This will conclude my series of writing advice here--but I'll still be posting for another ten days or so, have no fear. (Or have fear, if you haven't dug this.) I'll be at Boskone this weekend if anyone wants to say hello. Thanks for sticking it out this long. I hope you've all gotten something out of these--it certainly grew in the telling since I meant to just do a quicky writing post and call it a morning almost a week ago. I promise some nice techy posts to cleanse the palette.
Funny how this turned out to be a list of ten. Talk about cliche.
9. Authorial Credit
My mental processes about writing tend to flip back and forth from the idealistic to the extremely hard-headed and sensible. I both love writing with all my being, and reading too--a friend (not even an author friend) posted recently that nothing else in the world mattered but reading and writing and while I can pick holes in that as well as you can, part of me, the idealistic part, thinks there is a crazy truth in that, that stories are such a core part of being human that a massive portion of our activity on planet earth is telling and hearing them, whether or not that means getting in the publication game or the old porch-yarn here's a pot of butter for me and a tale for you magic.
I think a lot about the relationship between the reader and the writer. Because it's a weird, intimate thing between two people who are probably not going to meet. Text is fluid--there is no one book, there is the book the reader and the writer make together, and that book changes subtly for every reader because every reader is rolling up to the table with a whole different set of expectations and experiences and desires. Once you finish a book it no longer quite belongs to you in a spiritual sense, at least not as it did when it only lived in your head. It has become part of other people's heads, and mutated thre. I've heard a lot of teachers say that you should write for yourself and not an audience, and while it's true that you shouldn't pander to an audience's expectations (you can never satisfy them) to the exclusion of your own sensibilities and enjoyment, to me writing is hugely about the audience. Maybe it's my theatrical upbringing. Playing to an empty house is a fundamentally different act. And not as much fun.
So I have a number of different metaphors for that relationship. Possibly the one that gets remembered the most, which I said to a crowded room at Readercon not quite realizing the reaction it would get, is that it's a D/s relationship, and it's my book, so I'm the top. Meaning: I am creating a scene and guiding the reader through it, hoping not to screw up, to satisfy their needs, to deliver the goods with authority and power, and if they don't want to play anymore, well, safewording = closing the book.
That's the idealistic/romantic part of me, that sees the weird kind of love, that is not like anything else we call love but English is very word-poor in some areas, that happens between writers and their audience.
The hard-headed part thinks of the relationship as a creditor and a debtor. (I am quite sure this is influenced by my time as an editor, when I was very interested in the point where I could tell a story was worth reading or never would be.) The reader extends a certain amount of credit to the author--let's say 50 pages worth. And if the author can pay off that credit then that earns them more credit.
I think this proceeds very quickly: the first line earns you the first paragraph, the first paragraph earns you the first page, the first page will probably get you the whole first chapter, the first chapter will get you to chapter 3, and if a reader gets to chapter 3 and is still invested, they'll probably give you half the book if it's very long and the whole book if it's not.
That's kind of a brutal calculus, because a lot of readers will forgive a crappy first line or first paragraph, maybe they're not here for the prose stylings or they just have a lot of patience, and SFF readers tend to. But I think it's a good idea to write as though all your readers are your most cutthroat readers--they don't have the time for bad books and the Internet has trashed their attention span and they have kids and jobs and a hundred other things so the time spent with this book has to count against all of that. That first part of the book is so vital, because it spikes your reader credit score.
And if they liked one book of yours, it fascinates me how that credit stretches or doesn't. As a reader, if I loved one book by an author, I'm likely to read through at least two, maybe three more that I don't like at all before I give up on them, and even more if I hear that they've taken off in a new direction or I have reason to think they're over whatever I didn't like. So it goes from flipping over pretty fast--line, paragraph, page, chapter--to going quite slow, whole books that I just credit as being awesome because of another book I loved. Those new books have to actively not pay their bills for awhile before I cut my losses.
On the other hand, if I hate a book by an author, I'm not likely to pick up another one. They blew their credit with me already. It does happen, I can think of two major authors off the top of my head where I made a big stinkface on our first go only to fall in love with a later work.
So how does this apply practically? Well, you have to establish your credit. Those first lines and first pages really do matter--Ezra Pound cut the first 250 lines of The Wasteland--and the line he told Tom to start with is one of the most famous in the English language. Look at your beginning. Cut until you hit something you can't sacrifice, or is too awesome to lose. Consider where you're starting your story, if you've buried the lede and not given the reader something else--an interesting voice or idea or something--to pull them through. Hell, I had no idea what Snow Crash was about from the first page, but I'll be damned if I wasn't sold on reading the whole thing after one damned paragraph. That isn't always what you can pull off--but it should be the goal.
10. Radical Sincerity
So look. Here's the thing about writing. Some people think it's magical, some people think it's a job. I think it's a magical job. It's a job in that I have to go to it every day, and sit at a computer, and enter data. It's hard and I'm not always inspired and sometimes I really just want to play video games and eat cake and never think about narrative structure again. And sometimes it's not even the fun part of making things up, but the copyediting and admin and correspondence and total breakdown level exhaustion after months on tour. It is more than a full time job, and even though it is an amazing job, there is nothing particularly mystical about being a writer over, say, being a programmer.
But on the other hand, it is kind of magical. Like trauma, I'm convinced there's some chemical release that erases the knowledge of how I ever managed to write a book as soon as I've finished it. Things just drop into your head without warning and the story seems to take on its own life. For me it's a combination of playing a complex game, casting a spell, and solving a puzzle in which many pieces fit correctly but only one makes the right picture. We all come up with metaphors about writing and compare it to other tasks because even as writers we're constantly trying to understand it. We talk about muses and characters sprinting off on their own recognizance and channeling inspiration (ok, other people do. I get hives when those conversations spring up) because a lot of times we don't have a good explanation for where ideas come from, or why the story needed to go in just that way, or why on Tuesday nothing happened and at least one eyeball actually wept blood while staring at a blank screen and on Wednesday a whole story just fell out and was amazing. Why stuff that seemed phenomenally, brain-sizzlingly awesome last night is crap this morning, and what seemed like cold garbage when you finished writing it is actually pretty good when you make your editing pass. It's all weird stuff, and like most groups who suffer from low personal power and random reinforcement, we get superstitious and start churning out odd folklore.
And then you slap down your most personal obsessions and best guesses and terrors and longings and it gets mass-reproduced and a whole bunch of people (hopefully) read it and then you have to look them in the eye at readings and signings and conventions and try to black out what they know about your past, your future, how you want the world to be and what you love so that you can have a normal conversation, so that you can try to be the better self that sometimes, on really good days, goes into the work. It's not exactly normal, this thing we do. But there is a reason that so many people want to do it, and that reason is because it is awesome. Sometimes I realize the awful truth that being a writer is exactly as amazing and magical as I thought it would be when I was a kid and that's really a bit terrifying.
Almost every writer I know has at one time or another said they felt they were Doing It Wrong and there had to be an easier/faster/slower/better/less stressful/better tasting way to write a book. Not just the standard long dark teatime of the middle third of the novel where we pretty much all think we're terrible at this and should be strung up for the imposters we are, but that the method by which we accomplish books is the wrong one.
The truth is, if there's a finished book at the end of it, it's the right way to write a book. I say that having just stayed up all night for the second time this week to finish something, which I always tell myself is stupid, and I am stupid, and I am not in college and why couldn't I do it during the day like a non-vampire? But it's never been a realistic expectation of myself not to write things the way I have always written them, which is to say all in one go, usually late at night, pushing through because if I don't stop I can't doubt myself. It's part of who I am as a writer, and however you write is part of who you are, too.
I don't really think I'm any kind of expert at this, which is a scary thing to say on the Internet where No One Is Wrong. I think there has to be an easier and better way to write a book than I do, too. When interviewers ask me for advice for young writers I usually punt and say: read everything. And that's completely true, you do have to read everything, as much as possible, to even hope to take a swing at writing, and if that sounds like too much work you probably should take up another hobby. But it's also an easy answer, because all the other ones are hard and often contradictory, like avoid cliche but also give your reader something familiar to stand on. Be radically sincere. Be in love with the world because the world is this amazing place, the present and past no less than the future and you live in it and your job is to translate it and rephrase it and turn it on its head so that other people can see it the way you do, the way it might be, or almost was, or never could be but still, somehow, is true. Don't hold anything back because you never know when you'll get another contract, but at the same time cultivate calm, and realize that you probably will if you got the first one, and don't throw the kitchen sink at it. You must be at least this passionate and driven and obsessive and committed and joyful about the minutia of literature to ride this ride. Write as fast as you can because someday you'll die and if you didn't tell all the stories you had in you it will hurt. (No one believes me when I say this is the exact and honest reason that I have written so many books while being so young. I tell them: I'm going to die soon. I have to write faster. I only have fifty years or so left if I'm lucky. That's not enough time. They laugh, and I'm not joking.)
I don't know, wear sunscreen.