Thursday, February 14, 2013

Five Things I've Learned About Writing

"You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you." - Ray Bradbury

One of those sites I read at one time or another told me that, in order to be a more successful blogger, I needed to write lists.  You've seen them all over: "12 Things An Agent Can Do For You," "10 Ways To Make More Money Writing," "25 Things You Should Never Do In A List," and so on.

Fine.  I'll do a list.  I've usually hated them, honestly, though the lists over at Cracked make me chuckle.  I mean, they have such beauties as The 5 Hilarious Reasons Publishers Rejected Classic Best Sellers and 6 Words Made Up By Stupid People and 6 Famous Things From History That Didn't Actually Exist.  Golden stuff, that.  Posts of legends, they are.  If I could write stuff like that, I would.


Anyway, here's my first (and probably last) attempt at a list of my own:

Five Things I've Learned About Writing

1.  Commas matter.

"Let's eat, Grandma."
"Let's eat Grandma."

Heck, most rules of grammar and language construction matter.  I know, there's always a nonconformist or two out there who hated learning rules (hey, I get it--there's a lot to learn) and so he declared a manifesto against the strict constructions of the English language.  And besides, the argument goes, Twain didn't always follow the rules, right?

Well, no, but....

Hey, writing as adults really is a free-world kind of thing.  Nobody's saying you have to follow the rules.  Be as non-conformist as you wish, by all means.  Just don't expect those of us who like the rules to read your stuff.  And the thing about being a writer is that if nobody's reading what you slave over, it's kind of a useless effort.

But all that said, (the reason I picked commas is that they're in the group where) sometimes the rules aren't precisely precise.  There are clear times to use commas and others where commas should not be used, but the rest boils down to style.  Sometimes, frankly, a well-placed comma can make all the difference.  Sometimes a poorly-placed comma, can turn a wonderfully worded sentence, into crap.

So follow the rules.  And just for fun, take out a few commas and re-read your work to see how much cleaner it sounds.  

2.  Adverbs are bad, except when they're not.

I got my adverbs under control pretty quickly, I think.  I've never had anybody vociferously complain about them, anyway, and when I've checked counts of various types of words I find that adverbs are sprinkled pretty conservatively throughout.

Hey, did you notice how many adverbs I put in that previous paragraph?  I bet you did.

I remember reading On Writing very early in my own efforts and being shocked at how much the master hated that one part of speech.  It didn't seem fair, and after a couple years of experience I still consider it unfair.  I think he had it wrong, or at least oversimplified.  Adverbs themselves aren't bad.  Neither are speech tags ("he said" and "she said" and "he screamed" and such), which, I admit, have been my weakness, especially on the book to which I'm currently applying final edits. 

Fact is, anything repeated to the point where it busts through the reader's enjoyment of the story and is thus cognitively recognized is bad.  That's why thesauruses exist--though why they're called that is a mystery to some.  A quick check online suggests that the word comes from both Greek and Latin words for treasure, which is certainly what a writer can expect to find within the hallowed pages of a good thesaurus.  It's still nearly impossible to pronounce, though, especially after a drink or two, which is another reason to avoid drinking while you write.  Right?

3.  Winning the lottery is easier.

What are the odds of getting rich from your first book?  Most of my sources suggest they're very low.  I read once that there are several hundred thousand books written each year.  There are only a couple of hundred bestsellers out of that.  Most bestsellers make some money for the author, but only a very few take off to the point of making their author wealthy.

No, it's true.  Look at the authors who've made it, who are wealthy.  Most of them were helped along the way by a breakout bestseller, to be sure, but the key to really making it big seems to be writing a lot of books rather than hoping to strike it lucky by making your vampires sparkle in your first effort.  Write a lot, then, and keep writing, and when you're still not rich enough, write more.

Or you could play the lottery.

Odds of your book hitting it big this year: maybe 1 in 1,000,000?  Just a reasonable guess, since mega-hits don't come out every year.
Odds of winning the Powerball jackpot: 1 in 175,000,000.

What's the practical difference between 1:1,000,000 and 1:175,000,000?  Not a lot.  Anybody who knows numbers can tell you that you don't have much chance of hitting it big with either odds. Buying a Powerball ticket is a whole lot easier than writing a novel of any caliber (trust me!), much less the high-quality effort that will stun the world into pouring millions into your bank account.

Heck, you can even buy two or five tickets in the same amount of time it takes you to buy one.  Can't do that with a novel, now, can you?

If you want a chance at getting rich, buy a lottery ticket.  If you want to write a novel, write a novel.  It's pretty simple. 

4.  Writing is both a joy and a torment.  Sometimes, it's both at the same time.

Writing isn't hard.  Writing is fun.  I love to write.


Sometimes I sit and stare at the computer screen, wishing I had some clue for the topic of my next blog post.  Wishing I had a creative idea somewhere in my thick head.  Wishing the torment would go away and my fingies would start dancing across the keyboard once again. 

The trick to dealing with the latter?  Just do it.  Quit focusing on the torment and go back to the creative core that we all have.  Write down the first three ideas that come to your mind, and look at how the ideas interact.  Whatever the most interesting intersection is, write about it. 

Just write.  It's not always fun.  But if you're a writer, it's always worth it.

5.  Everybody has an opinion.  Most of them are wrong.

To be clear, I should add "for me" to the end.  Joe Konrath is one of my great inspirations, crass though his tone may be sometimes (admittedly, I'm not innocent in that area, myself).  His opinion carries some weight with me, but you know what?  He doesn't do the same thing I do, and vice versa, so sometimes what he has to say doesn't apply.  Same with Kristen Lamb, and Rachelle Gardner, and so on.  They're all wonderfully smart and talented people, and I cherish the opportunity I have through their blogs to understand what they're thinking, but that doesn't mean I follow everything they do.

Most indie authors I know get that.  Some traditional ones, especially those who are as-yet-unpublished traditional authors, don't.  You'll see them at writers' conferences and at the sci fi/fantasy cons, following from speaker to speaker, writing down every last word the experts bequeath.  At the end they scurry home and attempt to replicate everything that's in their notes.

How do I know that?  I was one of them.

Don't be.

Your writing is unique.  You're unique.  Your readers will (eventually) come to you seeking that uniqueness, not the fact that you can precisely replicate what Bob Jones over there does.

That includes marketing, by the way.  The going wisdom a year or so ago was that authors who weren't busy with social media were doomed to fail.  Konrath was the lone voice I read arguing the other side, that authors who weren't busy writing more content were doomed to fail.  But I went off with the crowd, Tweet-bombing the crap out of my followers.  I revised my web page every week.  I joined Pinterest and Goodreads and a whole slew of other sites that would "connect me to readers."  I--well, I did it all.  And you know what?  Along the way I learned some stuff: stuff about SEO, stuff about creating content, and so on.

You know what else?

Konrath was right.

And on that note, so ends my first and last list of stuff.  Hope you enjoy!


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