Writing for Fun and Profit

Ok, let’s admit it. Some of you have novels and other length fiction in the closet.

I hope it will be helpful to offer some advice here, and to answer questions that you may have.

Here’s a set of The Rules

1. “Follow no rule off a cliff”—CJ Cherryh, I forget when. When advice conflicts with your concept of your story, don’t try to go there. Seek other advice.

2. “Editors excuse and expect typos, not bad grammar.” Words are your equipment. Respect them. Use them precisely. And write a lot. Your natural mode of expression is talking. You have to make it so words flow out of your fingers accurately spelled, accurately typed, and making exactly the sense you want. This skill  comes with practice. Months and years of practice. You have time to make up for: get cracking, no matter what  you write.

The corollary to this is: “Never trust Grammatik or a computer spell checker.”

3. “Don’t plan: do. The plan will occur to you as you go.” Some writers do plan everything. They must not be as often distracted as I am. Get it on paper, in any form you can.

4. “Study word derivations.” Learn them in families, as, for instance, the Latin reg-rect (Rule, govern, regulate) gives us: regent, regnant, regulation, regular, cor-RECT, insurrection, rectangular, regent, Rex, incorrigible, (why did that e change to i? accented double consonant in front of it.) Etc. When you need a word, think of one of your core groups and let that core instruct you.

In the huge Webster’s International, there are some fine-print pages at the front that nobody ever reads. Read them. They contain all the rules for English grammar and spelling ever concocted, in less than 25 pages. Mastery of that section is all that’s between you and Gandalf-like wisdom, at least where it regards the English language.

5. “Plan to publish or don’t. Both are honorable ways to write.” Nuff said. Write for yourself and your friends, or do it for pub. And if  you do it for pub, I’d recommend going for paper books, not e-pub. If you can do it, it will give you a springboard you can’t get online.

6. “Don’t drive or handle operate heavy equipment while working out a scene in your head.” Your vision may switch without warning to a spaceport dock or a mediaeval castle. This is no time to be navigating downtown or running a lathe.

7. “Never imagine that you are a better writer while on substances.” You aren’t. Don’t even write on aspirin if you can avoid it. You need as keen a mind as you can muster.

8. “Don’t ask your Aunt Hattie to critique. She loves you too much.” Find some reader who’ll ask the hard questions, and the proper questions for the kind of story you write.

9. “Do not mix up advice about short stories with advice about novels.” I’ve seen more confused young writers who took a short course from some writer and never thought to ask what that writer writes. The mediums are vastly different.

10. “Write. Write often. Write daily. If you can’t do anything else that day, keep a journal of your thoughts and observations and take on life in general, just to keep your fingers in practice.” Thinking about writing is not practice. Writing is practice. You wouldn’t expect to look at a piano and think about the piano and listen to people play the piano and then hope to go to Carnegie Hall rarely having touched a keyboard yourself. Same problem.

11. “Don’t be too critical.” Ted Sturgeon said “98 percent of everything is crap.” Yep. Write garbage. Write, write, write. Then learn to edit brilliantly.

12. “If your book has one brilliant scene, and you’re now stalled, that scene is your problem, especially if it’s the best thing you ever wrote.” Get it out of there, however lovingly crafted. Back up, and get going.

13. “You can say anything if you can punctuate it correctly.”  —“Good No Fear to kill the King.—rough literal translation of a famous Latin sentence. It can read:  “Not good situation. Fear to Kill the King.” Or. “Situation ok. No fear. OK to kill the king.” Where you put the period matters.  In this instance, the bearer could assess the situation, add one dot on the paper—or not—and poor king Edward was toast. Pay meticulous attention to dots, whether 3, or 4, or over commas… … …. ; : etc.

14. “If you’ve mailed out a book to a publisher, get busy on another one.” Or you’ll go nuts. An answer can take months.

15. “Rejection means I’m bad.” Nope. It can mean the book needs work: assume that, and you’ll send out a better book. But it can also mean the publisher just bought a book very like yours and wants to balance the list. It can also mean everybody on the editorial committee liked it but the company president, and that did it. It can also mean the new-hire first reader was scared to bring a really innovative manuscript to the scary 3rd editor, and just sent it back as the easier course. Or it can mean that somebody backed into the editor’s car this morning and the editor is not in the mood for humor. Reasons vary. Don’t second guess or blame your skills. Just send out the best book you can.

159 Comments

  1. LouiseH

    Great site! Nice to be here. Just found a very elderly copy of Brothers of Earth in a charity shop- hadn’t read that one before- made my week!

    Tight third person POV- good to be able to ask the expert. I write this, pretty much by instinct, and I love it greatly. BUT. My POV character suffers from a certain amount of lack of insight, poor judgement and too much wishful thinking that slowly drives the tragedy, until I end up with him believing he’s reached a happy ending even though any sensible assessment of the events of the book would show that disaster is imminent.

    Is it possible (or likely) for readers to move far enough away from the POV to make their own assessment of what is going on? I don’t think what I’ve done is particularly subtle but I’ve had a reader come back who has obviously had trouble with it. Short of having the other characters continually lecture my chap on how stupid he’s being I’m not sure how this could be tackled. And I really don’t want to do that too much because I want my POV character to remain in reasonably blissful ignorance of the mistakes he’s making. But with tight POV I can’t come out and tell my audience that these are mistakes- they have to spot that for themselves.

    My instinct suggests that I should just stick with it and add a little more clarification of his view of his motives, leaving the reader to draw conclusions. But I might be wildly overestimating what readers will actually do when faced with a tight POV. Any ideas?

    • CJ

      The technique is called “unreliable viewpoint” and it is a valid technique, but—requires careful handling. You’ll notice in Downbelow Station that we have several outside observations of Signy Mallory from other viewpoints as well as scenes from her viewpoint. This lets me show what she projects as well as what she thinks, what she represents to certain interests, as well as what she intends as her own policy, and provides other points of view from which readers may judge her actions.

      It’s a delicate technique to handle. Readers want to identify with a character who is right, or at least sympathetic. But taking readers on a trip through changed opinions can be interesting.

      Or as Jane once said: “Darn! You make me like Fitch!”

  2. LouiseH

    Thanks. The Downbelow Station reference is very useful. I can see that I’m going to have to practise being delicate….another edit looms. It will work or it won’t but it’s good to know the pitfalls. I was coming to suspect that taking a sympathetic POV character and gradually revealing his flaws until the reader can do little but dislike him is a good way to do nothing but upset one’s audience but you never know; it might work! And it is interesting, for me at least.

  3. forceten

    One question I have is around outlining. I’ve noticed from the progress report and here that the outlines seem to be fluid things with real sentences/paragraphs instead of bullet points. What is the best structure for an outline? What does a good one look like – and what does it look like from change to change? Could you post an example if you have any? It seems like good outlining leads to good writing, but I’m not sure where to start.

  4. CJ

    Well, let’s create one.
    CADET MUFFY SAVES THE UNIVERSE.
    First, we establish our major points, the Stages of the story.
    MUFFY AT THE ACADEMY
    MUFFY SELECTED FOR MARS DUTY
    MUFFY ON THE VOYAGE
    THE SHIP SUFFERS A COMPUTER/COMMUNICATions MALFUNCTION.
    MUFFY AND THE CADETS RUN CALCULATIONS IN THEIR HEADS
    THEY SUCCESSFULLY GET THEIR CRIPPLED SHIP TO MARS AND MAKE CONTACT.

    Now you build in the characters and points of tension.
    MUFFY AT THE ACADEMY
    she and Mikey don’t get along. Broken romance.
    MUFFY SELECTED FOR MARS DUTY
    She gets picked and so does Mikey and his new partner.
    MUFFY ON THE VOYAGE
    They’re still not getting along but they’re trying to keep that fact from the officer/captain.
    THE SHIP SUFFERS A COMPUTER/COMMUNICATions MALFUNCTION.
    The captain and crew are done in, the ship is totally incommunicado, and the nav computer is shot.
    The cadets save the ship from decompression, but are in a runaway missile.
    They calculate how much fuel they have
    They are valuing each other for their abilities, and quarrels go to the background.
    They figure out how bad things are, but Muffy the Math Major figures out that they have just enough to get themselves aimed at Mars, but not enough to make a mistake. And they’d better do it fast.

    MUFFY AND THE CADETS RUN CALCULATIONS IN THEIR HEADS
    They do the burn.
    They try to devise ways to fix the communications.
    They have to do things the old fashioned way.
    THEY SUCCESSFULLY GET THEIR CRIPPLED SHIP TO MARS AND MAKE CONTACT.
    Etc.

    As you see, it has NOTHING to do with school outlines. It has everything to do with establishing a sequence of events and problems, and just keep inserting events and more problems as you think of them, except at the end you are inserting solutions.
    Simple, eh?

    • maj_walt

      Thanks 🙂

      This gives me a new perspective on writing. The outline serves as a basic framework of events — or a starting point anyway.

      The challenge here it seems is the creation of fleshed out, believable characters. I’m thinking that with well developed people in the story — the characters themselves end up solving the problems we throw at them rather than us having to do it for them.

      I had a creative writing professor back in the day who used to tell us “don’t worry about what’s going to happen next — just let the story tell itself” I think I’m just now starting to understand what he was telling us.

      • CJ

        That’s right. If the characters start talking, half your work is done.

  5. forceten

    Yes – I was definitely over-thinking it. Thank you 🙂

  6. philbrown

    David Mamet has some great advice: “Cut, cut and then cut again.”
    It really works, especially for plays and screen plays. You’d be amazed how much you can cut if you work at it.
    Phil Brown

  7. ToddRM

    Just went to GENCON this weekend, and got to sit in on a writer’s thingy about how to pimp your manuscript. There were several good ideas that I got out of it that I want to share with all of you.

    Hit all five senses on the first few pages.

    Have embossed business cards made if you are attending an event, the embossing will help your card stand out and will often fall open to yours if the editor/agent stacks them.

    Use good card stock for your manuscript, 24 lb was recommended.

    Know the rules for submission and follow them like your career depends on it, because it just might make the difference in getting it read or not.

    If the person you are sending it to has an angrogenous name do a little research to determine their sex or keep it gender neutral in your correspondence, often a call to the company will point you not only to the right department of who handles what, but can give insight on little details like the sex of Chris in the Paranormal Romance department.

    Put your name and number in the footer of each page, in case your manuscrript gets separated from the cover sheet.

    I know CJ has beat the drum on grammer, a couple of good reference books:
    Elements of Style – Struck & White
    10% Solution – Ken Rand

    I think the first one can be found for free in PDF format.

  8. CJ

    I’ll give you a few more: make every scene do 3 things. Any 3. But 3. Otherwise combine its function with something else.
    Things scenes can do: introduce characters, advance plot, build tension, provide humor, set mood, drop in info, set up irony, provide second viewpoint, build world, etc, etc.

    • CJ

      You should have a name, title, page number on every page. I use a header, not a footer, one inch margins and do not justify. Some editors prefer 10 pitch; I’ve always used 12pitch Times Roman.
      That’s Strunk and White.
      I use 20 lb bond. The less weight an editor has to carry home, the better, imho.
      Make your beginning clear, punched, and make it have something to do with the general tenor and aim of the book: make it segue right into the main problem of the book pdq. The beginning should be a small taste of the book that will get the reader involved with the basic problem the book poses.

  9. ToddRM

    It was funny when the most successful author on the panel suggested the name and phone number on the bottom of the page, the other authors were all “OOoOoo Good idea! Never thought of that,” with heads all bobbing.

  10. maj_walt

    I’ve had a story in my head for 14 years, now. It’s gone through many brain-revisions during that time, but basically the same story.

    I’ll sometimes sit down and write out a chapter or two, which at the time seems great — untill I decide to go back an read what I wrote. That’s when I cringe.

    I’ll then go back and change/re-write what I’d originally wrote — which at the time seems fantastic — untill I re-read it again, and cringe.

    Pretty soon, this story will be old enough to vote, and the characters will have all walked off in utter disgust, knowing they will never grace the printed page.

    *sigh*

    • green_knight

      Your first draft of your first novel will not be fantastic. I don’t think that the ‘million words of crap’ is literally true, but it seems to be a reasonable standard to aim for – write and revise a million words (that’s ten novel-length mss) before you decide you can’t write.

      If your inner critic is working hard, that’s good in one way – you can see problems, which to me is preferable to people who think their prose cannot be improved – but pretty toxic if you think you need to improve everything right now.

      Write the story. Even if it’s not good. Keep a second file and write down what isn’t good about it and needs to be fixed in second draft. Don’t stop to try and fix it, just write it down and move on.

      When you have a finished story, read it through. Does it make sense as a story? This is the point where I write a synopsis so I can test the skeleton. There’s no point in polishing a scene that you’ll cut from the finished product anyway. Then think about the scenes. Do they make sense? Do they move the story forward in an appropriate manner? Then look at each scene. (I love Robert McKee’s ‘Story’ which has lots of good stuff about creating scenes that flow well.) Does it flow well? *Then* you can go a level deeper and worry about the actual words you put down. By that time you’ll have eliminated a lot of awkward formulations and repetitions from the text anyway, and you’ll have a very clear idea of what the story should be and how it would work best. It will still take practice to find perfect words in a perfect combination (I’m still working on that skill) but it’ll take you a lot closer to your goal.

      Then look at the finished product, sigh, and write your next novel.

      It takes effort to see what you’re doing well if you’re a perfectionist, but it’s worth making that effort.

      • green_knight

        Addendum, because I feel it needs to be said: I’m very much against gagging your inner editor. Give them something useful to do – you’ll need their assistance when you get to the actual editing phase. I don’t write out those comments very often (and often in an informal blog post as ‘I’ve just realised I need to do x’ – but come revision time, I already know some of the weaknesses.

  11. CJ

    Chisel this in stone and hang it over your work space. “Write garbage, but edit brilliantly.”
    Ie, write as well as you can, as freely as you can, realizing there may be glitches: don’t microfocus while writing. Once it’s done, then read it out loud. Jane and I do this on a driving trip, so the demands of the road put us at a ‘non-writer’ level of attention to the book, and let us hear it as a story in which we are not as (paradoxically) critically sensitive.
    I always think of that rotten kid who sat second from last in row 3 of Mrs. Hoyt’s 5th grade English class, who’d screw up his face and stick out his tongue when I had to stand at the front of the room and read a book report or essay. Just once or twice I got his attention, and he was really listening. So I always say to myself: “Is this simple enough Dimbulb can get it and interesting enough he’ll listen?”
    He’s become a part of my inner editor. I’m sure he has no idea these days how useful he is.

    • green_knight

      The ‘listening while driving’ idea is fantastic. I now need to kidnap a suitable reader and take them on a road trip…
      (Alternatively, I could let my computer read it, which is the other advice I’ve heard.)

  12. CJ

    Naw, take a road trip, stop for lunch, turn around, drive back. Good fun. GO somewhere nice. We used to go to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe (Russelville AR Holiday Inn, really nice food; stay overnight, drive back. It was a book-length distance.

  13. Confutus

    I took the plunge and signed up for NaNoWriMo.
    Wish me luck.

  14. GypsyRaven

    CJ:

    I love this topic. I may ask and add a question here and there if that is ok!? Having read your Arms and the Writer — which I didn’t find prententious at all, but very informative — I have since dissected peoples work to see how its held together. There is one paragraph of a novel your wrote in Goblin Mirror that had me in the corner of the story kitchen listen for sounds of little clawed feet scurrying along a thatched roof. It was awesome. 🙂

    If it helps — I was so impressed with your article (which I still have) that I ran out and bought a leather-bound copy of Aeneid in Latin, so I could translate it myself. (I am somewhat of an over-achiever….lol).

  15. GypsyRaven

    —-a note for all writers—I see that in my post above, I left out an apostrophe (“its” should be “it’s”) and that my spelling of “listen” should be “listening”.

    Moral: It happens.

  16. philospher77

    If people really want to see the wonders of editing in action, I recommend getting a copy of _Fledgling_ (the latest Liaden novel by Steven Lee and Sharon Miller), and comparing it to the first draft that was posted on-line. It’s interesting, because I’ve read both, and the published version is much better than the draft. And yet, there’s nothing that jumps out at me to say “this is what got changed”. I’d have to have both open at the same time to see what the changes are. (Except, of course, the “author’s notes”, since they tag-team in the writing, like “how many people did we originally say were going on the trip?” and “need to smooth the transition from the last chapter to here” kind of things.)

    • tulrose

      Steve and Sharon are another favourite of mine. They have a sale at the moment. Check their blogs for the magic words.

  17. CJ

    Very frequently what a line needs is three fewer or one more words. The changes are often very subtle, but it has a lot to do with rhythm. Remember learning long-short-short and long-long, iambic pentameter and all of that (I was in Latin, so I did a lot of dactylic hexameter…)

    English works on iambs. If your sentence rhythm is wrong, it can bury an essential word; or a word-choice of one, two, or three syllables can affect a pattern that buries a critical word.

    This is why it’s a good thing to read your own prose aloud. It will turn up these problems, and help you strengthen your sentences, making sure the right words light up.

  18. GypsyRaven

    Well, I have been reading this website and reflecting. I’ve decided to take the plunge into the world of writing. It’s interesting to note that it was a discussion about CJ’s work that finally pushed me toward this decision. I shameless plugged CJ’s work on several websites owned by friends and was asked what I liked about the work in general. Shortened, it was her storytelling, I said. Orson Scott Card once remarked that she could handle exposition like no one he’d read and that anyone writing could learn alot from her example. I took to heart what he said, because I realized in the discussion I had that she can fold needed background information into a story like folding air into egg whites — you are aware of it, you don’t “see” it, but you see the result and it adds to the whole. There is a great lesson to learn from her here — if she wishes to tackle that topic. (My discussion turned into a chat room lecture).

    On a separate note: I tried CJ’s POV exercise (i.e., stand in the middle of the room, etc.) I was quite surprised to see what I noticed first, second, etc…..But I must warn you all — make sure you lock your doors before doing this exercise. I was standing in the living room, and making verbal (audible) notes to myself and failed to see (lol) my sister who came through a side door. At one point, she asked: “Are you okay?” and I felt the face getting warmer. Funnier now, but still….

  19. JesperRugaardJensen

    Hello CJ,
    I have been trying to find a quote of yours, where I believe you said that when you started out writing, you took a short story from Pohl? and copied the entire structure from that in order to learn how to write better. Am I totally off the mark here?

    Best wishes
    Jesper Rugård (a long time fan/first time posting here)

    • JesperRugaardJensen

      Arg – I found it in this thread, just didn’t check page 1, before submiting the question. Sorry ’bout that…

  20. CJ

    Ah, well, but it was Fritz Leiber, whose stories flow so smoothly you can hardly see his hands move. But it could have been Fred Pohl, whose writing I greatly respect!
    Thank you for dropping in, and welcome!

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