We Learn By…Teaching?

One of the weird parts of writing is…well…when people seek you out for advice on writing. I mean, c’mon, I’m a sci-fi (and fantasy) writer — by definition, that means I‘m more than a little nuts. I did, after all, choose to to go into what is, in all honesty, the least lucrative writing field out there.

A key bit of advice came to mind even before I heard my friend’s question…which was not a particularly good idea, all things considered. The advice to skip the sci-fi and fantasy genres, and go instead for soft-core porn and romance, was funny as hell to me but…well…not so much to the other half of the conversation. The sad lesson that poor guy has yet to learn, unfortunately, is that porn and romance pay much better than sci-fi.

Okay, so to the question I actually was asked:

“I have this manuscript I want to submit,” my friend said.

“Tell me about it,” I answered.

“Well, it’s a fantasy story. I have about 300,000 words so far…”

“Stop telling me about it. No, really…just stop now.”

And then an hour long conversation ensued about expected manuscript wordcounts, and the evils of trying to jump outside of those. Honestly, unless your name is Robert Jordan or George R.R. Martin, 300,000 words isn’t going to get your query rejected. Oh no, it won’t get anything so nice and friendly as a form rejection. Nope, that query is going to be stabbed, drowned, hung, burned and shot into the sun by the poor intern or office assistant who is sifting through that morning’s slush pile.

Look…I’m a wordy bastard. Anyone who has read more than a half-dozen or so of my posts knows that particular vice of mine. I like to write…and I like words. I could write 300,000 words about freaking breakfast, for the love of God. I dream of being able to submit a manuscript that large, and of having a chance in hell of not being laughed out of the profession entirely. Until that day comes, however, I will continue to fit within my genre’s accepted wordcount range of 105,000 – 125,000 words.

Honestly…every manuscript I’ve ever written has initially come in “heavy” by roughly 15-20% in terms of expected wordcount. The hard-learned editing process, however, generally sees that manuscript slim down into a more common sense range. For a bit of background with two most recent stories: Somewhere Peaceful to Die is “final” at just over 112,000 words, while the half-finished first draft of The Silence That Never Comes is is already “fat” at roughly 70,000 words…

Okay, so…real world concerns aside, I did explain to my friend the whole agent-querying process, and the frustrating & humbling (humiliating?) nature baked into that whole hideous game. But he was still eager, and still enthusiastic,* so we got into the realities of storytelling…

*Did I forget to mention that he was young? He is. I have socks older than him…

That second half of the conversation was honestly fun. To stand there and talk about how to craft and tweak scenes to make them stronger…about how to make the whole process of characterization and development more natural and more readable…about how to play games with the reader’s expectations and use their emotional investment…

That is what writing is about. That is getting past the bullshit, and into the craft itself.

Honestly, one of the things I firmly believe is that the best way to master something is to teach someone else. Let me put it like this: I’m a hockey player. I’m…well…I’m good. Actually, I’m very good. But it wasn’t until I taught a shooting-clinic for highschool players that I actually broke down exactly how I shoot the puck as hard and accurately as I do. Honestly, I learned as much from doing that as did the kids.

Writing isn’t any different.

Teaching someone about the things to look for the in the revision and editing process makes me better at that process. Teaching/helping someone with the dynamics of plotting…or of characterization…or of working/playing with POV…help me as much, if not more, than those I am I am trying to “teach.”

Shit…two Bachelor’s degrees, at different universities, and now I start to think grad school might not have been a bad idea?

Yep, I’m definitely a writer…

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