Friday, January 15, 2010

Newbie Question #3

3. Did you have any formal training in order to become a writer? Classes? A degree?

The short answer is no.

I do, by chance, have undergraduate degrees in English and history, but I didn't take any class in creative writing during college that wasn't a requirement for graduation. Later, I took a game-changing class in writing science fiction and fantasy as an adult learner at a place called The Loft, but I'll talk about that in a second.

I think that more important than taking classes about the craft of writing is the act of reading. If you want to write, you MUST read. You should read everything you possibly can in any genre that excites you. Ideally, you should read widely in non-fiction as well.

I think that you can learn a ridiculous amount about our craft by reading. Now that *I* teach the occasional beginners' class on writing, I've found that people who read voraciously often have a "natural" ear for writing. (I put natural in quotes, because I think that the idea of talent is suspect, and that most people who come off as having innate talent actually have been students of the craft in some other way, such as being an intense readers or growing up in a house full of story-tellers, etc.)

BUT that being said, I think that a person can benefit greatly from a class in writing. Genre writers often face an uphill battle in academic settings, so I caution you to be prepared to defend your genre (espeically if you write SF/F/H) if your only option for a class in writing involves a university. People local to me (Minneapolis/St. Paul) are extremely fortunate because the Loft exists here. There's also a reallly strong community education/adult education culture in this area, so non-university options are out there for us... and possibly for you, if you dig around. If you are interested in writing science fiction specifically, there are workshops like Clarion that you can pay to attend. Romance writers, should also keep an eye on their local Romance Writer's of America chapter, because very often they offer writing workshops that can be invaluable.

As I said above, I took a class that transformed my life. I'm not even using hyperbole when I say that. I can absolutely credit that class with the beginning of my professional career for a number of reasons. First of all, since I started out as a science fiction writer, I learned a ton about the conventions of my genre. I also learned how to submit my writing (which is a process that can be extremely hard to fathom as an outsider.) But, most importantly for me, I learned the skill of critique and was introduced to peers who became my teachers, my friends, my support group, my gossip klatch, my lifeline.

Out of my class, I started a writers group* that still meets to this day and of which I am still a member, Wyrdsmiths. What I learned on an every-other-week basis from my peers was no less than transformative. In Wyrdsmiths, I settled down to the business of learning to hone my craft.

Wyrdsmiths was my informal, formal education, and I still study at their feet. I don't think you can ever stop improving your craft, and Wyrdsmiths is where I go to do that.

So the long answer: yes. Lots and lots of training....


* My alter-ego wrote a very detailed article about how to start a genre writers' group for "The Broadsheet." You can find it here: Broadsheet Archives.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

German Cover Art

Just out of total curiosity I Googled my German title NICHT SCHON WIEDER EIN VAMPIR and got this hit for cover art. Awesome, no?

And, yes, I finished my article for "Love Letter" the German Romantic Times. Actually, I was saved by the fact that I was asked to do something like this for my British release, only they never used what I wrote. So I polished and updated the older one, and viola as they say in another one of those European countries.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Newbie Question #2*

2. How do you come up with character’s names?

Ah, yes…. Naming. If you ask me names have magic.

I tend to spend an inordinate amount of time considering Names. I have several “Baby Name” books at home (and did, years before actually having a baby to name.) There are several baby name websites out there, some which are even organized by “most popular baby names for 1976” or even 1796, so you can use them for your historical novels, as well.

Also, because I was writing before the Interwebs, I also use this analog thing called a PHONE BOOK. There are other books (and web sites) out there for surnames, but if you live in a big enough city the phone book can be fun for diverse and ethnic last names. I actually chose my pseudonym using the random finger point method and the phone book – my publisher was very insistent that I have a last name that started with an “Ha” to put me next to other vampire writers like Harrison, Harris, Hamilton, etc.

Once I have these resources in front of me, I make a list of names I like the sound of. I make a second column of surnames that sound nifty. Then I spend days (even weeks) mulling over the combinations. If I’m on a really tight deadline, I’ll start writing with [fill-in name], but I find that the name I end up picking really imbues the character with a lot of life. For instance a Darcy Farthingworth is likely going to behave differently from a Shin Yu. Maybe not, but… you can see what I mean, I hope.

That’s the other thing that I love to do: play with expectations. Sometimes I do crazy things like naming my Sunni Muslim computer hacker “Christian,” because it instantly requires me to consider how he ended up with a name like that… and suddenly I’m character building, as it were.

Also, I think it’s important when you have several characters on scene to make sure they’re not all sporting names that sound similar. Jane, Jack, and John, for instance, might be hard for a reader to keep straight in their heads, especially if you’re in the middle of a scene comprised mostly of intense dialogue between the three of them. If you have a Walter, Ahmed, and Helena it might be slightly easier. (You still will need to make sure they don’t all speak in the same voice, but I see that’s a later question so I’ll save talking about that for now.)

Pick names you want to spend time with. I think naming is one of the most fun things writers get to do, so enjoy it!


* x-posted from Wyrdsmiths' blog

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Questions from a Newbie

I came into the office (aka Amore Coffee) this morning and discovered a lovely email from a young woman who is considering writing her first novel. She sent me a list of twenty-two questions about writing craft and publication, and rather than send back an email large enough to crash a server, I thought I'd answer them one by one here:

1. How do you develop your characters? Are they people you know?

I think that if you want write believable characters it helps to be a kind of Sherlock Holmes in real life. Not necessarily the Robert Downey, Jr., pugilist version, but rather a keen observer of human nature.

Or schizophrenic.

I joke about that last bit because one of the tricks I often use when writing characters is to ask myself the question: "If I was that person in that situation, how would *I* react?" (This can be a bit embarrassing when, later, you show that scene to your writers' critique group and they explain how galatically stupid your character is behaving.) However, I think this trick can work... but only if you can really stretch your imagination in a way that might include, for instance, you being an alien or of the opposite gender or of a different social-economic class or a vampire or.... you get the picture.

Which might lead you back to Holmes...

When I draw on real people, I tend not to borrow them wholesale from reality. What I do, instead, is smoosh together traits I've observed in a several of my friends (or even family, although drawing on your family can be dangerous if only because they're always looking for themselves in your work even when you intentionally avoid putting them there.)

I think the most important trick to remember when developing a character is to think about how weird we all really are, how diverse, how interesting -- and capitalize on that wherever you can.

What I mean is -- nobody is ever just one thing. A soldier is more than his or her orders or rank. She might be a failed opera singer. He might secretly read romances. Her father might have taught her to sail. His sister might be a lesbian.

The possiblities are endless. Though you don't want to just throw in quirk to be quirky or you run the risk of coming off like late season "Gilmore Girls" and stretching the OTHER edge of credibility. For myself, I try to bring out the weird so that it serves my plot in some way. Back to the soldier example, I might try to think up some issue that would put my character in direct conflict with an order. What if this was a future where being gay was outlawed? Having the soldier have to deal with his own family would make his life more complicated. Then you build on those complicaitons. What kind of relationship does s/he have with his/her sister? Is it a good one or bad? Which would lead to the hardest decision for our soldier hero/ine? That's the one you choose. IMHO, complications are critical to believable characters (and plot motion, but that might be a discussion for another time.)

To be a good storyteller, you have to be willing to torture your characters. Giving them an easy life kills drama.

Monday, January 11, 2010

I Need Help

I'm sitting at the coffee shop this morning banging my head. I'll tell you why. I've got about three days to write an article about "the Wiccan aspects of your series..." for the German equivalent of Romantic Times to help promote NICHT SCHON WIEDER EIN VAMPIR (Not Another Vampire) aka TALL, DARK & DEAD.

First of all, I *suck* at writing non-fiction. They only want 500 words, which is really, nothing, but it might as well be 500,000 for as difficult as I'm finding this. Secondly, Wicca? Really? Next to vampires, that's probably the subject I'm most bored of (particularly in its promotional aspect of Wicca 101). Third, the topic is too broad, and this is where I really would love some advice from you, gentle reader.

I'm sure there are a ton of you folks out there who are not only good at writing articles, but are experts. What's a good element of "Wiccan aspects of my novels" I could focus on and make snappy/interesting? If you were a German reader, what would you want to know to make you run out an buy TALL, DARK & DEAD (or Not Another Vampire, as the case might be)?

Someone at the coffee shop suggested I surf the Interwebs for similar articles. Good advice, only I just wasted a half hour reading about things that interest me and not really finding anything to inspire this little promotional piece.