Today, we move back to discussing writing, specifically, the beginning of a writing career. Considering I’m barely out of that phase, it’s really the only phase I feel confident in discussing. So:
Read Bilal wrote last week:
I have been reading science fiction and fantasy for a long time. Given that I am a science grad student I also have some scientific background. I come up with ideas to write a sci-fi story or novel. Then I think on them and develop a general direction however, time limitations, English being my second language and generally poor writing skills (I don’t think people like stories that sound like academic papers) prevent me from doing anything with them. Are there any options out there to collaborate or a way to start writing? Thanks.
Whenever anyone brings up this subject, I am reminded of an incident from my childhood when I was first showing interest in science fiction. In about 8th Grade or so, the three junior highs held a joint writing conference for kids like myself. They put us into seminars with authors based on the genres that we were interested in. I got to meet some great writers and get some feedback. And I met James Gunn, and I’ll never forget it.
James Gunn was not like the other writers. He came in swinging for the fences. “Most of you here will never publish a single thing,” was pretty much the first thing he said to us. He proceeded to explain, in detail, why it was difficult or impossible to sell stories at our age. Why, if we could, we should give up writing all together and find something better to do. He went on in this fashion for an hour, and I have a memory, perhaps false, of some of the kids crying. Me, I was excited. Because I could see exactly what he was doing. He was testing us to see how serious we were.
At the end of the class, he gave us his mailing address and said if we were still interested, he would critique a story for us. I took Mr. Gunn up on that. I expected at the time to receive a Mamatas-style savaging of the story. Instead, I got back a very kind and thoughtful set of line comments for what was probably a truly awful, awful bit of juvenelia.
So when people ask me about writing, I think of James Gunn, and I think that perhaps I should do everything I can in my power to dissuade you from taking up writing, especially writing science fiction short fiction. Reasons why you shouldn’t:
- The pay is crap. The pro rate is 5 cents a word, but can sometimes go higher. What was the pro rate in the 1950s? 3–5 cents a word. You will not get rich, or even pay the bills, writing SF short fiction.
- It’s hard, and it takes a long time to get good at. I’m a relatively fast learner, and it still took me 5 years of writing every week before I started to consistently write well enough to sell the work. And it’s hard work, so it’s easy to fall out of habit. It’s not like riding a bicycle. You can forget, or at least get a little rusty.
- It will isolate you from everyone you know. Because it won’t be your job, but a side gig, you’ll be doing it in your spare time. Spare time means you sacrifice things, like time with your family, or time with your friends. You might give up TV like Jay Lake.
- You’ll read a lot less than you used to. That time can be spent writing! Ironically, one good way to get better at writing is to read a lot.
- Rejection sucks. You’ll get rejections. A lot of them. I think I heard once that Michael Swanwick has never been rejected, but the rest of us have hundreds of them. Sometimes, they’re kind, and sometimes they’re nasty and make you want to never write again. See, even the editors will test you.
- Nobody reads science fiction anyway. Like, what, 4% of books sold are SF? And short fiction, the biggest market has 25,000 subscribers last I checked, and probably fewer now. They’ve been shrinking consistently for years. It’s a niche pursuit at best.
Still with me? The prospect of dying alone, penniless, in the gutters doesn’t frighten you? Well, then you have the infection, and the only thing I can do is try to give you some advice to help you progress through the stages of your illness.
First of all, don’t worry about the language issue. If you can learn to tell a story, it doesn’t matter what language you write it in, and editors will look past some somewhat clumsy writing for a great story. You could write in your native language, and find someone who knows English better to translate.
Starting out, I do not recommend you try to collaborate (except maybe with a translator). You need to master plotting, characterization, theme, world building, and a dozen other skills, and you’re not going to do that if you’re sharing your writing duties with someone else, in my opinion. These are things you will learn on your own.
Being a science graduate student is an advantage. Editors are hungry for hard science fiction stories. If you can write them, you are practically guaranteed a career. But remember, they have to be good stories first. If you write a bad story with cool science, it doesn’t do you any good. It’s going to be rejected.
As far as starting? Open a word processing program and type words together to form sentences, and sentences to form paragraphs. You will probably be terrible at first. 99% of writers are. But the truth of it is, you get better through the act of writing. Jay Lake likes to say that writing is a muscle and it needs to be exercised. I agree with this notion. The beginning of any writing career is going to be about stamina training and building up some bulk. You’re not going to be competing in the Olympics for a very long time (to strain the metaphor).
Ideas. You’ll hear this from everybody, so I might as well break the news to you. Ideas for stories are a dime a dozen. Ideas can help put a story over the top, but they are not a good foundation for a story. The foundation for a story is, well, story. The compelling events of a problem and the people that attempt to solve it. That problem could be built around a great idea, but without the people and their attempts and failures to deal with it, it’s just an essay or a science fact article.
I thought when I was starting out that I was hot shit when it came to ideas. I thought I had the best ideas of any new writers I knew, and that it was all I needed. I wish I could go back and start over again, realizing that the ideas should have taken a back seat to learning storycraft.
Read and absorb everything. Because once you become a writer, your brain becomes a black hole with a voracious appetitite for ideas and information. When I go to the doctor’s office, I don’t read SF magazines. I pick up the magazine dealing with a topic I know the least about, say, Woodworking Monthly, because I never know if I’m going to want to write a story about a woodworker. A guy who builds cabinets for a living doesn’t at first seem a likely candidate for a protagonist, but you’ll learn how to do it. You’re going to use every bit of knowledge you ever obtain. Your entire life becomes one giant research effort.
After all of that and you’re still interested in writing? Okay then. Go, you have my blessing, whatever that’s worth. Do it. Put your butt in a chair and start typing, or writing with a pen, or whatever method you prefer. Do it, and do it consistently for several years. Read everything you can–not just SF, but the classics.
I look forward to reading your first published story. Drop me a line when it comes out!
So how about you all? Do you have any interesting stories to share about when you were just starting out with writing, or whatever career you pursue? Any tips to add to mine here?