Welcome to my Fifty Thoughts On Writing, a list full of random thoughts I've had that connect to the wonderful, weird, and occasionally painful life of a writer. When I wrote this, I had just finished reading Stephen King's On Writing for the fifteenth time. I had also just finished half the books in the Howdunnit series, because it's always good to refresh your understanding of poisons and blunt-force trauma. Oh, and a couple books on pandemics and how to make sure everybody has a good time—what if we threw a pandemic and everybody came?!—but that was for fun. Also, I had just revised three novels at a speed that, were the publishing world a reality show, would probably qualify me for a spot on the finale and a shot at the hundred thousand dollar grand prize (So You Think You Can Write, with your host, Warren Ellis, will be back after a short break...).
The end result of all that wallowing in the technical sides of the written word, as well as all that revising, was a whole lot of thinking about writing. I mean, seriously, I never spend this much time just thinking about writing, and I spend the bulk of my time actually writing. When I'm not writing, I'm whining about the fact that I'm not writing. Thinking about writing was fairly new to me.
Because I believe firmly in the art of over-sharing, I decided to write down some of my conclusions about writing. Technique, reality, functionality, revision, critique, the whole ball of wax. Because maybe that will get them out of my head, and allow me to get some goddamn work done. Your mileage will absolutely vary. You may look at my list and go "wow, she's totally out of her tiny little blonde mind." You may look at this list and go "wow, I never thought of it that way." And either way is totally fine. My method of writing is not yours. Your method of writing is not mine. And we should all be very grateful for that, because if we cloned my muse, the world would rapidly run out of absinthe and cherry pie.
The original list of thoughts turned into a series of essays, each spun out from a specific thought on writing. Some are long, some are short; some are serious, some are silly; all of them relate to the writer's life. The essays have been syndicated by Aphelion, an online magazine focused around speculative fiction and slightly less speculative fact. After the essays have appeared on Aphelion, they are linked here.
Seanan's Fifty Thoughts on Writing
1. You're going to suck when you start. Sucking when you start is okay. Every new project, no matter how brilliant the idea at the heart of it happens to be, is going to start by sucking. Just deal with it, and soldier through. Every sentence is a learning experience.
2. The rules of English grammar were devised by an evil linguist who had a bone to pick with the adherents of the more traditional schools of the written word. They laughed at him in the academy, and we bastards are still paying today. You don't need to have a perfect grasp of the seventeen thousand (occasionally conflicting) rules to be a writer; that's what editors and proofreaders are for. At the same time, you can't just throw a bunch of words at the page and expect to have all your work done for you. Learn the basic rules of punctuation and grammar before you subject other people to your work. They can squabble over the Oxford commas at their leisure.
3. Putting fifty thousand words on paper does not make you a novelist. It makes you someone who successfully put fifty thousand words on paper. You should be proud of yourself for that, because dude, it's difficult to stick with a plot and a concept and an idea and characters for that long, and I salute you. At the same time, you're not a novelist. Sweating over those fifty thousand words until you're confident that at least forty thousand of them are good ones is what makes you a novelist. Good luck.
4. People are going to be mean to you. Full stop, absolutely, people are going to be mean to you. Some of them will be mean because they like what you're doing, and they want to see it work. Some of them will be mean because they feel like being jerks. Learn to see past the mean and get to the actual meat of what's being said. "I don't like romance" is not the same thing as "This scene makes no sense," and they don't have the same potential to benefit your work.
5. People are going to be mean to you: that's axiomatic. And sometimes, those people are going to have good and vital things to say. But people who are being mean for the sake of being mean have the potential to do more harm than good, and when you encounter those people, it's okay to walk away. Don't refuse to let anyone tell you that you're flawed. That way lies madness and pretentiousness. But don't stand around to be told that everything you think is fun is a steaming piece of shit, either.
6. Kill your darlings. You can save their wordy little corpses in a file where you can look back on them with love -- I do -- but often, the little bits of text that we're the most proud of have no business being in the middle of the narrative. Nothing is sacred once the editing machete comes out.
7. The phrase 'write what you know' is innately flawed. I don't know what it's like to be a changeling detective working the mean streets of San Francisco, or a hard-boiled journalist with a crazy twin brother, or a teenage lycanthrope with a serial killer problem. Write what you're willing to know. Everything will begin with a kernel of pre-existing knowledge -- I know folklore (Toby), zombies and blogging (Georgia), and coyotes and high school (Clady) -- and expand into a fabulous orgy of learning. Toby taught me San Francisco history and lots of ways to kill people. Georgia taught me virology and plagues. Clady taught me about snack foods. If you're not willing to write anything but what you already know, you're going to be restricted to autobiography, non-fiction, and writing the same plot ten thousand times. And that's just not fun.
8. You are the author. That makes you, effectively, God. God created the mosquito. Sometimes, God can screw the pooch in a very big way. Being the author doesn't mean that you're incapable of being wrong. Sometimes, you'll write things that are out of character. Sometimes, you'll write things that are out of place. And sometimes, you'll write things that are just flat-out incorrect and inaccurate and insane and wrong. That's not a bad thing. The bad thing is refusing to admit it.
9. You know those parents with the totally out-of-control kids who run around the restaurant sweeping things off tables and screaming in the faces of all the other diners? And you know how they just sit there looking serene, because their kids are precious little angels and everything they do is wonderful? Don't be one of those parents. If your book spits in somebody's metaphorical soup, the appropriate thing to do is to apologize and discipline your text, not tell the person with the saliva slowly dissolving in their minestrone that they 'just don't appreciate the beauty of spit.' Not everyone is going to like what you do, but you can damn well make sure your kids don't trash the place before you pay the check.
10. When a book or an idea is new, it's okay to want validation. You're standing at the mouth of a tunnel that's probably thousands of pages long, once you calculate for discarded text and revisions, and that's scary. Ask people 'do you like my idea?'. Tell people you need to hear good things about what you're doing. It's okay to say 'it's my first time, be gentle.'
11. ...but only at the beginning. Look: if you just want validation and sugar and sweetness, that's okay. But you need to admit it to yourself, and you need to admit that you don't actually want to sell anything. Thanks to the Internet, you can have a wide audience by opening a website, and that can be wonderful and fulfilling, and you won't ever have to listen to a single harsh word. There is nothing wrong with that. I post a lot of stuff online that I don't necessarily feel like being critiqued on. Those pieces say 'be gentle,' and their safe word is 'no.' If what you want is to improve as a writer, however, and if you're looking to publish someday, change 'be gentle' to 'bring it on,' and get ready to suffer for your art.
12. Good critique targets the text, not the author. Good critique says 'this is sloppy and needs tightening,' or 'I don't think this word works here,' or 'I really don't understand the pacing in this scene.' Bad critique says 'wow, you really turned the suck knob to eleven on this one' or 'why don't you do something you're good at?'. Learn to tell the difference. Don't reject critique because it's harsh on the text; don't seek out critique that's going to make you lose the will to improve. It's a hard balance to strike. It can take a long time. It's absolutely worth it.
13. Read outside your preferred genres. I'm an old-school horror girl. I love fantasy and funny genre fiction. I read more books on epidemics than anyone outside the CDC really needs to. But that won't make me grow, so I also read trashy crime thrillers and westerns, hard science fiction and romances, and pretty much anything with a plot that looks like it might hold my interest. Seeing what they're doing outside your comfort zone will help you understand what's inside your comfort zone much, much better.
14. Even if you're not publishing right now -- even if you're just hoping to publish someday -- make sure you're reading as much as you can of the genres where you're writing or planning to write. The line between 'new and hot' and 'played-out and cliche' is a thin one, and while I'm not saying 'throw away your baby because somebody else got there first,' you need to know where that line is at any given moment, because you need to be able to defend your work from an informed perspective.
15. Write what you want to write. I don't care if it's a total cliche, if that's honestly what you want to do, do it. You may never get it published. You may strike it big and wind up in a position to publish all your trunk novels. Either way, refusing to write what you love just because it's not commercial enough is going to do nothing but turn you bitter and angry at the whole industry, and that's no good for anyone.
16. Understand that what you want to write may not be something that the market can currently support. There will be books no one wants to buy because they can't figure out what genre they fit into. There will be books you can't sell to anyone, period. And then there will be the books where your editor says 'look, we can only take this if you're willing to make the evil scientist a werewolf.' The decision is ultimately yours -- I can't tell you what to do -- but you're going to need to embrace the fact, right out of the gate, that your best-behaved, most beautiful baby may be the one that no one wants to invite to their birthday party.
17. A good editor looks good when you look good. They're trying to help you. Listen to them. Not everyone is a good editor. After a few experiences with the bad ones, you'll learn how to recognize the difference.
18. Using big words doesn't make you a better writer, it makes you somebody who figured out how to use a thesaurus. Every word has a purpose and a meaning, but there's no reason to clutter up what you're trying to say with a bunch of words that will leave most readers diving for their dictionaries. That doesn't mean you need to dumb yourself down. It just means you need to really stop and ask yourself whether you want to use the word 'expectorate' when what you mean is 'spit.' Even Shakespeare used small words sometimes, and even the trashiest popular novelist in the world is allowed to use big ones. Suit your words to the task at hand.
19. Talk about writing exactly as much as you, personally, need to talk about writing. I suggest finding tolerant friends. When I talk about writing, I'm like a velociraptor gnawing on a brontosaurus bone -- it's going to take me a while to get my head all the way around things, and there's a whole lot to swallow. If I tried to work everything out in the privacy of my own head, I would explode, and nothing would ever get done. You may be on the opposite side of the spectrum. There is no wrong answer.
20. You are absolutely allowed to say 'this is new, I don't want opinions until it's ready.' You are absolutely allowed to refuse to discuss something until you feel you're prepared. You get to set the boundaries on your own work. That said, you do need to tell people where the boundaries are, especially if they're used to reading something of yours where the boundaries are different.
21. We are all magpies. We are all going to pick up bits of flotsam and jetsam from the cultural void around us. Part of the value of having people edit you is the outside perspective they provide. If I tried to write a book that was a climactic clash of good versus evil following a slatewiper pandemic, there are people who would point out its similarity to The Stand before I managed to hurt myself, and that's gooooooooooood.
22. Your writing style will actually change over the course of a single day, not just over the course of your lifetime. I write very crisp, sharp prose in the morning, and very purple, rambling prose at midnight. My sentences start turning into spaghetti around ten o'clock at night. A finished work is going to need to stick to one of these styles of prose, and I need to be aware of that when I'm editing, because otherwise, the transition can be so organic that it isn't visible until someone else gets a look and starts screaming at me for blinding them with adjectives.
23. For the sweet love of all that is holy, edit, proofread, revise, and practice the art of self-critique. I mean it. There is no one on this planet so good at this game that they can just throw a fistful of words at the page and declare it brilliant. Needing to revise does not make you a failure, and becoming a better writer isn't going to take that need away. Embrace the revision process as a chance to dig down into the heart of your text and make it everything that it deserves to be.
24. Anyone who tells you that your first draft is brilliant, perfect poetry and deserves to be published just as it is and you shouldn't change a word and oh, you're going to be famous and make enough money to buy a desert island is either a) lying, b) delusional, or c) your mother.
25. If you're going to be a writer, you'll be a writer, because if you're going to be a writer, you'll write. This is not a glamorous profession. This is not something people do because they want to be rich and famous and sleep with Hollywood stars. This is something people do because, at the end of the day, they can't not do it. People decide to be writers for a lot of reasons. People continue to be writers because they can't figure out how the hell to quit. Writing is bibliophile heroin, and we're all addicts over here.
26. Learn to be a hermit. Learn to say 'I'm sorry, but I can't come to your party, I booked that night for revisions and I don't have any other time to do it this week.' Learn to tell people no. Learn to treat writing as a job -- one that may well be both unpaid and in addition to whatever job pays the bills for a long, long time. If you make excuses to let yourself skip writing, if you choose a social life over that second job, you're not addicted enough. If you want to get better, you'll learn.
27. People are going to act like writing is easy, because that's all they know; they're not writers. People are going to say you're being a snob when you say 'I'm sorry, I have to work,' because they can't understand why you'd choose reworking chapter three over going to the roller derby. Try not to take it personally. I'm sure they do shit that seems crazy to you, too.
28. Kevin Smith said 'this isn't for the critics' when he was talking about Jersey Girl, and the critics savaged it anyway. There's a lesson here. You can't write to some imagined critical ideal, but if all eleven of the people you trust to review your first drafts say 'wow, this makes no sense at all, what the hell is going on here?', you should maybe consider taking another look. Pandering is bad. Being accessible is not.
29. Outline as much as you need to. I have books where I've written incredibly detailed outlines, including locations and characters involved in every scene. I have books where I pretty much just plunged in blind and started hacking around with my machete, praying that nothing in my new-found jungle was going to give me Ebola. Even those books eventually got 'event chains' written on Post-It notes and stuck to my computer, because I needed to keep track of who was where. Neither style is superior to the other.
30. If you're writing any sort of series, whether it be a series of short stories or a series of novels, you need a continuity guide. The format is up to you. The level of detail is up to you. But believe me, even if you somehow manage to forget that your hero has green eyes and turn them hazel, your readers won't, and they will eat your soul.
31. Measuring your output against someone else's output is a game with no winners at all. Maybe you write fast. Maybe you write slow. Maybe you're somewhere in the middle. I can write an obscene number of pages on a good day, and finish it off with a song and maybe a sonnet or two. Another friend of mine considers herself to be doing amazingly well if she finishes three pages in eight hours. Neither of us is doing anything wrong. Some of the best books ever written took years to finish; so did some of the worst. Write at your own pace, and know what that pace is.
32. Deadlines are your friends. Learn how to work to them. If you ever start publishing, you're going to be getting a lot of deadlines, and you won't necessarily have any real say in the matter. It's best if it's not a shock to the system.
33. Learn to be gracious to everyone who helps you. Thank your proofers. Thank your editors. Thank your agent. Thank your readers. They're doing you a favor. You're also doing them a favor -- you're letting them play with your kids -- so don't be servile, but do be gracious.
34. The only people you owe your work to are your agent, your editor, and your publishing house. Don't let anyone pressure you.
35. There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a break from time to time. I pretty much write every day of my life -- I'm a junkie, and I admit it -- but there are days where the writing takes an hour in the morning, and is then set aside completely, in favor of seeing Flogging Molly perform. Sometimes, my 'writing' for the day consists of jotting notes in my planner (also known as 'Seanan's second brain'). I need those pauses to reset myself, and sometimes, to find new books in the world around me. Don't hate yourself for needing to breathe.
36. You're going to get ideas from wherever it is you get ideas. There's no magic well. There's no 'proper source.' They'll come when they come, and you can't force them to show up if you're not ready to have them. The 'what if...' moment is one of the most amazing things there is, and when it happens, you'll be the king of all creation, you'll be so fucking cool that nobody can stop you from conquering the planet...but you can't make it come. Just expose yourself to the world, and wait, and see what happens.
37. Don't buy into your own hype. There will always be people ready to tell you that you're so awesome you should be elected President on the basis of sheer badass. There will always be people ready to tell you that you're brilliant, that your books are the best things ever written, that they can't imagine why you aren't winning every award in the industry. That's okay. Those are not bad people. They're good for your career, and frankly, they're probably telling the truth; everybody has the one author that can do (almost) no wrong, or the one book that's absolutely perfect as it is. Still, those six, or sixty, or six hundred people? Are just six, or sixty, or six hundred people. If you let yourself believe them, you're going to hurt yourself in ways that I can't even begin to describe.
38. At the same time, don't sit around telling yourself how horrible you are, and don't let a few bad reviews shatter your sense of self. Look at the negative feedback as critically as you can, and if everyone is saying the same things, try to figure out whether that's something you can fix -- whether it's something you're willing to fix. I'm not going to stop writing horror just because there will always be people who hate horror. At the same time, if multiple horror reviewers are going 'zombies, you're doin' it wrong,' I should probably reassess. Don't buy the bad hype any more unreservedly than you buy the good.
39. Jealousy is useful; it motivates you to work harder. Jealousy is toxic; the world is not innately fair. Acknowledge your jealousy, take a deep breath, and let it go. You're going to find yourself with a lot more room to work if you can do that, and you're going to be a much happier person.
40. Talk to other writers about what works for them. Half the things on this list may be pure crap from your perspective; that's okay, because in order to decide that they were crap, you had to think about them. You have put thought into what kind of writer you want to be, and how you want to work. That's fantastic. Listen to everyone, and decide for yourself what you want to take to heart.
41. Just because somebody else did it first doesn't mean that somebody else did it better. At the same time, just because you think you're going to do it better doesn't mean you necessarily will. Be just as objective with reworkings of old stories as you'd try to be with totally new ones. You actually need to work harder when you're dealing with the familiar.
42. You are not the next Stephen King. You are not the next Emma Bull. You are not the next anyone. You are the very first you. Comparisons are wonderful things, because they tell people whether you're working in a style or genre that they enjoy ('If you like Warren Ellis, try...'). But don't let comparisons turn into a prison. You are always allowed to bust out with something new and amazing and blow the roof right off the goddamn nightclub.
43. Your ass is for sitting on, not for talking out of. If your characters are supposed to be gun experts, talk to some people who shoot guns. Read some books about guns. If the books don't make sense to you, hand your manuscript pages to someone who knows guns and say 'please fix.' My original draft of Newsflesh literally included 'INSERT VIROLOGY HERE,' because when I wrote that chapter, I hadn't finished designing my virus. I finished my virus, double-checked my epidemiology, went back, and finished that scene. If you don't know what you're talking about, learn enough to fake it.
44. You don't have to like your characters. You just have to stay true to your characters. I may not appreciate the fact that Shaun insults Mahir's wife on a daily basis, but it's what the character would do, and I'm not going to change him just because I don't approve of his behavior. Some people will assume you approve of everything your characters do. Try to learn tolerance. Also, don't punch them.
45. You are brilliant and you are a hack. Sometimes you're going to be both in the same day. Embrace these two sides of your soul. Then bash their heads together until they start playing nice with each other, because nobody likes the golden goddess whose every word is a honeyed pearl, and nobody likes that other girl, either.
46. Not everything you write is going to be easy, and not everything you write is going to be fun, and if you think 'easy' and 'fun' are your rights as a writer, please go find something else to do. Every book has a chapter you don't want to finish. Every story has a connective segment you just want to be done with already. It's going to happen. Acknowledge it now, and when it hits, you won't be so surprised. But you'll still be a little surprised. The painful parts of a project are like ninjas, and they sneak up on you.
47. It's okay to be silly. It's okay to be serious, too. If a serious writer sniffs at you for writing comedy, or a comic writer tries to call you a stick in the mud, laugh. You're the one who's doing the writing.
48. If you find yourself critiquing the comma placement in published novels, it is maybe time to step away from the editing process for a little while.
49. Try not to argue with reviewers in public places. It makes you look petty and it makes them feel attacked, and that's going to start a vicious spiral leading all the way down into the deepest, darkest depths of Hell. Feel free to whine at your friends if that makes you feel better, but don't make public scenes, and don't make huffy comments where other people are going to find them. Also, if everyone who's known to be a friend of yours starts attacking the reviewer? People are maybe gonna catch on. Play nice.