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You Are What You Love: A Numerical List of Loosely-Connected Thoughts on Writing (Part 1)

I'm teaching a lot this year, and thus having to think more about that old question: do you have any advice for young/aspiring writers? Since I'm still usually the youngest person on any given panel and not too long ago I couldn't sell a book to save my life, in many ways I still see myself as a young/aspiring writer. I wrote my first book when I was 22; it came out when I was 25. And I'll tell you, when it came out? I knew jackshit about writing. I did it because I wanted to and because I didn't know I couldn't. And I hit the ground running. But the result is that I'm kind of like a sitcom kid--I grew up in front of everyone. All my (ongoing) efforts to figure out life, the universe, and fiction have happened on paper, widely published, in more or less equal measure torn apart and loved. It's a harrowing, amazing, nailbiting way to spend your twenties.

You can find lists of rules for writers and advice and top ten dos and don'ts just about anywhere you care to look online. They're mostly of a kind: write what you love, follow submission guidelines, don't quit. Market yourself aggressively but not too aggressively. Write every day. There, I've saved you at least the cost of two books on writing. I've always been uncomfortable with telling people how to do these things we do, in part because I don't really see myself as an authority--why would anyone want to do it my way? And in part because good writing is a moving target, and what's more, no one agrees on where the target lies. But it is Friday and I am almost over my cold and I have students this weekend, so I'm going to drop some knowledge--which you should pick up, brush off, squint at dubiously, and only take home with you if you really like it and are willing to feed it, walk it, and pick up after it. Since I don't believe in soundbites and even two entries on the list is bordering on the epic, this is going to take a little while, so I'm splitting up the entries over the weekend and hopefully some of you won't vanish into the pre-Valentine's Day thrill ride.

Let's all repeat the holy refrain: Your Mileage May Vary. I am assuming here a level of desire to write interesting, chewy, risky fiction that is awesome after the fashion of the submission guidelines I wrote when I was editing Apex Magazine. Those who aren't into that sort of thing will find many other bloggers to guide them on their way. I can only attest to what I've learned, I can't mama bear every kind of writer there is.


1. Write What You Love

Aha! I have suckered you in and hit you with a cliche. The lessons here are two--cliche is horrible and disappointing! When you open a book that looks like it will shatter your heart and put you back together again a new human and what you find inside is instead some lukewarm frittata of D & D, white alpha male triumphalism, bad robots, and/or the redeeming/world-saving/death-defying/technology exploding (looking at you, Doctor Who) power of monogamous, child-producing heterosexual lurve, it is like unto whipping off one of those fancy rich-person silver dinner-domes to reveal something stale and rotten and beyond the veil of expiration dates within.

And also, write what you love.

Cliches come from somewhere, and they do have power if you're willing to get in there and examine them. The fact is, you might as well write the weird shit that ties you up in knots you're so into it, because the landfills are full of derivative books and experiments alike. You can write something along the exact formula of the most recent mega-hit and it can absolutely fail. You can write yet another steampunk zombie or epic RISK-style fantasy and have it disappearas though it never was. You can write a pastiche of early 20th century children's fiction with polyamorous witches and too many big words or a multi-generational econopunk Singularity saga with uploaded lobsters and have it be a huge hit. You cannot know. Publishing (and writers) still move slowly enough that you cannot predict the next trend, so you might as well dork out over the things that thrill you down to your toes. And it's true that there are people who are excited by genres and tropes that others find distasteful. That's why we publish more than one book a year. There are even people who are SUPER ELECTRIFIED by writing about a farmboy who finds out he's the secret heir to the Magicdragonsparklefire Kingdom. And that's ok. (I mean, it's ok like it's ok that you still live with your parents at age 38. It's not ideal, but rent's cheap and there's room for all your stuff. Life is hard and everyone's pulling for you to sort it out, buddy.) It means that those farmboys have people to shepherd them on their way to the Throne of Ultimate Power. I don't have to pay them any mind.

A comment on one of my previous posts just keeps going around and around in my head. It espoused the idea that "hard" SF is more difficult to perform, more rigorous, as fantasy does not require a PhD or at least working knowledge of physics. I've heard this so often I can sing along with the chorus. I've even, when I first started writing science fiction, said it myself. But the fact is, very few people go out and get a PhD in physics just to write SF. People write what they know about, they write what excites them (which is a better measure than love, anyway). People who already have PhDs in physics are more likely to write SF than fantasy--and would find it much harder to write a moving, tech-free fairy tale than to riff on the stuff that gets them going in the morning. The body of knowledge required to write awesome, paradigm-shifting fantasy is easily equal to SF. Just ask Tolkien, who could hog-tie you into a Christmas bow with his doctorates. We find it difficult to write about things we haven't spent half our lives studying. What is new is strange and scary.

So yes, write what you love--but it's also good to stretch out and try something outside your idiom. I learned a tremendous amount about myself as a writer and a human when I started making inroads into SF and horror as well as fantasy. What is new is good for you, wherever you start out. So write what you love--but also write what you fear.

2. Cliche Poisons the Soul

So you may have noticed I have this thing about cliche. I hate it, and wish to stamp it out wherever I find it. This comes directly from my training as a poet. Any formal training I have in writing is in poetry (this is...not shocking for those who have read my work) and in that august field one learns to harbor a horror of cliche as intense as a horror of communicable disease.

In fact, cliche is at its core a communicable disease. The polite way of calling out the beast is to call it "received language." It's more than language, though. It's anything that you just barfed up onto the page without thinking about it. Sure, everyone on that planet obviously has the same religion. Yep, her skin sure is milky/chocolate/cinnamon colored. I'll bet her (non-white) eyes are almond-shaped, too! No reason this poorly-sketched female character shouldn't die horribly in some sexualized fashion simply to motivate the male hero--sounds awesome! This is the entire reason we have TV Tropes.

It's also part of the reason that our genre can't have nice things. We love our cliches SO HARD. Our received plots get put on pedestals and regular manifestos appear exhorting us all to get rid of all this new-fangled stylistic/feminist/wibbleywobbley/deconstructive/non-Golden Age stuff and rewrite Asimov til we all choke and die.

And the hard thing is that sometimes cliche can be a useful tool. It is a fairly awesome thing to lay out and examine a cliched concept or character in a meta-sense, to see why it got so hot everyone wanted to date it in the first place. To take it apart and turn it against itself. I love that shit. The danger there is coming off as too cute and knowing and ironic, too good for your home, so to speak. But it can be done beautifully and well, because cliche is part of how we shorthand our entire culture, and if you can step back enough to use it instead of it using you, it can be a monstrous tool in your belt. And looking at the cliches of cultures other than your own can teach you a staggering amount about how they see the world. If you're creating an alien or magical or alternate world, the cliches of that world should not be those of the West in the 21st century. An understanding of cliche on the anthopological level is a high-level spell. Cast with care. (And pretty much the only way to tune up your Cliche-Detecting Engine is to read constantly, in every genre, all the time.)

But for the most part, it's just insidious and ugly and boring. If you're writing is the same as everyone else's, there's no reason not to read literally anyone else. A huge part of the editing process for me is to put on my Cliche Riot Police gear and go hunting through my book, on the micro (sentence) and macro (plot, character) level, looking for received crap to zap into some kind of foul Ghostbusters-style containment device for future study.

In the end, as a writer, you are a TARDIS. You are bigger on the inside. And constantly inviting wide-eyed young things to see the insides of you, to come with you to places extraordinary and terrible, to trust you to give them a story worth leaving the real world behind. It's an awful, intimate thing. Black magic for true. I genuinely believe that there is no one whose insides are nothing but pale retreads of other books, movies, tv and games. We use those things as armor so that we don't ahve to bring out the scary, sincere, bombastic, complicated, desperate, ugly, unkind, astonishing, bizarre, gorgeous, sometimes weak and broken parts of ourselves. How much easier to fall back on that poor fucking kid living the monomyth than to put ourselves on the line in our books. Cliche is tempting and warm and comfortable--and great books are rarely comfortable. And hey, maybe you and I never write a great book. But it's better, I have to believe it's always better, to try for great than to settle for more of the same.

More to come tomorrow in Part 2: Love Harder



"Nothing odd will do for long. Tristam Shandy did not last." Samuel Johnson.


I think that your riot-police editing is what I admire most about your writing. It used to be a game of ours to go through The Orphan's Tales and hunt through those sentences for a repeated image, a squib of a metaphor, anything that felt cliched or stale.

I'm sure we're both counting down for the inevitable dispute over whether the knowledge required to write fantasy is REALLY equivalent to that required for the proverbial 'hard SF'. I've been reading Requires Only Hate a lot lately, and past all the performance rage it strikes me how thoroughly right her points tend to be, how evident they seem. The writers she's dissecting have made a ton of mistakes.

It seems, then, like there really is an enormous amount you have to learn to write well, especially when writing outside the monomyth, outside the white pseudoChristian European setting. A preposterous amount of knowledge you need to hold in your head in order to avoid being cut apart for your cultural appropriation, your male gaze, your othering. (Not that being cut apart is the evil here; you deserve it, if you've made these mistakes.) And this stuff is as important to learn as any detail of orbital mechanics or cybernetics in order to write good fiction: but somehow we haven't quite learned yet, as a cultural complex, that it's equally important.


In what way did Tristram Shandy not last? It's still read, and a reasonably successful and awesome movie was made out of it in the last decade. Odd things last quite awhile, it's only that after the first 10 years of influence on the rest of everyone, we don't think they're odd anymore.


I adore ROH. And she is right, so often, which many people don't seem to want to credit.

It's a huge body of knowledge. Just because it's knowledge denigrated doesn't mean the equivalent of graduate level work in folklore, anthropology, linguistics, history, sociology, and others I'm not thinking of isn't basically required for quality fantasy. And as long as hard SF claims to not need characters or feeling to get in the way of its awesome ideas, I'm not really up for hearing how much harder and better it is. But I'm sure I will!


"In what way did Tristram Shandy not last?"

Samuel Johnson said it, not me. And I believe that according to artistic theory of his time, it should have been true.

I suspect it was temporarily true.


Damn this is good stuff. I wish I had read it before I wrote my column this week. Hitting cliche like that really cracks open some of the issues I have with writing, trying to get past that crap and connect with the words. I think that your point that cliched writing and experiments both often end up on the trash heap is a great point. You can't do something crazy and hope that it will magically be lauded for its difference. You have to write in spite of the fact that it will probably not be noticed or applauded. Writing and reading are about connection, about finding new ways to understand each other and the world, about getting past the usual and the banal. Dangit.


I would guess that one more bit of advice might be: Speak aloud what you have written. Because quite often the voice in our head is not the same as the voice that actually has to say the words. The sentence or paragraph might look good on the screen, and in the imagination, because we know what we want to say. Speak it aloud and you can hear the flaws.


I would prefer to sit on the fence to find out which way the wind is blowing before jumping on the bandwagon.


I love writing stories about inhumans. Like, I tried to write a story about a biofilm inventing sex. Unfortunately, since all the dialogue took the form of plasmids containing heritable traits, it wasn't terribly readable. Also, I'm not a biologist, so it probably wasn't scientifically sound either.

What I love is trying to not think like a human. Like, what if you were a creature that couldn't distinguish the world based on object boundaries, but instead saw everything as continua? That's utterly fascinating to me- but incredibly difficult to structure into a narrative. Were I a dedicated literary genius, I might be able to do something with the concepts that I love. But I'm neither dedicated nor a genius. The result: I can't write what I love.


Wow, Cat, did you commit one big stinker of a cliche up there!

Hard SF is only written by a PhD in physics? Really? I've got a PhD in BOTANY and I like to write hard SF. With real physics. And biology even.

The point about the "hard" part is that the Rules get primacy, whatever those Rules are. Yes, in SF most of those rules are physics (which shows in most hard SF aliens, by the way). But it's not necessary to have a physics degree to put physics in the story. Asimov and E.E. Smith were both chemists, for example.

Tolkien did it the hard way too, as you rightly pointed out. He had lots of rules in Middle Earth, rules based on history rather than science. He stayed within them too.

The antithesis to hard SF isn't soft SF or fantasy. It's the Rule of Cool. Something is So Cool that, even though it breaks the rules of a world, the writer thinks they can get away with it because It Is So Cool. Whether it works or not, the point is that the story becomes more important than staying within the boundaries of the setting.

The difficult part of hard SF is that it constrains you as a writer. The good part is that such constraints inspire creativity. Some people like that sort of thing. Some people like it when cool people break the rules. It's the difference in whether you like your kayak built out of seal-skins, walrus bone, and driftwood, for playing in the freezing surf off west Greenland, or whether you want that plastic kayak to show off your tanned muscles at the Club Med resort.


Speaking of which, most hard SF isn't. It has its own conventions, and largely relies on cliches -- faster than light travel, ramscoops, teleport booths, time machines, aliens -- that are, in the context of the narrative, equivalent to the tropes of high fantasy: sea-going ships of one kind or another, magic portals, gates to other worlds, monsters. Badly done "hard SF" is no better a predictive medium than badly done high fantasy, and just as prone to overdose on stale cliche.

(Also: in hard SF, your readers will make their mental apologies for you if you skimp on character development and socio-cultural stuff because, hey, that touchy-feely stuff with girl cooties ain't allowed in the tree house.)

As for the PhD's, I think it's possible to take a PhD in just about any subject and use it to perpetrate fiction. For example, I know of one fantasy author who gets really pissed off with bad Celtic fantasy; having a PhD in mediaeval British history (specifically 5th to 13th century Welsh history with an emphasis on ...) certainly makes her fantasy novels better grounded than those of someone who just read Tolkein and thought that shit was cool. Or there's Harry Turtledove, with his background in Byzantine history (which his earlier books deployed to good effect).

But the PhD's are just research. They don't (with a very few, specialized exceptions) help you write -- what they do is give you a rich lode of background detail to mine for colour and texture.


Charlie committed:

Speaking of which, most hard SF isn't.

The exceptions that prove the rule more or less boil down to some (possibly most) of the late Bob Forward's books, throwing in Geoff Landis' Mars novel and various bits of short fiction that mostly shows up in Analog these days for flavoring.

It's possible to write hard non-physics-violating-non-magic-technology SF, but people rarely try or bother.

The ones where there's only one Macguffin are even rare. Charlie's own Family Trade books are one good example.

There are plenty of hard-er SF books where the Macguffins are limited and well defined, and outside of those everything works consistently with known knowing.

It's possible to wonk this to death and forget entirely about characters and plot. This is a fine but lousy online tradition, dating back to early mailing lists and 1980s vintage Usenet. It's slightly less odious than pitting the various Star Trek Enterprise starships against the Battlestar Galactica or Death Star, or being forced to watch the Power Rangers.


Actually, this is one of the things I love, too. I usually manage it by writing about monsters, broken people, or AI.


I was quoting the comment from the thread. It is neither my opinion nor a statement of exclusion, but rather a synecdoche, standing in for advanced degrees in all sciences, much as "plumber" stands for jobs not requiring degrees in US political parlance.


I agree, which is part of why the comment bothered me so much. I think there's a little confusion as to where I'm quoting from the comment and what I'm actually advocating. I think that by the time authors have any two or three novels under their belt, they've done at least a dissertation's worth of research anyway.


I think that knowledge about human nature is the only "hard" knowledge you really need to write a story.

All the rest depends on your reading audience.

I for one like it a lot when the author at least tries to respect causality. But many others don't care much for this.


Dr Johnson said it, and he was almost always wrong - hardly anything but self-obsessed performance snark. This is the same man, you'll mind, who wrote about his trip to the desolate, uninhabitable island of Mull, where a few illiterate savages stubbornly persisted in scratching half a living from the rock... after riding ten feet from blackhouses where bards, poets, bluestockings, and soldiers who'd been back and forth to Canada were sleeping.

Early 18th-century critics said Shakespeare was a minor talent who'd been badly overrated, too, and needed the careful stern hand of a good editor.


I've tried to write, but, there are a few things holding back.

Lack of talent probably being number one.

I think all that 9160s TV screwed me up too, and the movie 2001. I'd a story, and then realize it was about two pasty guys in a spaceship, battling a computer.

Regardless, I know what a cliche is, it's something that's been overused, but I had to look it up. So, cliche is from the French clicher, to stereotype, imitative of the sound made when the matrix is dropped into molten metal to make a stereotype plate. A stereotype plate is literally solid type, as in not movable type - solid print. I see!

I’m old enough to have experienced a tour of the local newspaper where they still used molten metal on the old linotype machines. But they aren't that old! They only go back to 1884. I mean, it's old, but it's not.

Question is, you say you avoid stereotypes, but most stories don't. They try and judo flip it, right?


"I've tried to write, but, there are a few things holding back. Lack of talent probably being number one."

Talent comes with practice


Question is, you say you avoid stereotypes, but most stories don't. They try and judo flip it, right?

The problem with cliches is that they got to be cliches because people were over-using them because they work.

Flip side: if you come up with a genuinely new and original depiction of something and enough people like it it will eventually become a cliche.


Clichés are an easy trap – that i’ve fallen into more than once; but to some extent in the eye of the beholder, perhaps depending on how well-read they are. I think cliches are ok in a certain context: A character who sees themselves as an archetype. Regarding scenery, probably best not to use the word ‘verdant’ more than once (it’s the repetition that really makes a cliché unacceptable); but at the other extreme, a total alien landscape with no familiar reference points is damn hard work for the reader (for me anyway). I guess there the odd simile comes in useful.

Yeah, a good thing to conquer fear in the writing – getting out of your comfort zone. Problem is when that bravery turns back into fear: the very prospect of people you know getting to read The Novel. Then, well, they clearly didn’t know you much after all and wonder if you might have some ‘issues’. So there are still those who don’t read as many novels to truly appreciate that the views and preferences of the characters have nothing to do with the those of the author. Still, maybe the author could just be in denial.


So here I am, having been educated in grammar/writing in the 50s and 60s. The term "cliché" was discussed in some of my English classes but not as much as it is now, so (and I meant to tag this to Charlie's comment No. 20) perhaps many turns of phrase have become cliché because they are now used so much. My meander into this is all about: does the cliché help us communicate because we "know" what it means? Does it just become an idiomatic expression?


"fancy rich-person silver dinner-domes" = a cloche


Keith, you're right! Those domes ARE shaped like a 1920's ladies' hat!


Sometimes the cliché is useful to draw the reader in, familiarity is important, then you can move the story on to greater or at least newer things. I think many artists hamstring themselves by paranoid avoidance of anything that could be constituted as derivative.

Comic books are particularly shameless about this, I'm thinking of the recent IDW Dungeons and Dragons comic book. It's textbook adventuring party - human fighter, dwarf cleric, elf ranger, halfling rogue and uh, tiefling mage (That one was new for me but apparently it's a thing)

It won't win any awards for originality but it pulls it off really, really well not by subverting the cliches (Though there is a bit of playful subversion going on) but rather by embracing them and really going at it with gusto.


Cliches ... I just saw this, and will shamelessly steal it ...

How's this for, say, the start of a novel: The ministers' yachts are bobbing in the harbour; the diesel tanks are full, and so too, are the holds full of food.

The cars can be left on the quayside, they aren't worth much anyway.


"The body of knowledge required to write awesome, paradigm-shifting fantasy is easily equal to SF."

That doesn't make sense to me --- the question is one of constraints. It's not about the size of the body of knowledge you have or create --- but how that body of knowledge constrains you. How making the art demands craftsmanship --- in the sense of technical ingenuity on top of the artistry.

It's why playing great music on a piano is "harder", more important and touching, than programming the same music into a synthesizer.


Hey, you'd be surprised at the effort it takes to program a synthetizer! I thought it'd be relatively easy, too, so I tried learning it. Turns you you need to know just as much musical theory to program something like Overtone as you need to play a piano.

Everything is hard, everything takes lots of practice to get right - it just looks easy to those who don't know much about it.


And that's ok. (I mean, it's ok like it's ok that you still live with your parents at age 38. It's not ideal, but rent's cheap and there's room for all your stuff. Life is hard and everyone's pulling for you to sort it out, buddy.)

Hey, thanks, buddy. (I know you weren't really addressing me directly - but, hey, if the cap fits ...)

Great to know that everyone's pulling for me. Because sometimes it doesn't seem that way. Sometimes it seems more as if people are queueing up to tell me, more or less directly, that I ought to be ashamed of myself. Which is kind of funny ... as if I might feel anything else!

And, for what it's worth, I'm pulling for you too. I hope the success you have enjoyed, professionally, in your twenties continues into your thirties and beyond. (Otherwise, who knows where you might end up living!)


Of course you need to know music theory to program a synthesizer --- but it's still temporally displaced.

Everything isn't "equally hard" -- that's a complete cop out, one of these vulgar relativist BS ideas that everything is equal to everything else.

In fact, it is harder to play something live than to compose it electronically. It is harder to program while standing on your head and whistling than sitting in a chair. Juggling 4 balls on a unicycle is harder than juggling two balls while standing up.

Judgment and discrimination is possible --- the failure to do that is simply a lame surrender.

It espoused the idea that "hard" SF is more difficult to perform [...]working knowledge of physics

By the same token, I would claim that "rural" fantasy (that is, fantasy in which significant time and plot is spent in rural or uninhabited areas) is more difficult to perform, as it requires a working knowledge of things like:

  • biology (that mighty oak forest would wither and die in the harsh long winters you've written, and those goblins over there don't have anything to eat),
  • geography (not in a "Where's Paris?" sense, but "Given this map, what's the climate going to be like?",
  • agriculture (why are you plowing in the middle of summer?),
  • pre-industrial manufacture methods and socio-economic implications of this,
  • hunting (how close would you need to get to a deer in order to kill it with bow and arrow?), and
  • outdoors living (finding firewood isn't trivial, even in a forest).

It's that old "know what you write" thing. It's to save you from alienating readers who know more than you.

It could be, though, that criticism for breaking too many rules and too many instances of "That doesn't make sense" stings more when coming from someone with a PhD in science, than from someone without much education who just happens to have learned how to build a lean-to. :-)

(Apologies for not signing in, but work firewall is blocking all id providers I could use.)


Now you bring that subject up, I suspect that a lot of those areas are "frequently glossed over questions" in a lot of fantasy novels!!


Bit late to the party but must comment as I was thinking about this very thing today.

Annie Dillard said: "A writer looking for subject inquires not after what he loves best, but after what he alone loves at all."

To find what you alone love, or what you love as no one else loves it, is a sure way to avoid or transform cliches. It is also an exhausting task. Not everyone is up to it. It does, however, result in the books we remember.



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This page contains a single entry by Cat Valente published on February 10, 2012 5:42 PM.

Beer, Boston (and books) was the previous entry in this blog.

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