Thursday, April 27, 2006


Advice to a Young Writer

John Scalzi, who is one smart cookie, offers 10 Things Teenage Writers Should Know About Writing, which I very much wish I'd had shoved under my nose when I was a cocky and callow youth.

A few weeks ago, a friend wrote to ask if I had any advice for his daughter, who'd decided to become a writer. I think he was specifically asking about university programs and the like, but I took the opportunity to, as John puts it, bloviate. I touched on a lot of the same points as he does, though with considerably less panache, I'll admit.

Here's what I told him to tell her, and I'd tell any other aspiring writer the same:

As far as universities go, I don't think any one in particular would be better than the others. So long as it has a strong liberal arts program, she should be fine.

In my experience, the best things for a writer to study are history and literature. Studying "creative writing" itself comes a distant third. A knowledge of history is invaluable for any writer, whether of fantasy, or sf, or any other genre; not because it's useful to know names and dates of ancient wars (it's not!), but because knowing how the real world has developed is invaluable when it comes to "world building", whether that means building a fantasy world like Middle Earth, or devising a plausible future history, or even making up a small town as the setting for a murder mystery. And the more a writer knows about people in general, in as many cultures and historical epochs as possible, the better they'll be able to make-up convincing fictional people.

Studying literature, the next big skill, provides insight into how other writers have tackled these questions, in different eras, cultures, and movements. Creative writing, as a class or major, can be useful, but there's the real danger that the only thing the professor or department will teach is how *they* think a story should be written. Creative writing programs very often turn out "cookie cutter" literary writers, unnecessarily limited to one particular mode or style.

As for breaking in, yes, it's extremely difficult. Virtually every writer I know worked for years before they sold a single story. In my case, I finished my first novel when I was twenty-two, but didn't sell a story until I was thirty-three. In those eleven years, I wrote dozens of stories and seven novels. That said, in my experience if someone is talented, develops their craft, and sticks with it, eventually they'll succeed. It may take a *long* time, and even then they might never be able to "quit their day job," but they'll start selling books and stories, eventually.

Your daughter already has a bit of a leg up, having been to conventions. The thing that I didn't know as a young writer was the importance of networking. Once a writer has learned how to write, and is ready to start trying to sell their stuff, going to professional conventions and meeting editors and other writers is *invaluable*. I didn't learn that until I was thirty-one, but once I did I started placing stories and novels almost immediately. For anyone writing science fiction and fantasy, the two invaluable conventions are the World Fantasy Convention and WorldCon (the World Science Fiction Convention). I never miss them, and I tell every aspiring writer I meet that they shouldn't, either. There are always editors looking for new writers to publish in attendance, and other writers who know what markets are buying, and which editors to stay away from, and so on.

I think I mentioned to your daughter at Comic Con last year the importance of always keeping a notebook handy, and as I recall she already does. Which is another advantage she's already got going for her. It's an old cliche, but it's true, that every writer has hundreds of thousands of bad words in them before they start to write anything good, and the sooner an aspiring writer can get the crap written and move on to the good stuff, the better.

Sorry to ramble so long, but I think I can sum writing up in three steps: Read a lot, write a lot, and learn how the business works.

That's my two cents, so take it for what it's worth. I hope some of it is helpful.

Aw come on Chris, you know thats all a lot of hoey!

All they need to know is how to write good, steamy sex scenes.

As a successful, prolific writer of letters to penthouse, I say, breaking into the buisness is easy.

Here is a sample from my latest saga...

"Believe me, I was surprised as anyone when the 3 large breasted, female drill sargeants ordered me to have sex with all 3 of them..."


Chuck Loridans
Clearly, Chuck, I've been going at this whole writing thing the hard way. Oh, if I'd only known...
And since this is sf, the line should probably be, "Believe me, I was surprised as anyone when the large, three-breasted drill sergeant ordered me to have sex with her."

Didn't Harry Harrison write that once, early in his career?
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