Writing advice round-up: rookie mistakes, slushpile survival and all about endings

Hey, look – writing advice from people who know what they’re on about! I need all I can get, that’s for sure – if you do too, read on.

Two top-tens from Jim Van Pelt

A double-whammy of top-ten lists from Jim Van Pelt. First of all, the Top Ten Rookie Writer’s mistakes (a rough draft). I’m terrible for this one:

"3 – Point of view character is passive or pluckless."

Then he revisits the list idea, after realising that there are at least ten top rookie writer mistakes that are behavioural as opposed to literary. This time he nails me with the first point:

"1 – Starting projects but not finishing them."

Ah. Right. Yeah, but, y’know, I’ve been busy, and … [exit, stage left, muttering]

Sharp thoughts from Uncle Nick*

The ever-succinct Nick Mamatas also has two posts of note. Firstly, two bad tendencies he notices in the slushpile:

"1. Being boring, on purpose. It really doesn’t work. One should not attempt to reflect the boredom everyday life by boring the reader with, say, a 700 word description of the process of consuming cereal…especially not within a 1400 word story. Bite. Chew. Swallow."

I’ll admit my writing’s often boring, but I’ve never tried to make it that way.

And secondly, reflecting on a story he had accepted by Nature magazine, a reversal of an established aphorism:

"You know that old saying "Murder your darlings"? One time, try the opposite: keep the darling, murder everything else, and write a new story around that jewel."

I think the important thing to note is his use of the words "one time". I know my poetry has benefited immensely from me learning to cut out the bits I think are really awesome. That’s because my assessment of them is usually very wrong.

Paolo Bacigalupi has a sex change

After someone made some trenchant observations about his characterisations of women, Paolo Bacigalupi decided to word-replace a character from a novel-in-progress from being a guy to being a girl, and discovered something interesting in the process:

"As I read the part of the story where my newly minted female character first appears on stage, I was struck with an almost overwhelming urge to describe her physically. Nowhere in the previous version of the story did I physically describe her male incarnation – no height, no weight, no haircut, no musculature, no eyes, no lips, no nothing — and yet now that her sex had changed, I felt intensely compelled to add markers of physical description. The role of this newly minted female character was to be the same as the earlier male’s role, her function in the story and the scene exactly the same (in the scene where she first shows up, she’s counting money – pretty gender neutral behavior) and yet now I had this intense urge to describe her black bobbed hair. Interesting, no?"

An insight into the actions we undertake when writing without being consciously aware of them.

The endings justify the meanings

Last but by no means least: David Louis Edelman, wearing his DeepGenre hat, discusses endings – more specifically the why and how thereof as opposed to the what – using the Batman Begins movie as a template:

"… we don’t tell stories from a naturalistic perspective. We might try to simulate nature’s point of view or use it as a tool in our own story-telling, but by and large we construct an artificial framework on which to hang our stories. We have a point of view. The protagonist’s experiences are filtered through a set of moral questions or psychological dilemmas. We focus on Batman’s efforts to stop the Joker from poisoning Gotham’s water supply rather than the audit of his 2003 taxes because it’s a convenient metaphor. Can Batman overcome his feelings of despair and hopelessness to face a challenge? Will Batman press ahead against overwhelming odds when it’s very likely he’s going to fail anyway? Does Batman believe that he’s fulfilling his mission to act as an instrument of justice? And so on.

When does the story end? It ends when the moral or ethical or psychological question is answered, whether in the affirmative or in the negative or some combination of both. Bruce Wayne finds the strength to put on the mask one more time. Bruce Wayne chooses to follow his convictions, even though they clash with society’s. Bruce Wayne perseveres when a lesser man would have given up. Whether he actually succeeds in capturing the Joker or not is of secondary concern."

Plenty of food for thought there. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to try and avoid breaking Jim Van Pelt’s first rule …


[* I have no idea whether Nick Mamatas would object to me finding his brutally honest writing advice to be avuncular … but having seen how he tears a new one for people who piss him off, I’m sure I’ll find out eventually. It’s meant with the greatest of respect, Mr M.]

[tags]writing, advice, tips, fiction, stories[/tags]

2 thoughts on “Writing advice round-up: rookie mistakes, slushpile survival and all about endings”

  1. I don’t think Nick will be insulted by being referred to as ‘Uncle Nick’. He normally gets fed up with stupid people, not the ones who take his advice seriously.

    Also, I think his reverse “Murder Your Darlings” advice (“Save Your Darlings”?) is mostly meant for the more experienced writer, and possibly tongue-in-cheek.

    The “Murder Your Darlings” he refers to — I think — is the James Patrick Kelly piece here: http://www.sfwa.org/writing/murder.htm . In it, Kelly advices on how to cut extraneous material, the darlings being the unnecessary prose the writer is in love with.

    Which is great advice for beginning writers: discard the chaff, keep the wheat.

    Nick now seems to say — possibly deadpan — that once in every while you should keep that beautiful piece of prose that is superfluous in that particular story instead of weeding it out. Hence, throw away the story and keep the single gem, and expand the gem into a *new* story.

    To be able to do this successfully, you need to know when that piece of prose you love so much is really a gem or not. Meaning experience comes in very handy at that time. As in knowing the rules very well before you break them.

    Nick does it, but keep in mind that we only see the stories in which this technique *worked*, not the ones where it failed (because the writer either ditched these, or they were never accepted).

    The Bacigalupi sex change experiment is really interesting (the others I found rather self-evident, but this is with 20/20 hindsight).

    BTW, as a co-contributor you might have seen my slushpile advice in the latest Focus…;-)

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