WORDS FROM THE WISE/PART 12 – John Shirley
(Learn to write)
Now…it might sound like an obvious piece of advice, but knowing how to write is one of the most crucial parts of getting your stuff picked up. It doesn’t always have to be flowery or convoluted – but it does have to be mindful of pace, structure and, of course, the flow of the prose. John Shirley is the Bram Stoker Award winning author of Black Butterflies, Demons, City Come A-Walkin’, the A Song Called Youth cyberpunk trilogy, Doyle After Death, Wyatt in Wichita, Bleak History, and many other books. He was co-screenwriter of THE CROW and has written for television. Here’s his Words from the Wise…
The question posed to each author is – “A young author comes to you seeking advice. They’re riddled with insecurities and completely overwhelmed by the publishing industry. What are your Words from the Wise?”
JS – Chris Kelso: In answer to your question re the young writers tormented by uncertainty about the publishing industry and what to do…that’s funny, so am I. That’s because everything has changed. The industry is both vaster–and more selective. It’s both larger and more restricted. It’s huger–and more specialized. The peculiar truth that has always been true, however, is that on the one hand, it’s hard to break in; on the other, they are always looking for new, fresh talents. They do ask themselves who will write the new Hunger Games, and so on. So while it’s hard to break through, weirdly–they’re always looking for people. Persistence helps. But you’ve got to have a good product too.
Something that’s quite new is the fact that people occasionally do, now, jump from general self publishing and ebook self publishing, to successful book publishing. The extreme case of this was The Martian–the novel was self published. It sold enough that it was picked up by a major. I haven’t read the book–my wife has and assures me it’s very enjoyable and intriguing and generally well researched. Well written. So you see, you can’t just spout some new story idea you have–“zombie children that you adopt and turn vegetarian!”–and because it’s a new variation, really have hope that it’s going to break through. Just a variation is not enough-cultivate originality and strong, gripping writing, based on being steeped in the strong gripping writing….It really has to be well written. And it has to be fairly literate–that is, the writer reads, and absorbs more than comics and books based on anime, or comics and books based on their favorite movie or television series. They don’t do most of their reading online, either. They read a lot of successful books, and classic books. They read books of short stories of all kinds. They get a feel for voices and language and sentences and paragraphs and pacing and chapters and, especially, characters. They get a sense of what good, fun to read but realistic dialogue is…from reading. I mention this because it seems to be lacking in lots of new writers.
When you read, read as if interrogating the writing. Enjoy it, but also notice how it’s put together. Some people do this more naturally than others. I absorbed it like a sponge; some people have to work at it. They have to notice what makes one writer’s voice, their style, different than another’s. This may mean reading the same text two or three times. Once for enjoyment, later for analysis.
The markets out there seem to me to be less penetrable than they used to be–there are fewer companies reading manuscripts that come in unsolicited. So, this means, you can 1) try and make a name with yourself with short fiction in magazines that consider fiction from unknowns and 2) Try to get a literary agent. You can try to meet an agent (and editors) at a convention for the kind of writing you like. Science fiction, mystery conventions, whatever. You can finish an entire novel–typed according to the formats you can find described in books and articles–and one with an interesting title and simple but fairly original concept, then find places to pitch it to an agent. Research that. It happens…
Go to readings and literary events. Follow journals that describe the publications and markets for the genre you like, if you’re writing genre (and know what genre means–look it up if you don’t know). Locus Magazine is a good one to start at for science fiction or fantasy. Google these things.
But most of all, write–to learn to write, write. Write what you would want to read…and try to be original enough that you’re going to grab people’s attention…
You can check out more advice from John HERE