5 tips and a rule…

I decided not to go to the World Fantasy Convention this year. For one thing, it was in Brighton, and a little too far to go. For another thing, I wanted to celebrate Halloween at home.

I love Halloween. All the costumes and candy. All the scary movies. Getting my dogs dressed up for the evening. (We have a new addition. Millie, and since she’s supposed to be Buddy’s pet, we decided that Buddy could be a pirate (with a peg leg, ha ha) and Millie would be his parrot… in my mind, it was a great idea.) All the kids, coming to the door. Some for candy. but many so they can see the inside of our house. (It’s round, you see, and they walk by, every day. heading for school. And they wonder…) So I was really looking forward to it. However…

Pauline, a delightful young woman with more energy than I’ve ever had, has set up a writing group for university students at the University of Alberta — and they have a couple of evening events every year.

Pauline contacted Billie Milholland and I at the beginning of the school year, asking if we’d be interested in doing something on the last Thursday of October. We said yes, and then the whirlwind that is a book launch took over our lives, and (I admit) we forgot. Until last week.

I called Billie in a panic. “I think we missed!” I cried.

She had the brains to look at a calendar. “No,” she said. “It’s next week. Hallowe’en.”

Hallowe’en. My favourite time of year. And then Billie said, “I can’t go.”

All right, so there I was. Dressing the dogs as a pirate and parrot was out. Handing out candy was out. I had an event to do.

Luckily, there was no agenda. I could talk about whatever I wanted. They were beginning writers, so I decided that information that could help beginning writers would be best.

Luckily, I had been interviewed earlier in the month by Graeme Brown on his blog Fantasy Writing Journey, and one of the seven questions he’d asked me was: #6. Tips for Aspiring Writers. Perfect.

Well, maybe not perfect. There are writers out there who really know how to put together a “Tips for Aspiring Writers” blog — (See Chuck Wendig’s  “Terrible Minds” blog. Fantastic!) But I did my best.  I think we had some fun — and I even got a gift! (An orchid… Hope it survives!)

So, here are my 5 tips and a rule for beginning writers.

Tip 1 – Read as much and as widely as you can.

Read nonfiction so you know how the world works, and read fiction so you know how writing works.  Don’t stick to your favorite writers, or genre, or whatever. Read the literary prize winners, and read the best sellers. Read the unusual, and read the outrageous. Read kids books, and YA. You want to find out why a bestseller IS a bestseller? Read it, twice. Once for the story, and the second time to figure out what worked. Because something in the story worked for the readers, if it’s a best seller.

However, don’t just read. Live, too . Travel. Fall in love. Fall out of love. Get involved in local politics. Find something to be outraged about, and do something concrete about it. Try your hand at rock climbing, or knitting, or sailing, or deep sea diving. Something. Everything. It all goes in the writing, even if you don’t ever write about knitting or deep sea diving. Your experiences show on the page.

Tip 2 – Be tenacious. You remember “Never give up! Never surrender!” from the movie “Galaxy Quest”? It’s now my motto.

It wasn’t always. I’ve been writing most of my life — and I’ve been writing novels just about as long. However, it didn’t take much to knock me off track. I wouldn’t feel inspired, I’d get another rejection, one of my kids would get into a fight at school (or get into the school play, or join another sports team, or end up in the hospital because of that sport), or whatever.  I’d let stuff in my life stop me. I’d blame lack of time (with two kids, I could always blame lack of time) and I’d stop writing. Sometimes for years. This is something I regret more than I can say. So now, I am ferocious about my writing time. There is nothing that stops me. While I was writing the Puzzle Box, my father was dying. I spent six hours a day at the hospital with him, and then I came home and wrote. I didn’t wait until I felt like it, or felt inspired, because I never would have written a word. There was absolutely nothing inspiring about that situation. I wrote anyhow.

And, I finish what you write.  I didn’t always. I’d start a novel — and when it got hard (trying to figure out how to fill 300 pages with an idea that would only fill 100, for example) I’d stop, and start something else… Until I hit another hard spot. Then I’d stop again. Now I know that finishing is another part of being tenacious. Finish what you start.

Tip 3 – Learn something new about the craft of writing and apply it to your own work. Because you don’t know everything. Trust me.

This can be learning about the nuts and bolts of writing, like grammar and punctuation. This sounds horribly boring, but too bad. These are the building blocks of our craft, and you have to know how to use them correctly. (trust me, it’s far too easy for a potential publisher to tell whether or not you’re breaking the rules accidentally.) I still like The Elements of Style, by Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, but if you find a website that explains it all clearly, use it.

If you want to figure out how to outline a novel — there’s a book for that. (I think there are thousands, actually.) Find some (in the library, so you don’t waste your money) and pick the ones that work for you. Buy these ones, and use them. Same goes for short stories or screen plays, or anything else you want to write.

Taking workshops on writing is a good use of your time, too.I’ve taken courses from Robert J Sawyer, from Donald Maas, and from Chris Roerden, among others. They have all been inspiring, as well as hugely informative.

There are lots of books and workshops out there that can give you as much information as you could ever want. Try them out, and see what works for you.

You can also find writing groups to join. You have to make absolutely certain you are getting something out of it, though. (And I don’t mean “Attaboy” for everything you write. Only your mother should compliment you on everything!) Because you don’t want to just be a writer. You should want to always want to be a better writer. You might have to try a few different groups (like I did) or you might find that this group is the one you stick with for the rest of your writing career. What you are looking for is support, and good, objective criticism about your writing.

Tip 4 – If you decide to take the plunge and send your writing to publishers,  remember that rejection is part of the deal, so do whatever it takes to thicken your skin.  Taking to your bed for three days because your latest novel/story/screenplay/whatever has been rejected is three days too long.

Three days of moping can easily stretch into 30, and then 300.  (Trust me. I know what I’m talking about here!) Keep going, even though it hurts. Everybody gets rejected, unless they don’t get out there.

Tip 5 – It’s a very good idea NOT to strike back if you’ve been rejected. Don’t send a nasty email to a publisher who’s said no to your latest bit of brilliance — because publishers talk. To each other.  And they will remember you, if you are nasty. Keep it to yourself. It’s better for all concerned, but especially for you.

Which brings me to Rule 6. (And yes, this one’s a rule, not a tip.)

Write every day. No excuses. There IS time. Trust me on that, too.

The good thing? I got home in time to hand out some candy, and see all the little kids in their delightful costumes. And I didn’t torture the dogs, even a little, by dressing them up. So it was a win win win night for everybody!