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Early Learnings

So I started my writer-in-residence position at the library in January, and a huge part of my time each week is spent doing one-on-ones with various folks—some general 'writerly chats' where people can ask questions about writing and publishing in general, and some project chats, where we discuss a specific piece of writing.


Supposedly, people are there to learn from my experience, but I've been (unexpectedly?) picking up a lot of knowledge in return; I feel like I did in my early days as a first reader for Escape Pod, that kind of slow realization that if you look at enough of the same type of thing, you eventually start to see patterns forming. (Unfortunately, all this means in a practical sense is that I'm saying the same thing again and again to people about very different projects. But I thought it might be interesting to start collecting my learnings somewhere!)


1. The most common pitfall by far that I'm seeing from people attempting longform work for the first time is a lack of balance in their novels—so, fiction that's all dialogue and stage direction (nope: that's a screenplay) or all worldbuilding (for all intents and purposes, that's a TTRPG manual) or all character descriptions (ditto) or all interior monologue (that's a diary) or so on.


Most of our chat time is taken up with gentle suggestions that they try to rebalance what they've already got with the other components of narrative, so that their novel is an actual novel and not something else.


2. Weirdly, the second most common pitfall that I'm seeing is a kind of... randomness? Stories as a box of beads instead of a string of beads?? I'm still trying to figure out how best to guide people to correct this in their work, because it's such a fundamental issue that it requires rewriting rather than revision.


Basically, events are just happening willy-nilly, and not only does a scene not cause the subsequent scene to happen logically, but sometimes the preceding scene is not even connected to the next scene. (I can't just call this the Things Be Happening Issue though.)


I think this is caused by enthusiasm, which is generally a good thing to have in writing, but it becomes a drawback when people want to write the kind of tentpole, cinematic, high-conflict scenes that they're super excited to write, without actually pausing to consider whether the scenes, taken in narrative sequence, actually make... any sense. (Occasionally, I've had people admit that this was exactly what they wanted to do and then they planned to go back and insert scenes 'in between' to make them connect. My response has mostly been "Godspeed, buddy," because that process sounds like it will take between three and ten billion years to complete.)


3. Finally, I'm seeing a whole lot of dialogue striving for realism with such effort that it ends up reading like unedited interview transcript—it's true that in real life, people say "Um" and "Ah" and blather and stammer and digress a lot, but none of that needs to be in fiction unless it's there for effect. (I also just did a little talk about this for a creative writing class last week, so it's much on the mind!)


Dialogue isn't the same as conversation; it's part of a narrative and it needs to read like it, as a weight-bearing component in a story that does things that no other component actually can do. So yeah, it does need to be edited, clipped, tweaked, have its contrast and saturation turned up compared to the grey sludge of our everyday speech. Is that a pain in the ass sometimes? Yes! Is it worth it? Always.


As a result, the constant homework that I'm giving people who want to be published is, "You gotta read what you're trying to write!"


And this strikes me as such strange advice to be giving people, such a weird assignment to say out loud, but it keeps happening! I'm seeing poets who don't read poetry, essayists who don't read essays, children's book authors who don't read books for children.


Part of me is like "How is this possible" but that part keeps getting shouted down whenever I ask someone about the most recent work in their genre that they've read and they reply, "Oh, I don't really read that stuff, I just had an idea and wanted to write it."


If any newer writers are reading this blog post: First things first, you're not alone! Secondly, GET OFF THE INTERNET AND GO DO YOUR HOMEWORK.


Here is a very boring but 100% accurate fact: You cannot write to a publishable standard if you are unaware of what a publishable standard looks like for your genre right now.


Perhaps this is unfortunate, if you are one of those writers who does not like to read! But it's true! If you don't read broadly and deeply enough in your genre, if you don't know what modern editors are choosing to acquire and polish, if you don't know where your genre is being published (which magazines, websites, imprints), if you haven't got at least an idea of what a completed, edited work looks like—you're not getting through that gate no matter how good your idea is. And the reason for that is that your idea needs to be turned into your work.


A poet who says "I want to publish my poetry collection" but then can't tell me their favourite poets or even a few favourite poetry collections (not anthologies!) has a problem. They don't even know what a poetry collection looks like—this is like wanting to build a house without having so much as seen a house, only gotten the idea for one. After reading ten or twelve collections they'd at least know the length ranges, the likely imprints, some of the options (chronological; life event or theme; image or premise; allusions and references; length; place or time they were written; etc etc). They'd know what they like and what they didn't like—maybe it turns out you hate it when poets collect by theme because you want to read their stuff from oldest to newest. Maybe they'd get a wild new idea on how to arrange it from a published collection!

The point is, just hurling your Great Work at a random publisher is not... the best way to get published, and people shouldn't expect it to be. Publishing is about targeting. It's pretty glib to say "Don't send in your book about golfing techniques to a romance imprint, or your chance of success is 0%" but as you get further along in your publishing journey that gets more and more specific ("Don't send in your splatterpunk horror novel to an imprint that publishes literary or upmarket horror"), and the only way to target is to see which works have actually struck theirs.


And not only that, but I keep having to tell people to read actively—I'm not necessarily talking about fine-grained, obsessive, grade-eleven-level textual analysis (although that helps too!), but just knowing what a published work in your genre looks like when it's done, particularly for novelists.


How long is it? What structure does it have? How does the timeline work? How does it handle chapter lengths, endings, and beginnings? How does it connect to the next book in a series, if there is one? Where do major plot events occur in the book? What did you like about it? What did you hate? What patterns are you seeing?


And again—it's helpful to read a lot of current stuff if publication is the goal. Reading Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies may be a lot of fun, but if you've reproduced aspects of its language, structure, exposition, vocabulary, and/or pacing, modern editors aren't going to be titillated; tastes change and evolve.


"But I don't like modern children's books! I want to write a book like The Water Babies!"


It is very unfortunate to love what you love! I hear you! But all the editors who published those classic books are unfortunately dead and you'll have to sell to one who's alive right now! (Have you considered a retelling? Sorry, sorry.)


I'm also hearing people (several so far!) tell me that they don't want to read books in the same genre as they're writing, because they're worried that the other books will sort of... contaminate or infect their current work-in-progress.


This is where I have to reiterate that a) you're in control of your work, so that only happens if you let it, but more importantly, b) this is why you have to read lots and lots of books, ten, twenty, fifty, a thousand books in the genre you're writing.


When you read enough of the same type of book, that gives you the ability to pull out patterns, trends, shapes, and structures that you simply cannot see from reading a single book. It also homogenizes the prose and characters enough that it shouldn't be able to affect your current writing one whit; if anything, as you read more and more, you'll strengthen your own voice because you'll get a much keener sense of who you don't want to sound like, instead of assuming that every author in your genre writes the same way.


"But my book is special and different! I don't want to change anything I'm writing based on what's already out there!"


Don't then! I'm not your supervisor!


But if you want to be published, you do have to assume that any editor you submit to has read thousands of books in your genre, probably edited dozens of them, and your special and different idea has almost certainly been done before, probably repeatedly (which you'd know if you'd done your reading, and you would have been able to edit accordingly before submitting). An editor is looking for something fresh and unusual, but the only way you'd know if your thing was fresh and unusual is to know what's already out there.


When you're able to see and analyze the variation in existing works, that's when you've got the knowledge to apply that to your own work, and your writing will level up. But that leveling-up can't happen if all you're reading is your own stuff. It can't! There isn't enough material to generate patterns!


How are other authors handling conflict-ridden conversations? Or big reveals? Or betrayals? How are they describing setting, technology, transportation? How do they do their transition scenes for big time jumps or periods of unconsciousness or the space of a single afternoon? How do they include mythology or folklore? How do they describe their monsters? How do they introduce their love interests? Where do they bring in the villain? How do they distinguish dialogue in conversation? How do they control pacing between action scenes and exposition scenes? How do they avoid info-dumps? How do they add local colour? How do they address difficult subjects in memoir or essay?


Trust me, if you've got a writing problem, someone out there has solved it in a neat and elegant way that will make you say "Ugh I love it!" and generate a little burst of dopamine. But you have to find it first, and the only way to do that is to read.


"Well this sounds stupid, how do I know this will work?"


You don't! But I don't have any writing degrees or education and this happens to be how I taught myself to write to a publishable, grant-receiving, award-winning level, so you've got at least one data point. :D


(This is also a good place to tell you the best way to do the thing, because guess what, if you know what genre or subgenre you're writing, go to the library and ask a librarian where those books are shelved, and then go down the shelf and pick out a couple and read them and make notes. Then do it again. Then do it again. Easy!)


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