27 April, 2012

No Rules

There are no rules in writing. There are only statistically relevant guidelines.

Writing is entirely subjective; there is no absolute good and bad, no absolute right or wrong, no absolute "you must do it this way." No matter how you choose to write, you can always find someone who will like it (within reason; 200,000 misspelled words in a row will probably not find any takers). And if your goal is only to make one person happy, then what does it matter whether you follow some arbitrary "rules"?

But most of us have bigger goals: We want to make enough money writing that it can be our career, and in order for that to happen, enough people have to like what we write. The more people you want to please with your writing, the more statistically significant those guidelines become. Most readers expect certain things, to wit:

You really can't violate standard spelling. Despite the fact that English has no central defining authority, spelling has become almost entirely standardized, with only minor regional dialects.

Grammar is a little less fixed, as there are a number of edge cases where you can bend the rules without any significant number of people perceiving it as a mistake, but generally, you've got to stick with fairly standard grammar or you're going to confuse your readers.

Things get fuzzier as you get into plotting, pacing, characterization, character development, descriptive style, and all the other elements of the actual storytelling. There's a lot of flexibility in how you can do these things, because there are a lot of different readers out there who will tolerate variance. There are individual readers who will tolerate slow pacing and fast pacing, but maybe not in the same book, or simply not at the same time—Joe Reader might well be up for a fast-paced detective story today, but next week maybe he wants something a little more laid-back and reflective. A single book can't please both those aspects of Joe Reader's personality at the same time.

Rules about how to write are legion. Here's one which includes rules by (among other well-known authors) Elmore Leonard. Dare you, Jane Unpublished Author, think you know better than the great Elmore Leonard? The problem is that some of Leonard's rules are violated willy-nilly by other famous best-selling authors. Does that mean Leonard's rules are bullshit?

No; it means they're guidelines. All things considered, following Leonard's rules will probably produce prose prone to popularity... but not always. (And to some degree, his rules are stylistic choices. "Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue," he says. It's trivial to find bestsellers (and critically acclaimed novels) that violate that rule. Maybe he's just trying to reduce the incidence of using verbs other than "said," knowing that eliminating other speech verbs is impossible.)

Pick your goal. Figure out what guidelines you need to follow to meet that goal. Then get your ass in the chair and write, write, write. You don't always win when destiny rolls the dice, but the more times she rolls, the more chances you have to win.

25 April, 2012

The End Is Nigh

So I had a really painful minor epiphany the other day, when I realized that my ending sucks and I need to redo it. From scratch. Yeah. A lot of work went into the current ending, but unfortunately the whole thing was predicated on something that wasn't true: Turns out, people like happy endings, as long as there's some pain along the way. The old ending was a goddamn disaster, for both the protagonists and for me.

Simple, safe happy endings are fine for a particular group of people (children), but I am (hopefully) not writing for children. On the other hand, not everything has to be a brutal catastrophe like Game of Thrones, which, although popular, is statistically speaking an anomaly. The good guys usually should win in the end, even if they get pretty beat-up along the way. Why did I think I could successfully go rogue my first time out?

A lot of writers—particularly new writers—try to go way overboard in their first works. A new, untested chef wouldn't think that he has the skills to make a nine-course French-Mongolian-Hualapi fusion dinner and get it perfectly right the first time, but someone writing their first novel thinks, "Hey, I can string words together in a way that doesn't make people's eyeballs bleed. Therefore, I can write a five-novel series that not only will dispense with traditional story structure, it will have nine separate protagonists alternating between first- and third-person POV chapters, and all the characters will die halfway through book one!"

This pervasive delusion is partially reinforced by the occasional first-time writer who does manage to pull off something ridiculously complex. Then he gets famous, and then other writers say, "Well damn, if Bob Peckermeyer can do it his first time out, why can't I?"

No. Flukes happen, but depending on them is madness. Most people take years to get good at a discipline—that's why they call it a discipline—and you're better served by starting out simple. Write a straightforward story with one protagonist, one major villain, some supporting characters, and a setting that is not an utterly radical invention. Master the basics; then you can ignore the rules and start doing wacky things.

18 April, 2012

Deity Reflex

I was walking home from the gym a few minutes ago. It's open until midnight on weeknights, which is convenient; the kids are in bed, the wife's ensconced with Bejeweled, tonight's leftovers are put away, and I can squeeze in a workout without anyone bothering me for anything.

On the way home, I looked up at the spring stars, and, as happens to me from time to time, I was briefly taken in by the endless infinity of the universe. I thought about how cool it would be to be able to see the ecliptic projected on the sky, as if the world were my own personal Celestia—or better yet, if I just had bionic eyeballs that could superimpose whatever I wanted on the world.

That thought led to a kernel of an idea for a story, about a future civilization that has mastered biological engineering and where everyone who wants them has bionic eyes, so that they can gaze upon the wonders of the universe with all sorts of informative overlays and HUD elements—and, hell, Wikipedia—at their disposal. And then I thought, what if that was their religion?

The universe is vast, so vast that we simply can't comprehend it. We have to use terms like light-year, of which just one is already unimaginably larger than anything we can comprehend. (A little under 6 trillion miles. And you thought it was far to Pomona.) And then we talk about billions of them.

The human brain is capable of feeling connected to all that, even if we can't rationally contain it inside our—admittedly amazing—brains. Not everyone feels that connectedness in the same way; those who have been taught to be Christians feel it as the presence of their deity, Jehovah. Muslims call it Allah. We interpret that deity reflex by whatever cultural framework has been imprinted upon us.

That reflex is a double-edged sword. We feel an unimaginably pure sense of belonging and comfort when that reflex is engaged; it's unfettered emotion, and the lure of that feeling cannot be denied. But reason and rationality are what brought us out of the darkness. Is there room for both of them in this world?

I don't want to be too definitive here. Reason can conquer many problems, but no one wants to live in a world bereft of joy—or even of less favorable emotions, like apprehension, confusion, dismay. Sometimes it feels good to feel bad, as the great poet Shirley Manson taught us.

As writers, we have the ability—and, perhaps, the responsibility—to help others tap into that reflex. There are few acts greater than to describe a feeling in terms so precise that it makes someone say, "Yes! That's it!"

15 April, 2012


Life interferes. Months ago I was almost done with the second draft of Mindfire, and hoping to get most of my planned revisions done in a couple of weeks.

"Oh ho ho," said life, adjusting its monocle and stroking its white Persian cat. And then it pressed a red button on its desk, and the floor opened up, dropping me into a pit of badly-coded PHP scripts.

But I battled my way through, and I'm making progress again. I'm almost done with the third draft, and unless my faithful beta readers manage to point out major problems, it'll be off to be published.

On another exciting note, I got feedback from a short story market, letting me know that one of my stories is in the running for publication; they'll let me know in, hopefully, a week or two. I'm fully going into this expecting to be rejected—less pain that way—but it is a validation that twice out of about a dozen attempts, I've gotten this far into the process. I honestly expected to get rejected dozens of times before getting any kind of traction at all.

So even if this latest attempt does fall through, I know that I'm at least capable of writing stories that are good enough to be seriously considered for publication by SFWA-membership-qualifying markets. It only takes a little faith that if I keep it up, eventually I'll write something that will strike a chord with the right editor at the right time... and then, I'll be the one wearing the monocle.

04 April, 2012

Rejection X

X as in 10. Ten rejections and counting. The last one was the best yet: It made it to the final editorial round, only losing out by a hair. The editor returned a selection of comments about the story, giving me some insight into why it was passed up.

So the question is, do I try to modify the story to fix those issues before continuing to submit it? Or do I submit it as is, hoping that another editor will not find the same flaws? I have to agree with one of the comments, although it's a minor thing by any measure; but the other comment was clearly one of personal taste, and so there's no need for me to change it.

I'm only a tenth of the way to the point of reassessing my game plan; still a long way to go.