Think Like a Pro

"There is a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don't, and the secret is this: It's not the writing that is hard. What's hard is sitting down to write."

-- David Mack, Kabuki: The Alchemy

Do you want to be a pro?

I didn't at first. I knew I wanted to write. I wanted to prove to myself I could finish a novel, maybe publish it if anyone was interested (little did I know finishing a novel is the easy part).

Then I learned about the system. I read the blogs of authors and agents. I researched everything I could about writing a good query letter. I looked up statistics on debut author's advances. And as I poked my head into the publishing world, I discovered something.

I really, really wanted to be a part of it.

Something weird happened that day, and has been happening since. I wanted to be a pro, and suddenly I began acting like one. I tried to write everyday. I paid attention to what worked and what didn't on my blog, even kept a schedule. I became more professional (a term which often means "silent") when voicing my opinions on the internet. Sometimes I even interacted with people in real life(!) thinking they might someday buy the book I don't have published.

Totally insane, but helpful, I think. If you're writing for fun or therapy, and you don't care whether you ever sell anything, then who cares? Do what you want. BUT if you want to become a professional someday, now is a good time to act like one. It might feel silly at times, even a tad arrogant -- and you should never, ever let it get in the way of real life.

But for all that, it works.

"You imagine what you want to be and you act as if you are that. Ghandi said, 'Be the change you want to see in the world'.

If you want to create, you must treat it with the respect and dedication that a pro would."

Books I Read: Leviathan

Title: Leviathan
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Genre: YA steampunk
Published: 2009
Content Rating: PG for action and mild violence

It's around the start of World War One, except Archduke Ferdinand (whose murder started the war) has a son, Alek, who could inherit Austria should the emperor die. He goes into exile with only a walking warmachine and a small band of men to help him. On the other side is Deryn, a girl from Britain who wants to join the air corps so badly she disguises herself as a boy.

These two find themselves stuck in the middle of the biggest war the world's ever seen, between Clankers and Darwinists.

Oh, you don't know what those are? Dude, they're the best part of this novel. Clankers (Austria, Germany, and some other Central Powers) have advanced machine technology beyond what we have today, to the point where they sport multi-legged land dreadnoughts and Stormwalkers instead of silly tanks. The Darwinists, on the other hand, (Britain, France, and other Allied Powers) have taken the teachings of Charles Darwin to a whole new level and are fabricating animals to serve them in a variety of ways. Among them: talking message lizards, hydrogen-breathing jellyfish, and an enormous living airship.

If you're not excited yet, maybe this isn't the book for you, but I loved it. It's illustrated too, bringing to life all the best, most interesting aspects of the world. And on top of everything, there's action and adventure every other page. This is a totally fun book. My only complaint is I wanted more closure at the end, but that won't stop me from getting the next book when I get a chance.

So You Think You Can Write

Cindy and I are going through last season's So You Think You Can Dance (one of the drawbacks(/benefits) of living out here: we miss a lot of TV). She watches it for the dancing, of course. Being as I'm totally clueless on the subject, I watch it for the characters.

Seriously, except for the hilarious weeding-out rounds, all the dancers look good to me. The judges' critiques for me are like:

Nigel: You need to bring more passion to your work.
Me: ?
Mia: You don't have that quiet fire this dance style needs.
Me: ?
Adam: Try lengthening your strides more.
Me: Oh.....yeah, totally.

But even though the critiques are lost on me, I've realized something. The finalists really are very good dancers, but the judges are looking for more than that. Some maybe-undefinable quality that makes them stand out.

For those of us eyeing traditional publication, it's very much the same. Lots of writers are good, but our judges are looking for more -- a fresh voice, a tight concept, a unique look at a hot issue...something that edges you above the rest.

Being good is just a baseline.

I know that's not very encouraging,* but look at it this way: it will stretch you. For me, that's one reason I keep going (and the reason I haven't self-published). If you really want this, and if you don't quit, this process will make you a better writer than you ever thought possible, published or not.

Heck, if you can understand the critiques, you're probably most of the way there.

* I'm something of a realist. If you ask me whether the cup is half empty or half full, I'll tell you how many milliliters there are and wonder why you didn't just measure it yourself.

I'm a Gamer. This is What We Do.

Our buddy Emmet is in town, which means we've been playing more games than normal. It's been a while since I talked about board games. Here's what we've been playing. (I promise to be less crazy than last time).

Start off as a poor farmer. You and your spouse have to choose how to manage their time. Do you collect building resources to build fences or improve your house? Do you plant grain? Collect animals? Build a fireplace so you can actually cook them? Eventually you'll want a larger family, which lets you get more work done, but you have to feed them all too.

This game is surprisingly balanced, and it handles 1 to 5 players. It's not even very hard to teach. The only real problem is the time the game takes. According to the box (which we've found rather accurate): half an hour per player.

Betrayal at House on the Hill
Play a group of explorers checking out a creepy old mansion. Weird things happen as you explore each room until eventually you discover what's really going on. Maybe one of the explorers is an alien scientist trying to trap the rest of you for his experiments. Someone might become an incubation chamber for a nest of giant spiders, and you have to save them. Maybe you'll have to beat Death at a game of chess.

There are 50 different scenarios to play out, chosen randomly each time. Whereas Agricola is all about strategy (there's very little luck involved), Betrayal is all about the story. As a writer, that's what I love about it. I love when the young boy befriends the strong madman (Sloth love Chunk!). Or when the tough Ox Bellows turns on his girl, and she has to maim him with a strange dagger she found just to get away. I love that you can win even if almost all the explorers are killed (just like a real horror movie!). The game's a little creepy, but totally fun with the right people.

So what have you been playing lately?

Proving the Rules Wrong

As Professional Aspiring Writers, we hear a lot about the Rules of Writing. Aspects of the craft that we are supposed to adhere to in order to "write well." More experienced PAWs know that the Rules are, in fact, only guidelines. If you don't know what you're doing, you should follow them, but a story can break them and still be good.

I submit here five fairly standard rules and their counter-examples: books or authors that have blatantly broken them, yet remain extremely successful.

Yes, you could argue that the reading public is dumb because it doesn't recognize "Great Literature" (which isn't a very nice thing to say about your future fans, btw). Or you could decide that maybe -- just maybe -- each of these authors does something SO right, their rule-breaking just doesn't matter.

Rule: Write what you know.
Counter-Example: The Dresden Files
Jim Butcher has never been a private eye nor a wizard (I don't think), but it doesn't seem to affect his income much.

Rule: Your protagonist must be proactive.
Counter-Example: The Twilight Saga
Say what you will about Bella, the books about her sell. And Stephanie Meyer now has the freedom to write pretty much whatever she wants.

Rule: Show, don't tell.
Counter-Example: James Patterson novels
(From London Bridges):
It was amazing footage--black and white, which somehow made it even more powerful. Black and white was more realistic, no? Yes--absolutely.

Rule: Never use adverbs.
Counter-Example: Harry Potter
(From Chamber of Secrets):
"We wanted to ask you if you've seen anything funny lately," said Hermione quickly.
"I wasn't paying attention," said Myrtle dramatically. "I was so upset I tried to kill myself. Then I remembered that I'm -- "
"Already dead," said Ron helpfully.

Rule: Be original.
Counter-Example: Eragon
(From The novels feature the tale of a farmboy who discovers a Plot Coupon sent to a wise old mentor by a captured princess, and has his uncle who raised him killed by the impenetrably cowled servants of the Evil Empire. The mentor is a former knight, who teaches the farmboy how to use his mystical powers in about five days. Luckily, the farmboy meets up with a Badass AntiHero, rescues the princess, who is also a major player in the Rebel army, and joins the rebellion, becoming a key member before going to train with a half-mad old hermit in the forest. After this, he discovers that his father was the Empire's right-hand man and he's been betrayed by his own family.

So don't let the rules scare you. They can be trumped.

Where else have you seen rules broken, but where it didn't ruin the story at all?

Choosing What to Write Next

Usually, the way I choose the next story -- assuming I have more than one idea -- is just to write the one I like the most. But after two failed query rounds, and my hopes resting all too precariously on an upcoming third, I'm taking more care with what I invest my writing time in. In my friend Ricardo's words, I'm leveling up.

I have two criteria now for what I write next:
  1. It has to be something people want to read.
  2. It has to be something I want to write.
Not that I (or anyone, really) knows what the public wants. Mostly the first criteria helps me look critically at my concepts. Is it a strong premise I can explain in a sentence? Has it been done before? If it has, do I have a unique enough twist on it to keep it interesting? (Or was it done so obscurely that I can do it again without anyone noticing?)

The second criteria is more about theme. Usually I just jump into a story because I think the plot or the world is cool; only when I get to the end do I realize the story's supposed to mean something too. I've been a Professional Aspiring Writer* long enough to know that I'll enjoy most any speculative premise, but I can't be passionate about every theme.

So now I'm thinking not just what are the themes of my story ideas, but what themes am I interested in writing? Like I had this idea of a kid born perfect in a Gattaca-style world where people are obsessed with genetic perfection, but he resents the pressure and attention people put on him. I like the idea a lot, and the theme of trying to be yourself is common enough I think I could write it. But the idea of writing a popular kid, when popularity is something I've never really "struggled" with, makes me wonder if it's really my story to tell. Especially when I've got other characters in my head whose struggles I have shared.

That doesn't mean I won't write it (I really like the idea), but it's one of the negative points I'm going to weigh when I decide what to write next. Although maybe I should finish these current projects first...

What about you? How do you decide what to write next?

* Feel free to borrow that term.