Guest Post: Stay the Course

A guest post from my friend, Graham Carter, a reporter and editor from across the pond. He writes to answer the cries of us writers who have let our doubts get the better of us, and not a moment too soon. So read on, and feel inspired! Next week, a Worderella review of another Gaiman work.

Let’s talk drumming.

Yes, I know this is supposed to be all about writing, but there is an analogy here that I think all writers should be aware of, so stick with it (pun intended).

I am not a great drummer. I only took it up about six years ago, when I was 40, because I ran out of excuses for my lack of musical know-how. There I was, with my sticks in hand, eager to learn – and not a little excited. But the first thing that has to be said about drumming is it’s harder than it looks. Much harder. Much, much harder. Give it a try and you’ll find that trying to co-ordinate two arms, two feet and your brain, all in perfect harmony, often feels like some kind of witchcraft.

So I got myself a good teacher, watched recordings of Buddy Rich and other superhuman drummers in action, always kept my eyes fixed on the drummer whenever I went to a concert, and even went along to several drum ‘clinics’ where seriously good players would play, talk about drumming and show other
drummers some tricks of the trade. And I wasn’t afraid to work hard and practise.

Well, it didn’t work. Rather than be inspired to better things by all that excellence, I always ended up with the same thought at the back of my mind: “I’ll never be able to do that.” The better those other drummers got, the more I realised that – regardless of how keen I was and no matter how hard I tried – I simply did not have a talent for it in anything like the measure that those guys do. I was keen, but I was no natural.

So what has this to do with writing? Well, unlike drumming, writing does come easily to me. It comes so easily, in fact, that I hardly have to think about it to be able to produce something that has more cohesion, more fluency and more interest than the vast majority of the rest of the population of the planet will ever be capable of. It’s what I do, and as a professional journalist and editor of 20 years’ standing, I’ve also become
accustomed to working quickly and efficiently. Words are my friends, and I still love the fact that people will actually pay me to put them in the right order for them.

Fiction isn’t my thing, but I know how to string sentences together to get information across and make a point. And the point I need to make here is that most people – at least 99 per cent of the people you will ever meet, in fact – cannot write.

Never underestimate that fact.

Sure, they’re literate, but task them with writing anything remotely creative or vaguely complex, and they’ll flounder like a fish out of water. Words worry them. Sentences scare them. Paragraphs petrify them. Think about that for a moment while we go back to the drumming…

It was some time before I finally realised what I was doing wrong, and the solution was so simple that I am tempted to call it a revelation. It suddenly stuck me that my whole drumming education was built on how much better some drummers were than me, and it hadn’t really dawned on me that those staggeringly talented drummers I had been watching were only a tiny minority of all the drummers in the world. As far as my actual capabilities were concerned, I was reaching for pie in the sky, and I was so focused on how far there was to go, that I didn’t notice how far I’d come. It was time to switch to watching average drummers instead.

And it worked. Rather than telling myself: “I’ll never be able to do that,” now I come away from watching other, less esteemed, drummers with exactly the opposite viewpoint. “I can do that,” I tell myself – and I can. I will never be a great drummer, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be a good one. I’ve found my level, and I found it by looking downwards. In hindsight, it was always a mistake to look upwards all the time, and it’s perfectly clear to me now that I was never going to emulate my betters when they had truckloads of talent and I was a mere mortal.

So, should you start comparing yourself with lesser writers instead of the literary giants you’re trying to emulate? Is it time for you to aim lower?

Don¹t you dare!

Why not? Because you’re not just an average writer, like I’m an average drummer. You’re a natural.

I am certain of this, dear reader, even though I’ve never met you and may not have read a single word you’ve ever written. I don’t need to. I know it simply because you¹re reading this. You’ve come to this website, looking to hone your craft through contact and interaction with other writers. Like I did with my drumming, you’re hanging out with, and seeking inspiration from, people who find this kind of thing easy. But with you there’s one important difference: you stayed.

If you’re comfortable around here, with all this talk of great writing and great writers, then that means you’re still looking upwards. And if you’re looking upwards, it follows that you must be a natural. Only when somebody is a natural do they continue looking upwards for inspiration, rather than downwards, and only when they are a true natural are they able to do this without feeling intimidated.

What’s more, they do it involuntarily. Most of the time, you don’t even know you’re doing it.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but you weren’t one of those hordes of kids who loathed Shakespeare at school, were you? You sensed the greatness of it, didn’t you, long before you could understand what was great about it or even what greatness was? Somehow, you knew.

And now, when you read Shakespeare or Tolkien or Austen or whoever your hero is, you’re not thinking: “I’ll never be able to do that.” You¹re thinking: “I can do that.” And there will be times – there probably already have been – when you will.

So never doubt it. When you’re having a bad day, just remind yourself of the fact that when it comes to writing, you’re not like all the rest. You’re different because you are stretching for things that most people have given up trying to reach – and they may already be within your grasp.

Graham Carter is a freelance journalist and editor who lives in Swindon, England, with his wife, Julie, and their two teenage children. He currently writes a weekly column for the Swindon Advertiser about the trials and tribulations of being over 40, and his blog (www.grahamcarter.net) is a more random collection of thoughts arising from everyday life.

Guest Post: An Introduction to Fantasy Novels

Another guest post this week, this time by my friend Word Nerd. She’s going to introduce us to science fiction and fantasy, genres I do read, but not as much as historical fiction. For my fellow historical fiction readers, this should help you dip into a new genre. Enjoy! Next week, my post on helping a fellow writer love writing itself, rather than the idea of being a Writer.

When Word Nerd was younger, there was really only one section of the library she frequented: Fantasy. And sci-fi as an after thought.

Then, with the coming of oodles of college reading, her interest in massive fantasy series started to wane some. It was too hard to remember all the rules of magic for every last world and the Elven dialects and gosh, weren’t mysteries fun to read too?

Since then, Word Nerd still likes to hit the fantasy section of libraries and bookstores, but she’s developed tough standards for what to pick up from those shelves. Here are some tested tips.

First, the conventions and the masters. No, not the conventions like Gencon where people dress up like wookies. The conventions of the genres.

The world of fantasy fiction is full of conventions. Take for example the following: Elves are not short, in fact they are tall and lithe and graceful; the use of apostrophes in names is considered acceptable; the book will likely contain a 1) map, 2) glossary and 3) cast of characters; the protagonist is often the recipient or subject of a prophecy, or an orphan, or a misplaced member of the royal family and if they are really lucky, all three.

The only way to really learn the conventions is to read the books and just begin to accept them. The way to learn the conventions is to start with the masters. Tolkien. Donaldson. McCaffery. Brooks. Weis and Hickman. Zelazny. Why these folks? Well, guys like Tolkien pioneered the genre, guys like Brooks borrowed from it, Donaldson gave it a new spin and McCaffery and Weis/Hickman made an empire of it. Also, many of these books have survived from the explosion of fantasy books in the 1970s and early 1980s (and earlier for some of them.) Many of these are the authors Word Nerd cut her bibliophile teeth on during her middle and high school years.

Second, find the books that break the conventions.

The “rules” get old. Every fantasy world does not need humans, elves, dwarves and dragons. Or glossaries.

Word Nerd hit this realization some time likely in college, getting fed up with how many fantasy books all seemed the same. After this, she became a much more selective reader. If a book starts with a character on a journey at the beginning, that’s a good caution sign. So is the glossary in the back, because it tends to mean that the world in the book/series is complicated and very different from earth as we know it.

Good fantasy is often like good, classic sci-fi. It doesn’t have to be a huge stretch to get from what we know of earth to get to the society in the fantasy world. Maybe it’s just a take on feudalism. Maybe it’s only a step further to believe that some people can telepathically communicate with animals; just look at the Dog Whisperer and go from there.

Third, be ready to commit for the long haul.

Much fantasy is written as a series. Rule of thumb, three to six books is an excellent number for a series. Some people (Steven Brust, Jim Butcher and Terry Pratchett for example) can keep a series going longer than that. At some point, most long series suffer a severe drop in quality. Nevertheless, be ready for the long haul because the books are often 600+ pages for just one book in a series. With this commitment, Word Nerd has also developed a strategy of waiting until all books in a series have been released before starting to read it. This way, once invested in the world, she doesn’t have to wait for years before the next one comes out, forgetting in the mean time, all the set-up for that land.

Many fantasy books have good emotional pay-offs in the end, with just as much impact as any “literary” fiction novel.

Read any that are sure-fire winners? Want to know some worthwhile titles? Post a comment.

Guest Post: Writing on the Go

A guest post by Blair Hurley from www.blairhurley.com listing some hints on how to make sure you’re writing on the go.

Writing on the Go by Blair Hurley

Writers use their own environment constantly to enrich their stories. We draw upon our settings and the people around us to create worlds. So when we travel, it’s crucial to take advantage of the new environment and use it to improve our fiction. But when you’re on the go in a new place, how’s a writer supposed to get down information? Read on!

Get a notebook! It’s hardly rocket science to decide to have a notebook handy, but when you’re traveling it’s especially important. Find a small, easy-to-handle notebook (I suggest a Moleskine, which are very popular right now and are affordable and tough) and slip it in your purse or back pocket. While on your trip or just during your usual daily travels, you should get used to being attached at the hip to that notebook (and a pen, too). Whenever you leave the house, take the notebook with you. Eventually it will become a habit and then you’ll never be without writing material when an idea or an interesting observation strikes.

Write down even the obvious. Our brains are pretty extraordinary and we’re all used to storing a tremendous amount of varied information without writing it down. But once you start writing down your observations, you’ll realize how much you actually lost before. Whenever you see an interesting-looking stranger, a beautiful building, a food you’ve never seen before, or an unusual event, jot down some notes. Later, when you’re wondering what to write or how to make it seem genuine, you’ll have these interesting details to call upon.

Use all your senses, and participate in your world. When we travel around, too much these days we shut ourselves out from all external stimulation by putting on headphones. Listening to music is great, but it closes us off from the world, as evidenced by the number of traffic accidents that are iPod-related. The more you engage with your surroundings, the more you’ll notice and the more material you’ll get. So if you’re going to a new place, turn off that Mp3 player and look, listen, smell and touch. Remember not just how a place looked, but how it smelled and felt as well. These sensory details are invaluable material for your fiction.

So in conclusion, whenever you’re on the go, you don’t have to wait until you get back to write about it. Take down notes on all aspects of the experience — while you’re on a subway, while walking down a street, even on a plane. Use your small moments to pull out that notebook and record the details of your environment, and it will prove a gold mine of resources for your next stories.

Blair Hurley is a creative writing student at Princeton University. She writes the blog Creative Writing Corner at blairhurley.com, which offers daily writing exercises, how-to’s, and thoughts on the writing life.

Next week, a guest post from Bethany (Word Nerd). She’s going to give us a guide to reading science fiction/fantasy!