A Writer’s Education
I just returned from my first Stonecoast residency. They set an exhausting pace; it was like a cross between Hogwarts, bootcamp, and a ten-day-long con. Now I work with my mentor for six months, until the next residency.
As much as I’m enjoying Stonecoast thus far, I want to think about other ways to learn. After all, Stonecoast is only two years. A writer’s education continues forever.
I was always the weird kid scribbling stories at the back of the classroom, but I was fourteen when I made the conscious decision to write with an eye to making this a career. Not at fourteen: I never wanted to be a teenage author. But eventually, someday.
And so, I learned. First by reading. I read books on how to write a novel. I read books on being a writer and the creative life. I trawled through websites and writing forums. Said is better than declared, intoned, uttered, or (heaven help me), ejaculated. Agents want your manuscript to be done. Conflict, conflict, conflict. You shouldn’t have characters named John and Joan in the same story. A novel is technically 40,000 + words, but realistically, most run 80,000-120,000.
I wrote a detective story set in 1880s Paris:
Amélie released an almost imperceptible sigh and took Philip’s arm. He expected to go down to the basement again, but perhaps mindful of his dislike of the depressing labyrinth, Amélie instead whisked him to a room near the top of the theatre cluttered with junk. “My office,” she said proudly
“Really?” Philip asked, glancing at the piled-up boxes and props
“No, it’s just one of the many deserted and forgotten offices. So,” she sat behind the desk and rested her chin on her hand, “are you going back to London?”
“My dear girl, I should think not!” He bit back a laugh; she bore an uncanny resemblance to Wallace, sitting like that. “Not while there’s work to be done here.”
“Bon.” A warm glow came into her eyes. “Or should I say ‘capital’?
It wasn’t very good, but I finished it. It was 22,000 words.
Then I discovered these new things called podcasts. Something called The Writing Show popped up first. It was all right; it had a lot of the same information as the books and websites. Then I noticed something called I Should Be Writing.
The woman that hosted ISBW had good information too, but she also made me laugh. A lot. And she was a wannabe writer as well! Just like me! Admittedly, Mur was further along than I was, but she was facing a lot of the same challenges. I learned more. You’re allowed to suck. Even if you’re afraid that an idea has been done, you should write it anyway, because your version will be different. Everyone feels imposter syndrome.
I wrote a fantasy novel, in which an aristocratic girl chafing against society’s restrictions teams up with an ostracized selkie to find three artifacts with the potential to upend magic as they know it.
A slap brought him to his senses. Caora leaned over him, hand drawn back to deliver another one. Adek blocked his face, saying, “What did you do that for?”
Caora’s eyes were red and he could feel the heat of her flushed cheeks. “We have to get out of here,” she said.
“The Stone is gone. We’ve got to get out, the ghosts don’t like us.”
“I’ll explain later. Come on, Adek!” She pulled him up and dragged him across the chamber. Golden light filled it, keeping sighing spectres from touching them. For a moment the cries of the gulls overwhelmed Adek, but then he remembered the Divine and forced himself to plod on. If what she and Caora were saying was true, than the man from Pearl River had two out of the three Stones. Adek’s spirit quailed. Unless they found the third Stone in time….
It was a little better, if derivative. It was 65,000 words. More importantly, there were secondary characters who took on lives of their own and some actual history and politics.
I Should Be Writing had commercials. Some were for other podcasts or websites. But some were almost like movie trailers, and they were very exciting. One day, I surrendered and said, “Fine, just what is this Morevi thing?”
And I discovered podcast novels.
They were awesome, because they were like a hybrid of books on tape and radio plays. The guy (T. Morris? He went by his initial, I guessed?) that wrote and read Morevi was a good actor, and I fell in love with the story. Then, listening to his commercials, I learned that the voice actress with the gorgeous accent also wrote! She wrote about Shakespeare, and she had done one of these podcasts, too! And in her podcast, some guy named Holyfield had also done one!
I consumed them. Morevi, Billibub Baddings, Chasing the Bard, Digital Magic, Weather Child, Heaven, Murder at Avedon Hill, Metamor City: Making the Cut, Nina Kimberly The Merciless, Cybrosis, Brave Men Run, Down from Ten, The Antithesis Progression, Ancestor, Seventh Son….
I learned that there are many different forms of storytelling. Social media offers so many opportunities; big and exciting new things are just around the corner. Most of these people go to “cons,” where they party but also work really hard. The writing world is miniscule, so you shouldn’t be a jerk (of course, you shouldn’t be a jerk in general). There are good ways to behave on social media, and there are bad ways. There is a whole community of writers.
I had a rough time in my last year of high school/first year of uni. I did not write.
And then I wrote a fantasy novel about the end of the world.
Praeton hoisted himself up on the window ledge. Something had spattered on the stone directly beneath it, just beyond the reach of his questing arms. He strained to see, balancing on his elbows, the windowsill cutting under his armpits. Then there were hands on his shoulders. He twisted around and found River steadying him. The gesture impressed him. Most grown-ups would’ve hauled him down.
With River holding him, he stretched his arm a little further and brushed the splatter. At first it felt warm, probably from the stones. Then pain erupted through his finger. He gasped, hugged it close to him. The skin flamed red and swollen. And, coating it, ugly red-black ooze.
“What’s wrong?” The urgency in River’s voice surprised him. She had been so calm before.
Suddenly his head felt very light. The corners of the room rushed away, and he sank to the floor, his back against the wall. Slowly, he lifted his finger to his face. The sharp tang of iron stung his nostrils. Blood.
Darkness devoured the edges of his vision. Somewhere, far away, he heard River calling. He wanted to answer, but his tongue flopped, his jaw wouldn’t unhinge. Then a deafening boom, thunder worse than all thunder combined, shattered his consciousness. Before blackness claimed him, a single word exploded in his skull: HAPAX.
It was 84,000 words long: at last, saleable length.
Because I had learned that Twitter is a good thing, I saw a tweet about an open submissions period at Dragon Moon Press—which I knew about from podcasters. I sent in my book, even though I was already podcasting it, because I didn’t expect it to get picked up.
Only then it did.
And so I learned that you should always read the whole email. Publishing takes a long time. Podcasting is a LOT of work, but it is some of the most fun you will ever have. Contracts are terrifying and exciting all at once. Authors need to do a LOT to promote their own work. Book launches are fun, but there is also intense pressure and a slight slump the next day.
I went to cons. There are good ways to behave. There are also bad ways. Some moderators guide panel discussions and ask probing questions, some try to make it all about them. If you ask people very nicely, they may help you out. Help others if you can. Authors, like actors, always say yes. Assume everyone knows everyone. Never assume someone has read your work. If necessary, you can survive off the food in the con-suite.
I wrote another fantasy novel. It didn’t work, so I focused on another.
My eyelids flickered. I tried to open them, but they were too heavy. I didn’t mind, though. I was sinking into the earth, not weighed down, but secured. A cloak of noises wrapped around me. I was a thread in it, too. My breathing and heartbeat, the rustling of my clothes, they were as much a part of Grey Run as the birds’ trilling.
“I’m ready, atu. I want to meet you.”
A twig snapped in the distance. Leaves crunched. The atu had to be here, somewhere. The atu had to be everywhere. There was something at the borders of my mind, something stirring. If I could just get a bit closer….
A harsher, louder snap.
If I could just get a bit closer, I’d see it, feel it.
Leaves rubbing together. Rhythmic sounds on the earth, soft and stealthy.
It was almost within my grasp. I just needed to stretch out my fingertips, just a little bit farther, because I could almost feel the atu, I was sure of it. It was here, and I was almost there with it—
I promise, I’m still working on the other one:
“The gods don’t listen.” The girl’s voice was stone. “Mostly, I don’t think they care.”
The breath fled Serafine’s lungs. No, this couldn’t be what they thought. “I know what it feels like,” she said softly. “I know what it feels like to shout at them, to ache with all your soul and get nothing. But never, ever believe that they don’t care. Not even for a moment. Promise me that, Aislinn.”
“Did they save your family?” It wasn’t asked harshly. No mockery sharpened the question. Aislinn simply stared at her with those wide, child-like eyes.
“No.” Serafine drew her hand back, clutched it close to her. Nervous, for once.
“Did you ask them to?”
Aislinn turned aside. “Then you forgive easier than me.”
From what I’ve seen, Stonecoast will be a great apprenticeship. Something else I’ve learned, though: writers never, ever stop learning. Pay attention. Watch what other people are doing. Watch how they are doing it. Listen to the currents of conversation. Read. Read more.
And also…conflict, conflict, conflict. You’re allowed to suck. There are many different forms of storytelling. Help others if you can.
Posted on January 23, 2014, in Writing and tagged Advice, Community, Cons, Dragon Moon Press, Edits, fantasy, geek, Hapax, KT Bryski, musings, Nostalgia, Personal, Podcasting, Podcasts, science fiction, stories, Student life, University, writer, Writing, Writing life. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.