Conferences and conventions

Writing conferences are something that I think deserve their own post. There are quite a lot of them, and they are sufficiently dissimilar that one really shouldn’t just pick one at random to attend. Like everything else, each type works well for some things (and writers) and poorly for other things (and writers), so before you decide whether to spring for a membership, you really ought to do some homework and some thinking.

The first and most fundamental question you need to think about is “What do I need, want, or hope to accomplish by attending this conference or workshop?” Are you hoping to do some networking? Make some new friends? Get yourself and/or your work out in front of professionals in the field? Sharpen your writing skills? Have a lot of fun? Master some specific techniques? Promote your current novel? Learn production skills so you can self-publish? Get some tips on marketing and/or professional submission etiquette? Meet your favorite writing idol who is the keynote speaker? Tick off the “Goes to conferences” box on your “Things Professional Writers Do” list?

(Hint: if that last one is all you are trying to do, save your time and money. Or rent a cheap hotel room for a weekend and spend three days holed up there writing. It’ll do you a lot more good than ticking off the checkbox, trust me.)

If you can’t quite figure out what you want to get out of going to a conference or workshop, but you also still have the nagging feeling that you really want to, if only to see what they’re like and find out if they might be useful, that’s OK. Just be open to the possibility of changing your mind in either direction.

The next step is to look at what kinds of conferences and workshops are out there, what they do, and what the goal of the conference is. Also the cost, which includes travel expenses and hotel, as well as the actual membership fee, and the amount of time they take up.

What most people mean when they talk about “writing conferences” range from targeted one- or two-day workshops, to weekend conventions (which can last up to four or five days, if they are scheduled over a holiday weekend), to intensive courses that run full-time for up to three months straight. Some are professionally managed; some are put on by colleges, universities, or other educational institutions; some are provided by writer’s organizations like the Romance Writers of America or the Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators; and some are organized by a dedicated group of independent volunteers.

Assuming you have some idea of why you want to go to a conference (and there are usually multiple reasons), and that you know what your budget, time constraints, and other resources are, you then have to pick the conference that fits what you want. A large part of choosing is asking around. Bigger is not always better; professionally managed or college-run does not necessarily mean higher quality than the ones put on by amateurs. In the SF field, for instance, of the top workshops/conferences put on specifically for writers, only one is affiliated with a university; the others are all run by independent non-profit groups of dedicated volunteers, some of whom are themselves established writers and/or editors doing this in their spare time.

Pretty much any convention, conference, or workshop that is aimed directly at writers (as opposed to teachers, librarians, booksellers, or other members of the literary community) will give you the opportunity to meet and talk to other writers, simply because that’s who else is attending.

If one of your goals is to do networking, keep this in mind: Some of the clueless newbies will turn out, in five or ten years, to be award-winning bestsellers or senior editors. Some of the rising stars that everyone crowds around in adulation will be a flash in the pan. Nobody knows which is which (if they did, there would be crowds around the nervous young woman in the corner who will, eight years in the future, have her small-press novel go viral and become a bestseller in twenty countries). Also, one of the best ways of networking is to volunteer to help put on a conference or convention. Again, you may not meet the Big Names this way, but you will meet and work with people, some of whom will be Big Names by the time you need them. It doesn’t do you any good to suck up to Super Big Name Editor and then find out that he retired the year before you finished your manuscript.

Skill-building workshops can be useful for nearly any writer at any level, as long as one is careful to choose a workshop that isn’t too far ahead of one’s current abilities. If a writer is still struggling with basic grammar and clarity, they may want to wait a few years before signing up for a workshop on managing subtext and subverting expectations in multi-genre-crossovers intended for a “high literary” audience.

The big trade shows – the ALA, the ABA, the NCTE, the IRA (and if you don’t know what the acronyms mean, you probably shouldn’t be thinking about going anyway*) – are mostly not things you can go to if you aren’t a member, unless you can get onto one of their panels. This requires you to either be an expert on something, or to have a book out that the group wants you to talk about (which means you have a publisher and/or publicist behind you). Regional and local conferences are often a little looser about their requirements for panelists, but they’re still not going to be terribly interested if you haven’t got an actual book actually available.

Writers’ professional organizations, like the Author’s Guild, RWA, SFFWA, MWA, and SCBWI, have their own conferences**. They are, again, usually limited to members, which for the SFWA and MWA means that you have to meet a minimum requirement of professional sales. The RWA and SCBWI both, to the best of my knowledge, allow unpublished writers to join.

The science fiction and fantasy field is kind of a special case when it comes to conventions. There is a whole community of people out there putting on fan-run conventions, many of which have a track of programming for would-be writers or which hold workshops or professional critique sessions in conjunction with the con. You could go to one of these every weekend, if you had the time, money, and stamina. They are a lot of fun, and they are a good way to meet and get to know local professional writers (and often a few out-of-towners). And there is almost certain to be one somewhere near wherever you live. [I spent last weekend at 4th Street Fantasy Convention 2015 http://www.4thstreetfantasy.com/2015/ and it was great…]

I do want to conclude by reiterating that none of this stuff is required. Different writers manage their careers in different ways. And this is especially not required if you haven’t finished a book yet. (In fact, there is a thing in the trade referred to as “workshop burn” – the manuscript that some nervous new writer has taken to 46 different workshops and re-polished every single time, until it’s been polished down to the dull steel under the copper and silver plate and every bit of shine and sparkle is long gone. Do not do this…)

* American Library Association, the American Bookseller’s Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, the International Reading Association.

**Romance Writers of America, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

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Pre-promotion or not?

I was at a book signing recently and admitted to the person in line behind me that I was about a quarter of the way through writing my book. I should note here, she is also a writer. She immediately asked me what writing conferences I had attended, if I was on Facebook, if I had a blog, etc., and began overwhelming me with all the things I was not doing to sell myself that I ‘should be doing’ in her opinion….

What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of pre-promoting yourself in the manner this person suggested?

First off, let me point out that when I was getting started, computers were room-sized boxes of blinking lights that required lots of esoteric knowledge before you could persuade them to add two numbers together. The Internet didn’t exist at all. I wrote my first novel on a typewriter. Consequently, I don’t exactly have much experience in “pre-promotion” of the sort you describe.

This does not, however, stop me from having opinions. Quite strong opinions, in fact.

I will begin with a question: What, exactly, is it that you hope to sell? Yourself? Or your books?

While you think about that, I will point out that every writing career is different. Not only that, but the way into a writing career is different for every writer. If you want some control over it (you will never have total control, but you can have some), it is worth thinking about different possibilities. You can then decide what you want to do, what you don’t want to do but are willing to put up with, and what you will never do under any circumstances whatsoever. This large-picture thinking gives you a framework for making specific small-picture decisions, like whether and when to start a blog or attend a conference.

But fundamentally, the only thing that every writer has to do is write.

There is no one best route to the top. Furthermore, “the top” has almost as many definitions as there are writers, and every definition has a multitude of different ways to reach it. The successful writers I know are successful by their own definitions, not someone else’s, and have gotten to that success by routes that suit them, not somebody else.

Back to that first question. I can name several writers for whom their writing is in large degree secondary; what they are selling is themselves. They make as much (and in some cases a lot more) money from their blogs, courses, speeches, workshops, movie rights, radio programs, podcasts, and so on, as they do from their actual writing. There is nothing wrong with this. They are all having a blast doing stuff they love doing. Most of them took to social media like dolphins take to water. They are in their element. Their definition of “the top” has to do with personal appearances and being out there in public and well-known and respected, whether or not their books are bestsellers (some are; others have only modest sales).

For this sort of writer, diving into social media straight off is very likely to be important and useful. Someone who can develop a strong following, whether on Twitter, a blog, Facebook, or any of the other outlets, will theoretically have a ready-made audience when they finally finish a book, and they can use those initial sales as a stepping stone to all the appearances and so on that they love doing so much.

There may also be some use to “pre-promoting” yourself if you are planning to skip the world of traditional publishing and go straight to self-published ebooks. To make this worth doing, though, you have to catch a large audience and maintain it until you finish your book. Given how quickly Internet buzz comes and goes, this is often best left until a week before the book goes live, even if one is planning to self-publish.

In both cases, far too many would-be writers end up promising far more than they can deliver. I know a couple of folks who have been writing about their writing for a couple of decades now, without ever producing an actual story. Their social media accounts don’t attract as much attention as they expected, because they don’t have anything to talk about but themselves (and frankly, they aren’t all that interesting). And their desperate struggles to “build an audience” soak up whatever time and energy they might have used to actually write fiction.

If what you want is to write and/or to sell your books rather than yourself, then there’s not a lot of point in doing social media until you have something to sell. There may be some value in playing around with some outlets enough to get comfortable with them, so you don’t have a learning curve when the time comes that you want to use them professionally. One does not have to do this sort of experimentation by promoting oneself as a writer, however. There are plenty of forums where you can go and just talk about your favorite books as part of the crowd. Ditto sites (and blogs like this one) where you can talk writing techniques and problems with other people. Better yet, find some groups that talk about your mutual passion for gardening, or chess, or your favorite TV show.

Publishers these days do expect writers to have some web presence, and to do some web-based promotion of their books. However, they are deeply unlikely to be impressed by empty posturing. If you have a popular web site and a lot of Twitter followers, it may be a plus for some publishers, but it won’t sell your book to them or even move it up the slush pile. Unless, that is, your popular web site and Twitter feed have multiple hundreds of thousands of hits or followers, which is essentially saying “unless you have made yourself a nationally recognized Internet celebrity.”

Conferences…well, that’s kind of a different question. I’ll talk more on that next week, since this is getting kind of long already.

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What kind of business are you?

My tax guy said I should create a business identity that the money will go to (if I ever sell a book) rather than just my name. I don’t know whether that means I have to sign the agent contract with my “business” name or not.

 Generally speaking, when it comes to tax advice, I advise listening to experts, especially since they presumably know your tax situation in far more detail than I ever would. However, there are considerations besides taxes in this sort of case, and not all tax guys are familiar with the ins and outs of this particular business. There are, for instance, copyright implications under U.S. law if you register your copyrights in the name of a corporation or pen name (or transfer them to a corporation after your career is established).

I’m also not sure I know what he means by a “business identity.” Does that mean a separate bank account, a subchapter-S corporation, an LLC, a full-fledged corporation, or something else? Or does he just mean “decide on a pen name”? And exactly why does he think you need it? (Tax guys are not immune to the notion that all writers make big $$; he may well change his tune if you tell him that first-novel advance payments are still averaging only around $4,ooo-6,000, spread over three to five years.) Does he think you’re going to need a separate tax I.D.? Why?

 For example, take the simplest possibility, a separate bank account for writing funds. Why would you need to segregate those funds? There may be personal reasons, like, oh, a pending divorce, but the most usual reason has to do with record-keeping. I have a couple of friends who simply cannot keep track of their writing income and expenses except by having a dedicated writing account into which all writing income goes, and from which all writing expenses (including estimated tax payments) come. They basically depend on the bank to keep their tax records for them.

 Myself, I’ve never done it that way. I have a separate account for taxes, but all that goes into it is the money I think I’m going to want for estimated tax payments, and all that comes out are those payments. Juggling two different checking accounts that I’m using on a daily or weekly basis to buy groceries and notepads and computer software and yarn and cat food and research materials is just not something that works for me. When I make any given book purchase, half of them may be research and the other half reading for fun or my hobbies; I am not about to place two orders just so I can pay for each half from the right account. I also know myself well enough to know that if I am in a hurry and the only checkbook I can find is the “business” one, I will use it to pay the pizza delivery guy anyway, which kind of destroys the reasoning behind keeping separate checkbooks. Then again, I don’t have a knee-jerk negative reaction to the very concept of keeping tax records during the year. (I do get behind, but that’s a different problem.)

 The really important thing is keeping good tax records, so that if the IRS decides to look at your returns, you can show that you have a business and not just a hobby. You don’t have to keep the actual money separate, as long as you have good records. If you can’t do it on your own, maybe a separate bank account is a good idea, provided you can be strict about using it just for writing expenses and nothing else.

 The question of setting up a sub-S corporation (or a full-fledged corporation) is a whole ‘nother matter. Very few of the writers I have known have done this, and all of them have been at a level where their annual writing income is in the mid-six-figures. Most of them also did it back when corporate tax rates were a lot less than individual tax rates, which has not been the case for quite a few years. Absent some serious and obscure legal reasons, setting up a corporation is overkill for the rest of us, especially since it costs in money to keep it registered and in time to keep the required records and file the required paperwork. I haven’t heard of an accountant recommending it to a writer for at least six or seven years now (though of course, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. Also, different rules apply outside the U.S.)

 My writing business is a sole proprietorship, meaning that there is no particular “business identity” separate from mine. OK, my friends call me Pat and the name on the books is “Patricia C. Wrede,” but I consider it all still me. The checks go into my personal checking account and show up on my personal income taxes (Schedule C). My accountant charges a small amount more for doing my taxes because she has more forms to fill out, but it’s nothing compared to the pages and filings I’d have to do for a partnership, sub-S, LLC, or full-fledged corporation. I don’t need a separate tax I.D. I use Quicken to sort my expenses into writing-related and everything-else. I do not even have a separate credit card “for writing,” as it would have the same problem as a checking account (having to split purchases, and the temptation to use it for non-writing stuff).

 The vast majority of writing businesses I know of are sole proprietorships.

The various alternatives to sole proprietorships are worth looking into, but there should not ever be an automatic assumption that if you are starting a writing business, you have to set up a sub-S or LLC or whatever. They are emphatically not right or useful for everyone. Also, it is a lot easier to change your mind and set up a subchapter-S corp later on if you decide it will be useful, than it is to wind one up and get out of it if you decide it’s too much of a pain to bother with.

As for signing up with an agent…that depends on what kind of business you are running. If you are a sole proprietorship, you sign the contracts and get the income under your Social Security number (that’s both the contract with the agent and the ones with a publisher). If you’ve assigned your copyrights to your corporation, which has a separate tax I.D., then I believe you have to sign the contracts in your capacity as representative of the corporation and use that tax I.D. If you’re writing under a pen name, you still sign the contract as yourself, with your own tax I.D., but the contract specifies the name that goes on the book and whether or not the copyright will get registered in your real name or as your pen name.

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Business

We now reach the third leg of the professional-writing stool: Business.

At first glance, this doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the writing part of writing-as-a-profession. Business is all about the profession part, right? And logically, that means that writers who don’t care about “having a writing career” don’t have to pay any attention to the business stuff.

The problem with that logic is that the business end of writing includes stuff like copyright law, which affects you whether or not you are selling your writing. It also includes things like “generating buzz” for that story you are giving away free, because “generating buzz” (and any other way of getting new, unfamiliar readers to read your stories) is functionally the same as doing publicity and marketing for a book that someone else is selling.

In other words, even a writers who are not in any way part of “the writing business” have a business leg on their three-legged stool. It’s just a really short leg. If you’re giving everything away for free, you probably should be aware of copyright laws and the existence of the Creative Commons  and their license agreements, at the very least. Because unless you are planning to be Emily Dickinson and not show your work to anybody, but just leave it for your heirs to deal with, ignoring the business leg of the stool can run you into a fairly wide variety of possible troubles (as most of you probably figured out the minute you saw “copyright laws” in that second sentence).

It ought to be obvious that once you start planning to get paid for your writing, though, you need to pay attention to the business leg. (Note that I said “planning to get paid,” not “get paid.” A lot of useful business-type stuff starts happening long before you actually sell anything. Like keeping submission records and tracking expenses.) Unfortunately, this is not at all obvious to some people, and right there, we run into the first batch of writers who run into trouble because they ignore this leg of the stool.

The first group is composed of writers who don’t think they have to pay attention to business until they reach some threshold level, usually either selling their first novel or getting paid a certain amount. For the first set, selling short stories or poetry “doesn’t count;” for the second set, anything under some arbitrary personal limit, like $25 per story or $100 per year, “doesn’t count.” I met one author who even arranged to take the advance on her first novel in copies, in the mistaken belief that as long as she didn’t get an actual check, it wasn’t income and “didn’t count.” The trouble is that while the IRS is unlikely to notice that you sold a short story to a semiprozine for $10 last year, it actually does count as part of your income. (And that writer who took her entire advance in copies was really annoyed when her publisher quite rightly sent her a 1099 stating that they had reported the advance to the IRS, even though the writer “hadn’t gotten that money at all.” I spent some time explaining to her that the tax people didn’t care whether she spent her advance on copies of her book or on chocolate; it was still income and she still owed taxes.)

Then there are the writers who don’t pay attention to the business leg of things because it “interferes with their creativity” or because they think that keeping tax records will somehow taint their artistic purity. Some of these writers are just confused about the length they need this particular leg of their stool to be – the business end of the business doesn’t have to take precedence over everything else unless that’s the way you choose to run things. A good many other writers who claim these reasons are, so far as I can see, just making excuses. Either they hate paperwork and think that “it will mess up my creativity” is an acceptable public excuse for skiving off that particular job, or they haven’t sold yet and they’re grumpy about it, so they use these to simultaneously imply that they are heroically protecting their creative genius by ignoring business stuff (and not selling) and that anyone who has sold (and who must perforce deal with business stuff) must be far less creative than they are. Which may be a help to their tender egos, but really doesn’t do much for their writing or potential writing careers.

There are plenty of professional, published, selling writers who hate paperwork, record-keeping, doing publicity, and all the other business-related aspects of having a writing career. A few have a helpful spouse or other family member who handles the business part for them (if I didn’t have that darned M.B.A., maybe I could convince one of my sisters to take it over for me…). Some hire a business manager the minute they get to a place where they can afford it. Most of us, though, have to bite the bullet and just do it ourselves. No job is 100% fun, 24/7.

What one can do, as I mentioned before, is to consider just how long this leg of the stool has to be, given what you want to do and where you hope to go in your writing career. There are a few things, like keeping tax records, that are really non-negotiable. A lot of administrative and publicity stuff, though, can be pared down to a bare minimum if one has a day job (or supportive spouse/partner) that pays the bills and/or one doesn’t really care how much money one’s writing makes (or how fast). If, on the other hand, one wants to milk every last possible dime out of each publication, one may prefer to devote more time and energy to non-writing stuff like giving seminars or speaking at libraries (which, by the way, frequently pay, sometimes quite well. I know at least three writers who make a very good mid-five-figure-or-more annual income from speaking engagements, in addition to what their writing brings in).

Which brings me to the writers who place too much emphasis on the business part of writing. Generally, these are beginners desperate to break in somehow, anyhow; some are nervous newly published professional who haven’t quite processed the fact yet. These are the folks who haunt bookstores, trying to analyze the market for “hot trends” that they then go home and try to write, regardless of whether their interests or talents lie in that direction (and ignoring the fact that what’s on bookstore shelves isn’t what editors are buying now. It’s what they bought two to five years ago.) These are the folks who neglect the Art and the Craft legs in favor of grabbing frantically at each and every professional opportunity that floats by, without stopping to consider whether it suits their interests or where it is likely to take their career. Five years later, they wake up and realize that they’re exhausted from ghostwriting three novels and working on two series for different “house names” every year, and writing is no fun any more.

There are, of course, writers who make similar choices with eyes wide open. Some of them make significant incomes, but you’ve never heard of them, because very little of their work is published under their own names…and they like it that way. They are not “doing it wrong.” They are not twisting what they want to write into something else in hopes of selling it. They are putting exactly as much emphasis on the money-and-business leg of their particular writing stool as they want and need to in order to do the kind of writing they want.

And that is the point of this little series of posts. There Is No One True Way. That writing stool always has three legs, but each writer gets to pick the length (importance, amount of time and energy spent) for each leg. As long as the career has the balance the particular writer wants, it’s fine. And unlike real furniture, the metaphorical stool is easily adaptable – if, at some point, one realizes that one is dissatisfied with the current balance, one has only to work a bit more on one leg and a bit less on another until one finds a new equilibrium.

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Craft

Craft, to me, is the skill part of writing, the part you can analyze and learn. It’s techniques, viewpoint, grammar, and style. It includes the mechanics of characterization, dialog, description, and action, as well as highly macro-level things like plot and pacing, worldbuilding, backstory, and characterization. It involves practically every angle from which one can look at and evaluate a piece of writing with any objectivity. It is, after all, fairly easy to determine whether someone has slipped from first person to third person, mis-tagged their dialog, or written grammatically correct sentences.

Craft is so endemic to writing, and so fundamental, that it is easy to confuse it with the Art part. This leads to two related problems: first, people trying to find a more objective definition
of “good art” latch on to elements of craft as a way to measure artistic merit; second, people who want a recipe for writing focus on craft (because they can learn it) and think that the craft part of writing is all they need to get right.

The elements of craft are easy to talk about, though not necessarily easy to define or implement. They are, after all, the skill set that writers need to at least partially master. One can argue endlessly over exactly where the line goes between an omniscient viewpoint and limited omniscient, or what makes “transparent prose” transparent, or how much and how often to vary one’s speech tags. It’s also easy (and often very tempting) to count the number of adverbs-per-page and assign an arbitrary limit, thus plunging headlong down the slippery slope of making rules and recipes for “good writing” that are a lot harder to quantify when the subject is how much beauty or creativity one needs per chapter.

Unfortunately, it is quite possible for a story to be technically excellent without being artistically so. A novel can be well-constructed in every measurable aspect and still be boring – and a boring story is definitely not good art, and probably not good craft, either, however well-made it may be in its other aspects.

Similarly, a story may contain many horrible technical mistakes and still be considered “good art.” I recently read a memoir that, judging from the reviews, was fantastic Art … but by my standards, it was terrible in certain key elements of craft, most notably consistency, pacing, and structure. I lost interest halfway through. I doubt that this was the effect the author intended his book to have.

Technical writing skills alone are thus manifestly not enough to create a successful piece of writing (unless the writer has their own idiosyncratic definition of “successful” and doesn’t much care whether their work gets read or sells). Strong writing skills can, however, compensate to some extent for weak artistry, just as strongly artistic work can cover a certain amount of weak skill levels. Ideally, of course, one would have both strong technical skills and strong artistic ability in equal measure, but even among experienced writers at the height of their careers, this is rare. For beginners … well, there are geniuses who are gifted with both skill and artistry right from the start, but they are rare. Don’t count on being one.

Skills of any sort generally have to be learned, usually through much practice, and writing is no exception. This is where the common wisdom about writing “a million words of crap” comes from – the necessity of practice. However, getting a million words worth of practice at writing crap does not automatically improve your skills. One has to work at improving, not merely at producing words.

“Work at improving” does not mean that one allows one’s Internal Editor free rein at all times; that will, more than likely, slow one’s production (and therefore rate of improvement) to nearly zero, as well as being intensely frustrating. It does mean that at some point one has to evaluate what one has produced, figure out what the flaws are, and attempt to correct them on the next try. In some cases, “the next try” means the second draft; in other cases, it means the next scene of that type that one happens to write. It’s another one of those places where every writer has to figure out for themselves what the best way of learning is for them, whether that ends up being writing entire stories, doing highly structured exercises, reviewing each scene as it is written, or something else.

There is a subset of beginning writers who take the opposite tack from the one described above. Instead of deciding to create a bunch of skills-based rules with which to quantify “good Art,” they decide that only Art matters and skills are unimportant (or perhaps that skills will be acquired automatically, without their having to do any work beyond writing whatever comes into their head). This rarely ends well. A blacksmith who has a marvelous concept for a wrought-iron railing, but who is unskilled with their tools, will likely have a lot of difficulty in realizing their vision, if indeed they succeed in doing so at all. A blacksmith who knows exactly what they can do with their tools, and just how far they can push their limits, may well start with the same marvelous concept and see ways to elaborate on it and improve it that the unskilled smith doesn’t realize are even possible. There is a reason why writing is often called “wordsmithing.”

Also, as I mentioned before, skills don’t arrive automatically and without effort. They especially don’t arrive automatically in the lap of someone who thinks they are unimportant and pays no attention to improving them. (Which is particularly short-sighted, since skills are learnable and Art … not so much.)

For writers who, like Emily Dickinson, are perfectly happy to write something and then stick it in a drawer for their heirs to deal with, or who are fine with posting their work on a free web site where six people will read it (five of them friends and relatives), the art and the craft are all they really need to pay attention to. Those of us who wish to write professionally, however, have to keep an eye on the third leg of the three-legged stool: the business. Which comes up next week.

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Art

Art is the first leg of the three-legged stool that is writing, and possibly the most difficult to talk about because it is abstract. All of the definitions I could find talk about expression, creativity, beauty, emotion, and imagination – all of which are ideas rather than anything that can be seen or touched. This means that there is no absolute physical reference that one can use to decide if one’s notion of beauty, creativity, etc. is accurate or not. One can look at a table and say “This table wobbles,” and anyone else who looks at the wobbly table will agree. If one says “That painting is ugly” or “That statue isn’t creative,” though, it is highly likely that at least some of the other people who look at it will disagree.

People still try to make definitive statements about art, of course. “That isn’t creative” is one of the common criticisms one hears about works of art, followed closely by “There’s no emotion in it” and “It’s unimaginative.” What all these things mean, though, isn’t the same as “That rock is flat on one side” or “There is no water in that bucket.” They mean that the critic has seen enough similar works that he/she thinks this one isn’t particularly creative, that the subject or execution of the work didn’t raise emotion in the particular viewer, or that the work isn’t showing the critic anything new or startling. Which may be perfectly true…for that particular commentator. To other people, it may be unique, heartbreaking or uplifting, and a revelation.

Another problem is that you can’t tell by looking at a painting or reading a novel exactly what went into it from the artist’s perspective. A reader who has read hundreds of space operas may look at the latest one and think it is imitative and unimaginative, not realizing that the writer has never read even one other space opera and is by any objective standard being amazingly inventive and creative, even though what they’re doing is re-inventing the wheel. Conversely, a writer may be deemed fresh and new and creative for inventing characters or plot twists that he/she actually borrowed from somewhere the reader or critic isn’t familiar with – a different genre the person doesn’t read, for instance, or a set of obscure myths.
One result of all this is that people try to set rules for what makes a piece of art into Art with a capital “A.” This tends not to work very well for very long, even when somebody can get a large enough group of people to agree about what the rules are, because sooner or later – usually sooner – somebody will point out that Shakespeare or Homer or Titian or Rodin didn’t do X (or did do Y that “Art” isn’t supposed to do), and they are certainly Art.

Another result of the desire to codify “good art” is that people turn to things that can be measured – is the viewpoint consistent? Does the writer misuse passive voice or overuse adverbs? – and try to make these into rules. This is slightly more successful than trying to measure things like beauty, creativity, or emotion, because often one can look at a piece of writing and say “That viewpoint wobbles” and have most people agree, just as they would about a wobbly table. The trouble is, this stuff falls under my definition of craft, rather than art.

In my personal and idiosyncratic opinion, art – and, perforce, Art – is a very personal thing. This makes it incredibly hard to come up with a clear definition that is accepted by even a narrow majority. The lack of a clear definition, in turn, makes it pretty much impossible to tell people what should be considered good art or explain to them how to make it.

The fact that this frustrates pretty much everyone doesn’t make it any less true. The “art” part of writing is, therefore, the least teachable. Even for the most analytical of writers, the “art” leg of the stool ends up being intuitive and largely a matter of feel. It’s one of those things one learns by experience – lots of experience, of both reading and writing – and then can’t really articulate clearly once one has learned it (which is especially frustrating to writers, because putting things into words is supposed to be our stock in trade.

About the only advice I can provide about the Art leg of the stool is attitudinal. If artistic merit is one of those “we know it when we see it” things that are next to impossible to identify in one’s own work – and I really do think it is – and if it is likewise something that one learns from experience, then the only thing one can do is focus on getting that experience (by reading and writing a lot).

Fretting about one’s work as art will, more than likely, just get in the way.
Craft, the second leg of the stool, is a completely different matter. I’ll talk about that next time.

 

NB: Patricia C. Wrede wrote this post. CS only posted it. Pay no attention to the blog byline.

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Three-legged stool

Writing fiction professionally is a three-legged stool. It’s an art. It’s a craft. It’s a business.

Like all three-legged stools, it is most stable and comfortable when all three of the legs are the same length; that is, when each area receives an appropriate amount of attention. What is appropriate depends on what the writer is trying to achieve and how, and rarely does one find a writer who routinely gives equal attention to each one of the three legs. Still, established professional writers have generally found a balance that works for them.

Writers who aren’t yet in business (i.e., those who haven’t published yet) frequently pay too much attention to one or two legs, and not enough to the third. And when you’re looking at a three-legged stool, having uneven legs means an uncomfortable seat, at best; at worst, you go past the tipping point where the “seat” is too tilted to sit on, and you slide off in a heap, wondering why you can’t seem to get your writing career stabilized. Note that it doesn’t matter which of the legs is too short or too long; the end result will be the same.

Unfortunately, it is a bit difficult to talk about all three legs at the same time. Most writers and would-be writers seem to emphasize one leg at a time when they are talking or blogging about writing. Furthermore, observation and experience indicate that the fashion in what to emphasize most changes, depending on what is going on in the publishing industry and/or which part of it someone is writing for.

There’s always been something of a divide between writers who consider Art of primary importance and those who give Craft or Commerce pride of place. Dickens and Conan Doyle, for example, got little respect in their day because they wrote for a mass audience. The argument got louder with the rise of mass market publishing and category fiction, which expanded the market for written fiction and thus meant that a lot more people could make a living writing…and that meant that you had a lot more people talking actively about the Craft aspects and the business aspects than there used to be. And now we have a fast-growing group of writers who are self-publishing their work in ebook form and who focus intensely on the Business/Publicity leg out of the need to attract readers, as well as a subgroup of writers for whom their ebooks are simply an adjunct to their marketing campaign for some other product or service they’re selling.

Each of those shifts in emphasis came because the context in which fiction writing is done had changed. If your stool is sitting on an uneven floor, and you can’t level the floor out, one way to make it steady and level the seat is to make one of the legs longer or shorter, to compensate for the unevenness in the surface the stool is standing on. The thing is, if you don’t realize that you’re just compensating for the floor, you’re likely to position the stool wrong if you have to move it to a different place with a different kind of unevenness in the floor. And then you slide off and wonder what happened.

The other thing about a three-legged stool is that you can’t eliminate one of the legs and still have it stand up on its own. You also can’t make a fake leg out of something flimsy and end up with a stool you can sit on (though if you are trying to dump someone onto the floor, that could work very well). All three legs are important. Getting would-be writers to recognize that and act on it is a whole ‘nother matter.

Obviously, everybody has things they are good at and things they aren’t, as well as things they like and things they dislike. Having talked to large numbers of would-be writers both on and offline, I’ve come to the conclusion that most of them really, really want to believe that the particular thing they are best at and/or love and/or enjoy doing the most is the one thing that’s vital to a writing career, and the thing they hate, loathe, and despise doing is unnecessary. And no matter which leg of the stool they don’t want to deal with, they hate being told that one way or another, they’re going to have to in order to do what they claim they want (successfully write and publish fiction).

People have endless discussions on all three of these basic topics as they relate to writing fiction. In a fit of insanity, I’m going to tackle each in turn, starting next week.

[NB: Disregard the byline the software slaps on this post. It was written by Patricia Wrede. (CS merely posted it.)]

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Doing one thing at a time

Points of Departure is now for sale!

As you can see, we have made the leap to a new host for the web site. There are still a few problems shaking out, so new posts may suffer from odd timing for a few weeks, but I am hopeful that everything will be sorted out soon. Next comes the web site redesign.

As I mentioned ages ago before the move, writing generally requires doing many things at the same time. Still, there are times when any writer may decide to focus on one particular aspect of writing above all the others. Maybe they want to learn a new technique, like writing flashbacks or doing stream-of-consciousness. Other times, they’re trying to correct a problem with their process, as when they decide their Internal Editor’s constant criticism is slowing down their production. Still other times, the writer has a known weakness in one particular area (dialog, action, characterization, description…) that they have determined needs bringing up to the same level as the rest of their skills.

There are two main ways to approach this problem, each of which has advantages and disadvantages. First, you can find or come up with specific exercises that give you focused practice doing whatever-it-is: write three pages in nothing but dialog; or write a car chase, a brawl in a bar, and a battle scene, one after another; or fill three pages every morning as fast as possible without stopping or editing. Second, you can deliberately select a writing project that will force you to address the thing you want to work on a lot more frequently than whatever you normally write.

One advantage of finding or coming up with exercises is that they are focused, frequently extremely focused. For instance, I’ve seen quite a few dialog exercises that want the writer to write two or three pages of talking heads – nothing but dialog and the occasional speech tag. This provides lots of practice with the problem area in a relatively short time. And that’s the other advantage of exercises: they are generally short, usually no more than three pages (and sometimes only a paragraph). As a result, the author can tackle the same problem from three or four different angles over a couple of days, writing two pages of dialog between an old woman and a young boy, then two pages between a medieval king and his squire, then three pages of random strangers in a bar talking, then a romantic dinner conversation, and so on. It’s very difficult to find a piece of pay copy that will allow one to cover that much variety in a couple of days, unless you’re the sort of burst writer who can put in 16 hours a day for a week and end up with 40,000 good words at the end of it.

The main disadvantage of exercises, in my experience, is that they are focused. That is, they can help one figure out how to produce a particular kind of thing, but they don’t necessarily help with integrating that thing into all the other things that need to be there in the finished piece. Consequently, there is sometimes a tendency for new writers who’ve done a lot of exercises to simply string them together: first, there’s a lump of narrative characterization, then there’s two pages of dialog with maybe a couple of speech tags, then there’s another lump of description, then a bit of action. It reads like driving over a corduroy road, even when each bit is, taken alone, well done.

One way to fix this problem (which is for some their regular working method) is layering: starting with one very specific thing (often dialog) and then making additional passes to add description, body language, internal dialog, action, and so on. This can work quite well if one has a good idea of how many additional layers are needed and what they are; it doesn’t even matter if one misses something, as long as it isn’t the same thing missing in every scene. Few writers are as conscious and analytical as is needed to make this work as their standard process, but it can be really useful in itself as an exercise for integrating all the various things that need to be in a scene.

Unfortunately, there are some things for which writing a two-page exercise is not much help. Macro-level stuff like pacing, character growth, and plot is hard to address outside of an actual story. And sometimes the problem with one’s dialog or action or description turns out not to be with doing the thing itself – the writer has no trouble doing a page of realistic-sounding dialog or a lovely paragraph of description – but with integrating it into the rest of the story.

For this kind of thing, the second method (come up with a project that requires you to do lots of whatever-it-is) is the most logical approach. It’s on-the-job training, and it can be extremely effective. It’s ideal for those of us who are chronically impatient to get down to the real work. One can learn any writing skill one needs to know by using it, with the added bonus of ending up (theoretically) with a saleable story at the end. And one can also be pretty sure that one will be able to integrate that skill in future works, because that’s how one learned to do it in the first place.

The first catch is that working this way does not guarantee that one will end up with a saleable finished product. Most writers are perfectly OK with writing a two-page exercise that they know isn’t ever going to be anything but an exercise. They’re a lot less OK with writing a twenty page short story or a 300-page novel that turns out to be seriously flawed, even if improves a specific skill. And if the writer’s problem is with something at the macro level, it is entirely possible that writing one novel isn’t going to teach them enough to get that skill up to an acceptable level.

Which is the other catch: writing a whole novel, or even a couple of short stories, usually takes a lot longer than doing a couple of focused exercises. Novels not only take a lot of time, they involve a lot of different skills, and it is easy for the writer to get distracted. The story that was planned as a way to learn to really dig into characterization and growth slips gradually into the kind of action-adventure that the writer is already familiar with and comfortable doing (or vice versa). Furthermore, because there are a lot of different skills in play, the writer doesn’t get as much practice at any one of them, so the learning curve seems a lot longer and more time-consuming than it ought to be.

A mixed approach seems to work best for most writers, especially at the start of their careers, but it really, really depends on temperament and personal style. I loathe most writing exercises, and for the first twenty years of my career I didn’t use them at all because “write a scene that meets these requirements” was something that I felt I could just as well do in pay copy. It worked for me…but looking back, I’d have gotten a handle on some things a lot faster if I’d had the patience to do a few of those annoying exercises.

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Doing it all at once

Before I begin, let me just mention that Points of Departure, the anthology of Liavek stories Pamela Dean and I did, is going live on May 12, and we just got a very nice starred review http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-62681-555-1 at the Publisher’s Weekly website. This is a very big deal, as PW affects things like library purchases. I’m not sure how this will work for an ebook, but libraries do carry them now and it is also available as a print-on-demand paperback, so I guess we’ll find out.

Also, we are in the process of migrating the website to a new server and new, more mobile-friendly design. I am hoping that we can do it seamlessly, but hope and practice are seldom the same, so if the site goes missing unexpectedly or suddenly becomes illegible, that’s probably what’s going on. I’ll let you know when we’re safely done.

One of the problems with nearly all how-to-write advice, including this blog, is that in order to talk about writing fiction, we inevitably focus on one aspect of it at a time. The more analytical advisors tend to break things down along lines that focus on story: this is how you do characterization, here is some advice about plotting, that is how you do setting or style, dialog or action, pacing or structure; always remember these important things about theme, beginnings, suspense, tension. The more intuitive advisors talk mainly about the writer: this is how you get motivated, cultivate your inner idea-generator, take yourself on “creative dates,” get over your hangups about your unworthiness or lack of skill, let go of your inner critic.

The truth is that when you are writing, you have to do all of that at the same time. You have to be motivated while you are writing the action that shows off the characterization that furthers the plot as you get over your hangups while you continue writing the dialog that goes along with the action to keep the pacing consistent as you invent new ideas and squash your inner critic so that you can keep the suspense up and the middle moving.

This is why writing is hard.

A writer who spends too much time focused on any one aspect of writing, whether it’s something about them and their process or some more analytical thing having to do with the story itself, almost always ends up unbalancing the story. In the worst cases, the whole thing sinks; in less extreme ones, the book ends up full of lumps: here is a page of characterization, then two pages of pure action, followed by three of dialog. It’s like driving over a corduroy road, or like mixing butter, flour, and milk and getting dumplings when what you wanted was a smooth cream sauce.

What advice-givers seldom mention is that all these things – including the writer-specific ones as well as the story-specific ones – are ingredients. You do want to use the best and freshest ingredients possible, but that alone will not guarantee that you end up with cream sauce instead of dumplings. You also have to get the proportions right, and mix them properly, in the right order, and under the right conditions, and then cook the result in the right way for what you are making. You can make a perfectly fine cake batter, but if you try to cook it in boiling water, the way you would make dumplings, well, it is not going to work very well, that’s all.

Unfortunately, nobody has come up with recipes for the novel equivalents of cake vs. dumplings vs. cream sauce. Writing is much more like the kind of recipes my grandmother used: take some leftover mashed potatoes, mix with flour, and roll out; spread with some cut apples and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. Roll it up and bake in a hot oven until done. If you’re an experienced cook, you can probably make something edible from that recipe; if you’re not, it will probably take some experimentation, even if you have seen the dish made (or eaten it) and therefore have some idea what you’re going for.

Having some idea what you’re going for is important, because, as with cooking, different end results require starting with different proportions and preparations, and not necessarily all the same ingredients. Cake uses flour, butter, and milk, but also eggs, sugar, and a rising agent; cream sauce is generally just flour, butter, and milk. Dumplings…well, it depends on whether you’re making them to go in chicken soup, or whether you’re putting them in a stewed blueberry dessert, and also on whether you like yours light and fluffy or solid and chewy. Personal taste is an important factor.

What ingredients go into your novel depend, in part, on what kind of thing you want to do, in the most general sense. Fluff or drama? Comedy or tragedy? Specific genre or subgenre, or let’s-just-write-it-and-see? Planner or pantser? Different genres and subgenres require different proportions; a sweet Romance will have a lot more characterization and emotion and a lot less physical action than an action-thriller. A murder mystery pretty much requires a murder, the way stuffed mushrooms pretty much require mushrooms. If you hate the idea of writing a murder the way some people hate mushrooms, best pick a different story.

It is perfectly possible to cook/write something that you dislike yourself, but that people who do like that sort of thing really love. It takes a lot of motivation, though, because it’s usually not much fun, and usually quite a bit of experience, because if you don’t like it, you don’t know a good-tasting one from a bad-tasting one. I don’t make coffee for my guests because I hate the stuff and have no idea how to tell good from bad. On the other hand, my sister, who hates ginger but who is a very good cook, made some fabulous sweet-and-savory ginger not-quite-cookies for the three of us who came for lunch last weekend, because she knows we all love ginger…but she made us take the leftovers away. (It was a sacrifice, but somehow we managed.) I don’t think she’d have done that for very many other people.

So if you like light, fluffy fiction that’s heavy on characterization, you perhaps ought not to start off trying to write a gritty, action-packed dystopian novel. And when you are frustrated over your inability to shoehorn in more action or characterization, perhaps you should stop and think. Maybe your cream sauce isn’t supposed to have sugar in it.

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