Tim Pratt's Journal
2802633 Curiosities served
2003-10-01 5:31 PM
For New Writers
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Because I believe in recycling, I've decided to post a few notes I wrote for new writers. My boss asked me to write up these notes a couple of months ago, when he went to speak at Writers of the Future, and I'm told he delivered them more-or-less as written. I don't promise anything earth-shaking or vastly illuminating, but these are a few things I wish I'd been told when I was first starting out, along with some mild refutations of things I hear new writers say from time to time.
Thoughts on what to say to new writers:
You're here, at Writers of the Future, which means you got paid for something you wrote, which is a great feeling, and a rather rare one. You're on the bottom rung of the professional writing ladder, now, and it's a long climb to the top, and most of you will fall off that ladder before you get anywhere near the highest rungs -- but hey, at least you're on the ladder, which is more than a lot of people achieve. To get this far, you've competed with other new writers, people just starting out, and even so, the competition was fierce. Here's the scary part: from here on out, if you keep trying to write, you're competing with everyone. Not just new writers -- the professionals, too. You're competing with the writers who judged your stories in this competition! How do you think your odds look now?
Howard Waldrop has a great line. He says "You'll either stop writing, or you'll die, or you'll get published." If that sounds encouraging to you, listen to it again, a bit more closely.
From here, you'll probably go on to conventions, where you'll try to network, which is good, but which can be exhausting. One of the greatest things about the science fiction community is that it's relatively small and informal -- you can go to a convention and talk to just about anyone. Meeting editors and agents and other writers is a good thing, and there's nothing unethical or smarmy about introducing yourself to someone who might be able to help your career -- as long as you don't do it in a smarmy way. No editor is going to buy your work just because they're friends with you, but being friends can't hurt.
You might go to professional writing workshops, where you'll learn that great writers can write bad stories, too, which is both heartening and profoundly depressing. You'll be rejected. A lot. Don't let it discourage you, don't beat your breast and bemoan your fate, don't complain about the form letters -- just send the stories back out again. Keep sending them out. You'll publish your work somewhere, if you're good, and if you're lucky, and you'll wait to be hailed as a genius... and you probably won't be. Most likely, your stories will vanish into the void, unremarked, and shuffle off the newsstand into eternal oblivion. If you're lucky, your stories will get reviewed, and if you're slightly less lucky, the reviewers will say your stories are terrible, and they'll say you stole your ideas from great dead writers that you've never even read (but probably should have), and maybe they'll even use words you have to go look up in the dictionary. People will complain about your fiction on newsgroups, and you'll just be happy that anyone noticed it at all. You'll find yourself drawn into incomprehensible arguments and bizarre feuds, especially if you spend any time on the internet.
So why bother? You won't get rich. Even in the unlikely event that you get famous, lots of people will hate your writing. The only reason to write is because you love writing, or telling stories, or some part of the creative process. If you love writing, then all the awful things that happen to you are just tangential, they're not important. Which isn't to say that you shouldn't learn about the business side of things, but a love for the work will sustain you as you're learning to navigate the Byzantine and often brutal world of publishing.
When you're working on a story, think about the story, not about the business. When you're done, that's the time to think about where to sell it.
You can't take rejections personally. Most editors are a lot more overworked than you are, and they see hundreds of submissions every month. Rejection doesn't mean your work isn't any good -- there are dozens of examples of great writers who had some of their most famous books and stories rejected repeatedly. Robert Heinlein had a set of rules for writing: You must write. You must finish what you write. You must not spend eternity revising what you wrote. You must submit what you write. You must keep submitting it until it is sold. That's really all there is to it. The more you write, and the more you submit, the better your chances of succeeding.
Write a lot, and read more than you write. Read the old stuff, and the new stuff. Read loads of non-fiction. Read outside of the SF/Fantasy field, too. Keep up with what's happening in the field, too, though. Read Locus.
Subscribe to magazines. If you want them to continue to exist as possible markets for your stories, you should support them! It won't hurt you to read the short SF that's being published -- see what you're up against.
Don't try to please everyone. Once you get beyond the basic competencies, fiction is incredibly subjective. You might have a story that everyone in your writing workshop hates, but that will resonate with an editor, or with a lot of readers. Your audience isn't necessarily the people who are criticizing you or taking a writing class with you. This is true even on the level of professional writing workshops, even on the level of professional agents and editors -- what one hates, another may love, because personal preference has a lot to do with what people think of a given story. If you get critiques, take whatever is useful, and ignore anything that doesn't help you. That doesn't mean ignore everything negative -- be open to learning about your own weaknesses!
If all else fails, you can always start your own religion.
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