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…

Ahhh, Excess…

Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.”
—Oscar Wilde

Ahh, Oscar…thank you for those words!

I’d love to say I admire that line solely for its literary merits, but…well…I might as well have the damned thing tattooed on my forehead. No, really. For me, if something is worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.B1AA577A-B316-4402-A87C-3C2FDC880975

All those old “moderation in all things” sentiments can kiss my ass…

Now, one point I should make is that I love to cook. The only things I obsess about more than cooking/food, in fact, are writing, music and booze (which is pretty dang close to being a part of the food thing). I study food and flavors like I never studied, well, anything in college.*

*Hey, there is definitely something to be said for the “C’s get degrees” mantra!

It’s a pretty normal thing for me to overdo even something so simple as a quickie-meal of grilled cheese and tomato soup. At this particular moment, I’m throwing together a picnic for some folks. Doing this for other people is probably a good thing, I should add, as I would undoubtedly go completely and totally gonzo if I was doing it for myself…

Three kinds of cheese, two kinds of meat, a fresh ceviche, some bread, dessert, wine, beer…I’m even contemplating throwing together some quick-toasted flatbread and making a mango chutney to go with it.

See what I mean? Things like this should always be done to excess! Hell, if anyone I know actually agreed with me and went in for the good things in life, I’d throw in some cold, pickled tongue and maybe a bit of pate de foie gras.

I am, I should probably add, also drinking beer and cranking old-school Frank Sinatra as I get all this ready…

Ahhh…excess…how I love you!

Wait, I’m supposed to be writing, you say?


This kind of thing is why, by the way, I write in coffee shops and breweries — there’s nothing to disturb me there. Well, nothing except people, but…well… Shit, I’m a writer, for the love fo God…I’m supposed to ignore the rest of the human race!

Fail Less

So, I think about writing all the time.  About characters and settings and plots; about, in the end, the stories that are more than the sum of all those things.  I think about not just the stories I write, but also those I read.

It’s important to think about, and to learn from, the stories and writers you admire.  Whether that admiration is for the whole package, or for just an element or two, there is (almost) always something to study and learn.  But just as important — if considerably less pleasant — is the need to learn from the…err, less successful* stories and writers.

*And, yes, I am in fact using “less successful” as a euphemism for BAD.

When I watch some jackass set himself on fire in a drunken stunt gone wrong, I learn that most important of human lessons: don’t do that.  When I read some book where everything falls apart in a raging inferno of shitty characters or bad plotting, I (hopefully!) learn that same lesson: don’t do that.

But learning don’t do that isn’t enough, no more than is just learning the other great lesson of be more like this.  No, you have to continually work and think to apply those lessons to your own writing, too.  You have to be able to look at your own stuff like a reader, and to find and understand the flaws in your stuff even more than you do in the works of others.

There are a great many people who can identify the flaws in what they read.  Whether they have knowledge and vocabulary to explain those flows is immaterial, they can see and feel them.  What sets the “few” apart from the “many” in this respect, however, is the ability to see and feel the flaws in your own stuff.

Failure-350x264.jpgMy whole object in thinking about writing all the time is to learn that third great lesson of life: try to fail less.  You can’t beat yourself up about failure — that way lies madness, trust me — but nor can you be afraid of it.  If you’re afraid to fail, you’ll never try…and that lack of trying is the greatest failure of all.

Look, everyone who writes starts off rough.  Everyone has their collection of “trunk material,” the stuff that will never (and should never, honestly) see the light of day.  As Stephen King once said, the first million words are practice.  But those initial, arguably necessary, “failures,” those opportunities to learn, are one of the greatest barriers to making this whole thing work.  The vast majority of folks, no matter how great or how small their talent, often give up the authorial ghost with that first “failure.”  They simply stop trying.

Which of those failures was worse?  Writing a bad story?  Or refusing to start on the next one?

By now, you probably know my answer to that…

Now, I do have to add one caveat here.  If you write that first bad story, then start on the next one with no effort to learn from the first, nor to improve…well, let’s just add that to the list that defines writers who are less successful.

The military has this concept of the After Action Report.  It records everything that happened in a particular incident (battle, accident, event, etc..).  Now, the record itself is valuable, but the greatest value is found in explaining and understanding the mistakes — of judgment, of execution, of command — that are part of any operation.  Listing those mistakes, and going on to define the Lessons Learned for the future, is the heart of the whole damned thing.

In writing terms, that translates to doing an After Action Report on what you write.  What went right?  What went wrong?  What can you do differently to improve the next one?*

*By the way, this whole concept works in pretty much any sphere of life — I used to do it after every single project, back when I was still living the life of a cubicle-weasel.

I would guess that most writers already think about that stuff when wrapping up a story, but just thinking about it gives far too many chances, and too much excuse, to “forget.”  Or even, sadly, to ignore.  No, do yourself a favor and do an actual written AAR document.  It is really hard to not internalize and understand/learn the lessons when you write them out.

On a personal level, I have an ever-growing spreadsheet of Lessons Learned from every story I’ve written — good, bad or indifferent.  And I fully expect to keep that sheetWarGames-Trailer-700x300
growing as I keep writing.  Remember, my goal is not to not fail, it is to fail less.  In the end, the only way to not fail is to go all Wargames and not play, and that’s just not an option.

Listening to the Rain

87FF5970-0CF7-4BF5-84CE-E6E59E143C91I sat there, the other day, listening to the rain. Not doing anything…not writing, not planning, not thinking about anything at all…just listening to the rain.

It’s one of my favorite sounds, the rain. A bit of thunder, and the constant patter of drops on the roof? There’s a hypnotic quality to that, a quality that encourages a certain detachment, and a certain blanking of all the things that have such a tendency — and so much power — to overwhelm our minds and our thoughts.

I was asked once, by my sister, if I could sit and meditate. If I could sit in silence and hear…nothing. No worries, no thoughts, no emotions…just sit in silence, and in peace.

Yes, I can.

I have to, it helps keep me sane.

And, no, I’m not going to dive into everything that goes into that statement. Mostly because, as honest as I usually am on this blog, the majority of my thoughts and my troubles are mine alone.  Sorry if that sounds harsh, but the need for privacy is an important part of my make-up.

There are, however, examples I can give…examples that matter. They matter to me as a writer, and (hopefully) to you folks as insight into how someone else deals with everything that goes with that life.

I just finished editing a story. It was far too long of a process — longer than it should have been, to be honest, because of my foray into other projects…and because of my six months living in the wilderness.

It is a story intensely personal to me. It is a story I believe in, and one I felt deeply as I wrote it. It also is a story I let languish in the process because, well, it was hard to go back to. But I had to finish it. I had to finish it for commercial reasons (yes, I DO like to get paid for this stuff, you know!), but more importantly I had to finish it for personal reasons.

And I did.

I don’t know about you, but when I write, I feel. I feel my characters, I feel my story, and I feel what I want my readers to feel. Probably more intensely than I should, all things considered. To abuse an old writing rule: I write what I know. More than that, however, I write what I feel…and that can be difficult.  Very difficult, sometimes.

So, I finished this particular journey of writing and editing and revising…

And I was drained. Completely.

Now, I’m an introvert at the best of times, but when I get done with an intense writing or creative session, you can multiply that by a thousand. It takes me a while to get my head back above water. I’m generally a couple of hundred feet down when I’m into my characters and my stories, and — as anyone who scuba dives will tell you — it takes time to come back up.

So I sat there, listening to the rain. The rumble of thunder, the fall of the drops…nothing in my mind except silence and peace. I needed that silence to come up from the depths. I needed that silence to regain a semblance of balance.

I still need that silence…everyday, in fact, is a quest in some way for that silence.

There is a reason why my next story is titled The Silence That Never Comes