writing advice

  • As a Writer You are IMMORTAL

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    Writing is one of the oldest and most important skills that humankind has ever developed.

    As a specie on this planet it’s enabled us to game Nature’s systems to the point where we’ve become the ultimate overachievers. The ability to accumulate knowledge over the centuries, and even accelerate that accumulation, is supernatural in scope.

    And yet we take it for granted.

    As other species plod along through evolution, slowly storing up success stories in their DNA, we’ve leapfrogged them in a manner akin to putting on a red cape and hurling ourselves over tall buildings. We can now easily know something that someone else has learned, and yet we have never done.

    Think about it.

    Here’s a question for you: Do you believe in telepathy?

    Mind reading? Think it’s a myth?

    No, we do it every day.

    Writing is the pure magic act of taking our actual thoughts and encoding them into symbols which, when someone sees them, the writer’s very thoughts are transcribed into the reader’s own mind.

    Think it’s not magic? Let’s take a closer look at the process.

    Consciousness itself is magical. No one truly understands it, but it happens to us constantly. A writer takes these ethereal, magical objects we call thoughts and assembles them into physical codes. Particles of light carry these codes into our eyes, where they are reassembled back into thoughts.

    Seriously, ponder this for a moment. It’s mind blowing when you really realize what’s going on between a writer and a reader.

    Now, if that wasn’t amazing enough, here’s an even deeper layer of magic. The thoughts you’re receiving via someone’s writing reach out across time itself.

    Long dead ghosts still talk to us through their writing.

    Your thoughts that you write can be experienced in the minds of people across vast expanses of time, hundreds or thousands of years later.

    Writing is so magical it can even cheat death.

    Now let’s talk about story. Story goes hand in hand with the ancient art of writing. It’s even older, going back to the origins of language itself.

    But, what is story?

    Storytelling is the art of making your thoughts interesting to other people.

    Basically, that’s what it is.

    It relates the storyteller’s experiences so others can experience them, and learn from them. Stories themselves, like ideas, are living things. They propagate from one person’s mind to another. They evolve. They split and become more than one story. They merge to become a different story. A story that goes from one mind to another is actually a child of the original, because the original still lives in the teller’s mind, and a slightly different version now lives in the listener. The listener then becomes the storyteller, and that story’s children are implanted into the minds of new listeners.

    Like seeds.

    Before written language stories were in constant flux, handed down from one generation to another through oral traditions. Each teller of a tale would either inadvertently, or perhaps purposely, alter the tale to fit the current circumstances. But then came written language, and the art of writing.

    This made it possible to make identical copies of a story, and being that early stories carried important information for survival, this was humanity’s secret weapon against Nature herself. It was the Konami code to beat the elements.

    And also, of course, it served as pure entertainment.

    But the craft of storytelling inherently carries a message, either overtly or subconsciously – whether the writer realizes it or not. And you, as a writer, are that which from the message springs.

    So, are you a writer? Do you tell people you’re a writer, or do you say you want to be a writer?

    Here, let me tell you something: if you write things, you are a writer.

    Period. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

    As writers – all writers – we improve with practice. Practice is in the form of writing. The more you write, the better you get. If you enjoy the act of writing, then you’ve got it made. Just keep doing what you enjoy, and learn as you go.

    You don’t need a certificate saying you’re a writer. You don’t need a license. You don’t even need other people’s approval. All you need to do is write, keep writing, and never stop writing.

    That makes you a writer.

    As a writer, it’s a good idea to practice all sorts of different techniques so that you learn them, and then later make up your own. But then again, writing and storytelling are not like mathematics. There is no one true answer. Two plus two in math always equals four, but in storytelling two plus two can equal five*, just like one plus one can equal eleven.

    Ultimately as a writer, you will find your own way.

    Just keep writing.

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    *bonus points if you get that reference

  • Poetry Teaches Better Writing

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    I’m often shocked by how vehemently some people react to poetry, and I mean in a negative way. It’s like you’ve asked them to eat spider soup, or drink rat gut beer.

    I think poetry is terribly misunderstood by the majority of would-be readers — and also writers, I might add. All writers should write poetry, specifically structured poetry, because it teaches you how to say more with less and how to make word pictures that are more vivid and immediate. That’s a skill that can improve any other type of creative writing.

    Sometimes if I’m having a hard time putting a scene together, I’ll outline it as a poem. That works for me like adding lighter fluid to a fire.

  • Plotting for Timelessness

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    You are a science fiction writer. Your finger is on the pulse of technology and society’s trends. Closing your eyes, you can see the world of tomorrow, and with your talent, you craft a great work of fiction set in this world you envision.

    It takes time to craft a novel. Even after you’ve finished the first draft, there are successive rewrites, and publication woes, and printing and distributions lag times. When your readers finally get a hold of it, there’s a problem. The acceleration of technological advancement has overtaken your vision of the future. A good portion of the science fiction in your story has become reality, or worse, invalidated.

    How do you avoid it? Plan for it. Deliberately.

    Many of the classics have a timeless quality about them. There’s something about these works which sets them out of time’s reach so that they’re as fresh now as when they were first printed. While there’s no sure way to write something that will become a “classic,” there is a way to make sure your writing is timeless.

    One way is to write your story as a period piece. This works with SF stories where the events don’t change history as we know it. Think “thwarted hidden agenda.” (Author Tim Powers is especially good at this.) Choose a setting either right now or some date in the past. State the date, the place, and incorporate real historic events – this helps build solid suspension of disbelief, and adds an air of authenticity. By its very nature, this type of story can’t become outdated. It exists in time, as history.

    Another method is to use a break in reality. Create a future event, without a date, that resets expectations of what comes afterward. It could be a nuclear war, or plague, or maybe an alien invasion. It could also reset the year counter so that even the date is removed from reality. So if your story takes place a hundred years after this event, instead of being the year 2101, it could be year 100. That puts your story completely outside of time.

    Of course, you could also set your story in a place entirely removed from our reality. This could be another world, or an alternate reality, or so far in the future or past that there’s not even a remote connection to the here and now. Remember the phrase: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”

    There are always stories that, by their very nature, need to be set in a specific point in the future. Even if time passes them by, the strength of the story itself pulls the reader past the fact that it’s outdated. Look at “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Personally, I don’t care that time has caught up with this classic. So don’t feel you have to try for timelessness in everything you write, but keep it in mind when you feel you’ve come up with your magnum opus.

    Not many things suck as much as finishing that big, wonderful, complex story only to have something happen in reality to make what you’ve written completely implausible.

    Trust me, I’ve learned this the hard way.