Over to Gaie -
Pete has very kindly – and perhaps somewhat foolishly – asked me to give a list of my top ten writing tips. Having read over them I realise that they are not, in the main, tips on technique.
For technique, I’m just going to recommend a few books I return to over and over again. Nancy Kress: Dynamic Characters. Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey. Stephen King, On Writing. Dwight Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer – (Swain is old fashioned, in some cases painfully so, but still has some good, practical advice). Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel.
(Subclause: When looking for books on writing I recommend checking that the person whose book you are about to buy has actually had some success at writing and/or publishing the kind of fiction you’re interested in – not just at selling books about writing fiction. There is enough snake oil out there to submerge a continent.).
What follows are largely tips on how to make life easier for yourself as a writer and things which happen to be in the forefront of my mind right now. I hope they are of use - or at least of interest.
Gaie’s (current) top ten writing tips
1 Read. Please read. If you want to write for television it’s fine to spend a lot of your available time watching television (although I’d still suggest watching the kind of stuff you want to write – and reading television scripts, as that’s what you’ll be writing). If you want to write books, read books. In your genre. In other genres. The sort you want to write and the sort you wouldn’t dream of writing. For all sorts of reasons. You will learn a huge amount by sheer osmosis about pacing, plotting, and style. You will expand your working vocabulary. And you will get ideas. These are all good things. Also, just read, dammit. If you don’t read other people’s books, why would you expect other people to read yours?
2 Research is worth it. Even if you’re writing fantasy – in fact, especially if you’re writing fantasy, because those little details can help bring the story alive, and make it feel like a real, three-dimensional world. Also, fantasy and SF readers are often very well-informed people who know about things from rocket-science to the history of brewing to the difference between a longsword and a greatsword. If you don’t bother to at least try and get it right, you may irritate them, and they’ll go read someone else.
Another reason research is worth it – you never know when some odd little detail or character you discover will spark an entire new direction in your story, or an entirely new story.
(Sub-clause: you will, and should, do more research than you’ll ever use. Always remember you’re writing a story, not a treatise on 17th century cake-decorating, or whatever. However fascinating the details you’ve discovered, unless they have relevance to character development or plot, think hard about whether they need to be on the page).
(Extra bonus sub-clause, type a - things I didn’t do and wish I had: If you don’t have a lot of spare cash, set yourself a budget for research books, if you’re anything like me and cannot resist an excuse to buy books. I don’t think the taxman is going to believe my next claim. I’m not sure I do, and I was there.).
3 Do new things. Absorb stuff. Watch films. Read non-fiction. Go to art galleries and museums and sculpture parks and exhibitions. Get out into nature and surround yourself with space and green and silence. Get into the heart of a big city and surround yourself with crowds and buildings and chatter. Take a class in something new. Go to an event or a place you haven’t been before. Ideas are everywhere; sometimes you just need one new thing in your daily experience to set off a whole chain of them.
4 If you can, (and I know this is a hard one for some people) talk to your taxi-driver, to the woman behind the counter at the coffee shop, to your dentist (when you haven’t got a mouthful of metal and anaesthetic, obviously), to coppers and beauticians and undertakers. And don't just talk - ask questions. Listen. People have unexpected lives and know all sorts of unexpected things. If you find talking to strangers really uncomfortable, then watch interviews, read biographies and autobiographies. Engage with how other people, with different backgrounds, cultures, jobs, sexualities, view the world. People are the absolute base material of all fiction.
The last four points are all about filling the pot. The more you have in your pot, the more resources you have of ideas and approaches, characters and settings.
Now, emptying the pot.
5 Blocks and problems. I’m going to cheat a little here. Problems with actually getting the words out are legion and there is far more and better advice out there than I can give in a single blog post. If you’re struggling with blocks, I’d suggest Hilary Rettig’s Seven Secrets of the Prolific Writer as a good starting point. Clear, simple, humorous and effective.
6 Try to get yourself the best possible writing space. Even if that’s a café near work in your lunch hour, try to get a table that’s comfortable, out of drafts and somewhere your co-workers aren’t likely to come and interrupt you. If you’re working at home, again, comfort rules. Comfort makes it so much easier to work. I like having a dedicated writing space, my partner prefers to be flexible. Choose what works for you. Get a decent chair and an ergonomic keyboard if you possibly can.
(Sub-clause: for lunchtime/ post-work writing: Starbucks is not your only option. Look for other venues like arts centres or theatre bars – theatre bars are often very quiet at lunchtime and can be thoroughly writer-friendly).
7 Get the most decent equipment you can afford. I’m not talking about fancy software – just a keyboard you find easy to use, sufficient battery life, something not too heavy if you’re going to be lugging it around all day. Use pen and paper if you prefer it. Either way, carry it in something that will keep the rain out (seriously – I know people who’ve lost work to a downpour, not to mention expensive equipment). And back up. A lot.
8 There are free programmes to limit or shut off your internet access for given amounts of time; Freedom and Self Restraint are two I use. I really recommend programmes like these. Really.
9 Write what you love. Don’t write zombie tiger S&M because that’s currently selling – by the time you’ve written it, edited it, found a publisher or self-published (if you’re doing it properly self-publishing, while quicker than the other sort, still takes time) – the trend is likely to have changed or died anyway. Write zombie tiger S&M because you love it to bits and want other people to share your joy. Don’t write for the approval of parents, tutors, partners, or that divvy you met in college who made sniffy noises about ‘lowbrow’ fiction. That person probably now has a really boring life. Write what you love, what you can’t wait to get on the page, the stuff that makes you swoon or giggle with delight, the stuff that’s driven by the fury in your soul. Passion matters, and passion shows. If you’re writing by the numbers, slogging your way through, readers will smell it.
And besides, why would you do this if it wasn’t – well, maybe fun is the wrong word, because you might want to write stories that are brutal and grim and leave reality flayed and screaming on the operating table – if it wasn’t what you’re driven to do? It’s often frustrating and a grind and doesn’t generally pay that well. So don’t make it harder by forcing yourself to write things you don’t really care about.
10 Do the work. Do the work when you’re feeling as though you don’t know anything, as though you’ve never had a decent idea in your life, or had one and have now used it and will never have another. Do the work even when you think that everyone loathes every word you ever wrote or said or so much as thought. Do the work when it feels as though there’s a massive conspiracy against anything you do getting anywhere or being seen by anyone or making any money or having any impact whatsoever. Do the work when it feels completely pointless.
Because the work is never pointless. Even if this particular piece doesn’t get you where you want, it’s another step on the road, it’s a brick in the house you're building, it’s practice. Do the work. The work is always worth it.
Gaie Sebold February 2014
Gaie Sebold is the author of the Babylon Steel series (Solaris) – the adventures of a heroine who runs a brothel while dealing with Fey, mad wizards, vengeful gods, tax collectors and other dangerous creatures. Her new book, Shanghai Sparrow, a steampunk spy caper, is due out shortly. She has had a number of short stories published, including one in the current David Gemmell Memorial Anthology, Legend. She also runs writing workshops, cooks, gardens, occasionally hits people with swords and procrastinates at Olympic level. Her website is at www.gaiesebold.com