First, a reminder that good books make great gifts. But of special interest may be great deals this week.
Okay then, I’ve been urged to share some of my “standard advice for rising authors” in honor of those who recently spent a month scrawling a novel during NaNoWriMo. I’ve been sending bright would-be writers these tips a lot, lately, while mentoring bright up-comers for my “Out of Time” series of short novels for teens and young adults. But it seems churlish not to just step up and offer this as a gift... albeit perhaps a grating one! Well, after all... CITOKATE!**
So here goes:
The "Advice to New Writers of SF" packet from David Brin
This is a ‘canned’ general essay about tricks and skills of writing - not an instruction manual! More a set of ‘wisdom chunks' about some of the most common problems that trip up would-be authors. Many have have said it proved useful in their writers’ journey. You can find more for writers in my article: A Long Lonely Road: Advice for New Writers.
Naturally, it’s terrific that you are writing and I do want to offer encouragement! Still, there is good news and bad news in this modern era. The good: there are so many new ways to get heard, or read, or published that any persistent person can get ‘out there.’ Talent and good ideas will see the light of day!
The bad news? it’s now so easy to get "published," bypassing traditional channels, that millions get to convince themselves "I am a published author!" without passing through the old grinding mill, in which my generation honed our skills by dint of relentless workshopping, criticism, rejection, revision and pain.
Alas, fiction writing is a complex art that involves a lot of tradecraft... as it would if you took up landscape painting or silver smithing. It is insufficient simply to have ideas or to be skilled at nonfiction-prose. Nor does a lifetime of reading stories prepare you to write them, alas!
Again, let me point you to an "advice article" that I've posted online, containing a distillation of wisdom and answers to questions I've been sent across 20 years.
I can also offer a general site containing advice bits from other top writers. I especially recommend the short how-to books of my colleague, the great and mighty hard SF author Nancy Kress, linked down below.
Then there is my advice video: So You Want to Write!
But let’s get started on this list of specific examples: things that (alas) even very talented neo-authors do, all too often.
== The biggest problem ==
Skills at rapid-opening, point-of-view, showing-not-telling, action, evading passive-voice and so on are achieved by studied workshopping -- and as in most arts, the whole thing is predicated upon ineffable things like talent, e.g. an ear for dialogue that only some people have. Indeed, point-of-view is so hard that half of would be writers never "get" it, no matter how many years they put in.
* By far the most important pages are the first ones, when you hook the reader. And you need a great first paragraph to get them to read the first page. Starting with the Pov’s (Point of View character’s) name is certainly okay… even Heinlein did it now and then. (though just the first name suffices; leave the last name for later.) Still, it is often much better to start with an italicized internal thought, or an ironic observation, or spoken words or actions. See my posting: Forty Fabulous First Lines of Science Fiction & Fantasy.
* Reiterating that key point: POV (point of view) is among the hardest things for most new writers to master. It gives your characters a “voice,” and presence and offers the reader a sense of vesting in the protagonist’s feelings and needs and will. This is all ruined by authorial data-dumps that make you feel lectured-to by a narrator! It's better to reveal info as efficiently as possible via conversation, action and the point of view character's internal thoughts. Yes, you have a lot of information to deliver! You want the reader to know all about your precious character and world and situation, I get it. But be patient and tell as little of that as you can get away with, while hooking the reader's curiosity to learn more.
One great way to break the bad habit of narrator dumps is to develop visceral discomfort with three words: ‘were,’ 'was,’ and especially ‘had.'
Oh, sure — “had”, “were” and “was” are permitted. They are even sometimes necessary! But you should find each use regrettable. Each time should cause a wee bit of pain! Because ‘had’ – and to a lesser extent “was” — often indicate that the narrator, instead of the point of view character (or pov) is dumping or explaining, instead of showing.
If you look at my books, you'll find I include lots of ideas and background of past events, but I pace them in with movement, action, conversation and internal thoughts.
Seriously. right now go to your draft and do a global search for ‘had.’ (And the even-worse apostrophe-d -- 'd -- ick!). Then global-search "was." Do the pages light up? Now do the same thing with your favorite novels, by authors you admire. I think you'll get the point.
Example illustrating many of the points above ==
Here’s an excerpt - the opening line for a novel that someone sent to me, asking for advice:
Captain Kara Krakin hated the noise and confusion of crowds, yet now she was stuck on crowd control in a busy tunnel-street of Deep New Delhi while her patrol ship was in spacedock for repairs. She'd joined Terra Space Force to get away from Earth cities, and the effect of crowds on her magneto-psi sense. She'd loved every minute of her month of relative quiet on pirate patrol in the asteroids.
Notice especially the telltale narrator dump cues of "had" and "was" and "were" and “‘d”.
Were you vexed to see the word 'patrol' repeated in a single paragraph? Repeatitis is a far lesser sin. Still, many readers dislike it.
Okay, let’s see if we can convey all the same information (and more from later paragraphs) more dynamically by removing any presence of the narrating author.
Try this instead:
Damn I hate crowd control duty.
Over the tunnel noise and throng confusion of Deep New Delhi, Kara could barely hear her sergeant growl in agreement, as if reading her mind.
“How long till the ship is fixed cap? I didn’t join TSF for this shit.”
Of course it was a coincidence – Gomez didn’t have her magneto-psi sense.
“Belay that,” She snapped. “Well be back out there on comfy pirate patrol in no time.”
Do you see how I dumped in far more information via internal (italicized) thoughts, sensory input and conversation, without once using “had” or even “was”? Now throw in some action… someone in the crowd throws something, and you’ve started rolling along, supplying lots of background info without an intruding narrator dump!
Again (because these lessons only sink in from repetition) do a global search of your MS for "had" and "was" and "were." Every single instance should prompt: "Can I tell this another way? Or even NOT tell it, or let that info float in, later?" Try it. You'll write better stuff.
== Generic advice blips ==
* As noted, many readers hate “repeatitis” where a word gets repeated a lot. English is so rich with synonyms and alternate ways of saying the same thing, that you can usually avoid it, unless repetition is a deliberate poetical device.
This stricture has no strong reason for it, and indeed, authors like Hemingway violated it a lot. But most professionals cater to this common reader whim. And hence, you’ll pick up a habit of minimizing even too many close repeats of “the.”
* Prologues can be nice, if short. But often they serve as crutches.
* Find a dozen openings of novels you greatly admire and RE-TYPE THE FIRST COUPLE OF PAGES to see how that author did it! Just re-reading those pages will not work! I guarantee you will only understand how those authors did it if you retype the opening scene, passing the words through your fingers.
And you’ll grasp that establishing POV early while minimizing data dumping is the hardest thing for neos to learn, yet absolutely essential. No matter how wonderful your ideas are, they are useless unless you master how to hook.
Talk this over with colleagues. Read aloud together and critique the first 5 paragraphs of lots of writers. Do nothing else in your workshop, till you all understand how to establish both the scene/situation and POV laced into conversation, action and internal thoughts.
* Finally, there are many other sources of good writing wisdom! One of the best is by my friend and colleague and ought-to-be-Grand Master of SF Nancy Kress, who details how you can create a main character readers won't forget and plant essential information about a character's past into a story? I cannot recommend this one too highly! See Write Great Fiction: Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint.
Oh, there’s so much more that I discuss when teaching workshops. General skills and tricks specific to science fiction. Like why you should make your first novel a murder mystery! (I did.)
Alas, though, that’s all I have time for. Still, I hope it’s been useful. Remember to read carefully my “advice article”, where there are links to the advice missives by many other successful authors… and some disagree with me on every point raised here!
Above all keep at it! That’s the key to success, even more important than “seek feedback!”
**CITOKATE = Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote To Error.
And note, I don't use Patreon... so... buy books? ;-). ... and pay forward.