Something in Jennifer Jackson's livejournal last week, along with a conversation I was having in Starbuck's with my wife today, got me thinking about how my approach to getting published has changed over the years. When I wrote Prototype, the internet certainly existed, but it wasn't quite as big a thing as it is now. Virtually no agents blogged, and most of the information I had about the publishing process came from books about publishing or writing. Some of those books were fantastic--Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy stands out as an excellent guide to writing in general, not just F&SF. (bn.com dates it as 2001, but I read my copy in 1992.) Many of them were useless. (No links to useless books, sorry.) The useless ones contained--at least, my memory, which may be faulty, says they contained--lots of platitudes but little concrete advice. And then there were the articles in Writer's Market and the novel and short story version of same.
I had no conception back then of where the bar was. I knew it was higher than I'd reached yet, but I was clueless in so many ways. The existence of agent and editor and writer blogs has really opened my eyes to what the common pitfalls are, and I've also found it easier to sift through the tons of advice out there and find the good stuff. (Maybe because reading blogs involves less committment. If I check a book on writing out of the library and it seems to suck, I'm likely to keep plowing through in the hopes that I'll find some gem in it. It's mine for a couple of weeks, so I might as well. I've already made the effort to go to the library once, and exchanging it for another book is going to be a hassle. But when I read a blog post and it's not useful, I don't keep digging for more unless that blogger has already proven him- or herself to be a source of good advice. It takes no effort to keep looking until I find the good stuff. And any OCD sense of obligation I have toward the writer (ask me why I never fail to finish books I start) is satisfied by completing a blog post--I don't have to read someone's entire oeuvre. So over the last couple of years, I've found far more good advice than I found in all the years before.
I grew up being constantly told that I was a talented writer. I always got good grades in English, I wrote for the yearbook and the newspaper (and eventually edited the newspaper). I won schoolwide writing contests. And when English teachers talked about drafting, I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, because the truth was that I didn't do this. My first draft and my final draft were separated by almost nothing. A cursory read-through for typos, and that was about it. And that was good enough, because all I was looking for was grammar and spelling mistakes, and grammar and spelling have always come easily to me. I think the biggest adjustment I've made in the last couple of years is realizing that this wasn't serving me in fiction-writing. When I wrote (the perhaps ironically named) Prototype, I did my usual read-through, and my wife did a read-through. And we looked for more than spelling and grammar, it's true, but we didn't put a lot of effort into the revision process. For me, it was a lot more than I was used to doing, but in hindsight I realize how laughable it was.
The last few years have taught me that fiction takes a lot more work. My grammar and spelling are clean, but am I telling instead of showing? Am I overusing adverbs? To-be verbs? Junk phrases? Is there enough tension? Is my protagonist doing, or is s/he witnessing while others do? Am I using generic descriptions and verbs instead of vivid ones? Am I being verbose and boring? (Yes!)
I wasn't trained to look out for these things as a young writer. If my writing was clean, that was good enough. I became an effective writer, but not an effective storyteller. I'm still working on that.
My English teachers would be so happy. After all these years, I've finally become someone who writes multiple drafts and works his ass off on revising.
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