Friday, June 02, 2006

About Writing

Passion and Persistence

Someone asked me the other day what was the most important quality for getting published. It was an easy answer. Passion and Persistence.

Then they asked me, of those two qualities, which was the most important, and I said, Neither. You need them both equally.

You need to be persistent beyond imagination to succeed in publishing. There is a long apprenticeship involved. First, you need to be persistent about learning your craft. You'll need to fully immerse yourself in absorbing all the aspects of craft. And there are many! You'll need persistence to keep on doing one more draft to get the manuscript right, until you are embarrassed to realize you’ve got twenty drafts of that sucker. You'll need to be stubborn to keep going forward in the face of all those rejections, and yes, most writers get many; scores or hundreds, depending on your learning curve and how much your story taste jives with the market's.

Believe me, you'll need passion to fuel all that persistence. You need to be passionate about the stories you're writing, for that—or the lack of it—will most definitely come through in your writing. You'll need to have these stories burning so brightly inside you that there's simply no way you can NOT tell them. Even after you've given up on writing, thrown away all your old manuscripts and reference books, and sworn never to write another word, that story will still nudge at you, haunt you, and eventually insist it be written.

You'll need that passion once you're published as well. It will help you remain true to your story in the face of editorial or marketing demands. And if you're not passionate about your book, how can you expect readers to become interested in it?

So, passion and persistence. Those are the requirements. Oddly enough, talent is pretty far down on the list of qualities needed to become a writer. Talent will only get you so far.

The truth is, with passion and persistence, you can pretty much accomplish any goal you set your mind to.

World Building

There are two keys to world building, whether historical or fantasy. First, you have to cast the world building net far and wide and deep. It needs to encompass the huge (religion, creation myths, belief systems, and rites of passage) as well as the small (slang, what they eat at their morning meal, what words they’re forbidden to use, and whether or not they wear underwear). It’s important to understand where the fantasy world veers away from our existing world. At what point in history did the world we’re creating take a different turn from the real world? If we’re writing about vampires, what is the nature of them? Did they all descend from Vlad the Impaler, or are they a specific class of demon from one of the seven levels of hell? Is world you’re building a completely different physical world, not on earth? Or an altered earth? You can’t just toss stuff in there because it’s cool or interesting or a trick idea, there has to be a logical solid reason for it, one that ties back to the physical and social laws of that world.

Then comes the annoying part. We do this huge amount of work involving days, weeks, months of research and creating until we have mountains of information on this world of ours. But the truth is, probably only 10% of it actually has a place in the story.

This can end up feeling like a waste of time and energy, but it’s not. Without that depth of knowledge, we will have a hard time convincing the reader that that world is real and exists in all its three dimensional reality (even if only in our imaginations). The writer needs to know and understand the entire world so they can select the most effective 10% to include.

By all means, fill your early drafts with as much world building as you need to make the world real to you and your character. However, when you’re on the final drafts, cut everything that has nothing to do with the story. If it doesn’t move the plot or character forward, it’s out of there. The good news is, you’ll have lots of details to sift through and choose from.

The second key to world building is even more important than setting the stage or providing description. All this world building is critical in creating an authentic WORLD VIEW for the characters. That’s where it really matters.

All that we learn and develop about our world informs our characters and their actions and their feelings. That’s where the great world building jumps off the page and makes us believe, because it isn’t just stage setting, it affects the very core of who the characters are; how they view the land, their family, and why they take the actions they take. A character living in a matriarchal world will have very different perceptions of people, and therefore make different story decisions, than one living in a patriarchal society. Characters who lived in the early Middle Ages will have a completely different worldview those who lived during the Renaissance (which means re-birth).

If your character “works” in either of those settings, then chances are they haven’t been fully developed. That means the writer hasn’t lived in their world long enough or deeply enough to truly understand what living in that world would be like. What things would cause fear, what would feel safe, what things would be taken for granted, and which would cause wonder.

Even if a single sentence of historical or fantasy description never makes it to the page, if we’ve built the world thoroughly enough, it makes the character who they are; completely unique and separate from anyone we could meet on a con.

The Creative Process

Writers find their stories in many different ways.

  • Some writers might “hear” voices inside their head and realize it’s their characters talking.

  • Others hear the words, the rhythm of the language and know how they want their words to sound.

  • Some see a movie or have images inside their head and write to describe those pictures.

  • Some writers feel what their characters feel and try to capture those emotions on paper.

  • For some writers, how the pencil or pen feels as it scratches against the paper is very important to their creative process. (It’s also why I collect pens! Each one feels so different!)

Whatever way your stories come to you is the RIGHT way.


On Writing, Publishing, and Promoting/Marketing

King, Stephen. On Writing (Scribner, 2000)
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird (Anchor, 1995)
Lerner, Betsy. The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice for Writers (Riverhead, 2000).
Levinson, Jay Conrad. Guerrilla Marketing for Writers: 100 Weapons for Selling Your Work (Writer’s Digest, 2001).
Maass, Donald. The Career Novelist (Heinemann, 1996)
Maass, Donald. Writing the Breakout Novel (Writer’s Digest Books, 2001)
McKee, Robert. Story (HarperCollins 1997)
Vogler, Chris. The Writer’s Journey (Michael Weis Productions, 1998)

On New Releases, Market Trends, Buzz, and Publishing Philosophy

American Booksellers Association. BookSense 76,
Publisher’s Lunch, (free online newsletter and subscription website by agent/packager Michael Cader).
Publishers Weekly Magazine,


Author’s Guild,
Novelists, Inc.,
Mystery Writers of America,
Romance Writers of America,
Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America,