A Long, Lonely Road: Advice To New Writers
By David Brin, Ph.D.
Writing is a worthy calling -- one that can, at times, achieve great heights that ennoble the human race.
Actually, I believe writing was the first truly verifiable and effective form of magic. Think of how it must have impressed people in ancient times! To look at marks, pressed into fired clay, and know that they convey the words of scribes and kings long dead -- it must have seemed fantastic. Knowledge, wisdom and art could finally accumulate, and death was cheated one part of its sting.
Still, let me admit and avow that writing was not my own first choice of a career. True, I came from a family of writers. It was in my blood. But I wanted something else -- to be a scientist. And by the fates, I became one.
I also had this hobby though -- writing stories -- and it provided a lot of satisfaction. I always figured that I'd scribble a few stories a year... maybe a novel now and then... while striving to become the best researcher and teacher I could be.
Don't mistake this for modesty! It's just that I perceive science -- the disciplined pursuit of truth -- to be a higher calling than spinning imaginative tales, no matter how vivid, innovative, or even deeply moving those tales may turn out to be.
I know this seems an unconventional view -- certainly my fellow scientists tell me so, as they often express envy -- an envy that I find bemusing. As for the artists and writers I know, they seem almost universally convinced that they stand at the pinnacle of human undertakings. Doesn't society put out endless propaganda proclaiming that entertainers are beings close to gods?
Ever notice how this propaganda is feverishly spread by the very people who benefit from the image?
Don't you believe it. They are getting the whole thing backwards.
Oh, don't get me wrong; art is a core element to being human. We need it, from our brains all the way down to the heart and gut. Art is the original "magic." Even when we're starving -- especially when we're starving -- we can find nourishment at the level of the subjective, just by using our imaginations. As author Tom Robbins aptly put it:
"Science gives man what he needs,
But magic gives him what he wants."
I'll grant all that. But don't listen when they tell you the other half -- that art and artists are rare.
Have you ever noticed that no human civilization ever suffered from a deficit of artistic expression? Art fizzes from our very pores! How many people do you know who lavish time and money on an artistic hobby? Some of them quite good, yet stuck way down the pyramid that treats the top figures like deities.
[image from yolasite.com]
Imagine this. If all of the professional actors and entertainers died tomorrow, how many days before they were all replaced? Whether high or low, empathic or vile -- art seems to pour from Homo Sapiens, almost as if it were a product of our metabolism, a natural part of ingesting and excreting. No, sorry. Art may be essential and deeply human, but it ain't rare.
What's rare is honesty. A willingness to look past all the fancy things we want to believe, peering instead at what may actually be true. And while every civilization had subjective arts, in copious supply, only one culture ever had the guts to seek objective truth through science.
As a child, despite my talents and background, it was science that struck me as truly grand and romantically noble -- a team effort in which egotism took a second seat to the main goal. The goal of getting around all the pretty lies we tell ourselves. I strove hard to be part of it.
But what can you do? Choose your talents? No way. Eventually, as my beloved hobby burgeoned, threatening to take over, I found myself forced to admit that science is hard! I am much better at art -- making up vivid stories -- than I ever was at laboring honestly to discover new truths.
At least, that's what civilization seems to be saying. My fellow citizens pay me better to write novels than they ever did to work in a lab.
Oh, I still like to do occasional forays into science. Some articles are posted here and elsewhere on this site. See also my nonfiction book -- The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy?
Still, the jury came back to say I do something else much better. It's silly to complain that your gifts are different than you'd like. Putting stylish cynicism aside, these two elements enrich each other. The rigor of science combines with the "what-if" freedom of imagination.
Anyway, I believe a person is behooved to help pass success on to those who follow. So, after writing the same answers, over and over, to many letters I received from would-be writers, I decided to put it all together here. Call it a small trove of advice. Mine it for whatever wisdom you may find here...
...bearing in mind that no profession is more idiosyncratic than writing! In other words, don't just take my word for anything. Collect every piece of wisdom you can find, then do it your own way!
[image from atticinstitute.com]
Despite all of the raging ego trips, writing is much like any other profession. There's a lot to learn -- dialogue, setting, characterization, plus all the arty nuances that critics consider so much more important than plot. The process can be grueling. Still, there is a bit of luck; you can have fun creating amateur stuff along the way! Later, you may even find some of that early stuff is worth taking out of the drawer again, and hacking into presentable shape.
If I spoke dismissively of critics, that doesn't mean I put down criticism! At its core, criticism is the only antidote that human beings have discovered against error. It is the chief method that a skilled person can use to become "even better." The key to discovering correctable errors before you commit a work to press.
But criticism hurts! A deep and pervasive flaw in human character makes all of us resistant to the one thing that can help us to do better.
The only solution? Learn to grow up. To hold your head high, develop a thick skin, and take it.
If a reader didn't like your work, that may be a matter of taste. But if she did not understand the work... or was bored... that's your fault as a writer, pure and simple.
Oh, you must learn to take feedback with many grains of salt. Many of the people you ask for feedback will be foolish or distracted or simply mistaken. Be very wary of taking advice HOW to solve a problem. You are the creator; finding solutions is your business. Still, other people will be very helpful in pointing out that there is a problem in a passage.
The fundamental rule: if more than one reader is bored or confused by a given passage, you did not do your job right. Find ways to tighten and improve that scene.
Make the book hard to put down -- in order to feed the cat, go to work, go to bed. Your aim is to make the reader appear at work or school tomorrow disheveled and groggy from sleep deprivation, with all of their loved ones angry over book-induced neglect! If you induce this condition in your customers, they will buy your next book. That is the sadomasochistic truth.
[image from atticinstitute.com]
Back to criticism. Look at the acknowledgments page at the back of every book I publish. There are at least thirty names listed, sometimes more -- names of people to whom I circulated early drafts.
Yes, this is at the extreme end among writers. Many circulate manuscripts early in their careers, then stop doing so, telling themselves -- "I am a professional now, so I don't need feedback."
Baloney! If you are a daring writer, you will always be poking away at new things, and exploring new ground. Testing your limits. That means making both wonderful discoveries and awful mistakes. So? Refine the discoveries and solve the mistakes! It helps to have more eyes -- the outsider perspective -- to notice thing that your own eyes will miss.
Anyway, it works for me.
[image from three hundred pages blog]
Writing is about half skills that you can learn. The remaining half -- as in all the arts -- can only arise from something ineffable called talent. For example, it helps to have an ear for human dialogue. Or to perceive the quirky variations in human personality and to empathize with other types of people -- including both victims and villains -- well enough to portray their thoughts and motives. (See my note below about "point of view.") Sure, a lot of hard work and practice can compensate for areas of deficient talent, but only up to a point.
In other words, no matter how dedicated and hard-working you are, success at writing may not be in the cards. Talents are gifts that we in this generation cannot yet manipulate or artificially expand. So don't beat yourself up if you discover that part lacking. Keep searching till you find your gift.
But, assuming you do have at least the minimum mix of talent, ambition and will, let me now offer a few tidbits of advice -- pragmatic steps that might improve your chances of success.
The first ten pages of any work are crucial. They are what busy editors see when they rip open your envelope -- snatched irritably from a huge pile that came in that morning. Editors must decide in minutes, perhaps moments, whether you deserve closer attention than all the other aspiring authors in the day's slush pile. If your first few pages sing out professionalism and skill -- grabbing the reader with a vivid story right away -- the editor may get excited. Even if the next chapter disappoints, she'll at least write you a nice letter.
Alas, she won't even read those first ten pages if the first page isn't great! And that means the first paragraph has to be better still. And the opening line must be the best of all.
Don't put a plot summary at the beginning. Plunge right into the story! Hook em with your characters. Then follow chapter one with a good outline.
There are at least a dozen elements needed in a good novel, from characterization to plot to ideas to empathy to snappy dialogue and rapid scene setting, all the way to riveting action... and so on. I've seen writers who were great at half of these things, but horrid at the rest. Editors call these writers 'tragic.' Sometimes they mutter about wishing to construct a Frankenstein author, out of bits and pieces of several who just missed the cut, because of one or two glaring deficits.
Only rarely will an editor actually tell you these lacks or faults. It's up to you to find them. You can only do this by workshopping.
Have you workshopped your creative efforts? Find a group of bright neo-writers who are at about your level of accomplishment and learn from the tough give-and-take that arises! Local workshops can be hard to find, but try asking at a bookstore that caters to the local writing crowd. Or take the 'writing course' at your local community college. Teachers of such courses often know only a little. But there you will at least get to meet other local writers. If you 'click' with a few, you can exchange numbers and form your own workshop, after class ends.
Another advantage of taking a course -- the weekly assignment. Say it's ten pages. That weekly quota may provide an extra impetus, the discipline you need to keep producing. Ten pages a week for ten weeks? That's a hundred pages, partner. Think about that.
Avoid over-using flowery language. Especially adjectives! This is a common snare for young writers, who fool themselves into thinking that more is better, or that obscurity is proof of intelligence.
I used to tell my students they should justify every adjective they put in their works. Write spare descriptions, erring in favor of tight, terse prose, especially in first draft. Your aim is to tell a story that people can't put down! Later, when you've earned the right, you can add a few adjectival descriptions, like sprinkles on a cake. Make each one a deliberate professional choice, not a crutch.
Learn control over Point Of View, or POV. This is one of the hardest aspects of writing to teach or to grasp. Some students never get it at all.
Through which set of eyes does the reader view the story?
Is your POV omniscient? (The reader knows everything, including stuff the main character doesn't.)
Does the POV ride your character's shoulder? (The reader sees what the character sees, but doesn't share character's inner thoughts.)
Or is it somewhere in between? In most modern stories we tend to ride inside the character's head, sharing his/her knowledge and surface thoughts, without either delving too deeply or learning things that the protagonist doesn't know.
Decide which it will be. Then stick with your choice. Oh, and it's generally best to limit point of view to one character at a time. Choose one person to be the POV character of each chapter -- or the entire book.
Think PEOPLE! As Kingsley Amis said:
"These cardboard spacemen aren't enough
Nor alien monsters sketched in rough
Character's the essential stuff."
Here's a nifty little trick. When puzzled over how to do something -- dialogue for example -- RETYPE a favorite conversation that was written by a writer you admire. The same can hold for other elements of style, like setting, characterization and point of view. Find a truly great example and retype it.
Don't shortcut by simply re-reading the scene! You will notice more by retyping than by looking. This is because a skilled writer is performing a "magical incantation" using words to create feelings and sensations and impressions in the reader's mind. If you simply re-read a passage, especially one written by an expert, the incantation will take effect! You'll feel, know, empathize, cry... and you will NOT pay close attention to how the author did it!
So don't cheat. Actually retype the scene, letter by letter. The words will pass through a different part of your brain. You'll say -- "Oh! That's why he put a comma there!"
Don't be a 'creative writing major' in school! That educational specialization offers no correlation with success or sales! A 'minor' in writing is fine, but you are better off studying some subject that has to do with civilization and the world. Moreover, by gaining experience in some worthy profession you'll actually have something worth writing about.
If you really are a writer, you will write! Nothing can stop you.
[image from fatminds.com]
A final piece of advice:
Beware the dangers of ego! For some, this manifests as a frantic need to see one's self as great.
Oh, it's fine to believe in yourself. It takes some impudent gall to claim that other people ought to pay you to read your scribblings! By all means, stoke yourself enough to believe that.
But if you listen too much to the voice saying "Be great, BE GREAT!," it'll just get in your way. Worse, it can raise expectations that will turn any moderate degree of success into something bitter. I've seen this happen, too many times. A pity, when any success at all should bring you joy.
Others have the opposite problem... egos that too readily let themselves be quashed by all the fire-snorting fellows stomping around. These people tend (understandably) to keep their creativity more private. That makes it hard for them to seek critical feedback, the grist for self-improvement. At either extreme, ego can be more curse than blessing.
But if you keep it under control, you'll be able to say: "I have some talents that I can develop. If I apply myself, I should be able to write stories that others may want to read! So give me a little room now. I'm closing the door and sitting down to write. Don't anyone bother me for an hour!"
Whatever you do, keep writing. Put passion into it!
[image from analogartistdigitalworld.com]
If you do all these things, will success follow?
For a majority, a fine hobby may result. In the internet-age, as hobbies thrive and self-publication becomes increasingly respectable, that may be a noteworthy level of accomplishment in its own right. Many amateur creators are gathering readers and fans out there, numbering in hundreds or thousands.
In a few cases, some combination of talent, skill and hard work will lift you higher on the pyramid of your chosen art-form. An occasional professional short story sale? A first novel? One per decade? Per year?
A series of luscious and wonderful surprises may come as success drags you (kicking and screaming?) away from your day job. It can be a great feeling, especially if you keep your ambition and effort high and expectations low.
Enjoying craftsmanship is what it's really all about. So have fun writing. Take your time. Be a useful person along the way -- and it may all come true, in time.
Good luck!David Brin