Last Friday I went out to do a presentation at a local school, talking to kids aged ten to seventeen about becoming a science-fiction and fantasy writer. I’m not usually the guy who gets asked to talk to school-age writers, as evidenced by the notes at the top of my presentation – don’t swear, and don’t mention Horn – and I was actually pretty impressed when I succeeded in obeying one of those edicts.
Talking to kids about writing is kinda weird. See,on the surface, almost all writing advice boils down to three basic tenets: read a lot, write a lot, submit your work. The rest is really a matter of nuance and how to apply that knowledge, neither of which was a strength of mine way back when I was eleven or twelve. Mostly what I ended up thinking about, in terms of the presentation, was the difference between the advice I heard that was actually useful, and the stuff that did actually help me figure out how writing worked.
ONE: LEARN TO TOUCH-TYPE WHILE YOU’RE YOUNG
When I was thirteen and first faced with the possibility of selecting my own study topics at high school, my mother sat me down and suggested, rather strongly, that I was going to be taking typing as one of my electives. In fact, it may not have been a suggestion. It’s hard to tell with parents, sometimes, especially when you’re thirteen.
Now this was back in the early nineties. Not the early nineties you’re thinking, where people knew who Nirvana were and it became a fashion statement to have holes in your jeans. No, I’m talking about the early, early nineties that were still suffering from a kind of terrifying 80’s hangover. That period between 1990 and 1992 that we just don’t talk about, ’cause no-one really wants to remember the horror of hypercolour underwear and the first few seasons of Blossom.
Dudes didn’t learn to type in that evil, unpleasant faux-nineties period. We didn’t yet realise that computers were about to take over the world. Hell, I spent the first three years learning to type on electronic typerwriters, and I got my fair share of shit from other chaps who didn’t understand why I was doing a “girls subject.”
But I did learn to type, and it’s proven to be a goddamn valuable skill. And while recent research has shown that the old pen and paper is a superior method of note-taking, there’s may actually be a number of creative benefits to being able to type fast and record as quickly as you can think.Touch typing is the foundation for pretty much everything else I do as a writer, since I’d struggle with it if I had to handwrite things (which is both slow, and hurts after several hours of work, since I never really learned to hold a pen correctly)
TWO: GENRE DEFINITIONS ARE PERSONAL AND FLUID
Writing advice often includes some variation of read a whole bunch of different books, but there’s rarely any explanation as to why this is important. And truthfully, there’s probably a couple of reasons, but the most important is this: it’s helpful to have a really deep, intuitive understanding of your genre.
There are no set rules for Genres, just a series of mutually agreed guidelines and expectations that shift from time to time. Consider that Gravity is up for a Hugo Award this year, which means we’re up for another round of debates over what should be included in the science fiction genre. For some, Gravity is a natural choice. For others, it’s not doing anything particularly SF. We had the same kind of debate when The City & The City was nominated a few years back.
What we call genre is really just a receding horizon of expectations, built up over time and exposure from a multitude of different works. You job, as a writer, is to find ways to both fulfill and subvert those expectations in the same story, neither of which is possible if you’re not aware of what those expectations are.
So you read. You read because it instills those instincts in you, letting you know how stories work and where you can take them. It lets you know how far a genre can bend before it breaks (hint: pretty far), and where your work fits in a marketplace. You read because we build stories on the backs of other stories, just as readers learn to comprehend stories by associating them with stories they’ve read before.
So read a lot. A hell of a lot. It’ll help down the line.
THREE: YOU’RE GOING TO SUCK, AND YOU KNOW IT
Also known as the Ira Glass rule: when you start out, there is always a gulf between what you create and what you want to be creating, and you’re always conscious of the gap. And, honestly, Glass says it better, so I’ll leave it to him:
FOUR: IDEAS DON’T MATTER AS MUCH AS YOU THINK
Don’t waste time thinking of the perfect idea. The more you write, the more you realise that the idea doesn’t really matter that much. Publishers don’t deal with ideas – they’re more interested in the way you’ve implemented your story or novel, in the characters and the way you’ve told the story. For a publisher, the idea is nothing without great follow-through.
If you focus on the other elements of writing – learning the structure of a story, learning how to make great characters, learning how to convey voice and setting and tension within your work – you can make almost any idea work. Even the ones people tell you are impossible to pull off.
FIVE: YOU CAN MAKE MONEY OUT OF WRITING
When you start telling people that you want to be a writer, you’re going to hear all sorts of discouraging advice. Most of it will revolve around money and how little writers make.
And they’re right: it’s not easy to make money out of writing, but you can do it. If you spend enough time looking at the business models of successful, full-time writers there are usually some commonalities in their approach. They’re the kinds of people who produce a lot of books; they kinds of people who are good at diversifying their income between multiple genres or types of work (IE, they write and they teach); they’ve often been writing for a long, long time and built up a body of work that can sustain them.
It takes time to figure out how writers make a living, and you’ll probably spend the early stages of your career being “a writer and something else”, but don’t buy into the idea that its impossible. It’ll only help you establish bad habits early on.
SIX: JUST KEEP GOING
You’re going to write a story and get stuck, convinced that what you’re writing is terrible and unworthy of the effort you’re putting in. It doesn’t matter. Just keep going. Get to the end, even if the end is terrible. Having finished work will benefit you more in the long-term, ’cause you’ll learn things from writing bad endings than you will writing another beginning.
You will hit points where writing seems like a really bad career choice. It doesn’t matter. Just keep going. Odds are, if you were passionate about writing at some point, it will come back.
Occasionally you will make mistakes. Big mistakes. Terrifying mistakes. It doesn’t matter. Just keep going. There have been plenty of times in my career where I got stuck and stopped writing in one form or another, letting myself get distracted by other things. I always regretted it when I went back to writing afterwards.
Just keep going. It really is the best thing you can do.