Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Go study what you want.

If you want to be a physicist, you go to college and study physics. If you want to be a psychologist (and why on earth would you want to?) you go to college and study psychology. If you want to become an historian, a musician, a geneticist, that's what you study at school.

So what if you want to be a writer? Does this mean you should study Creative Writing at university?

Australian author Justine Larbalestier says no.

For the most part, I agree with her.

Of all the useless classes I ever took at university, the Creative Writing ones were the second most useless ones ever. (Archaeology takes top billing in my book.) My CW classes were full of pretentious snobs who, if you didn't write true Lit-ra-choor, you were not worthy to muddy their boots. They were cliquish, stuck-up and narrow-minded.

Not good if you wrote genre stuff (like, say, fantasy or romance).

So I spent two hours a week of every quarter (for a year and a half) suffering the toffee-nosed abuse of people who thought they were beyond elite.

If I hadn't already been published, if I didn't already have a writing mentor, and if I wasn't so in love with storytelling, those classes would have turned me off writing for good. I can't think of a single one that didn't make me cry.

I describe my CW classes as the second most useless, because despite the abuse, I did learn one useful thing: the Milford Method. Hallelujah.

So, should a bright-eyed young aspiring author major in CW?

No. Really, there is no need.

In fact, it is better if they don't. Instead, I say to them, go study something--anything--else. It'll benefit you in the long run. First, it'll give you something to write about. Second, it'll give you a broad interest base. Third, you'll probably gain marketable skills; after all, all writers have a Day Job to support themselves while they write. Fourth, you probably won't suffer the abuse many poor genre writers do in CW courses. Fifth, we won't lose you to the Dark Side.

Really, unless you're getting a specialised job, nobody cares what you got your degree in. So go be a history or an economics major.

So you've earned a BA or BS in Underwater Basket Weaving. Cool. Still wanna study CW? Well, that's what Master's Degrees are for.

Okay, you don't need a MA to write and be published. There's only two purposes behind pursuing an MA: one, getting to add more letters after your name and two, being able to indulge yourself in writing for a few years. That alone makes it worth getting.

Another (side) benefit of an MA, it looks good on your application for grant money to sit home and indulge yourself in writing.

Other than that, it's unnecessary.

What? You still wanna be a writer? Yeah, okay. But why do so many young people have the mistaken impression that one must go to college? That's not how a writing career works.

It's an old-fashioned apprenticeship. You simply sit down and do. If you're lucky, you can study under the guidance of a master (aka writing mentor, like I did), and belong to various writing groups, both face-to-face and online. But for the most part, it's up to you to seek out the knowledge and the feedback.

And like an old-fashioned apprenticship, you spend some time as an apprentice (developing your craft, finding your voice, collecting rejection slips) then you become a journeyman (developing your craft, honing your voice, occasionally getting published) and then you can become a master (developing your craft, indulging your voice, regularly getting published).

You don't need a formal college education to do that. In fact, most writers I know didn't study CW at university.

If you want to get a CW degree, I can't stop you. But please realise there's a big, wonderful world out there. Go study what you want.

In the end, you'll still be a writer.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

The Next Big Thing

Many not-yet-published writers think that one of the things that will improve their chances of getting a novel published is a practice known as "jumping on the bandwagon". This is where they try to get in on whatever the hottest publishing trend is at the moment.

Several years ago it was wizard boys and religious conspiracies. Currently it's vampire romance.

However, jumping on the bandwagon is not a benefit to getting published. Quite the opposite--it is much, much harder to be published in a market glutted by vampires falling in love with wizard boys despite the warnings in St Mark 57:12.

Why? Because by the time a book hits the shelves, the "fresh and new" ship has long sailed.

For readers, sure, the trends are happening right now, and you can easily pick up a book on the current hot topic in the bookstore. But for writers, agents/editors and publishers, the trend readers see on the shelves this week happened two, three or even four years ago.

How does this happen?

An agent or editor has a novel come through that's well-written, hooky and has a fresh idea. "Cool," they say. "I think this might be a winner." Their professional instincts are right. The publisher picks this up in a nice deal and the book sells wonderfully on its first print run.

Now, sometime during this process another editor will come across a novel, also well-written and hooky, that deals with similar themes to the first novel. "Hmmm," they think. "I wonder if we have another winner?" It too, goes to press in a nice deal and does well on the first print run.

Perhaps it happens a third time, this time in a very nice deal, possibly brought on by the excellent sales records of the first two novels and the next thing you know, we have a trend!

Now, editors and publishers don't sit around and say, "I think we need a trend on fae-folk-in-captivity." The trends are arbitrary. They happen at random and nobody can really predict what will be the next big trend.

But if you wanna have a shot at it, Nostradamus, don't look at what's hot right now, but have a look and see what's not being published, and hasn't been published for the past twenty (thirty?) years. These are the areas that have the best chances at becoming the next hot trends because in the marketplace they will be seen as fresh and new.

Now, that's an awful lot of topics, and choosing the one that will be the next big trend may be a shot in the dark, but at least you'll be shooting forward instead of shooting backward at the dead rabbit that's already been skinned, hassenpfeffered and consumed.

However, hopping on the bandwagon is not what secures these nice deals or even very nice deals. It's writing well and being hooky. Books are published because of this, and only then do the trends follow.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Being a "Real" Writer

A friend of mine had a good cry on my shoulder the other day. Being a writer, she works hard on her craft, and has gained a pretty good mastery over it for her needs.

Her source of misery? A non-traditional reader's comments disparaging her chosen field.

See, she writes fan-fiction. She's really good at it, having several novel-length works under her belt, and a bit of a fandom of her own.

I love fan-fiction. Used to write fan-fiction as a way of developing my own mastery of the craft. (Alas, I don't have the time now.)

Fan-fiction is a good tool for working on one's craft.

1. The love is already there. To write really good stuff, one must love what one is writing: the characters, the world, etc.

2. Instant fan base. You wanna write Snape slash? There's someone out there that wants to read it.

3. Quick feedback. Readers of fan-fic will respond to your posted works, with everything from "I loved this!" to detailed critiques. Snag a few good beta readers, and your mastery of the craft grows in leaps and bounds.

So why does fan-fiction have a bad rap? Its biggest critics claim it's "derivative and unoriginal".

Okay, granted, fan-fiction writers are borrowing characters created by other writers. Unless the fan-ficcers plan on passing off these characters as their own, I don't see anything wrong with this.

But the rest of the story? Pure originality. Fan-fiction writers take characters and develop them. They delve into areas that the original writers didn't cover (for whatever reason) They come up with new plots. They explore the unexplored territories.

Sounds like being a television writer. They're given characters and a situation and even settings and told to come up with a new plot each week.

Only difference is that television writers get paid.

Another argument some people use against fan-fiction: "If you didn't get paid for it, it's not real writing."

You know, I've heard this one a dozen times from lots of people who aren't being paid to write. I have yet to hear it from a paid writer. I'm not sure why that is.

So it's a law that fan-fiction writers cannot earn a profit from their fan-fiction. After all, the rights to the characters belongs to their creators, and if any money is to be made, it must go to those who hold the rights.

One could argue that fan-fiction itself is illegal. But authors tend to turn a blind eye for the most part. Fan-fiction is one of the most sincerest forms of flattery.

Enough about the legalities; more about the craft.

Writing is writing. Every writer wants to become a better writer--that much they have in common. Why they write, that diverges. Some write for themselves, some write for small audiences, and some want to write for bigger audiences. Some love writing fan-fiction for an audience that pays in whuffie and adoration. Others prefer writing fiction with commercial potential (and comes with ca$h).

To say that fan-fiction isn't "real writing" because it borrows established characters or doesn't turn a profit shows true ignorance of the writing craft.

A writer writes because they want to. The real payday of writing is not whether or not you get paid, but if you entertain your audience--whomever they may be.

So my friend knows this. Intellectually, logically, she knows this. But her heart wanted approval.

For the most part, she gets approval from her traditional audience, and well she should. But when someone who isn't of her traditional audience asks her if she's a writer, she told them she was. That seemed to impress tem and when they wanted to see something of what she'd written, she gave them a sample of her work, and, well...

One can't please the whole world. Be happy with the few one can please, and above all, please oneself first.

Best Screen Kiss Ever.

Before I get around to posting a serious post about writing, I had to share a YouTube link to a snippet from the BBC miniseries "North & South" (starring Daniela Denby-Ashe and Our Hero Richard Armitage).

Four words: Best Screen Kiss Ever.


I think it's more how he looks at her and listens to her that wins me over.

The romance of Romance happens in the moments, the hours, the days or even the years, leading up to the moment that tells us there will be an HEA. Romance works because our savvy readers can see the hopes and dreams and desires of Our Hero/Heroine and we want them to be fulfilled.

So when the kiss (or the wedding) comes, we know all will be well with the world, and that makes us feel better.