There’s Always Another Way To Write It

Luc Reid @ 07-07-2010

In Star Wars: Episode I, Qui-Gon Jinn quips “There’s always a bigger fish.” Admittedly he’s wrong, because since there are not an infinite number of fish in the universe, so one of them has to be the biggest. And I’m probably wrong too when I say “there’s always another way to write it”–but as with the fish thing, it appears that there aren’t many exceptions to that rule. What this means for writers is that it may be possible to find a solution to almost any writing problem we come across. Continue reading “There’s Always Another Way To Write It”


Tales from the slush

Paul Raven @ 04-02-2010

Mmmm, tasty slush...Short fiction writers would be well advised to follow the Apex Book Company blog, as I think I’ve mentioned before; they have lots of guest posts from writers, editors and other niches in the fiction food-chain, containing plenty of sound advice. Like this post from submissions editor Maggie Jamison, for example, which offers a little hope and solace for those of you who fear the anonymity of the slush pile:

Believe it or not, a submissions editor can remember your name, particularly if you wrote something she liked, even if she passed on it. If you pay attention to rejection comments (if she gives any), and keep working to hone your understanding of her market, chances are your next attempt will be closer to what she wants.

And here’s the funny thing (though maybe it’s just me): we want you to succeed. Of all the other submissions editors I’ve spoken to, the vast majority would much rather send an acceptance letter than the typical form rejection. Heck, even a personal “This was so, so, SO close!” rejection is more fun than the form. I think most magazines want to be the one that nabs the first few publications of a great up-and-comer, and I’ve always enjoyed the vicarious excitement when a manuscript from my slush pile is accepted and bought.

I know that’s the attitude Futurismic‘s very own hard-workin’ Chris East takes to the slush pile… if we didn’t want to publish good stories, we wouldn’t offer $200 per story and throw submissions open to all and sundry! [image by misscrabette]

Maggie makes some sound points about rewrites and re-submissions, too:

Unless I’ve specifically asked you to tweak the story and send it back, DO NOT resubmit the same story. The only other way it might be acceptable is if you rewrite the story so completely that I can’t tell I’ve read it before. But then, it wouldn’t be the same story, would it?

As a submissions editor, I do try (when I have time) to give suggestions for what might make a rejected story just a little bit better. I do this so the author knows and can utilize this information to avoid the same issue in her next story submission, not so the author can tweak her story and send it right back to me. If I want to see a rewrite or a reworking, I will be very, very clear.

Of course, all this advice follows on from the basic rule of making sure you read the submission guidelines carefully for the venue you’re sending your story to. As Chris has pointed out here before, a great many of the stories we reject aren’t bad per se, they’re just not the sort of stories we publish. Researching your market is a great way to lessen the chance of the dreaded “thanks, but no thanks” response. 🙂


A fistful of writing tips and tools

Paul Raven @ 29-01-2010

brainstormingIt seems like ages since I last relinked any good writing advice here, so let’s take a look at a few items that got tangled up in my intertube trawler-nets this week. First of all Luke Reid points us toward the blog of the pseudonymous Doctor Grasshopper, a medical student and sf/f author who aims to provide useful tips for other writers who want to include realistic diseases and injuries in their plots:

… what I’d really like to do is provide a bit of groundwork for starting from a desired symptom and working your way to figuring out how to make it happen in a marginally medically plausible way.  Some posts will be symptom-based, and will discuss different ways to produce the symptom.  Some posts will be about broad categories of diseases, and how they work.  Some posts will be organ-system-based, and will basically be me geeking out about how cool the human body is.  And of course, I reserve the right to post miscellany as I see fit.

She’s inviting specific questions from the audience, too, so go subscribe to the RSS feed; expertise is an invaluable resource, after all, and free is the best price.

Jeff VanderMeer’s Booklife blog (an online supplement to the book of the same title) is spooling out a bunch of interesting guest posts at the moment, including this little gem from Jeremy L C Jones; if you’ve heard the writerly aphorism “show, don’t tell” but never quite understood what it means, this post should shed some light on the subject.

… I am often surprised at how many of my students haven’t heard “Show, Don’t Tell” or who have heard it but don’t get it.  There comes a time in each semester when I have to explain the difference between showing and telling.

Usually, this can be taken care of with a simple demonstration.

“I am happy,” I say.  ”That is telling.”

Then I jump up and down, hooting and pumping my fists in the air.  “And that is showing.”

They all smile and nod.  They get it!  I am a proud teacher.

Click through for examples and exercises; excessive exposition and blunt telling are the most frequent problems I encounter in manuscripts sent to me for critique, and slush readers of my acquaintance bump into it a great deal, too. Jones’ post should help you grasp the root of the problem, and show you some routes to solving it.

Shifting gear to a somewhat more meta level, John Ginsberg-Stevens pops in to the Apex Book Company blog to look at one of the less-discussed cogs in the genre writer’s gearbox: the annihilation of history.

… I think this is a vital engine in the creative mechanism of SF.  Whether there’s been a zombiepocalypse, an alien invasion, or a high adventure 10,000 years in the future, the genre thrives on messing with history, taking it apart, or brazenly dismissing it to focus on something else.  This applies to genre history as much as it does to actual history, as later generations absorb or break the past to fuel their own creations. From Heinlein’s classic Future History to recent works like Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree, history is subjected to an act of destruction that may alter it into something new or unrecognizable, recombine it, or entirely eliminate it. This could be an Asimovian reformulation of the grand sweep of history, or the intimate breakdown and evocation of local history and folklore into something very different.

This act of destruction can produce a lot of creative energy, and can also focus the audience’s attention on what is important in a narrative.

Some good ideas for critics, reviewers and regular readers in there, too.

Last but not least, it’s back to Luc Reid for one of his own posts, which discusses how to turn a neat idea into a viable story – one of the bits I always struggle with! Reid identifies four basic approaches:

A) Create a beginning situation and let the story take its own course
B) Build an outline
C) Develop an excellent scene
D) Write a first sentence as a jumping-off point

Here’s a snippet from the first approach:

Once you have a character who wants something different from what’s going on, the story has a chance to take off. Whatever you do, don’t give the character what she or he wants–at least not right away. Preferably, make that thing more important and more difficult the deeper we get into the story. If you’re writing off the cuff, it pays to throw every new problem you can think of at your character and let your character try to find their own way out. Of course, they have to continue to have a desire or need they’re following to plot their course, at least in most cases.

Good stuff, clearly explained… Reid’s a good writer to follow if you want useful advice on developing your fictional chops. [image by Marco Arment]

Have you got any recommendations for good writerly advice online? Or a tip or hack of your own to share?


PR advice for writers from Jeff VanderMeer

Paul Raven @ 14-05-2009

Booklife by Jeff VanderMeerHyperprolific author and anthologist Jeff VanderMeer recently completed and submitted Booklife, a non-fiction book about the writing life that promises to be full of insight, harsh truths, good ideas and (knowing VanderMeer) dark humour.

He’s been posting a few excerpts from it in various places, including a chunk of tips on PR and self-publicity for writers which are well worth reading even if you’re not a writer – they say a lot about the art of publicity in a world where everyone is already their own PR firm (whether they realise it or not).

That advice includes a warning on the dangers of listening to advice from those who aren’t as qualified to give it as they might like to think:

How did some of these people arrive at bad places? Horrible advice. Always keep in mind that advice, especially advice on promoting yourself, is often anecdotal or a Received Idea–received from a time machine from the Distant Past. Sincerely-given but idiotic career advice can be a shiv in the side, an icepick through the eye. Worse, it can result in a slow malarial fever from which you never recover, performing actions you later have no good rationale for doing. The worst career advice attempts to separate you from your work, you a shucked oyster wondering what happened, and why.


Swine flu – panic, precautions and practicalities

Paul Raven @ 27-04-2009

flying pigWelcome to the 21st Century, wherein you will be informed of potential disasters more quickly than ever before… and, quite possibly, in indirect proportion to their actual threat. Unless you’ve been ignoring digital media completely for the last two days, you’ll already be aware of the swine flu outbreak in Mexico – but how much do you really know, and how much of that is actually useful? [image by aturkus]

New Scientist is a good place to start for a factual overview of the swine flu situation:

Should I worry about this flu?

That depends on two things: how severe the flu is, and how far it spreads. Its severity is still unknown. Those who died in Mexico were young adults who don’t often die of flu, so we know this virus can be serious. But it isn’t always bad: the cases picked up in the US were mild. Outbreak investigators are now trying to find out how many people have had the virus, and how many of those were seriously ill, to get an idea of how bad it is.

In other words, panic is not only unproductive but as yet unwarranted, despite being amplified by Twitter, whose rapidity and limited bandwidth is spreading fear faster than facts. Of course, there’s always some humour to be found in the darkest of situations.

That said, this is a serious situation and there is the possibility of a global pandemic, though without access to hard data it’s impossible for anyone to really assess the likelihood in anything more than hypothetical terms… which is doubtless why the conspiracy theorists are having such a frenzied field day.

But it’s grist for the mills of thinkers with a less alarmist bent, as well:

Swine flu, we could say, is a spatial problem – an epiphenomenon of landscape.

I’m reminded here of a point made recently by geographer Javier Arbona. Referring to the increasingly popular and somewhat utopian idea that, in the sustainable cities of tomorrow, agriculture will have returned to its rightful place in the city center, Arbona asks: “Did everyone think that so much lushness and farming envisioned in the city aren’t going to open up new Pandora’s boxes of infectious diseases and sanitation problems as we come into contact with more manure, more bacteria, and more wild animals that we urbanites are not at all ‘naturalized’ to?”

Thought experiments aside, the sensible thing to do is ignore anything repeated in hysterical terms by media outlets with a reputation reputation for sensationalist reportage, while making sensible and proportional preparations for the worst. Although at time of posting it is currently missing (in what is presumably a Wired CMS brainfart – ZOMFG kover-up kkkonspiracy!!!1), Bruce Sterling has an uncharacteristically level-headed and sensible analysis of the true global extent of the threat (in short: compared to the ongoing AIDS pandemic, swine flu at its worst will be a picnic); in the meantime, Charlie Stross links to some genuinely useful practical advice:

Oh, and if you want to know how to ride out a flu pandemic, Jim MacDonald explains how to tell flu from a cold, what you should have in your home in case you catch the flu, and how to wash your hands. Pay attention at the back: I don’t want to be needlessly alarmist but knowing how to wash your hands properly might just save your life.

The panic and hype around swine flu is certain to get louder before it gets quieter, especially once the daily tabloids take up the slack after the weekend, so let’s all try to keep a level head. Life can get messy, but it’s not a Michael Crichton novel.


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