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