, telling you how to punctuate a line of dialog, and so on. In those posts, and others like them, I try to make sure that that advice is tempered by a simple, indisputable fact:

 

Fiction is a creative act, an art form that no one can possibly “perfect,” and as such rules are made to be broken, bent, redefined, summarily ignored, or applied piecemeal as you feel is necessary to express yourself in the unique way you so choose.

 

And I stand by that.

So if at any point I use words like never or always, please assume that those sentences end with “unless you want to.” I’m a professional editor with creeping up on thirty years of experience, almost entirely in fiction and mostly in SF and fantasy, but who the hell am I to tell you how to write? I can and try to nudge you in this direction or that, pass on the wisdom gained from my own mistakes and others’, but in the end, your story is your story. Write what you want to write in the way you want to write.

There is an important distinction, though, between knowing “the rule” and breaking it on purpose and not knowing “the rule” and later on making the claim that it was a choice and not a mistake. Generally speaking, as an author you shouldn’t really be engaging with anyone but your editor (and a few selected, trusted beta readers) about the specifics of your writing. Let the online haters hate and lovers love, but don’t start collaborating on your own writing. If someone points out a mistake, please don’t let your ego kick in and make you want to say, “Oh, no, I wanted it that way . . . it’s my style!” If that isn’t actually, literally, specifically true, then learn from that mistake—and maybe adopt it as a personal style point, but more likely, learn from that mistake and never make it again. In most instances, actually, you’ll probably keep making that mistake over and over again, and your editor will keep pointing it out and fixing it over and over again . . . we all have a few of those.

When do you make these specific stylistic choices?

The little tweaks will show up when you’re not paying attention, along with a thousand or more other mistakes, typos, and ideas that seemed good as you were typing but don’t stand up to even the first read-through.

Last week I talked about how Ray Bradbury also advised writers to write fast, uncaring of perfection or grammar or spelling or anything but the raw experience. I think this is excellent advice. So write your rough draft like a madperson . . . as fast as you can type. Then you can go back and suffer over when you feel this bit of passive voice works or that comma should be taken out even though “the rule” says it should be there, and so on. So how about this:

 

Write in ecstasy.

Edit with intent.

 

Always!

 

—Philip Athans

 

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