The Best Thing I Ever Learned – Part 1

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So someone asked me recently what’s the best advice I’ve ever received as an author. It’s not like I’m an expert, and goodness knows I have a long way to go, but if I hadn’t gotten these tips, I would still be stumbling along in the dark with my eyes closed, trying to read a map on a moonless night, IF you know what I mean.

Most of this advice came from random encounters on my amazing writers group, The Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. And I’ll warn you right now, it’s too damn long so I’ve split it into two posts, the second of which I’ll post tomorrow. But with some luck, it will help someone out there. So without further ado, let’s start with the last and work our way up to the top!

5.  Psssst! They do things differently across the pond! But it doesn’t really matter that much.

When I first started, I had no idea that writing fiction had different rules depending on if you were American, or part of the Commonwealth. I’m from the Commonwealth. We spell things differently from Americans. We punctuate differently. Heck, even our grammar rules disagree. Don’t get me started on that Oxford comma (fair warning–you’ll pry it from my cold dead hands).

The first person that pointed that out to me gave me a heart attack, I tell you. How would I ever learn all the American rules? How would I ever remember them? It was simply impossible. I was doomed to never get published in the US. Doomed, I tell you!

Then I spoke with industry professional after industry professional and realised that they don’t really care all that much about it. They are already aware of all those differences. It doesn’t affect their opinion of your work. All you have to do is use one system–British or American–consistently. They have copywriters to worry about the rest.

This same thing applies to just about every thing that affects how you format your manuscript. Sure, they would appreciate if you didn’t justify on the right side, and most agree that double spaces between lines would be nice. But they still disagree on stuff like whether the font should be Courier New or Times New Roman (though it’s leaning more and more toward TNR now). The best advice I got was to follow the submission guidelines of the publisher, and if you’re not clear on it, BE CONSISTENT. In your formatting, grammar, whatever. The publisher can fix anything, as long as you don’t do it seventeen different ways.

4.  Don’t take things so literally, otherwise known as apply several tablespoons of salt to all advice

You know all that advice you’re always getting? Adverbs are EVIL!! Get rid of ‘was’ and ‘were’ and you’ll slay the passive beast! Write what you know! Well let me be the first to tell you.

It’s poppycock. Fucking poppycock. But–and yes, there’s a but–only if you’re a brand NEW writer who tends to adverb and passive voice all over the place. The trick, my dear writer, is figuring out if you are the writer the advice is meant for. And I’ll tell you why.

If you, as a writer, never learn to correctly and effectively use adverbs, the passive voice and your own experiences properly, you’ll write the most awkward and fake book ever written (hint, I just used adverbs without murdering your eyes or small children). You want to know what’s more important than following every piece of writing advice you come across (especially advice provided by famous authors)? Actually using your search function to find out what the hell it is you’re trying to avoid so much. Want to avoid overusing, or incorrectly using the passive voice? Then I have a hint for you–just slashing ‘was’ and ‘were’ from your books won’t remove it. Want to contain the evil of adverbs? Buy a thesaurus and look up the definition of adverb. Hint–they are not all the words that end in -ly.

Because if you don’t know the definition of what you’re trying to avoid, then you have a way bigger problem than adverbs or passive voice.

If you want to know about grammar or definitions, Google can help. You’ll find what you’re looking for if you just put a little effort into it. Just don’t swallow advice whole without first testing it out by looking it up in the real world. Not even my advice.

And if you want to write what you know–although I do encourage research–please be advised that most of the spec fic writers I know have never walked the bridge of a starship, never breathed the terra-formed air of Mars, and never met a werewolf while out on a midnight jaunt. It’s about accessing the reality of your experiences and the world around you and infusing your work with that genuine emotion and setting. You may not have visited Mars, but you might know how it feels to land on foreign shores for the first time. How everything smells different, and how the light is just so. That’s what they mean about write what you know. Take your reality and ground your fantasy with it. You’ll reach your readers far better if a kernel of truth is at the heart of everything you do.

Which leads to the next tip:

3.  Pay attention!

Tune in for part 2 tomorrow…

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