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.


  1. katoji

    I have a beginner’s question for you about writing the synopsis of a story.

    I don’t write from outline, I just hop in and go. But I was smart enough to keep a work in progress summary of scenes as I went. So I have a loose synopsis of the story. Now of course that I am done, I am trying writing to write a tight and concise synopsis.

    Here is my dilemma. My current synopsis is a retelling of the action from the story, but it is still from the POV from my character.

    It might read something like this: Sam the wizard receives an unexpected package. He goes to lunch, leaving it unopened and out on his desk. When he returns, he’s surprised to find it’s gone missing.

    That is how the story reads. But here is what really happened: Sam the wizard receives an unexpected package which contains the fabled tome of unicorn conjuring. He goes to lunch, leaving it unopened and out on his desk. While he is out, his clerk sneaks into his office and takes the package, selling it to a rival wizard. When Sam returns, he’s surprised to find the package has gone missing.

    The first version is what you would find as a reader. The second version is not anything you would read, but it would reveal itself, probably at page 150–far deeper into the storyline.

    Which version is the appropriate one for a synopsis?

  2. kiloecho

    A few Questions on literary agents:
    1. I heard that Ralph Vicinanza died. Did you know him? I heard he was one of the big agents in the scifi/fantasy world.
    2. Speaking of agents, what’s your take on agents? Do you have one? Do you recommend having one for new writers?
    3. I’ve been reading quite a bit on the SFWA’s excellent Writer Beware section. Do you have any advice of your own to help writers step cautiously in the publishing world?

    • CJ

      Yes, sadly, Vicinanza died, quite suddenly. He was one of the good ones.

      I have an agent. It’s a good thing, past a certain point; and certain houses won’t read a book without an agent behind it. DAW will.

      You can get an agent after you have a nibble on a book—but you have to move fast.

      Catch-22, if any agent comes looking for you before you’ve got a sales record—you very likely don’t want that agent. You need an agent who regularly does lunch with editors and publishers—and that means somebody who lives near editors and publishers. An agent in Des Moines is only charging you 10-15% for the favor of mailing your book, and has no better chance of making a sale than you do.

  3. ellisaana

    Hi, As a means of introduction, the first book of yours I bought was Wave Without A Shore when it first appeared in paperback. Since then, I have purchased and read almost all of your work, including Betrayer. I received that yesterday and finished reading it today. (It helps to live within courier distance of an Amazon shipping warehouse.)

    I am 62 and have been writing since I was 7, but have never published. I have not tried to publish, but that isn’t pertinent to my question.

    As you have developed characters, do they sometimes take the story in a different direction?
    If so, how much latitude do you allow them?

    • CJ

      Oh, yes. They occasionally advise us that no matter what we intended, we didn’t create them stupid, they’re not walking into the trap we set, and they’re taking another route.
      I’ve always found it’s better to redo the plan than to redo the character. Plans aren’t alive. Characters can be.

  4. CJ

    [repeating this post here, as perhaps useful]
    It’s hard to explain—especially in light of the traditional instruction in English classes about the way stories work—especially how novels work. Dunno how often somebody’s asked me to discuss plot—and I just groan, because I’m not sure there is such a beast, at least of the color, size, coat-texture and conformation described in English class. It’s what hung me up in my course of learning how to write for about two years.

    WHAT happens in a book is sort of important. WHO happens in a book and how their minds work is more so. WHEN the WHAT happens is way, way, way down the list. So the traditional book report in which Johnny gets up and recites the sequence of events in the book (besides being boring) is probably the most irrelevant thing about the book. It’s only the thing the writer decided at the last moment.

    Think of it as a fireworks show. You’ve got certain triggers that are going to set off certain colored lights. How you arrange them is, yes, sort of important, but the larger nexi that group the triggers into meaningful sections are sort of mutable: you can pull the whizzbanger type A from collection 3 and put it in 5 with no trouble at all. And sometimes you discover you’ve got one trigger that really needs to be shown-but-not-touched (now we’re talking about novels) and having it set off a nice little set of actions here near the beginning could do that—until it’s REALLY pulled later; but by that time you want to link a bunch of other little fireworks to it, so that multiple things will get solved by one trigger.

    That’s plot. I think of it not as anything like a sequence of events, but as a webwork of tension-lines between characters and sets of characters. You pull one—and one yank moves several characters. It’s not events. It’s tensions. Events are cheap. They can be moved all about at will. They can be put in any sort of order. That’s why Johnny’s book report made no more sense to me, who started to write at 10, than the legendary bunny with a pancake on its head. It bugged me. Bigtime. It was describing a very minor thing about the book—and I just had a lot of trouble believing that was what the book was about…to the extent that I’d go into the Dreaded Book Report assignment trying to report on the triggers, not the events, and then I’d get distracted, because there was often something that just didn’t satisfy me about the way the writer had handled the flow of it all, and I was too young at the time to understand what was driving me crazy.

    It was realizing all this stuff about sequence just proved to the teacher you’d actually read the book—heck, I was such a brutally truthful kid teacher could have just asked me and saved us some agony; and finally realizing that it was just a list of trivia, so far as its importance in the plot. Map-driven books, like quests, are the simplest, because there really IS a sequence that’s nailed to a map, and it’s pretty straightforward: if you get into trouble with pacing, don’t invent an incident to fill the Great Nothingness Desert—move the mountains three days closer and don’t make the desert so important. IE, change the map, f’ gosh sakes.

    Intrigue of any sort is one of the hardest—because there are twists and turns and there IS no map: the territory to be crossed is all in the mind of at least one individual—and if it’s in the minds of half a dozen individuals, you’ve got yourself a big team of horses to manage. If you’ve built them right, they’ll surprise you—but they’ll always be logical. Like the chimp in the test who was handed a pole and a set of big stackable boxes — in a bare room with desirable bananas hanging from the ceiling—said chimp went through no process at all with the boxes, just stood the tall pole on end with a quick thump, shinnied up the pole with balance unlikely in a human, grabbed the bananas and shinnied down, then sat peeling his banana in the wreckage of the scientist’s behavioral experiment on tool use. A good character will do that to you. Several good characters are a three ring circus of such behaviors. They keep writing a fun exercise.

    Sequence? Naw. It’s chimpanzees. Lots of chimpanzees. And if your plot isn’t nailed to a map, you can move events all over the place. It’s why I write my ‘plots’ , ie, the anticipated events, on an old calendar—and once I’m finished, you’ll see a lot of X’s where I nixed a thing where I’d thought it would happen, and moved it earlier or later in the whole book.

    That’s why writers should not drive in heavy traffic or cook with high temperatures while they’re ‘plotting.’ It’s like 3-dimensional chess, and it makes you just a little zooey.

  5. Raesean

    [I keep forgetting that sections (waves?) other than the main blog itself exist here, so here goes with a technical, writing question that I’ve been meaning to ask but is really too specific and boring to ask in the main thread.]

    When starting a new paragraph, can you refer to the prior paragraph’s subjects, etc. with a pronoun or do you need to “noun” the reference to them again? More specifically, if the story’s hero (or whomever) has been clearly identified “above,” can you simply continue with the new paragraph’s action and say “He felt so betrayed after that revelation that…” or do you need to say “Nigel felt so betrayed…”?

    My boss at my day job, one of the most superb technical writers I know (grant writing, reports, etc.) mentioned the “1st reference in a new paragraph must be a noun” rule to me a while ago. Other writer friends haven’t heard of it. In general it makes sense, although it gets old quickly when one is writing short paragraphs and saying “Nigel…”, “Nigel…”, “Nigel…” all the time. I often try to vary how I refer to a common character (“Nigel…”, “The young man…”, “The student,” etc.) but others have (correctly, I suspect) commented that that technique gets confusing and the reader can easily assimilate the repeated use of a character’s name without feeling bored or “heard that before.”

  6. CJ

    No, that’s technical writing. Perfectly lovely rule. But you want your reader not so much to be able to dive in at any point and do a fast refresher on how to install a grommit on a whizdandy, but to follow the viewpoint (put that word in red) of a particular individual.

    Viewpoint means you see and observe only what that person sees and observes. You RARELY use his name, because within viewpoint, it’s jarring. It’s only when after a succession of parags governed by HE you have to straighten out for your readers who’s whom. When you are in viewpoint, you may not observe what goes on behind you, or what occurs in a darkened room when you’re in it. Your light source governs what you can see. You may include thoughts the vp character has; you may include a background grumble that is his thought flow in general. Direct thoughts (intervening in a logic flow) are italic. The text that is merely the third-person narrative of your vp character, the grumble, is not.

    • Raesean

      Very useful, thank you! It does indeed help. The italics for direct thought (rather than speech) also. I just spent a few hours writing a surprise (to me, I wasn’t expecting it at all) scene which mostly consisted of self-questioning and reasoning out of responsibility on the part of my main character. I will see how much (a lot) of it goes in italics.

  7. Levanah10

    Looking for an appropriate place to post the following link to a “cautionary tale” about the reaction some major print publishers have towards a known, published author self-publishing e-books–and I guess this is it. This author now has a release-ready novel being held hostage by a major print publisher, because she (successfully) self-published a collection of short stories on an unrelated subject, to which she has the rights, while under contract for the novel.


    CJ, I’m so glad you (apparently) don’t have this problem! But obviously, others do. (I found this link on Jacqueline Lictenberg’s facebook page, BTW.)

  8. Levanah10

    I misspelled Jacqueline’s name — that’s *Lichtenberg*. Oops.

  9. CJ

    That’s amazing. The publisher’s name wasn’t given. Pity. My own has been very accommodating: Me: I have the e-rights to some of my early books in a series you want badly. Wanna trade? Them: Hmmn. How ’bout book X, X, and X in exchange? Me: Great. Deal. So I’m putting out in e-book some books that they have in print. And they get the rights clear to the front end of a series that I had. That’s civilized and everybody’s happy.

  10. Levanah10

    Highly civilized! And in everyone’s best interests. (Interestingly, though slightly OT–there has been a lot of recent published work in information-theory (and other) circles, indicating that social groups operating on the basis of cooperation are more successful than those that operate on the basis of competition. You and your publishers sound like a great example.)

    Re the author’s not naming the publisher: scanning through all the comments, there’s legal maneuvering going on in this situation, and I’d guess she’s precluded from naming the publisher until it’s settled.

  11. ToddRM

    CJ, I’m curious if you’re editing as you go, or does your word count encompass only the raw first draft? I know you’ve been at this a long time and your first draft is likely very clean.

  12. CJ

    Oh, a little of everything. I often have better ideas and go back and re-edit to accommodate them. THe count includes unimproved outline, some text that looks like outline, and some that’s rough and some that’s polished.

  13. BlueCatShip

    I have often wondered what holds me back from writing stories or novels.

    Perfectionism seems to be part of it. I can edit other people’s work. I can write some things, such as odd forum post flashfic, off the cuff with some ease. But I get goofy about a good scene, and yet I get stuck when writing. I think the answer is, write anyway. When I go back and proof, I find myself making little changes, but rarely throw out whole portions and rewrite, except during initial writing. Gotta get past that perfectionism and just write.

    The other item I go back and forth on is whether to outline or just jump in and go. When I have an idea, I run with it. But if the idea has run its course, or if I’m tired out, I feel I need a “plan,” an outline. — Your advice seems to be, just keep writing.


    From an editing POV, I would say that I’ve seen writers who didn’t know what they wanted to say, either in non-fiction or fiction or poetry. It always amazed me when a small business owner would come in, wanting to advertise his or her company, yet could not say what the company did and why I’d want to use their company.

    In storytelling, the ability to tell a good story shines through, despite spelling or grammar. Yet in written words, a storyteller needs to learn how to spell and how to use standard (and non-standard) grammar properly, effectively, because those are his or her tools to tell the story. It baffled me if someone would not try to learn when something was explained. A story can be told with non-standard usage, surely, but that needs to be well-crafted so it stays in character, because that’s why non-standard grammar and spelling would be used. So, for any writer: you can learn grammar and spelling. Really. Knowing the rules let’s you know how and when the rules don’t apply, or when they should be bent or broken, to tell the story best.

    Would anyone like to use this soapbox? I’m steppin’ back.

  14. CJ

    My advice, when you get stuck, is take a shower, and think about the book. Take a long walk under trees, and think about it.

    Sit down somewhere quiet, and think about it.

    And if you’re at a difficult spot, just bridge it with: “And having solved that problem, Milly a) picked up the phone and called her aunt to tell her the truth she hadn’t told for 20 years…. b) handed the keys to her neighbor, put on her walking shoes and… c) brushed the snow off her car and headed for Mexico…

  15. CJ

    BlueCatShip asked about pseudonyms:
    The only place where gender needs be concealed these days is if you’re a male writing romances.
    I use initials mostly because I lived in a rough neighborhood and didn’t want to hang out a sign saying Lone Female Resident Here. It was bad enough I kept the gun loaded, say that much.
    It was the way my mail stamp was made up, and that was it. I didn’t even think about the identity thing—I figured, for one thing, that if there was such a stereotype, anybody would assume anybody writing under initials was probably female, eh? If I’d wanted to disguise myself as a male, I’d have called myself Sam or Robert. C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett paved the way. They were, for one thing, part of the inner circle of the White Tower, that constituted sf-writerdom in the beginning, and pretty well fandom as well. So there was never a day sf writing was a boys’ club.

    If you want to use a pseudonym, to maintain two lives, apart from your day job or your rich and fanatically anti-curse-words Aunt Mabel, you just pick one that’s easy to remember and not very like anybody else’s. Pick one fairly high up the alphabet so you get racked at eye level; Cherryh and Fancher are both good for this… Or at the end, like Roger Zelazny, who never had any trouble being remembered either. But, think about it, Niven never suffered from being an N. Although Asimov has always topped the shelves. The jury is out on that.

    Mostly—I really advise against overt gender-switching. It causes embarrassment, when a fan who has identified heavily with your stand on whatever-it-is discovers you aren’t the person he made up. Never make your readers feel deceived or played-upon. Although I painfully recall the earnest young guy at a very-heavily-war-gamers con who spotted my badge and blurted out, “Oh, I love your husband’s books, Mrs. Cherryh!” I didn’t have the heart to tell him—but I do fear I should have, envisioning the scene when he later told his friends he met my wife.

  16. Raesean

    Technical question on new paragraphing for each separate speaker. I just wrote a single sentence with two different speakers in it:
    “Medb’s voice came stronger, ‘Heaven must smell this way,’ and Mor, unthinking, retorted ‘No, it smells like cows!'” How does one paragraph such a short, single sentence with two speakers in it?

    (Medb, by the way, is smelling some roses and Mor, who has just been kicked out of heaven but doesn’t want to admit to any ethereal visions at all, has had a rather different experience of the place than standard expectations.)

  17. ellisaana

    CJ is certain to have an opinion on this, but here is how I might write the dialog.

    Medb’s voice came stronger. “Heaven must smell this way.”

    Mor, unthinking retorted, “no, it smells like cows!”

    Depending on how you have set the parameters of the conversation, you could edit that further.
    If your readers already know that the conversation is only between 2 characters, why do you need to say which character is speaking each line? You could write:

    Medb’s voice came stronger. “Heaven must smell this way.”

    “No, it smells like cows!”

    That Mor’s retort was not thought out is implied by the quick return of dialog.

    But, if your readers need to know who Medb is talking to, rather than say Mor retorted, you could describe how he looked or moved when he answered.

  18. ellisaana

    Since the subject came up, what I really enjoy reading in dialog is when the characters are talking about different things, each trying to have his ideas become the center of the conversation.

  19. Raesean

    Yes, I probably should put them on separate lines and simply remove the speaker identification for Mor, although I personally don’t like too long a string of unidentified quotations. I lose track of who is saying what very easily. As I was writing the original sentence, I enjoyed the rhythem of having the specific quotations linked by ‘and Mor, unthinking, said…” but that cadence is by far not crucial or even particularly contributory to the section as a whole.

    I too, enjoy reading character’s conversations when both are talking at different angles. And, in my novel, I’ve also found myself taking pleasure in my character’s wandering introspection (she does a lot of self-questioning), where one seemingly innocuous self-question will spawn another, which pops up another that is a real, to the character, out of the blue zinger that she was actually trying to avoid thinking about. Certainly, that’s the way my mind wanders onto sensitive subjects

  20. Raesean

    And yet another writing question (albeit four months later: this is not the most frequented section of the site): How realistically should one treat the characters? My poor Mor, from above, has been going strong on a mission for quite a few hours straight now. Do I have her pause to take a nap (she really needs one but it interrupts the story flow)? Pickier yet – and only I probably care about this – shoes wear out very easily in Medieval times when you are traveling: do I pause to resole my characters’ feet? Probably not, but this is the type of detail I fret about as I think about side implications of the events. I want to create a very real fantasy novel.

    (I actually solved the current nap problem to my satisfaction: Mor is trying to sneak back into the land of the living. A hidden test/barrier arises as she thinks “perhaps I’ll just take a little nap for a moment and then get going again….”)

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