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FIVE THINGS EVERY ASPIRING AUTHOR SHOULD KNOW

If you’re reading this early in the morning of November 19, 2010, there may still be time for you to get to the Seatac Hilton and Marriot in Seattle for Steamcon—a great local steampunk convention—where I’ll be giving a Q&A based on The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction.

If you can’t make it, here’s what I’ll be saying to start things off: the five things I think every aspiring author should know, tough love included at no extra charge . . .

ONE: Don’t limit your own creativity.

Time and again I’ve read a particular piece of advice for writers that says you should create for yourself a special place in which to write. Make sure it’s in a clean, well-lit, ventilated place, maybe with a vase of freshly-cut flowers, a tub of warm water on the floor in which to soak your feet while you write out your book long-hand using high quality vellum paper and the most expensive fountain pen you can afford.

This is awful advice. If you have this kind of special writing nook set up at home, as soon as this convention is over, please, go home and dismantle it. Then do this instead:

Buy a laptop computer. If you’re using anything but a computer to write you’re indulging in a silly affectation that only a very very few established eccentrics will be allowed to get away with, and even then I don’t really think they’re getting away with it. It is an essential tool of the trade now. A writer without a computer is like a carpenter without a hammer.

What makes a laptop better than a desktop computer is that you can take it just about anywhere, which means you can write just about anywhere. And if you’re really serious about doing this, you should be able to write just about anywhere, even if there’s noise, even if the sun is up, or the sun is down, or it’s a weekday or a weekend or you’re at a convention, or whatever.

If you insist on being in your special little cocoon, all you’re really doing is imposing artificial limits on your own creativity—when and how you can write—which means you’re imposing artificial limits on how much work you’re actually doing. The world will find ways to impose itself on your precious writing time. Don’t give it any help.

TWO: Do it for anything but the money.

Yes, I know, J.K. Rowling wrote out the first Harry Potter book longhand using garbage-picked pencils and she’s now richer than the Queen of England. Stephanie Meyer admitted at least once on national TV that she had no idea what she was doing and just sat down and knocked out Twilight and wham, she’s mega-rich, too. Those are two stories of massive financial success for genre writers. For each of those there may be as many as ten thousand good midlist authors still clinging to their day jobs to keep the mortgage paid, food on the table, and health insurance going.

Hollywood screenwriters have a great union that provides health benefits, but no other writers, really, get that. The IGDA is trying to offer that to video game freelancers, but it’s not available, for some reason, in my own home state of Washington, as well as some other states. It’s not even clear that’s really going to be sustainable for them. If you’re hoping to write full time, budget a lot of money for health care.

Book advances range from zero to about $10,000 if you’re lucky. The days of the million dollar advance for previously unpublished genre authors are long over, and someone who does nothing all day but write novels is a very rare bird. In my fifteen years as an editor at Wizards of the Coast I worked with four full-time novelists.

For writers, money comes, generally speaking, in small doses at unpredictable times. There is no paycheck, and there is no benefits plan.

If you’re here to learn how to write so you can cash in quick like J.K. Rowling, please take a moment and get a hold of yourself. If you want to get rich quick, get a job in the financial services industry. Write for the love of storytelling, not the love of money.

THREE: Start strong.

Once your work is in the hands of an agent, editor, or reader, you have maybe a page, more likely a paragraph, to grab that person’s attention or they’ll probably just set your work aside and move on to someone else’s. And that’s not an agent or editor being mean, that’s an agent or editor trying to discover the next great author while also trying to make a living and have some kind of personal life. There are a finite number of hours in a day.

Let’s start with what not to do: You absolutely must avoid what my former colleague at Wizards of the Coast Mark Sehestedt described as “weather report, fashion report, travel report.”

Have you written this?

The dark clouds roiled on the horizon, lit by frequent lightning, and heavy with freezing rain. Galen’s long blonde hair spilled out over his forest green cloak of fine suede, tickling his lanternlike jaw and getting in his crystal blue eyes. He was still three days away from the city of the wizard king, having followed the low road east for nearly a month.

If you have, please stop it. It’s just a weak way to start a story.

Keep in mind the Latin phrase in media res, which translates roughly to “in the middle of things.” Start in the middle of a fight, or during the escape from the burning space station, or with the hero floating face down in a pool, any sort of danger, conflict, comedy, any kind of business at all then fill in the details as you go, when they become relevant.

Wouldn’t this be more fun to read?

Galen pulled his knees up to his chest, avoiding the dragon’s serrated fangs by a hair’s breadth. When the great wyrm’s jaws smashed together below him, the sound was so loud it shook the tree root from which Galen hung. Dry dirt and sand rained down on Galen’s head, stinging his eyes—and he lost his grip on the root and fell. The dragon beat its wings once and flew up past him, its great, glowing red eye following Galen’s fall to the shark-infested waves below.

FOUR: If you’re an American, write like an American.

Time and again I see manuscripts written in some kind of false British accent. Adding a “u” to the word armor and using the words “about” when you mean “around,” “which” when you mean “that,” or “further” when you mean “farther” doesn’t make you sound smarter or more sophisticated, it just makes you sound like someone trying to sound smarter or more sophisticated. There are a few exceptions to this rule, especially if you’re writing in first person, but unless you’re both willing and able to fully commit, don’t do it.

Also, leave behind the myth of the third person omniscient. One scene, one point-of-view. People, including Brits who do it all the time, who tell you they write in “third person omniscient” are really telling you they write in “third person lazy.” Pick a character and get into his or her head and stay there until you think you need to switch to someone else’s head, in which case you need to employ the services of a scene break. Even in a third person narrative, readers respond when they can get into the head of a character and experience the story first hand, if not first person.

FIVE: There is no time limit.

If you’ve been reading my blog you’ve seen me recently recommend Steve Martin’s memoir Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, and by extension biographies and autobiographies of creative people from literally any discipline. If you’re interested in the creative process you can learn from anyone.

I think standup comedians and authors have more than a little in common. Comedy and prose are fairly solitary pursuits, best when made personal. So I guess it isn’t weird that this last piece of advice came from another comedian. In the documentary Comedian Jerry Seinfeld was telling the story of an aspiring comedian who was bemoaning the slow start to his career and Seinfeld said, “What is there, a time limit?” What he meant was as long as you’re aspiring you’re still an aspiring comedian—or author—and only when you stop aspiring are you a failed comedian, or author.

There is no time limit. For every story of some teenager achieving best seller status before he can legally buy a beer there are a thousand more—ten thousand more—of an author who was forty, fifty, sixty years old when his first book was published. There are all sorts of editors who can tell you you’ve failed to sell this one book or story to that one editor, but there is no one out there who can tell you you’ve failed as a writer but yourself.

You can’t control other people’s reactions to you and your work, but you can control your reaction to their reaction. Let rejection motivate you. Filter through whatever advice might come your way. Try new things. Read constantly, write as much as you can. It may take a really long time, and on the best day it’s really hard, but if this is what you’re meant to do, keep going. There is no one in the publishing business who wants you to fail—no one is actively working against you. I had zero connections when I started in this business. My father was a salesman and my mother was an art teacher. I didn’t know a single editor or agent, but I kept at it. I made my own luck when and where I could. This is a tough business, but it is possible, and if you aren’t afraid of hard work, possible is enough.

If you didn’t make it to Steamcon, you missed the Q&A to follow, but then, this blog invites comments, doesn’t it? Ask, and I’ll do my best to answer.

—Philip Athans


Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and ten other fantasy and horror books including the just-released The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction. Born in Rochester, New York he grew up in suburban Chicago, where he published the literary magazine Alternative Fiction & Poetry. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook (http://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/), is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans. He now resides in the foothills of the Washington Cascades, east of Seattle.