Also, I went out with the Lovely Emily and the boys and saw V for Vendetta again. It was funny, because I was the only one who had already seen it, and I'm not sure anyone else even had any idea what it was about. Like, not even that it was the least bit political. We didn't talk about the movie at all before we went, either. Happily, I think everyone liked it and was very affected by it. Also, stuff blew up good.
A meme I'd been meaning to do that was making the rounds of writers' blogs: Ten Things I Have Learned About Writing. (I think it started here, with Elizabeth Bear; I heard about it on John Scalzi's blog.) I feel like I should justify myself a little bit here--well, number one, anyone who writes anything could do this meme. I'm just saying, movie parodies are a pretty recent thing for me; I grew up wanting to write Great Novels. I had a story
Ten things I have learned about writing:
1. You have to do it first, at the earliest and innermost level, for yourself. Because if you aren't writing for your own pleasure, why the hell are you doing it?
2. You have to do it secondly, at a later and more external level, for the people who are reading it, or it's just an exercise in self-indulgence. (Which in its own way can be fine. I have things I've written for myself that I've never shown anyone else. Diaries, for example. But I know that this was the purpose of them.) You shouldn't be a slave to other people's expectations, but there's a point at which you have to consider whether what you're writing makes sense to other people and how effective it is at what you want it to do. Because, whether it feels intentional to you or not, everything you write is trying to achieve an effect, even if that effect is, "To make people think I have written breathtaking prose and give me lots of awards." On a more practical level, is your horror story actually scaring people? Does your comedy make them laugh? Does your thriller keep them guessing, or did they figure out the villain somewhere around page fifteen? There is a point where it doesn't matter what you think of your work--you want to be happy with it, yes, but beyond that, is it working for most readers?
3. I say most, because it will never work for all of them. I've been saying things like this a lot lately, mostly because I'm trying to hammer it into my own perfectionist head. Observations on the nature of criticism, or, the two kinds of reader reviews I have gotten in the last week:
I don't like this as much as your other 15Ms. It's too short and doesn't go into stuff as much.
I like this better than your other 15Ms. It's shorter and doesn't resort to wacky tangents.
In conclusion: take the audience into consideration, yes, but write the way you want. If you try to change for other people, but you have a sneaking feeling that you're doing something wrong, listen to it, because you'll never make everyone happy anyway. (See also #4 on Bear's list: "Can't please nobody if you try to please everybody.")
4. You write what you want to read. You can't write something you wouldn't want to read, or if you do, it won't be very good. This may not make much sense until you apply it to the "I know! I'll write a crappy thriller/children's book/romance novel and make a pile of money!" mindset. No, you won't, because if you don't respect the genre you're bothering to write, it's a waste of your time and everyone else's. No one wants to read a romance novel by a writer who thinks she's too good for romance novels, because that condescension seeps through: you can't hold your nose and type at the same time. I know, because (back when I was a teenage culture snob--the harshest kind) I tried to write a romance novel, and I couldn't get past the first three words. But then, I had only read one very bad romance novel in my entire life, and it was about an English lord who raped a feisty Viking girl and it just happened to turn into really hot sex, multiple times, and was equal parts hilarity and offensive trash. And I'm going to try to write one of those for the money? Yeah, I lasted about thirty seconds on that one. And even with parody? You've got to love your subject enough to know what you're talking about, even if you despise certain examples of it.
5. You can't do it for the money, period. Because you're not going to make any. Or rather, I should say, there's no guarantee you're going to make any. If you're very lucky, you'll be able to pay the bills by writing. When you think about the numbers, J.K. Rowling has literally won the lottery. And you can hope for money like hers--God knows I do--but you can't expect it or depend on it or make it the reason you want to write in the first place. You've got to love writing enough that you'd do it even if you never sold a single book--because you're going to have to slog through years of practice before you do. I actually didn't get a book contract until I had given up, for the moment, on writing for publication and had just started writing for the hell of it.
6. "Where do you get your ideas?" is the wrong question to ask. The question you want to ask is, "How do you get the idea to play out once you have it?" It's like asking Rumplestiltskin where he got the straw. It's not the straw, it's the spinning--and anyone might provide the straw. Inspiration is generally pretty random, really. I was rereading Stephen King's Everything's Eventual last night, and he mentions that he wrote the title story after having a random flash of someone dumping change into the sewer. A lot of writers say they use the old standby What if? for their ideas ("What if a boy was dumping change into the sewer?"), but I submit that the actual spinning of the story happens through a different line of questioning: Why? and What kind of? Why would the boy dump change into the sewer? Because he's got a job where he's required to "begin the week broke and end the week broke." What kind of person would end up in this kind of job? What kind of job is it? The answer to those questions is the twist, and the heart, of the story.
7. What kind of person? is actually the most important question, I think. Once you start exploring the characters and the situation they've gotten into--and how being who they are got them into it in the first place--all you really have to do is follow them around. For those of you who read "The Black Ribbon" (which I'm still working on with hopes of getting it published, which is why there haven't been any online updates), you'll know that there are three major characters: a man with an unusual job (*cough*), an older friend of his who is a doctor, and the doctor's daughter. I started out sometime in 2004 with the question What kind of man would end up doing this? And that was how I figured out how he got started doing it, why he keeps doing it, and why he does the job the way he does it--that is, without mercy. (I don't think I've actually revealed his backstory yet, but it was set to go up in the next chapter.) And gradually I ended up asking the same questions of the other two characters--what kind of man would be friends with a man like this? If I want the daughter to have a specific, unconventional reaction to all this--to be somewhat ahead of her time, calm and feminist and professional--what would her upbringing have been like, her recent past? Once you figure out what kind of people would be doing the things you want them to do now, you can figure out what they'll be doing in the future.
8. Keep it simple. I read Lolita and The English Patient within a short period of time as a teenager and started gilding sentences like Faberge eggs. Which was great, except that I didn't have anything happening in those sentences; I was too obsessed with crafting rose windows. Sometimes, you just need to say what's happening and move on--say it, not "articulate" it or "elucidate" it. Good writing isn't about using the pretty words; it's about using the right words, which are sometimes pretty but are often the unobtrusive ones. There are other things to consider than just the depths of the thesaurus--rhythm, pacing, tone, the way a word fits into a sentence like an egg in the cup of your hand. Once you've been doing it long enough, the best sentences will come from a subconscious, unselfconscious place, as if on autopilot, rather than you having to construct them like so much architectural gingerbread. And to do be able to do that, you have to...
9. Read. Read everything, read anything. Read the Great Works of Literature, sure, but read magazines and nonfiction and poetry and history and mythology and biographies and Ripping Good Yarns. Read Shakespeare; read pulp fiction. Read for research, read for style, read for pleasure. You'll get many of your ideas here, the detail to back those ideas up, and a sense of the words you'll need to sketch them out.
10. And finally: writing advice will always contradict itself ("Write what you want. But only if it works for the reader. But only if it's what you want"). It's up to you to develop judgment, to figure out when to zig and when to zag.