The Write Stuff (2008)
This piece, from Death Ray 15, is a tract on how to get published, gleaned from what I’d learnt at that point from numerous meetings and interviews with publishers and authors. I doubt I’d change much of it now I have a couple of publishing contracts, as I followed my own advice and it stood me in good stead.
Fiction is hard. But our not-so-boyish wonder Guy Haley has been trying for years. He reveals what he has learnt in his own quest to become a wordsmith.
It’s not a big secret that I have been trying to write a publishable novel for the past 18 years or so. It’s been a strange journey, punctuated with moments of triumph and self-indulgent despair. Seeing as I meet a lot of SF fans who want to be published, I thought I’d share.
I became a journalist because I’ve wanted to write for a living since I decided suits and corporate away days were not my bag. That was early in my life, but having worked for one company that indulged in such, I now know I was right. What I always wanted to write was books; SF books. I targeted SF journalism as I thought it would be a great way to learn all the tricks of the novelist’s trade and leap over the slush pile into the bestseller lists.
Let me tell you now, this plan does not work. Sure, you make friends, and you do learn a lot, but how to ‘Do it’, The big secret of doing it easily? It ain’t there, because there is no easy way.
It’s tough learning to be a writer. When it comes down to it, the only way to learn to write is to write. Imagine if were like this for other crafts, for writing is a craft. Say an untutored scamp wants to become a bricklayer. Rather than showing him how to do it, we shall instead provide him with rudimentary tools and bid him, ‘Get cracking’.
All he has going for him is that he has seen lots of other walls, and, oh boy. does he want build them himself! Now, as he’s lucky, we’ll send someone who is knowledgeable in the area of wall building to come along after he’s finished his first wall, and kick it down saying “Pretty good, but a little more to the left, and use less sand in your mortar,” or suchlike. Our intrepid brickie does this again and again and again, until, finally, he builds a wall worthy of the name. Or maybe he never does, and ends up with nothing but a crooked labyrinth made out of broken brickie dreams.
Luckily for brickies, there are apprenticeships and colleges, but not for novelists. Okay, there are courses, but they only give you a push in the right direction. The sad fact is, learning to write is writing. It is time-consuming, and it can be demoralising.
There are those few who are naturally brilliant, of course. And often, I want to drop heavy paperbacks on people that get their first book published when they are 17 to great acclaim, then stuff their corpses into a bin. Really. But they are few and far between. For most of us, years of graft, on top of your day job and raising a family, is the only way.
So, to aid you on your own Sisyphean struggle, here’s a random grab bag of wisdom I have gleaned from authors, agents and publishers.
• You have to write from the heart. If you’re not into it, publishers can tell. However, you have to know your market.
• People like BIG READS. A modern SF/ fantasy book needs to be at least 120,000 words long. [NB, this isn't true of SF, I later learned, only fantasy].
• Publishers are looking for new franchises. Writing something with obvious sequel potential is a good idea.
• Even if they like a novel, a publisher has to sell it to their colleagues. It helps if your book can be broken down into four or five exciting and market savvy bullet points.
• Keep your story simple, many new writers try to get in so many ideas the book becomes unworkable.
• Complexity is often a cloak for a lack of believability. If an idea needs loads of exposition, bin it.
• If your clever idea really is clever, don’t explain everything. The reader needs to have fun working stuff out too.
• Readers, the demanding creatures, need to know what they are reading. Make sure the general aim of your story is apparent early, not buried under a dozen cunning narrative double-bluffs.
• It’s de rigueur to have several main characters. Seeing each character from ‘outside’ helps round out each of them without relying too much on introspection.
• It’s usual to build to a certain point with one set of characters, then switch to another. These mini-climaxes give a story a good pace. They help with the length, too.
• Don’t make the characters so outlandish that the reader cannot identify with them. It may not make for realistic aliens or whatever, but it’s just the way it is.
• Characters have to be sympathetic. Even if they are bastards. For a long time, I had a fine line in whining, drunken, self-doubting northerners. Apparently, this is not a turn on.
• Write in modern English. As much as I love William Hope Hodgson, emulating him will keep me in my garret forever.
• Use names that are non-stupid. No weird punctuation or unpronounceable combinations of letters. Yeah, even if it is linguistically well thought out. Among other things, it makes selling it as an audio book hard.
• Make sure your book can be understood by everyone from 14-year-olds and up. The more people you can sell to, the more attractive your book will be to publishers.
• Make sure that the writing within the book is consistent and non-contradictory. That means within the larger context of the story, and within each passage.
• Pick one way of saying something, and then say it once.
• Don’t put allusions or metaphors in only to explain exactly what you mean one sentence later.
• As a publisher said to me ‘adjectives are not your friends’. Absinthe is not your friend, either.
The confidence thing
• You have to let other people read your stuff. No-one writes purely for themselves. Try a few close friends, or join a writing group. Not only will it improve your writing, it will build your confidence.
• When you ask someone for an honest appraisal of your work, be prepared to listen to it. Although what anyone says is their opinion, the opinions of someone with years of experience in the SF market is worth more than yours.
• Don’t give up. Publishers say the hardest thing in the world is actually finishing a whole book. If you can stay the course, they will be far more interested in you.
Where am I after learning this? I have a couple of pros who read my stuff and give me advice, which is priceless. I’ve had a comic and a few shorts published. Thus far, though, no grand success. I worry that perhaps I’m one of those damned souls who are almost good enough to be good, but not quite. On the other hand, maybe I’ll make it one day; I’m not giving up, and that’s half the battle right there.