How to get to this point

The Kentucky National Guard public affairs office was kind enough recently to write a story about me. The same day they published it, an airman named Lealan from our Air Guard component emailed me and mentioned that he also writes speculative fiction. He asked for any useful pointers or resources that might help build a writing resume, so I thought I’d turn it into a blog post.

In his email, Lealan asked, “What advice could you offer for perfecting a style, developing a story overall, and finding those resume-boosting contests and opportunities?  Are there any writing books or resources you’d also recommend?”

My recommendations are:

The basics:

At the Writers of the Future workshop that I discussed in a previous post, several of the wise old men of the profession reiterated Robert Heinlein’s rules for writing. They are as follows, and are what most consider to be the fundamentals of being a pro spec fiction writer.

Rule One: You Must Write
Rule Two: Finish What Your Start
Rule Three: You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order
Rule Four: You Must Put Your Story on the Market
Rule Five: You Must Keep it on the Market until it has Sold

My notes on these, from the workshop:

  1. You must write, not talk about writing. Many people talk about how they have no time to write, or how they’ve been working on a novel for five years. They aren’t writers. They’re talkers. Secondly, you must write a lot for your brain to rewire and adapt itself to the fine art of writing. Most of what you need to be a writer is subconscious change that only comes through much practice.
  2. Finishing work is necessary to sending it out. It’s easier to finish short stories than long ones, so I recommend starting with flash fiction or markets in the 3k-5k word range to get your feet wet.
  3. I got into Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show with a rewrite requested by the editor. Otherwise, I leave most of my stuff alone after it gets rejected. If no one picks it up, it goes in my “trunk” folder. I don’t rewrite out of endless second-guessing to please people. Apparently Heinlein didn’t either.
  4. and 5.: fairly self-explanatory. I’ll talk about markets next.

Where to send work

If you write science fiction or fantasy, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) has a listing of the markets they accept as proof of your professional status. As such, they make a great place to begin your market listing at the pro level. They also publish a monthly market report with updates on their homepage. To be listed as a SFWA qualifying market, each venue pays a minimum $.06/word in 2017, which goes up with inflation over time.

If you’re just starting out, pick up a copy of Writer’s Digest’s annual Novel and Short Story Writer’s MarketI get it at B&N, and I have three different editions on my shelf. Go to the section on contests, find the ones that are free to enter–you’re a writer, not a customer–and enter every one you’re eligible to enter. I won third in a couple of Toasted Cheese Literary Journal‘s horror contests with some really awful writing and got like $10 for that first story. That’s where you start. It was validation, especially after they rejected my stories several times.

Then I won an On the Premises contest and got $220. More validation means more legitimacy as a writer. Even though they’re not a pro-level market, I still submit to their quarterly contests because I enjoy the themed prompts. They still reject a lot of my stuff, but they’re a part of my resume and a step in my self-validation.

To get feedback, and to learn by critiquing others’ work, I recommend registering with Baen’s Bar, which occasionally publishes work in the Universe Annex of the Grantville Gazette. They’re a SFWA market, but their slush pile functions as a workshop also. There is a lot of drek in the slush pile. Some of it is mine.

So, for Heinlein’s 4th and 5th rules: Use the SFWA site and the Novel and Short Story Writers Market to find places to send your work, edit to their specifications, and don’t stop sending it to venues until you’ve exhausted the list. As soon as you send out a story, start writing the next one. Develop your art.

Books on Writing

The best one I’ve ever read is Stephen King’s On Writing. It is an easy read and full of practical, down-to-earth wisdom.

For structure and technical advice, you can’t go wrong with Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.

How to be creative

I’ve loved writing since I was a kid, but I learned more about creativity by reading Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine than I’ve learned from any other source. Jonah Lehrer, a former Wired writer, got into some hot water at one point for recycling his material, but this book is truly phenomenal.

The basic advice I would give you for making stories happen in your noggin is this:

  1. Read (a lot) in the fields that you want to put into your writing. If you want to write science fiction, read articles at phys.org. Take an astronomy class. Read books in the science section of your bookstore about weird but interesting things. You are gathering raw material.
  2. Be isolated–Train for a marathon. Go for long bike rides. Take a job doing solo manual labor. Turn off the radio during your commute, or put it on classical. Do anything that requires little mental interaction with other human beings. Avoid stimulation from outside sources like video games, social media, etc. Your mind must be directed inward, rather than outward. This is when your brain digests the raw material and you start to ask what if… 
  3. Put your brain in a state of relaxation–Drink a beer or two, but have a notepad handy. You forget the great ideas you have when you get loosened up, so write them down. Take a hot bath and stare at your bathroom ceiling. Be warm, unstressed, and melty. The ideas will start to form.
  4. If necessary, use writing prompts. On the Premises is great for this, but only 4-ish times a year. Other sites do it too. Another method is to pick a random book at a library, or have a conversation with a stranger, and mix contents of these with something else you’ve read or listened to. Mix unconnected things into a story, and make them work together.

What not to do

The don’t you dare send us this lists as Clarkesworld and Strange Horizons make for funny reading, but they’ll give you an idea of the things hacks do, and things that editors see too often. I differ with Neil Clarke on some things, but he still has a list worth reading.

Conclusion

I hope this answers most of Lealan’s questions. I don’t hoard resources as I acquire them, and I don’t think most other writers do either. It’s talent, work ethic, and persistence that will make a writer, not talking in writers’ groups or secret market knowledge.

Having said that, let’s see if I have enough work ethic to get a novel cranked out this summer…

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